“Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy begins with a brief description of the setting. A bishop is sailing towards a monastery on a ship laden with merchants, fishermen, and pilgrims, also headed toward that monastery. The journey has been calm and a fisherman is telling several others of an island close by on which three hermits live destitute, having dedicated their lives to God. He asks the captain of the ship to change course, so he may go see these hermits and because he is a bishop, the captain obliges. Upon arriving on the island, the bishop meets three men, all scantily dressed and living in a mud hut; one older, one younger, and one taller. He learns that, while they fiercely pray, they know little of any Biblical canon and teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, which they find very difficult. They practice this prayer until night falls and the younger one has the entirety of the prayer memorized. Then, the Bishop returns to the boat and the pilgrims go to sleep. However, the Bishop soon sees the three hermits gliding across the water faster than the boat, and the pilgrims awake and crowd close to the Bishop. Once the hermits have come close to the ship, they tell the Bishop that they have totally forgotten the prayer he taught, and they beg him to teach it again. The bishop bows low to the hermits and tells them their own prayer will do, and so the hermits leave back across the ocean.
This is objectively the best short story ever written. Oceans, bishops, and hermits are the holy trinity when it comes to fiction writing, and Tolstoy utilized each effectively and adeptly in this piece, to convey his own religious views. In terms of my highlights, I focused on Christian themes and overtly tranquil language. I shall begin with Christianity. The biblical allusions and illustrations pepper the piece thoroughly, appearing in every aspect of the story, from the characters to the dialogue and the minute descriptions. The hermits are, of course, a representation of the biblical three-face God; the eldest, angriest hermit who wears the cassock being the wrathful old testament God, the younger, kinder hermit in peasant clothes being new-testament Jesus, and the one with the white beard and white eyebrows reminiscent of a spectral cloth is the holy ghost. Tolstoy says this story is a popular folk tale from the Volga region of Russia, but the story fits his own religious beliefs a too much for me to totally believe this. Tolstoy’s ideologies were incredibly controversial in his time, drawing from Quaker and asceticism, rejecting both the church and the state as a purveyor of divine truth, instead believing that all true piousness belonged solely to the poor, especially those who were poor by choice, as the hermits of the story were. He believed that God was omnipresent, existing in the surroundings of every-day life, and the diction of the story reflected that belief, with lines such as “his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven”, serving to illustrate this belief. After his death, the Tolstoy Bible was published, a collection of passages that shaped Tolstoy’s ideologies and his writings influenced such figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau. I believe it is these strong beliefs that simmer just beneath the surface of this piece that make it so fascinating, though the curious plot of miraculous hermits is what keeps the reader reading.
The stark tranquility also serves to further Tolstoy’s idea of salvation; the divinity lies with those who shirk wealth, and with this divinity comes utter peace. This, too, is evident through the diction of the piece, even in the midst of the strange and surreal climax of the story. When the bishop sees “the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining, and approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not morning”, he registers little shock, while the helmsmen, who believed the hermits to be false and inexistent just that morning, is terrified. The calmness reverberates similarly through the landscape of the piece, focusing primarily upon the ocean, which is often in the bible related with God for its power and grace. In Psalms 89:9, Ethan the Ezrahite states to God that, “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them”. In the story, there are no waves, no storms, no fickle oceanic winds, for God has already stilled the sea for the Christians on the boat, as well as the hermits. Throughout the piece, the sea is described as, “rippling in the moonlight” or the gentle rays of sun. In the eyes of Tolstoy, this ever-present tranquility comes hand-in-hand with God and peaceful faith, both of which are blatantly evident to the reader in this story and allows it to function as both a story and an ars poetica.
The Chronic and Acute tensions in this piece are, respectively, the Bishop’s belief in his own religious superiority, and his discovery of the miraculous hermits and I want to try to write a story like this one, where the tensions, while present, are simply not as important as the ideals and the plot. My writing exercise is to isolate one’s core belief system and write a story in which you feel these beliefs are encapsulated, though not explicitly stated.
- Because this piece is so different from contemporary short stories, did you see it more as a folk tale? Is there a difference?
- Has the piece aged well? Or does it feel outdated and archaic?
- Do you feel Tolstoy’s message was too heavy-handed?