Mary Shelly’s Short Story: ‘The Pilgrims’

In “The Pilgrims,” Mary Shelley tells of the knight, Burkhardt, who curses his daughter and his enemy. Only forgiveness and mercy can truly heal him
Mary Shelly’s Short Story: ‘The Pilgrims’
"The Pilgrims Resting," 1859, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. Private Collection. (Public Domain)
Kate Vidimos

In her short story, “The Pilgrims,” Mary Shelley tells of the knight, Burkhardt, who, in a fit of uncontrolled rage, curses his daughter and his enemy. Such a moment of unmitigated rage results in an estrangement from his beloved daughter and lifelong sorrow. Only forgiveness and mercy can truly heal him.

Burkhardt lives by himself in his castle in the valley of Unspunnen. As he walks through a grove of trees mourning past mistakes, two young pilgrims interrupt his thoughts. Seeing their tired faces, he welcomes them in with entertainment and a good meal.

A Tale of Woe

While they feast, Burkhardt falls back into his mournful contemplation. Concerned for their kind host, the pilgrims press him to tell them what saddens him so much. Touched by their kind inquiries, Burkhardt recounts his sorrowful tale.

He explains how his two most beloved treasures in life were his wonderful wife and his daughter, Ida. His wife died young after giving birth to Ida, leaving him to care for his daughter alone.

A year later, when Duke Berchtold began intruding on the inhabitants of the mountains, Burkhardt came to their aid. After battling Berchtold for a year, Burkhardt won, freeing the people of the mountains. Berchtold quickly sought reconciliation with him and invited him to his castle.

Berchtold honored him with a great feast and welcomed him as his friend. However, Burkhardt soon discovered that Berchtold had also invited Rupert, his most hated enemy, to the feast as well. This Berchtold did with a desire to reconcile the two knights with each other. He proposed that Burkhardt’s daughter, Ida, should marry Rupert’s son, Conrad, in an attempt to heal the breach.

In a fit of anger, Burkhardt swore he would never allow his daughter to marry Rupert’s son, and soon departed from the feast. Upon his return home, he discovered his daughter was gone. She had left her father’s castle to marry Conrad, Rupert’s son.

Unnatural, unbridled anger took over Burkhardt, and with revenge and passion he cursed his beloved daughter and the enemies he hated so much. He wished to never see or hear of his daughter ever again.

Reconciliation and Fulfillment

More than 20 years have passed since he saw Ida, Burkhardt tells the pilgrims. He has been repenting of his unnatural rage, praying that his curse may be lifted from Ida, and hoping to hear of her again.

In a burst of feeling, the two pilgrims announce that Burkhardt’s repentance is requited. For they knew his Ida and, to the end, she loved him and sought to ask for forgiveness. In this triumphant moment, he and Ida are reconciled, healing the wounds of more than 20 years.

The two pilgrims remain in the realm as Burkhardt welcomes peace back into his castle. With such a happy reconciliation, all he wishes for is to make recompense to Berchtold his old enemy and the pilgrims help with this.

Through the story of this knight, Shelley beautifully constructs an intricate plot that tells of the importance of temperance, forgiveness, repentance, and, above all, mercy. Intemperance leads to sin and sin to suffering. But through repentance, forgiveness, and mercy, we can find peace and joy again.

As Mark Twain says, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Whether we sin or are sinned against, we must always seek forgiveness for ourselves and those around us, traveling like pilgrims with devout repentance.

Only by bathing ourselves and the surrounding world in mercy and forgiveness can we achieve that peace and friendship that each heart desires.

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Kate Vidimos is a 2020 graduate from the liberal arts college at the University of Dallas, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English. She plans on pursuing all forms of storytelling (specifically film) and is currently working on finishing and illustrating a children’s book.
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