Breathing Life Into Clay: Famous Golems in Literature

Posted by Brady Dale

Michael Chabon wrote that the myth of the golem endures because it mirrors the creative act itself. While there are many legends about what makes a golem go, they usually involve a learned practitioner of faith, a lot of chanting, a lump of clay and a word. As Chabon puts it, it is not the act of breathing life into the lifeless that makes the story of the golem so interesting, but the element of danger in bringing something to life.

If the danger of creation intrigues you, then you might dig these books where men give life to clay.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon. If you have read any book on this list, it’s probably this one. The young men in the novel believe they have the original Golem of Prague in a coffin that was also used to spirit one of the main characters out of Nazi occupied Prague.

The Golem by Gustav Meyrink. This book endures because it is so grippingly perplexing. A golem never exactly shows up in the story… or does it? Whether it ever appears, whether the story in the book even took place, there is no question that the golem is a symbol that pervades the story. Whatever the story is.

The Golem by Elie Wiesel. The nobel prize winner tells the most famous golem story, that of the Golem of Prague, from the perspective of a gravedigger.

Snow in August by Pete Hammill. This is a book that is overwhelmingly written in a super realistic style, continuing in Hammill’s long hagiography of yesteryear in New York City. What you have to love about this book is that it has a plot in which circumstances and norms put a lovely single mother and her very sweet young son into a situation that they are no more likely to escape than snow is to fall in August.

Golem by David Wisniewski. This is a Caldecott award winning children’s book, illustrated with robust paper cuts. It tells a kid-ready version of the same story as Wiesel’s book, the classic tale of Rabbi Loew and the protector he created for the Jewish ghetto in 16th Century Prague.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett. If you like fantasy books at all and you haven’t read any Pratchett then you must be dead inside. Okay, I am just kidding but he writes wickedly funny books and he loves to poke fun at other novelists. So, if you have liked serious Sword and Sorcery, have a few laughs on Terry. In this one, golems start to gather in basements to organize for freedom. Who knew Pratchett was such a lefty? Mystically Animated Workers of Discworld: Unite!

The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Sturm. This is really a baseball story about a Jewish baseball team. The golem in this one is the movie, Der Golem, based somewhat loosely on the second book on this list. Still, it’s a critically acclaimed graphic novel evoking many of the broader themes evoked by the myth. Plus, its synopsis closes with some profoundly haunting copy: “… this compelling book reminds us that making it home is at the heart of baseball.”