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Friday, 20 June 2014

The Devil is a gentleman

Midsummer is a good time to talk about the Devil. I don't mean the Biblical fellow. (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub... They're not even the same character, are they?) In English folk tales he has another persona, as Sybil Marshall reminds us:
"The medieval folk-concept of the Devil, as distinct from that preached by the Church, is of Rex Mundi - large, dark, and handsome, infinitely attractive, a jolly fellow full of pranks and merriment and still displaying some of the attributes of his counterparts in pagan times."
In older English legends, the Devil tends to be a ferocious adversary, often scaly or horned, whose main function is to make saints look cool. And making those early British saints look cool is quite a task.

When we meet the Devil in English folk tales, though, he usually comes clothed as a squire or, if he's feeling particularly wicked, maybe a monk or a parson. In this guise he has a little bit of faerie about him, and seems to borrow the aspect of Odin or Cernunnos rather than God's erstwhile favourite angel. He enjoys a challenge - building a bridge in a night, a riddling contest, or even a simple wrestling match. He is a trickster, sometimes so cunning that he outwits himself. If you are familiar with the TV show Once Upon A Time, this is pretty much the character of Rumpelstiltskin, only without the Hollywoodized origin story.

Saints are far too boring to appear in any decent folk tale, all preachy and chinbearded as they are, but many an English hero named Jack shows his mettle by outsmarting the Devil. Souls are sometimes wagered, and in the wager the Devil's greed will usually see him come off worse. I'm sure we're supposed to sympathize a little when, returning a farmer's wife, he gripes that...
“...I've been the Devil the whole of my life
But I never knew hell till I met your wife.”
I'm not just rambling, honest. There's a point to all this. If you cast your mind back to midwinter, at the end of the Legend scenario "Silent Night", I put in a throwaway line that had Mitch Edgeworth justifiably raising an eyebrow:
"At midnight on Christmas Day, the Devil comes to Crossgate Manor and offers to play a game of chess for a favour."
Clearly this was to be a story seed for the referee to extemporize a minor epilogue incident, perhaps with a single player, to contrast with the desperate danger and action of the preceding few hours and possibly to set up an ongoing relationship in the campaign. The Devil might enjoy having one mortal friend to play chess with just as much as Morpheus is fond of an occasional glass of wine with Hob Gadling.

Mitch did preface his comment by saying that he's not a role-player, which explains the confusion. Encountering the Devil over chess might very well develop into an interesting ongoing storyline, but setting up the idea in a scenario takes no more than one line. In real games, half a page of notes are ample for running a session of several hours, and scenarios like "Silent Night" are written up only to explain to somebody else how that adventure might be run. In our own game, the denouement came in the forest, not in Crossgate Manor, and the key to defeating Duruth and his knaves was completely unexpected and yet perfect. It arose out of nowhere, a story created from the participation of the group where the best parts have no individual origin. Which, in a nutshell, explains why I am a role-player.

The picture, by the way, is Pan, not the Devil. Image copyright Ian Greig and used here under Creative Commons Licence.

9 comments:

  1. Funny, when I read Silent Night I thought of Morpheus and Hob Gadling. My favorite Sandman tale.

    Paul in SA

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    1. I think Neil Gaiman and I grew up reading the same kinds of stories, Paul.

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    2. Btw I'd find it very hard to nail down a favourite story in The Sandman, but if I could only keep one collection it would be the Fables and Reflections issues ("Three Septembers and a January", "Thermidor", "Ramadan", etc).

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  2. In finnish folklore Devil and his sons are sort rustic types, evil yes sirree but sort of affable hillbilly sort of.way. Sort of extremely cruel prankster. Like showing at blacksmith in middle of night get shoes to his horse, deadly afraid smith puts the horseshoes on the strangely silent horses, next morning he finds out Devil had him nail horseshoes to feet of local drunks.

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    1. That's just the same kind of tale as you find in English folklore, Jonas. I guess the way the character evolves in popular imagination isn't difficult to grasp. The priest gets up in his pulpit and tells everyone how the Devil is the embodiment of evil, but the majority of the people he's preaching to would be less than wholeheartedly trusting of the upper classes - of whom, in times gone by, the priest was one. Indeed, in medieval England that class was an occupying foreign power. So the peasants start to doubt whether they've getting the whole picture. They're still healthily afraid of the Devil, but he goes from being the Church's cosmic symbol of infinite evil (which is a little too abstract for most of us, and makes for boring stories) to a more easily comprehended Trickster figure.

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  3. I loved that aside about the Devil in 'Silent Night'. One of my favourite tricks by writers is the aside or footnote that goes nowhere but adds colour and depth to the fictional world. Vance did it, and Susanna Clarke, and Leigh Brackett. But as a kid in the early eighties I think your writing was the first place I came across the technique, and it really had an impact on me.

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    1. Thanks, Tom. I think I first noticed that technique in Prof Barker's original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG, and the masters of it are indeed Vance, Clarke and Brackett. I feel flattered to be included alongside them.

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  4. You would love Flann O'Brien."The Third Policeman." In the latter part of the novel the footnotes start to take up more space than the main text. It's also a great novel about hell and a man's unrequited love for his bicycle.

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  5. My friend John Gregg recommended that book to me when we were in college. That was over thirty years ago. So yes, I think it's high time I got around to reading it.

    (Unless, Anon, you are John Gregg..?)

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