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Better the devil you read

20th February 2012 - Gary Perry


Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Old Nick, Azazel, Mastema, Iblis, The Hornéd One... the Devil is known by many names, reflecting the diversity of his portrayals in art and culture. Gary Perry looks at why so many writers of fiction have been tempted to allow him an appearance in their fiction. (See below for our selection of some of the finest.)


Lucifer, MadridFar back, in the beguiling darkness of the mythic past, the devil attempted to drown these isles. One bleak night he picked up his giant spade and plunged it deep into the Sussex earth, his ultimate goal, the carving of a channel through which the sea would rush, flooding the inland villages. The dirt, hastily flung over his shoulder, formed a series of ominous mounds.

The villagers slept, their dreams disturbed by the sound of metal slicing into earth and the hum of a coming sea. Yet they slept, and the devil worked. The mounds grew; the channel deepened. Then something happened.

Those who passed on this story to me never knew what. But something definitely happened. Something intervened. God, conscience, a brave and kindly journeyman, an angel in rustic garb. We know not what.

Something intervened. And the devil's work ceased.

Devil's DykeLike all sons of the South Downs, I grew up on this devilish folktale. The mounds he left are Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, the unfinished channel the Devil's Dyke. All are much loved features of rural Sussex. My parents drank on the Dyke as teenagers and, at secondary school, I would run cross-country up to Cissbury.


What I like about this myth is how casual it seems. The devil is pretty much a mischievous villager, intent upon flooding his neighbour's house. This is evil, but a disgruntled, envious, human evil. When I imagine him, I don't see horns and fangs but the weathered features and the rough hands of a farmer. I see a human face creased with hate and joy in destruction. This strange and human devil is the one who appears most in literature - trickster, tempter, mischief-maker. He is one of our most engaging characters.

The Master and MargaritaA vast number of our most loved works rely upon an engaging devil. Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, a fallen angel and renegade, seeking brutal vengeance. The shape-shifting devil in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. The deal-making Lucifer of Mann's Doctor Faustus. The list goes on. He is a carnival figure, a Lord of Misrule who, after plummeting from heaven, turns our world upside down.


The devil figure is not always a supernatural character. Julius in Iris Murdoch's wonderful A Fairly Honourable Defeat is a marvellously devilish man. Intelligent and armed with an awareness of man's capacity to behave and think badly, he knows how to bring out the devil in everybody he meets. His charm and malignance are impossible to disentangle.

Murdoch knows the devil's magic. She creates a set of characters and a world for them to live in, then proceeds to disrupt both. She challenges them, and the way in which this challenge is dealt with provides an analysis of human strengths and weaknesses. Our better and worst selves are engaged in a continual struggle, and Murdoch's book - like so many great novels - is the ring in which we watch them do battle. Indeed, it is this very human struggle - our sympathy for the devil, as well as the angel - that imbues literature and our lives with grandeur.


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