The Devil, You Say

©2003 Ross E. Lockhart

If you were to utter such infernal names as Apollyon or Beelzebub to the average person on the street today, you’d almost certainly receive a blank stare. Reference “Satan,” and you’ll be a bit more likely to get some sort of reaction. Unfortunately, odds are pretty good that the response you’ll get will either be a half-remembered anecdote regarding Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” engaging in fisticuffs with Jon Lovitz’s ludicrous devil on Saturday Night Live, or some description of a Technicolor cartoon imp in red pajamas brandishing a pitchfork, and that’s if you’re lucky. Nobody, it seems, takes the Devil seriously anymore. This was not always the case, as diabolical characters have historically appeared as villains in English literature, with the trend peaking in the Early Modern Period with depictions in prominent works by Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Bunyan.

As Christianity spread throughout the British Isles during the medieval period, local storytellers began to incorporate Near Eastern deities, devils, and myths into their tales. Early writings, such as Beowulf or the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, wear their newly-Christianized embellishments awkwardly, with their pagan roots sticking out through the seams. By the time of the Early Modern Period, the integration was complete; England had irreversibly become a Christian nation. With this change, the characterization of the “other” in literature shifted from the ravaging monsters and giants of early narratives to more complex adversaries with deep motivations and complex emotional states that a reader could actually identify with.

In Edmund Spenser’s 1590 allegorical epic poem The Faerie Queene, both old- and new-style villains appear. The serpentine beast-woman inhabiting the Cave of Error could easily be imagined attending PTA meetings with Grendel’s mother. Spenser’s description of this foe concentrates on her revolting physical characteristics and makes her an easy and obvious target for the Redcrosse Knight’s righteous fury. In the “glistring” light reflected off his armor, he sees “the ugly monster plaine, / Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide” (1.1.123-124). It is this reptilian form that Spenser focuses much of his descriptive energy on, simultaneously invoking both the Biblical tempting serpent of Genesis and repressed memories of pre-Christian serpent myths. “Her huge long taile her den all overspred, / Yet was in knots and many boughtes upwound, / Pointed with mortall sting” (1.1.128-130).

Spenser further, although perhaps unintentionally, evokes pre-Christian myth as he continues this description:

Of her there bred
A thousand yong ones, which she dayly fed,
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, eachone
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored:
Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and suddain all were gone. (1.1.130-135)

Spenser, a Christian writer, most likely would have been unaware of connections between serpent myths and early matriarchal religious structures. However, within the battle between Error and the Redcrosse Knight, we have a retelling of the ancient Sumerian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, itself an allegory of civilization’s growth in the wake of patriarchy’s conquering of matriarchal religious structures.

Spenser’s other key villain is the enchanter Archimago, whom he initially portrays as a harmless old cleric, “An aged Sire, in long blacke weedes yclad, / His feete all bare, his beard all hoarie gray” (1.1.254-255). Within the next few lines, Spenser showcases the devoutness of the man, dropping a handful of hints that he may be something other than he seems:

And by his belt his booke he hanging had;
Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad,
And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,
Simple in shew, and voyde of malice bad,
And all the way he prayed, as he went,
And often knockt his brest, as one that did repent. (1.1.256-261)

By concentrating on Archimago’s extreme displays of piety, Spenser signals his (Protestant) reading audience that all is not well. The oversized prayer book, the fact that he “seemde” sober, and his habit of knocking his breast “as one that did repent” are all clues to tell the reader that this man is one worth keeping an eye on.

Archimago’s true colors are revealed shortly thereafter. First, Spenser unmasks the man as a Catholic, “He told of Saintes and Popes, and evermore / He strowd an Ave-Mary after and before” (1.1.314-315), deftly turning the reader’s trust against him. Next, Spenser ups the ante, exposing Archimago as a full-fledged servant of evil:

Where when all drownd in deadly sleepe he findes,
He to his study goes, and there amides
His Magick bookes and artes of sundry kindes,
He seekes out mighty charmes, to trouble sleepy mindes. (1.1.321-324)

One of Archimago’s “mighty charmes” is the power to summon spirits. “And forth he cald out of deepe darknesse dred / Legions of Sprights, the which like little flyes / Fluttring about his ever damned hed” (1.1.334-336). By identifying the demonic forces invoked by the dread enchanter with flies, Spenser connects him with the demon named Beelzebub, the “Lord of the Flies.” According to Barbara Walker, Beelzebub was originally “a god of Ekron in Philistia,” whose title “meant the same as Lord of Death or Conductor of Souls, because flies were common forms taken by souls in search of rebirth” (86). Spenser may not have fully realized the mythic intertextualism of his reference, but well-versed readers are sure to make the connection.

Although he is only a shadowy suggestion in The Faerie Queene, Beelzebub actually appears in the flesh in John Milton’s 1667 masterpiece Paradise Lost. Here, he is second in command to Satan (previously Lucifer), and the first of the cadre of fallen angels the former archangel comes across within the hell to which they have been banished:

If thou beest hee; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads though bright. (1.84-87)

By sharing Satan’s comments with his reader, Milton allows the reader’s sense of closure to complete the transformation suffered by the rebel angels from celestial to infernal beings. In addition, by having Satan show concern for one of his comrades, Milton begins his subtle game of allowing his reader to identify with the arch-nemesis of the Deity.

It is Satan himself who is the star of the show in Paradise Lost. He is the one, after all, “who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt” (1.33), and, though fallen, understands the importance of immediately rallying his troops against their common enemy. In Milton’s capable hands, Satan musters the power and charisma necessary to utter a rallying cry worthy of a Cromwell:

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome? (1.106-109)

As Satan continues to address to the demonic horde, his tone builds, recasting the hell to which they have been condemned into a strategic fortress worth defending. “The mind,” he claims, “is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (1.254-255).

Once Satan has made this dramatic declaration, he follows it up with the assertion that encompasses the most oft quoted lines in the first book of Paradise Lost: “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: / Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (1.262-263). Through this soliloquy, Satan proves to his troops that their ambition is the key to achieving the power after which they so hungrily lust. This ambition is not mere desire, but the physical and mental tenacity necessary to master any task that one attempts. A reader cannot help but admire Satan’s leadership abilities as he verbally whips his militia into a frenzy. This observation is not lost on Beelzebub, who comments that, upon heeding Satan’s words, the throng of fallen angels “will soon resume / New courage and revive, though now they lie / Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire” (1.278-280).

In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published only a few years after Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1678, Beelzebub again appears in literature, this time making a cameo appearance as a slick salesman at “Vanity Fair.” Through the familiar image of a country fair, Bunyan crafts an allegory for the temptations of materialism and worldly pleasures that continues to hold resonance three hundred years later. The fair itself offers all manner of worldly pleasures as its merchandise, and Bunyan lists them in exhaustive detail. The goods available at Vanity Fair include “whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not” (¶3). It is Bunyan’s inclusion of “what not” that is most intriguing, because it allows his reader to fill in the blanks with any manner of sin and debauchery imaginable.

Beelzebub, along with the demons Apollyon and Legion, is architect of the fair, having discovered the perfect location along the path that all pilgrims must travel on their way to the “Caelestial City” (¶3) that is Bunyan’s allegorical stand-in for the prospect of eternal reward. Once he has established the sinful offerings of Vanity Fair, Bunyan retells the Biblical myth of Christ’s temptation (Luke 4:1-13), changing the location from a desert wilderness to his rural fair. Here, Beelzebub is cast as a salesman, showing the “Prince of Princes” around “from street to street” and offering him “all the kingdoms of the world” and the title “Lord of the Fair” in exchange for the piddling price of purchasing “some of his vanities.” Unfortunately, Beelzebub is unable to close the deal, so the “Blessed One” leaves Vanity Fair “without laying out so much as one farthing upon these vanities” (¶7). Perhaps the Rebel Angels should have sent Brian Tracy instead.

Within these works, we see diabolical figures portrayed fulfilling several roles. Spenser offers his reader the devil as enchanter, Milton, the devil as general, and Bunyan, the devil as salesman. Each of these characterizations provides the protagonists of these fictions with capable, intelligent foes far different from the brutal strength and low intelligence of earlier villains. Here, what proves a hero is not martial strength alone, for these devils are not simple buffoons in long underwear. To aspire to heroism in this period requires the ability to see through illusions, to resist persuasive speech, and to avoid worldly temptations. These temptations still stand and are offered to us daily. Modern media constantly feeds us illusionary causes, silver-tongued sales pitches, and all manner of appeasing consumer pleasures, even though these things often stand at odds with our ability to live harmoniously within our environment. Be a hero, resist these temptations, and please, take the devil seriously.

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