June 7, 2012

Dancing With the Devil (and Other Strategies for Fighting Evil), By Lissa Sloan

Editor's note: The Devil gets plenty of due in fairy tales, as Lissa Sloan adeptly points out in this guest post. The image here is not exactly a perfect fit, but is too darkly lovely to resist.

No one wants to run into the Devil, right? What with him leading people into temptation, and making bargains for their immortal souls, it’s just too risky. But it works out fine for Colonel Philip Lightfoot, an arrogant Colonial Virginian who is challenged to a dancing contest by Satan himself. His tale is recounted by Mary Quattlebaum in Sparks Fly High: The Legend of Dancing Point. Fortunately for Colonel Lightfoot, he realizes the error of his ways in time to mend them, and beats the Devil at his own game.

But what if you are not light-footed, but two-left-footed and you encounter the Prince of Darkness? As usual, fairy tales provide some useful suggestions. Number one: be clean (spiritually and physically). In The Handless Maiden, the maiden’s father promises his daughter to the Devil (in his defense, he thinks he’s giving up his old apple tree, not his daughter). When the Devil comes to claim the girl, he cannot, because she is not only morally clean, but has just bathed. She is forbidden to wash anymore, but when the Devil returns, her hands are still clean, because she has wept on them. It is then that her father is ordered to cut off her hands. (In his defense, the Devil does make him do it.) But even then, her tears keep her clean, and the Devil cannot touch her. He continues to plague her though, and it is because of her purity of soul that she always receives the help she needs.

Head of the Demon, by Mikhail Vrubel (1891)
Of course, we can’t all be pure and clean. A second possibility: be smart. In Bearskin, the Devil makes a deal with a soldier to provide him all the money he could want or need in return for a few things. The soldier cannot wash (about cleanliness, see above), or cut his hair. He must wear the skin of a bear, and he cannot pray. If Bearskin dies during the seven years of their bargain, his soul belongs to the Devil. If he survives, he is free. Bearskin knows he cannot pray that God spare his life, but he finds a loophole in the deal. He gives money to the poor, asking only that they pray on his behalf. Fortunately for Bearskin, it works.

But sometimes being clean and smart just isn’t enough. The third option: it’s not what you know, but who you know. In The Devil and His Grandmother, our hero, another soldier, confesses his situation to the Devil’s Grandmother. The obliging old lady takes pity on him and hides him while she ferrets out the answer to the riddle he must answer. In The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, the Grandmother even risks her grandson’s ire by yanking out his golden hairs. So if you meet Old Scratch, take heart—there is hope. Be pure, be smart, or use your connections. Or maybe just brush up on your dancing.

Lissa has been a guest blogger on Enchanted Conversation, and contributed a poem to the Little Red Riding Hood issue. Despite many years of lessons, she would definitely not bet her soul on her dancing ability.


Gypsy Thornton said...

What a great post! Informative and entertaining. Reminds me of what I like about TED talks. Keep writing on fairy tales please!
I just realized I've commented on a few of your posts so this "liking your writing thing is obviously a trend.. ;) If you have extra FT guest posts Kate doesn't have room for or want another place to have your writing seen please feel free to contact me about having it posted on Once Upon A Blog. I'd be happy to promote you.
Great regular writer choice Kate!

Teresa Robeson said...

That is hilarious, in addition to being enlightening! Thanks, Lissa! Now I'll always know what to do when faced with the devil. ;)

Lissa said...

Thanks, Teresa! It always helps to be prepared.
Thanks for the invitation, Gypsy. I'm looking forward to checking out your blog!

Laura B. said...

Clever and well-written.

Sofia Bak said...

...exactly what I needed right now. We fight evil everyday. The article is reassuring that I'm going in the right direction. Philosophical piece I would say.

Anonymous said...

For a moment there I thought you were going to mention The Devil Went Down to Georgia when you talked about the dancing contest. It kind of leaves me wondering on what cleanliness has to do with taking a soul. With the first story I don't see how the child stayed away from the devil for so long. He keeps on altering the deal and it would get to the point to where the child would no longer be able to be in the same room as water or be chopped into pieces. Maybe it would have been more merciful to just kill her than to put her through the Devil's demands. Then there was the second story and how this particular soldier was smart enough to come up with this loop hole. I doubt he would have come up with something like that by himself, mainly for the fact that he would be very freaked out that the Devil would be trying to kill him for seven years. He probably had help from somewhere else, so the second option should be to have smart friends. The third option have no quarrel with other than why would the Devil's grandmother betray her own grandson?

Anonymous said...

I found this extra interesting because it seems to really hit the idea of being pure to a point or at least you should be able to beat your antagonist at whatever game they play. In any fairy tale it seems as though the main character is faced with a devil like character. It may not be the devil himself but it could be related. Witches are devilish characters and even evil step mothers could be deemed devilish and the main characters or the “victims” seem to be kind of pure. In many fairy tales I have read each of the main characters are brought up against something evil and the antagonist usually falls to some loophole or some kind of scheme. I think it kind of gives an idea of how some of these fairy tales really play out. Just a thought though, kind of just made me look at things a little differently.

Brandon Dell

Manjai Z said...

Dancing with the Devil tells of the danger that human faces when they make poor decisions such as, making promises to the devil for wealth in returned. It is very dangerous for a living being to give away another human soul to the devil for a better reward, and not expect the evil one to fight back. The images of the prince of darkness usually appeared in fairy tales, as spiritually, but physically like a human being, to better fit into society. By reading this post I wonder, how many times we have thought about the concept that the prince of darkness could be walking among us, or sitting right next to us unknowingly. This is unbelievable, and now, I must admit that as humans we must be careful about to whom we are making promises to. After all, the prince of darkness could appear to you as the prince of light to get what he mostly desires, your soul. Wonderful post.

Jasmine W said...

This was a very interesting post. Most of us dance with the devil daily, especially because we live in a world full of sin. The devil wants each and every one of us. We really should be careful because as humans we are always so quick to make promises we fail to keep. The devil is great at telling us lies that we often times believe. When I read stories like this, I always try and dig deeper and see what the writer is really trying to tell us. Often times, we will read something and never read it again failing to realize that if we read it over, we will see something else we did not see. Stories like this, fairy tales in general have so many life lessons embedded in them, it’s unreal. Before taking this class, I never looked at stories and fairy tales the way I do now. I have learned so much from them. The devil tries to sell us things that appear good but in long term, what he sold, was no good. I like how this story tells us the truth about the devil and does not sugar coat anything.

Anonymous said...

From the start, I would just flat out say don’t make a deal with the devil, or anyone for that matter. You never know if the devil is posing as someone else or has somebody working for him. Deals never go right in fairytales, although there are ways around some of them, you have to be smart enough to figure these things out. It’s really just better to keep to yourself. Bargains and deals are what make the moral of the story, but why on earth would you want to make a deal that would end in you having to give up your children. It’s almost like adoption in the sense that you’re totally okay with giving the child up, until the child is born and you can see it and hold it. Just knowing that you have created something so wonderful, but then you have to remember that you already gave them away.

Taylor B.