Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

Serpent-goddess-eve

And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

golden-apple-300x2861

Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

plum pudding

Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

Naughty but Nice

Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

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5 top pacts with the devil in literature

The Faustian pact – we all know what it means. The idea of selling your soul to the devil in return for great wealth and power holds a powerful grip on the imagination; it can be applied to all kinds of dubious bargains, the whiff of danger adding excitement to the fantastic amount of money/power/enjoyment you expect to get out of the deal. How can that not make a good story?

To celebrate the imminent publication of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, here are five top devilish pacts in literature:

  1. To begin at the beginning… the Bible. You expected Marlowe, didn’t you? Nope. God got there first.  The Book of Job is the story of a good, faithful, man being put through terrible suffering, and all because God
    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    has a bet with Satan (seriously) over Job’s soul. Pointing out that Job is only good because he has an easy life, Satan gets God to agree that Satan can test Job’s faith by piling calamities on him. ‘ “All right, the Lord said to Satan, “everything he has is in your power, but you must not hurt Job himself.”’ (Job 1, v 12, Good News Bible). Job comes through with flying colours (all the more amazing since Satan interprets ‘not hurting Job himself’ pretty loosely, killing his whole family and covering him with boils) and God wins the bet.

  1. Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. For the English-speaking world at least, this is the great setting of the myth that grew round Dr Johannes Faust, a sinister alchemist and magician who lived in SLIDE 4          Doctor FaustusGermany in the early 16th Marlowe has Faustus offer the demon, Mephistopheles, his soul in exchange for 24 years in which he might

Live in all voluptuousness;

            Having thee ever to attend on me;

            To give me whatsoever I shall ask

            To tell me whatsoever I demand,

            To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,

            And always be obedient to my will.

            (Doctor Faustus, Scene III)

Heady stuff – but you’d have to have tapioca for brains not to see that 24 years is hardly a good deal. Faustus fools himself by not really believing in damnation – ‘Come, I think hell’s a fable.’ (Doctor Faustus, Scene IV).  Big mistake.

  1. Goethe, Faust. The great 18th century German poet and dramatist took the Faust story and rooted it firmly in the Book of Job, making Faust’s soul the stake of a wager between God and Mephistopheles. Faust has a thirst for knowledge, a scientific curiosity impossible to satisfy because there are more secrets in the universe than he can ever discover. SLIDE 6 Goethe-Faust-Mephistopheles promises to fulfil his every wish in return for his soul; but just as God bets the demon that Faust will ultimately return to Him, so Faust bets Mephistopheles that the demon can’t win his soul because Faust knows he will never be satisfied:

When, to the moment then, I say:

Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!

Then you can grasp me.http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScene IVtoVI.htm

In league with the devil, Faust now enjoys himself immensely and does some terrible things but his mind remains ever restless, striving to know and experience more. And paradoxically, it is this striving that saves him in the end because ‘Whoever strives,’ say the angels, ‘can be redeemed.’  Faust II, Line 11936

  1. Peter SchlemihlAdalbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihl. This children’s story written in 1814 adds a new twist: Peter Schlemihl sells the devil not his soul, but
    his shadow, in return for a bottomless wallet. The loss of his shadow makes Peter an outcast but when the devil offers to return the shadow in exchange for his soul, Peter is wise enough to resist him.
  1. The Devil and Homer Simpson (Treehouse of Horror IV).  OK, not literature as such but how could I not include Homer selling 250px-Glazed-Donuthis soul to the devil in exchange for a doughnut? Fortunately for Homer it turns out that his soul wasn’t his to sell in the first place, having given it away to Marge on their wedding day. Ahhhhhhhh.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – but then folk legend has always been packed with stories of simple people tricking the devil. And what unites Homer Simpson, Faust, Schlemiel and all those colourful literary characters who bargain with the devil is an urgent need they can find no other way of meeting. So when plotting my children’s version of the Faust story, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, the one question I had to answer was, what great need would drive 13 year-old Henry Fowst – and his 16th century counterpart, 12 year-old John Striven – to make a pact with a demon?

Well, I’ll give you a clue.

It isn’t a doughnut.