17 December 2023


Claude and Corinne Lecouteux. Tales and Legends of the Devil: The Many Guises of the Primal Shapeshifter. Inner Traditions, 2023.

The traditional folk devil really was a bit of a loser, no matter what his plans to steal gold, abduct virgins, capture the souls of the virtuous or just generally take over the world. Even if he was able to lure some lonely traveller or adventurous youth to actually enter Hell, they would nearly always escape by outwitting the rather dim demon, and usually taking a chest of gold - or some previously abducted virgin - with them.
The Devil tries to eat you while you sleep? A Russian tales tells us how to put load of tiles in your bed, and sleep in front of the fire so he breaks his teeth when he attacks. In a tale from Transylvania, the devil has a drinking match with the hero, who traps him a cask of ale and wins the hand of the king's daughter. and his entire realm. In a hundred and one ways his plans are foiled by his own anger, greed or lechery. One Swiss peasant earns his treasure by giving the devil an impossible task: make a single hair stand up as straight as the letter 'I'.

This folk devil also seems to have endless problems with his relations and is absolutely terrified of his mother-in-law, in an eighteenth-century Spanish tale.

The stories in this volume come largely from Eastern and Northern Europe, there is nothing from the British Isles. The peculiarly English devil who delights in frustrating villagers trying to build a church by constantly moving it from the top of the hill to the bottom, overnight (or sometimes the other way around) is missing from these tales.

What else is missing from these tales, is entertaining readability. The sources for most of the narratives transcribed here are collections of folk-tales compiled by earnest German academics in the mid-nineteenth century. Their works have titles like Lappländische Märchen, Volksagen, Räthsel und Sprichwörter (1886) or Litauische Märchen, Spiritworte Räthsel und Lieder (1857). These are important works for the history and study of folk legends, but there is problems when presenting them to the modern reader.

It is the number of levels of translation and editing they have gone through. If taken from indigenous storytellers, they have first been translated from the native language, either by or for the collector, already introducing possibly two layers of translation. There is also the matter of 'cultural translation' between the world-views of a Sami reindeer herder or a Transylvanian-Saxon farmer, and a middle-class German academic from an ancient university.

This 'cultural translation' waas problematic enough in English folklore with the educational, and particularly class differences between Sussex farmers and middle-class middle aged, English song and story collectors, without the problems of a totally different language. And even within the German speaking regions of Europe, language differences were often far greater than between most English and Scottish dialects.

On top of this you have two further layers of translation, from the German text to Lecouteux's French, and the and the translation into English. Jon Graham, who has translated the English edition, has an interesting introduction to this volume. Now I am sure all these translations are as good as can be, but each presents a layer of detachment to the reader.

And it has to be said, irrespective of the quality of the translations, some of these tales are just rather long and boring! I an sure even at the original campfire, house or pub tellings there were a few listeners dropping off at the back. 

A while ago I reviewed Jeremy Harte's Cloven Country, his collection of similar stories about the Devil as the 'primal shapeshifter'; the trickster who is easily outsmarted by the wily peasant, and thought how bright and sharp, and close to the spirit of the original they seemed. 

But perhaps that is an unfair comparison. as it is a different type of book. It is part of Lecouteux's ongoing collection of folk, occult and mythological texts. The serious tone is demonstrated by the footnotes in the text and the chapter-end notes which give references to motif-indexes and note similar tales in other published collections. I don't think this is aimed at storytellers or those looking for a good yarn of yesteryear, it is clearly aimed as a source and reference tool for the student. 
  • John Rimmer

No comments: