It's Halloween, when all manner of sprites and spirits -- ghosts, goblins, dwarves, elves, wizards, spectral visions, even the Devil himself -- may come trick-or-treating.
Losing His Religion
Would you know the Devil if he knocked on your door? Would he be urbane, stylish, witty, this Prince of Darkness? Would he trail clouds of sulfur and brimstone vapor? Not necessarily: He could be a clown, a little bit foolish. Lying in the dark one day with a bad headache, Adrian Leverkuhn, the subject of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (Vintage, $15), receives a curious visitor: "a man of spindled figure . . . a sporting cap tugged at one ear, and on the other side reddish hair extending from the temple upward; reddish lashes round likewise reddened eyes, the face pale as a cheese, with the tip of the nose bent slightly askew; a stocking-knit shirt striped crosswise with sleeves too short and fat-fingered hands stuck out; trousers that sit untowardly tight, and yellow, overworn shoes ne'er to be clean again. A strizzi. A pimp-master. And with the voice, the enunciation of a player."
It's Satan, pitching the idea that Adrian sign over his soul and enjoy 24 years of spectacular creativity. After all, as New York's Mayor Giuliani will tell you, art can be the devil's work. Mann's Satan puts it in musical terms, which John E. Woods's new, much-praised translation makes as lively as it deserves: "The fresh idea, then -- a matter of three, four bars, is it no? All the rest is elaboration, the grindstone. Is it not? . . . Take Beethoven's sketchbooks! Not one thematic conception remains as God gave it. He fashions it new and adds: `Meilleur.' Little trust in God's prompting, little respect of it is expressed in that scarcely exuberant `Meilleur'! A veritably gladding, ravishing, undoubtful, and believing inspiration, an inspiration for which there can be no choosing, no bettering, no mending, in which everything is received as blessed decree, which trips up and tumbles, ruffling sublime shudders from pate to tiptoe over him whom it visits and causing him to burst into streaming tears of happiness -- that comes not from God, who leaves to reason all too much to do, but is possible solely with the Devil, the true Lord of Enthusiasm." (This passage also showcases John E. Woods's new, much-praised translation.)
In return for his two dozen years of inspiration, Adrian -- who personifies Germany's highest cultural aspirations -- must give up a trifle: the warmth of human love. (Note: Mann wrote the book after leaving Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and if it reads as an indictment of his homeland, that's no coincidence.)
A Bumpkin in the Night
Some of Satan's associates take more fearsome shapes than the dark lord himself. Take the Headless Horseman, for instance, star supernatural attraction of Sleepy Hollow in the Hudson River Valley, as related in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving (Penguin, $8.95): "The dominant spirit . . . that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander in chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk, hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind," looking for his lost noggin.
Enter Ichabod Crane, lanky schoolmaster: "To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield."
Not a bad guy, Crane has an appetite for good food and lovely ladies, in particular Katrina Van Tassel, "a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations" (she's the only child of a rich farmer). One wrinkle: Local tough Abraham Van Brunt, nicknamed Brom Bones, has already laid siege to Katrina's affections. It's a neck-and-neck race for the altar -- until one fateful night, when Ichabod goes to Katrina's father's house for a harvest feast of astonishing richness. "I want breath and time to discuss this banquet as it deserves," the narrator says, "and am too eager to get on with my story. Happily, Ichabod Crane was not in so great a hurry as his historian, but did ample justice to every dainty."
What happens on Ichabod's midnight ride home through the dark countryside? Let's just say he's got company, and it's not the buxom Katrina. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, which first appeared in 1819 as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., features "Rip Van Winkle" as well as less-well-remembered tales and assorted vignettes from Irving's travels. The book made Irving a celebrity and, according to some critics, established the short story form. Don't fret over that -- read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" for the fun of it and because of Irving's autumn-tinted descriptions of the rich landscapes and living ways of the Hudson River Valley.
Ichabod Crane's very much with us, especially this time of year. Tim Burton's even making "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" into a motion picture. Another classic, this one a bit longer than "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," is also headed for the screen: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, the story of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit living in the sleepy region known as the Shire, and how he came to possess the great Ring. If it falls into the evil hands of Sauron, overlord of the dark realm of Mordor, the Ring will bring everlasting evil to the Shire as well as to the rest of Middle Earth. Frodo, with the help of the wizard Gandalf, the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, Aragorn son of kings, and assorted other companions, must try to get the Ring to Mordor and destroy it by returning it to the fiery place of its making, while legions of men, elves and dwarves raise a host against the armies of Sauron and the Nazgul, the Nine Riders or Ringwraiths, once-mortal creatures transformed into supernatural, sword-wielding furies.
This summer Houghton Mifflin put out nice new editions of Tolkien's epic: a one-volume Lord of the Rings comprising the three sections of the story -- The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King ($20) -- and a boxed set that includes The Hobbit as well ($45 for the set). If, like me, you last read The Lord of the Rings when you were about 14 years old, you may feel nervous about plunging back into Middle Earth. I worried that Tolkien's book wouldn't stand up to a more jaded adult reading -- that it would seem silly or overdone. It didn't. The adventure of the Ring is just as bracing, the encounters with Ringwraiths just as parlous, as they were on the first go-round. (I might have done away with one or two courtly speeches and elfin songs.) This time I noticed the visuality of it, the way Tolkien describes Middle Earth as if he were looking at pictures of it, and the amount of effort it must have taken to put together a world complete with its own languages and histories.
Being published for the first time this year is Tolkien's Roverandom (Houghton Mifflin, $12). In 1925, Tolkien's son Michael, then 4 years old, lost his toy dog; so the author made up a story about Rover, a pooch who encounters a wizard one day out in the garden: "Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man: some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday, looking for something to do. This one was a wizard, the one that now walked into the story. He came wandering up the garden-path in a ragged old coat, with an old pipe in his mouth, and an old green hat on his head . . . "
There's a misunderstanding -- something about a feather -- and Rover, young and foolish, bites the wizard's trousers. Next thing you know, Rover's been turned into a tiny toy and must have all sorts of adventures before he can recover his true canine form. Lesson: Never bite a wizard.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.