The traditional fairy story starts with a completely normal situation, relatively speaking. In Hansel and Gretal it is a starving family who are compelled by poverty to practice infanticide, in Jack and the Bean Stork it is the story of a boy sent to market to sell a cow and in The Elves and the Shoemaker it is struggling shop owners on their last piece of capital with their backs against the wall and the poor house in front of them. These are stories that start in real life and move suddenly into the magical. CS Lewis uses this model for That Hideous Strength where Jane and Mark Studdock are drawn into a conspiracy to remake the world. Tolkien uses it in the Hobbit when Bilbo is having a quiet smoke until a wizard turns up. The perfectly normal is matched by the supernatural allowing the reader to discover the hidden world outside of normal experience at the same pace as the hero. The hero and the normal need to be absolutely normal and unremarkable. Bilbo is a normal hobbit and the Studdocks are normal recently married people. Maybe they chafe at the mundanity but only as much as the reader does. And if you need evidence of that reflect on why fantasy and adventure stories are so popular. If the protagonist is normal then the antagonists must be anything but and it seems to me that a successful antagonist draws deeply on fairy lore at best and demonology at most frightening.
Deals with the Devil are the oldest of stories. Palaeographers have identified a story called “The Devil and the Blacksmith” as the oldest fairy tale that we have. In this a Blacksmith outwits the devil with the same cleverness as Anansi or Br’er Rabbit. The same theme runs through folklore in stories like that of Devils Bridge in Wales and manifests in a myriad of films such as Bedazzled where the lead character manages to take advantage of the devils offer but still keep his or her soul. Thats a nice ending. Not so for Faust who after a lifetime of study to gain the knowledge to get all the ‘guns, gold and girls’ of his dreams discovers that he is too old for girls and so makes a deal with the devil for youth in exchange for his soul. Despite his learning he loses that in the end. Such demonic characters appear in modern fiction drawing on the Mephistopheles as witty and urbane characters who offer much and demand more. In political drama few can hold a candle to Ian Richardsons Francis Urquhart. The character in the book is horrendous but Richardson embodied a clear and directly evil character under a cloak of British respectability. As in Richard III you are drawn into the plots with the asides to the fourth wall. You laugh at the jokes which are made in bad taste as between friends because Urquhart can smile, and he can murder as he smiles. In stark contrast in the American House of Cards series Frank Underwood is having daddy issues whilst Urquhart is stacking bodies.
Alongside the demon is the homunculus or demonic imp. In House of Cards (UK) Tim Stamper is Urquharts chief whip and loyal homunculus. Played by Colin Jeavons Stamper has amazing dark eyes that seem to belong to an imp or fairy rather than to a man. He is an indirect evil, a foil to Urquhart and a sadist who enjoys watching MPs being roasted for their vices or pointing out to characters like Mattie Storin the reality of their situation caught in the webs of intrigue that surround Francis Urquhart. Although I enjoy House of Cards (US) I feel that Doug Stamper is watered wine compared to Tim. Tim is a disruptively innocent name and the character subverts the gentle implications of the name. Doug is a brutal name which the character fails to live upto despite a horrendous plot and the excellent acting of Michael Kelly. The problem lies in that the writing shows too much of Dougs flaws and complications which explains his actions. Tim is mysterious and emerges and vanishes into the noise of parliament with ease whilst Doug is a character who you see and hear coming a mile off. He is a diamond hard character in contrast to the elfin slippiness of Tim. He is an Ariel or Puck to Dougs Caliban or Bottom.
The same can be said for Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister who has an innocent manner, name and demeanour. Again this is deceptive because he is a powerful civil service with his own agenda. He is the perfect foil for the Minister, Jim Hacker, who is ironically named. At a time where cutting the civil service was a political ideal he is unable to hack anything. He is out classed and out witted at every opportunity by this apparition of Whitehall. ‘In the Thick of it’ is a modern retelling of the ‘Yes Minister’ story. In stark contrast to the Minister vs the Civil Service dynamic which educated the public about the corridors of power In the Thick of it is a chaotic and testosterone fuelled struggle to understand what is going on and secondly to keep the show on the road whatever is thrown at it. This series gave the English language the expression, “reverse ferret” and “omnishambles”. The demonic Malcolm Tucker is a spin doctor and master of the dark arts who can make or break his toys with a word to the press or a photograph. His vicious threats, screaming rants and outrageous use of language is counter balanced with perfect manners to his secretary and the public. It is touching that he refers to the public as “real people” and that he is disgusted if ‘real people’ get hit by fire intended for who ever the enemy of the moment is. I think the best innovation of this show is that we see the turmoil behind the scenes. The other spin doctors and big beasts working out how to take each other down and gain advantage.
So what lesson do I learn from this? Do not get involved. Demonic power brokers and dangerous imps who offer the world at the expense of your soul are offering what they do not have for what is most valuable which is yourself. I remember a fairy story where the fairies offer gold in the dark that turns out, in the cold light of day, to be autumn leaves.