"The Field Devil" by Hermann Hesse
One of the rewards of reading Hesse's short stories chronologically is the autobiographical element that hovers but never directly corresponds to Hesse's life as much as to his psychology and thought. "The Field Devil" can be interpreted thusly, but it is also a fine psychological study of maturation, aspiration, spiritual refinement, solitude, and loss. The story is set in the early desert hermit era of Egypt, with Paul of Thebes and Antony as characters, but highlighted by the little "field devil.". The story was written in 1908 and published in 1935; the following is a reprint of the 1972 translation of Ralph Manheim published in Stories of Five Decades (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the days when paganism was dying in Egypt and gradually giving way to the new religion, when Christian communities were springing up in every town and village, the devils retreated to the Theban desert. This desert was as yet uninhabited except for wild beasts and venomous reptiles, for though the pious penitents and hermits had cut themselves off from all contact with the world, most of them were still living in hovels or barns on the outskirts of the towns and villages and had not yet ventured out into its desolate, perilous wastes. Consequently there was plenty of room for the host of de- mons fleeing before the onslaught of the saints. The ac- cursed host included not only devils of every rank but all manner of pagan creatures, unicorns and centaurs, dryads and satyrs, or field devils, as they now came to be called. For the Devil had been given power over all these creatures, and it was believed that partly because of their heathen origin and partly because of their animal form they had been rejected by God and had no part in salvation.
But by no means all of these animal-men and fallen pagan idols were evil; some of them served the Devil reluctantly. Others obeyed him gladly and in their rage took on a distinctly diabolical character; for they could not see why they had been forcibly removed from their former harmless, unmolested existence and thrust among the despised, the persecuted, and the wicked. To judge by the life of the holy father Anthony, as recorded by Athanasius and the desert monk Paul, the centaurs were evil but the satyrs or field devils, or some of them at least, were peaceful and gentle. In any event it is written that in the course of his miraculous journey through the desert to visit Father Paul, Saint Anthony met both a centaur and a field devil. The centaur, it appears, was rude and ill-tempered, whereas the satyr spoke to the saint and asked for his blessing. The present legend concerns this same satyr or field devil.
With many of his kind, the field devil had followed the march of the evil spirits into the desert, and now he was wandering about in those inhospitable wastes. Since he had formerly lived in a fertile, wooded region, associating only with his fellow satyrs and a few charming dryads, he was sorely grieved at finding himself in this barren wilderness, condemned to the company of devils and evil spirits.
By day he broke away from the others and wandered alone over the rocks and sandy deserts, dreaming of the sunny scenes of his carefree past, or dozing away the hours under an occasional solitary palm tree. In the evening he usually sat beside a little stream in a dark rocky gully, playing sad, nostalgic songs of his own composition on a reed flute. Other satyrs listened from afar to his mournful tunes and thought sorrowfully of the old days. Some of them sighed and lamented, some whistled and shrieked and danced wildly about in the hope of forget- ting their loss. But when the true devils saw the little field devil sitting there alone, playing his flute, they made fun of him, mimicked him, and teased him in a thousand ways.
After much solitary thinking about the causes of his unhappiness, about the paradisiac joy of former days and his present wretched, despised existence in the desert, he began, little by little, to speak of these things with his brothers.. Soon the more serious-minded of the field devils formed a little group and set out to investigate the rea- sons for their downfall and to consider the possibility of a return to their earlier, happy condition.
They all knew they had been relegated to the Devil's host because a new God ruled the world. Concerning this new God they knew little, but they knew a good deal about the character and rule of their prince, the Devil. And what they knew of him was not to their liking. True, he was powerful and versed in all sorts of magic; indeed, they too were under his spell, but his rule was harsh and cruel.
Then it occurred to them that this mighty Devil had himself been driven into the desert. Consequently, the new God must be far more powerful. The poor field devils concluded that they would probably be better off under God's rule than under Lucifer's, and became curious to know more about this God. They decided to find out all they could about Him, and if they liked what they found out, make their way to Him.
And so the disheartened little group of field devils led by the flute player were buoyed by a faint, furtive hope. They did not yet know how great was the Supreme Devil's power. But they were soon to find out.
For just then the pious hermits were beginning to take their first steps into the hitherto untrodden Theban desert. Some years before, Father Paul had come this way alone. The holy legend relates that he had lived the life of a penitent for many years in a small cave, with no other sustenance than the water of a spring, the fruits of a palm tree, and half a loaf of bread that was brought to him each day by a raven.
One day the field devil caught sight of this Paul of Thebes, and since he felt a certain timid affection for humans, he began to observe the hermit whenever possible. He found the man's behavior very strange. For Paul lived in utter poverty and solitude. He ate and drank no more than a bird, he clothed himself with the leaves of a palm tree, slept on the ground in a narrow cave, and not content with his sufferings from the heat, cold, and damp- ness, he mortified himself with special exercises, knelt for hours on the hard rock, and spent whole days in fasting and prayer, during which he would abstain even from what wretched food he had.
All this struck the curious field devil as most extraordinary, and at first he regarded the hermit as a madman. But soon he noticed that though this Paul led a miserable, comfortless life, there was a curious warmth and fervor and inward joy in his voice when he prayed, and round the man's head and drawn, emaciated face he saw a holy, blissful light.
Day after day the field devil observed the holy penitent, and at length he came to the conclusion that this hermit was a happy man and that streams of unearthly joy came to him from some unknown source. And since the hermit was forever calling God by name and singing His praises, the field devil decided that Paul must be a servant and friend of this new God, and that it would be a good idea to go over to His side.
And so one day he took courage, stepped out from behind the rock, and approached the aged hermit. The hermit warded him off, crying: Apage, apage! and threatened him in a loud voice, but the field devil uttered a humble greeting and said softly: "Hermit, I have come to thee because I love thee! If thou art a servant of God, tell me something about thy God and teach me, that I may serve Him too."
At this speech Paul was seized with doubt, but in his loving-kindness he cried out: "Know that God is love. And blessed is he who serves Him and gives up his life to Him. But thou seemest to be an impure spirit, so I cannot give thee God's blessing. Demon, get thee hence!"
The field devil went sadly away, bearing the penitent's words with him. He would gladly have given his life to become like this servant of God. The words "love" and "blessing," though their meaning was obscure to him, aroused delicious intimations in his heart and inspired him with a yearning no less poignant than his homesick- ness for the lost past. After a few troubled days he remembered his friends, who like him were weary of serving the Devil, and went to see them. He told them the whole story, and they talked it over and sighed. They could think of nothing to do.
Just then a second penitent went to the desert and settled in a desolate spot. An army of loathsome reptiles fled at his coming. This was Saint Anthony. But furious at the intrusion and fearing for his power over the desert, the Devil summoned up his powers to drive him away. Everyone knows by what artifices he tried to seduce the holy man, then to frighten him. He appeared to him first as a lewd and beautiful woman, then as a brother and fellow penitent; he offered him choice foods and laid gold and silver in his path.
When all this proved ineffectual, he resorted to his terrors. He beat the saint black and blue, he appeared to him in hideous forms, he led a procession of devils, evil spirits, satyrs, and centaurs, of ferocious wolves, panthers, lions, and hyenas through the saint's cave. The tender-hearted field devil was obliged to join in the procession, but when he approached the suffering saint it was with kindly gestures, and when his companions teased the holy man, pulled his beard, and abused him, he silently begged forgiveness with contrite glances. But Anthony failed to notice him, or regarded him as an artifice of the Evil One. He resisted all temptations and for many years lived a life of solitude and holiness.
When he was ninety years of age, God made it known to him that there was a still older and worthier penitent living in this same desert, and Anthony set out in quest of him forthwith, though 'he did not know the way. He wandered through the desert, and in his yeaming for God the field devil followed him, secretly helping him to find the right way. At length, after much hesitation, the field devil showed himself, greeting the penitent humbly. After telling the saint how he and his brothers yeamed for God, he asked him to bless them. But then, seeing that Anthony distrusted him, he vanished amid loud laments, as one can read in all the old accounts of the Church Fathers.
Anthony pursued his journey and found Father Paul. He humbled himself before him and stayed on as his guest. Paul died at the age of a hundred and thirteen, and Anthony was a witness as two lions appeared, roaring sorrowfully, and dug a grave for the saint with their claws. Thereupon Anthony returned to his former dwelling place.
The field devil had observed all these events from a distance. His innocent heart was sorely grieved that the holy fathers had both rebuffed him and left him without consolation. Since he preferred to die rather than go on serving the Evil One, and since he had carefully observed the ways of the departed saint and imprinted them on his memory, he went to live in Paul's wretched cave. He put on the saint's shirt of palm leaves, sustained himself on water and dates, knelt for hours on the hard stones in a painful position, and did his best to imitate him in all ways.
But his heart grew sadder and sadder. He could see that God did not accept him as he had accepted Paul, for the raven who had brought Paul his daily bread had stopped coming, though when Saint Anthony was visiting the old man, he had brought double portions. There was indeed a book of Gospels in the cave, but the field devil could not read. At certain moments, when he had knelt and cried out God's name to the point of exhaustion, he gained a faint, secret intimation of God and His beatitude, but full knowledge was beyond his powers.
And so, remembering Paul's words -- it is blessed to die for God -- he decided to die. Never had he seen one of his people die, and the thought of death was bitter and terrible to him. But he persevered in his decision. He stopped eating and drinking and spent day and night on his knees, calling out the name of God.
And he died. He died kneeling, as he had seen Father Paul die. A few moments before his death he was amazed to see the raven come flying with a loaf of bread such as he had brought the saint. And he was filled with a profound joy and the certainty that God had accepted his sacrifice and elected him to beatitude.
Shortly after his death some more pious pilgrims came to that part of the desert with the intention of settling there. They saw the corpse in penitent's dress kneeling against the rock, and decided to give the deceased a Christian burial. Intoning prayers, they dug a small pit, for the body was small of stature.
But when they picked up the body to lower it into the pit, they saw that two little horns were hidden beneath the tangled hair and two goat's feet under the garment of leaves. And they cried aloud, stricken with horror at what they took to be a mockery on the part of the Evil One. Praying loudly, they left the body lying and fled.