Making friends with the Devil may sound like a high-risk strategy, but the dark one couldend up being good company – at least for a while. Working together, he’d help his partner magician do good deeds, channel rivers and create new highways. It must be true, because you can still see the works of the Devil in the landscape to this day…

Just as often, however, the two unlikely companions would fall into competitive bickering, matching their strength in simple games and their wit in commercial bets – storytellers loved to create new ways in which an ingenious mortal could get one over on his uncanny friend.

How did rural tradition create these rollicking tales of toxic buddies out of the much darker lore of ceremonial magic? Hell threatens anyone who accepts the Devil’s favour, but this terrible threat is always wriggled out of by a trick condition, a clever wife, or a disintegrating strand of sand rope. Even at the very end, when relations are about to turn nasty, the folk magician finds a burial place that will save him from damnation. (Faustus, on the other hand, was not so lucky.)

The folk Devil is an inconsistent character – frightful and wicked, but also silly, combative, vengeful and vain. It seems that Devil lore was transformed by the English peasantry, an eschatologically insubordinate class who listened to everything preached at them by the holy and the learned, but only heard the parts that fitted their world view. This way of seeing things was much less fearsome than that of the occultists, and much more forgiving than that of the Church…

Jeremy Harte is a researcher into folklore and archaeology, with a particular interest in landscape legends and tales of encounters with other worlds. His book Cloven Country: The Devil and the English Landscape will be published by Reaktion at Halloween this year. Previous books include Explore Fairy Traditions, which won the Katharine Briggs award of the Folklore Society, Cuckoo Pounds and Singing Barrows, and The Green Man. In 2006 he was elected to the Committee of the Folklore Society and has subsequently organised the Society’s Legendary Weekends. Since the foundation of the journal Time & Mind, he has been Reviews Editor. He is curator of Bourne Hall Museum in Surrey.

Your host for this event will be the writer Edward Parnell, author of Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Edward Parnell lives in Norfolk and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He is the recipient of an Escalator Award from the National Centre for Writing and a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), a work of narrative non-fiction, is a moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – as well as the author’s own haunted past; it was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley 2020 prize, an award given to a literary autobiography of excellence. Edward’s first novel The Listeners (2014), won the Rethink New Novels Prize. For further info see:

[Image: A man in prison praying to the devil to have him released. Etching by D. Stoop. Credit: Wellcome Collection.]