At the end of The Soldier’s Tale I made for a concert in Washington DC last year, the hapless Soldier was blown about like a leaf before disappearing down the Devil’s maw. This time around he’s to be reduced to a skeleton with a fiery blast of Old Nick’s breath before going the same way. Lots of animation possibilities in this scenario. And of course, when finished, the Devil will spit out what he no longer needs: the Soldier’s old violin.
Having just read back over that, I realise it sounds callous and cruel. But then the story is too, and the end needs to reflect that. I should explain. I love The Soldier’s Tale. I have from the first time I heard it when I was a child. But it’s Faustian pact of a particularly cruel type, because the Soldier is not ambitious for himself in any way. He isn’t out for gain. Here he is at the beginning of the story, weary from duty and on his way home to be reunited with his mother and his fiancé. He stops to sort through his backpack, takes out and begins to play his violin. You can tell it’s a comfort to him, this ability to scratch a tune at the wayside and lift the spirits. An old man approaches, and quicksticks offers to purchase the fiddle. The Soldier declines the offer. The instrument is old, he explains, not up to pitch and hardly worth having. But the old man presses, wheedles, insists, and offers in exchange a magic book, though the deal doesn’t seem to signify much to the Soldier, who doesn’t read. Nevertheless he gives in and agrees, not out of avarice, but because he’s basically rather sweet-natured and is trying to oblige the old fellow. And he obliges him further, when pressed, by agreeing to teach the old man how to play, even though it means going out of his way to do so.
All unwittingly the Soldier has entered into a pact, and from that moment on his fate is sealed. He’s a simple soul and had been heading for a simple life when the Devil tripped him up. You can’t say that he was lured by promises of wealth and ease, because those things seem genuinely not to interest him. His weakness is that he he is too easily turned aside from his path, and too easily persuaded by the old man that his mother won’t mind if she has to wait a little longer for him.
In the more usual Faustian pacts there’s an exchange the participants negotiate and agree on. Faust signs a contract with the Devil, believing at heart that he’ll later be clever enough to wriggle out of it. But the Soldier signs nothing, because he wants nothing in exchange. The contract is ‘non-verbal’, but like one of those telephone scams where salespeople elicit binding agreements from the unwary even though no signatures have been given, the Soldier has fallen into the Devil’s trap.
The Soldier’s Tale is a wonderful creation on multiple levels, and I find its potency all the greater because as so often happens in life itself, the misfortune falls on one who has done little to deserve it.
these images are amazing! i really love that beard…
not the end of the tale, so much, of course…can you really sell your soul to the devil by trying to help an “old man?” or is this more of an “idle hands” story?
I really LOVE that top image!
I’ve always been quietly fascinated with skeletons,
and particularly like the almost luminous stained glass window effect.
i’d not heard of the ‘Soldiers tale’ until reading your blog post.
But do have very vivid recollections of an episode of Jim Henson’s
‘Story Teller’ called ‘the soldier and death’ (written by anthony minghella)
which may or may not be a variation on the soldiers tale??
it does however have this fantastic scene in it where the soldier is playing
cards against a cheating pack of devils:
The rod puppets with animatronic faces work absolutely brilliantly.
Peter, I remember this episode well. Anthony Minghella did a great job on the scripts, and although Brian Henson’s characterful dog was always going to add a touch of ‘The Muppet Show’ to the proceedings, the stories retained the ‘European’ tone that I think so essential to them. And John Hurt, of course, was wonderful. I loved the episode of ‘The Three Ravens’, with Miranda Richardson as a truly malevolent witch!
I think that Ramuz, who wrote the libretto of The Soldier’s Tale for Stravinsky, wanted to produce a ‘folk tale’ that had all the expected ingredients and yet was an original story, and in this he was enormously successful. The text is wonderful, especially in the translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, which is the one more generally used. It’s subtle and has the beauty of poetry. I’m excited about returning to this project. Twelve months on from the original Washington DC concert that I produced images for, I feel that I can add a great deal more to the visual aspects for the Hay Festival performance being given by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra under James Slater.
fantastic, love the projectile skeleton
I like the idea that “the fall” is so casual and happens unawares. Isn’t that the way it is in life?
Although if the old man showed any of the lurid light and powerful shaping of your devil, I would run!
Hope you enjoy your master class today, Clive!
Indeed. Falls of all types can be casual. I jumped off a fence two days ago, holding on for support while turning in the air to land facing it without having noticed the iron-hard tree root that my heel slammed up against, a blow that brought me to my knees with pain. ‘Stupid stupid stupid’ is all that ran through my head. We only need to be not concentrating for a moment, and that’s when fate slips in to trip us up.
Ah ha. Well it has to be said that in the above images the Devil is revealed in colours we’d all be be circumspect about, but in the disguise of the Old Man I’ve made him not much less alarming. Clearly the Soldier wasn’t paying attention.
The masterclass is over the weekend, and yes, I’m hoping it’s going to be enjoyable for all of us. I plan on it being so, but you never know what ‘Fate’ has in store.
Wow, these images pack a punch, you’ve distilled them down to some really powerful elements, they have a wonderful quality
It’s interesting to return to the subject a year on from when I last touched it. I’d thought it would pretty much stand up to another outing, but I find myself wanting to revise so many aspects.