Tuesday, October 22, 2013

if a green huntsman offers to help you, take a pass: *The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

NYRB Classics, 2013
original title: Die Schwarz Spinne, 1842
translated by Susan Bernofsky 
108 pp


I opened the pages of this little novella not knowing what to expect, and right away found myself embedded in a beautiful arcadian setting in the Emmental region of Switzerland.  Under the sun, shining in "limpid majesty," in a "dell filled with fertile, sheltered farmland," lies a splendid farmhouse near an orchard. Churchbells can be heard in the distance on this "blessed day of celebration," colts are frolicking in the fields, and an entire family has gathered to celebrate a christening.  A huge feast has been laid, the godmother spares no effort in her "intricate preparations" to make herself lovely, and the baby is taken to church for the ceremony.  The scene is one of pastoral perfection, abundance, and peace,

so naturally, I started to get really curious about the book's cover art and why a blurb on the back notes that "The Black Spider was a horror story of its day."  Then the "gotcha": as the post-christening festivities commence, a question about a "rough black window post" built into the newly-built home leads the grandfather to tell a story about events that had occurred  in the area hundreds of years ago, one passed on through the generations.  And oh, what a story it is.

A religious order of Teuton knights has returned from Poland and Prussia, having been sent there to "fight the heathen."  While there, they got caught up in the lifestyle, and on their return, continued to live, each "according to his own nature and pleasure." The worst of these was Hans van Stoffeln of Swabia, and he took a lot of pleasure in persecuting the peasants.  First, he took them away from their land for two years by ordering a huge castle on a hill.  When that was finished, and just as the peasants were rejoicing that they could get back to feeding their starving families and tending their livestock, von Stoffeln makes another demand -- they must now build a shaded walkway. He wants particular trees from a location that is hours away, and he wants everything done within a month or disastrous consequences will follow for the peasants and their families.  Thoroughly in despair, because this is an impossible task, the peasant men wonder how they're going to tell their loved ones.  At that moment a huntsman, dressed in all in green (hitherto referred to as the "green man" or the "green huntsman" ) appears, and offers them help -- and for payment, all he wants is an unbaptized child.  When the women are told what's going on, they believe they can help their men, but it becomes obvious that this is not working out.  One of the wives, Christine of Lindau,  takes up the green huntsman's offer, thinking that when a new baby is born, the people will find a way to deceive him, and they do manage to stave off the devil for a while. However, they hadn't reckoned on the black spider, a reminder that the huntsman "would not suffer himself to be duped without recompense."

So -- what to make of this little book?  Seriously, for such a small volume there's a stream of ideas put into play here, even aside from the obvious Christian message about not turning away from the Lord.   First and foremost,  I read it like this: once evil has made itself known, it can be controlled only if  a community agrees to act together  to keep it at bay. Then the author reveals exactly what sorts of temptations can lead people astray from the collective good. Briefly:

a)  women who, like Christine of Lindau, are "not the sort of woman ...  content to stay at home, quietly going about her duties with no other concern than household and children;" women who are "frightfully clever," "daring," and bold, who don't quite understand their place in the home and in society. There are also women who hold sway over the men in their lives, who become  true masters of their houses, leading sons and husbands to neglect their responsibilities,
b) the lack of  collective and individual responsibility, as in (a) above and other examples throughout the book, especially when actions by a one or a few lead to disregard for the lives of others,
c) people who are not happy enough with what they already  have -- as the people became jealous of the riches and high living of others, their desire for wealth and their "vainglorious grandeur" led them to be as hardhearted and ruthless toward their own servants as the knights once were toward the peasants,
d) and last but not least, when children do not  "follow their parents in their paths and thoughts,"  and disregard wisdom passed down through the ages. 

And what about the spider? Well, I'm not very well versed in Germanic mythologies or Swiss folklore regarding the symbolism of the spider, but I did look up "green huntsman" to see if there was something significant I could use relating to  this book and came across this photo of a green huntsman spider.

Coincidence? Maybe, but in Christian mythology, the spider is, of course,  associated with the Devil, and you've got the Green Huntsman of the story in that role as the source of  the spider, so it should be easy to figure out.  However, according to Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times, the spider also becomes a symbol of plague, and there are scenes in this book that support this idea as well.

Even if you're not so inclined toward the Christian messages (as in my case), you can still enjoy The Black Spider.  There are a number of scenes that are bound to produce that wonderful frisson of chills crawling up your spine, making it a perfect pre-Halloween read; it's also a peek into a specific society at a specific time and place making it a good story for historical fiction readers.


  1. Awesome! I've had this book sitting on my shelf for some time now - and don't know why I haven't got round to it yet. This will be one of the next things I read! Thanks for the review :)

    1. I thought it was pretty good, actually. Obviously it's a bit dated for modern readers, but all in all I liked it. Sadly due to home renovating, it took me a few days to get through it!

  2. Hmmm. Not the kind of book I would normally read, but your review has me now intrigued.

    1. It's one of those books where you have to keep in mind where it's coming from, but I thought it was still fun. If you look up Gotthelf, you'll discover he was a pastor. Enough said.


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