Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book of Choice: The Black Spider

The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf is one of the finest books of German literature I know. It's a simple enough story, told by an old man at a feast after the christening of a child: when the peasants in a Swiss valley are confronted with an impossible task by their cruel liege lord, they make a pact with the devil, with no intention of paying the price - a newborn child. The devil fulfils his part of the bargain and once it becomes clear that the peasants have cheated him, a plague comes over the animals and people in the valley in the form of black spiders, killing everyone who comes into contact with them. The plague continues until one woman is brave enough to trap the spider in a beam in her house to save her newborn child. The spider remains trapped in the beam to this day and the people at the feast are sitting around that very beam.

The book begins with the idyllic description of the valley and the people at the feast, it's very engaging and it makes you want to join the celebrations, especially when Gotthelf describes the food. It takes only a few sentences to create a setting that is as vivid as any movie.

What I like most is the idea of the spider that is causing the plagues. It comes from a mark the devil planted with a kiss on a woman's cheek and it slowly grows into a spider that gives birth to many small spiders. They swarm all over the land, killing the livestock in the stables and on the pastures, there's no way to escape from them. The big spider only has to touch people to infect them - there's an absolutely chilling scene where the liege lord and his knights have a feast and the spider is sitting on the lord's head without him noticing, staring at the knights until they are paralysed with fear. It then kills the lord and quickly runs over the table, touching everyone present and killing them.

The tale has a strong morale: as long as the people living in the valley believe in God and live their lives accordingly, the spider will be kept trapped. It's set free once by godless people living in the house and the plague begins all over again, but again it can be imprisoned by someone who has faith. Often, those kind of tales get on my nerves because they are told heavy-handed. Here, the message is very clear, but it's told with such skill that the morale doesn't suffocate the story.

There's one thing that I find pretty typical of such a community that really bothers me every time I read the book. Both times the spider appears, it is set free by women who are not originally from the valley. There's an element of xenophobia there. It's not like the people of the valley are depicted as innocent, they certainly have their faults, but those two women are the catalyst for the catastrophe.

It's often said that The Black Spider is a tale of the Black Plague. I read the theory in this book that the disease Gotthelf describes is ni fact anthrax. Of course the whole thing is an allegory, but there are many things that just fit an anthrax epidemic. The black spot the devil leaves for example or the way the animals die when they set foot on their pastures, with the spiders coming up out of the ground. Pastures often became infested with anthrax spores after getting flooded if a tannery was dumping its waste into the river and the spores survived there for a very long time. Gotthelf was a skilled observer, so why shouldn't he have described a disease much feared by peasants at the time?

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