Sunday, 16 December 2018

Victor Sjöström's ''The Phantom Carriage'': A Nightmarish Journey with the Ankou, Charles Dickens's Ghosts, and Selma Lagerlöf's Theosophical Beliefs

On New Year’s Day 1921 Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) was released in Sweden. Based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (1912) by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, the masterpiece influenced filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, who also introduced the figure of Death in his groundbreaking The Seventh Seal (1957), and who casted Sjöström for Wild Strawberries (1957). A significant scene in the film, which will be analysed in this essay, is clearly echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Nevertheless, the aim of this text is not to study the effect of the silent film on other powerful motion pictures, but to focus on its connection to Lagerlöf’s original text. As Ulla-Britta Lagerroth claims, ‘‘for many years Selma Lagerlöf corresponded with the Swedish actor and film-director Victor Sjöström. For the most part they discussed his film scripts based on her works’’ (51). Sjöström filmed several stories by the novelist such as Sons of Ingmar (1919), Karin, Daughter of Ingmar (1920), and the abovementioned The Phantom Carriage (1921). To study the last one, three different concepts will be scrutinised: how the folkloric Ankou is represented, how Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) is echoed in the plot, and how Lagerlöf’s theosophical ideas emerge in her narrative as well as in the film.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story begins on New Year’s Eve with Salvation Army Sister Edit dying of consumption. Her last wish is to see the drunkard David Holm before she perishes. The man is found in a graveyard telling other men the legend of the Death’s carriage, which collects the souls of the deceased. When asked to visit Sister Edit, Holm refuses to go. He fights with the chaps who have listened to his folktale, and just before the stroke of midnight, one of them hits Holm with a bottle. Once the drinkers abandon him, Holm’s encounter with the Death’s carriage occurs. As the plot continues, the audience learns of Holm’s life and wickedness.

Lagerlöf wrote her novel about redemption for a Swedish association to educate about tuberculosis, one of the main themes in her storyline. Sjöström’s film can be seen online with soundtrack by KTL here:

The Ankou: The Assistant of Death

Lagerlöf is known for her spreading of the Scandinavian folklore in narratives such as ‘‘The Changeling’’ (1908), in which she introduces the troll motif, or her portrayal of Swedish geography in children literature as in The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906) and Further Adventures of Nils (1907).[i] Nevertheless, As Tom Ruffles claims, Lagerlöf’s ‘‘story is based on the Breton folk-tale of the Ankou, the ‘‘King of the Dead,’’ in which the ghost of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is obliged to drive the phantom carriage for the next year’’ (50). In the second part of the film, the driver collects the souls of a suicide and a drowning victim. As it can be read in the novel, the appearance of the cart suggests a dream-like atmosphere in which the boundaries between reality and visions are blurred: ‘‘But, half-conscious as he (Holm) was, lying there, he dismissed from his mind the idea that it could be the death-cart. It was simply because, but a little time back, he had had it in his thoughts that he fancied he was hearing it now’’ (Lagerlöf 39). The silent film continues this oneiric mood as it can be observed in the following scene:


French folklorist Anatole Le Braz wrote the book La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893), in which he described the ghostly charioteer:
The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro). The last dead person of the year in 
each parish becomes the Ankou of this parish for the following year. The Ankou is depicted 
sometimes as a very tall and very thin man, with long, white hair, and  a shaded figure with a 
long hat; sometimes in the form of a skeleton covered with a shroud, and whose head 
constantly veers to the top of the spine, as well as a wind vane around its iron rod, so that it
can embrace at a glance the whole region he has to travel’’. 
An illustration of
Les Merveilles de la Nuit de Noël showing the Ankou riding his chariot, 1844.

This figure, therefore, appears in 
tales of the region, and it can be 
found in different churches
and chapels. In fact, it is said that 
there is one ankou in every parish 
of Brittany. Moreover, 
‘‘in Welsh mythology, Gwynn ab 
Nudd, king of the world of the dead, 
is represented as playing a role 
parallel to that of the Breton Ankou
when he goes forth with his fierce 
hades-hounds hunting the souls of 
the dying’’(Evans Wentz 218). 
The Oxford online dictionary adds that ‘‘although roughly parallel to the driver of the death coach in Irish folklore, the ankou appears to draw more from the Grim Reaper in medieval Christian folklore. The 19th-century writer Anatole le Braz suggested that the ankou is a survival of the prehistoric dolmen-builders of Brittany’’.

Nonetheless, besides this link to dolmen-builders, le Braz relates the Death personification to three main concepts: the plague, famine and the gabelle, a tax on salt established in France during the mid-14th century, and which lasted until 1946. This may be relevant in Lagerlöf’s story since the dying sister of the Salvation Army is called Edit or Edith, as in the Jewish tradition of the Bible. In other versions, she has no name, she is mentioned as Lot’s Wife, who, as she looked back when leaving Sodom ‘‘she thereupon turned into a pillar salt’’ (Gen. 19:26). There are several theories regarding this event: the first one states that Edith turned to see whether her daughters, who were married to men of Sodom, were also leaving the city even though the angels had warned them not to do so. She then saw God, ‘‘who had descended in order to rain brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah’’ (Schwartz 467). 

The second hypothesis considers her transformation as a punishment. Lot wanted to be a genteel host to the angels and, as they did not have any salt to offer their guests, Edith asked for it to their neighbours; ‘‘in this way she alerted them to the presence of  the guests, and precipitated the mob who demanded that Lot turn the angels over to them’’ (Schwartz 467). Therefore, she was punished with becoming a column of salt.

Lot and his daughters escape; from a depiction in the Monreale Cathedral mosaics

In Lagerlöf’s narrative Edith turns back to sin as she once and again is interested in David Holm. She confesses her true interest in him to the driver of the death cart:
‘‘But the bitterest humiliation does not lie, after all, in my loving a married man. My lowest degradation is that he whom I love is a wicked man. I don’t know why I should have thrown myself away on a scoundrel. I hoped and trusted that some good might be found in him, but I have been deceived again and again’’ (Lagerlöf 110).
Consequently, even though she feels guided by God in her willingness to help others, her attraction to Holm is her curse. She dies as she contracts his disease. Her death reminds of Lot’s wife’s castigation for being allured by sin. Besides, it is Death’s driver who facilitates her beholding Holm before she expires, not God. This is foreseen as David answers her, ‘‘Oh, I’ll be here. I’ll come to show you God didn’t give a fig for you or your twaddle’’ (Minute 58:46) when she explains that she has wished him the best for the new year and would love to see him again on the following New Year’s Eve.

The Ankou is also a former friend of Holm in both the novel and the film. He is a rascal who drags David into misdeeds while they are both alive, yet when the driver George is dead, he illustrates Holm’s transgressions in order to make the latter reflect upon his actions. This echoes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as the following section will examine. 

Dickens’s Ghosts in Lagerlöf’s Narrative:

Tom Ruffles states that ‘‘the novel upon which The Phantom Carriage was based is called My Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, Holm, by being allowed to eavesdrop on a scene that works on his conscience, is allowed a second chance’’ (50). Lagerlöf’s novel and, consequently Sjöström’s film, depict a ruffian who could have led a blissful life along with his wife, children and brother, but chooses to follow Georges’ steps. Both Holm and Scrooge are guided by their late friends, since Marley introduces the coming of the three Christmas ghosts to Scrooge. Nevertheless, while Lagerlöf’s main character dwells in alcoholism and disease, Dickens’s miser only aims to work to save more money. Scrooge lives alone whereas Holm is accompanied by other devils, yet both are lonely.

The ghosts in the aforementioned novels are ‘‘emphatically didactic figures… As Marley’s description of spectral law suggests, spirits exist both within and without the individual, before death as well as after’’ (Miller 326). In Holm’s case, the audience doubts whether he is dead or simply unconscious, yet he can witness scenes from this past as Scrooge can with his Ghost of Christmas Past. As the spirit says to Scrooge, ‘‘These (the scenes they observe) are but shadows of the things that have been…They have no consciousness of us’’ (Dickens 48). It is no coincidence that Dickens chooses as his preface, ‘‘I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea’’, for the main concept of the novel is redemption after erring. Like Dickens’s characters, Georges and Holm can visit living people without being noticed. However, while Dickens portrays Scrooge’s childhood and youth, Georges focuses on Holm’s wickedness towards his family and Sister Edith. One legendary flashback, which even influenced Stanley Kubrick, is Holm’s destruction of a door with an axe in order to avoid his family abandoning him.

Nevertheless, Sjöström’s film does not develop Holm’s brother personal story as the original novel does. The audience learn of his brother’s incarceration for murdering a man while inebriated. Holm is blamed for his relative’s addiction and behaviour, and he attempts to change his lifestyle after being in prison himself for a summary offence. Lagerlöf’s tale depicts how George (in the novel his name has no ‘‘s’’) and David visit the latter’s brother who is also dying of consumption. George recalls with the convict how the latter escaped from prison and a family hid him from the police and the rest of the citizens. The family had a sick child, Bernard, who the doctors said could only recover with sea-bathing, which entailed a long journey, plus expenses for the bed and board. In the end, David changes his attitude towards his family, whom he saves, Edith and his brother: 

‘‘He had fulfilled the first duty imposed on him by the events of the night; it now remained to him to succour the boy whom his brother had loved. He must show such people as Sister Mary that Edith was not wrong in bestowing on him her love; he had to raise his own home from his ruins, he must carry to mankind the driver’s greeting’’ (Lagerlöf 189). 

While David beholds his past and studies the consequences his actions can have in the present, Georges’ appearance echoes Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: ‘‘It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one stretched hand’’ (Dickens 121). 
Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Original illustration by John Leech(1843)

The ghosts guide the protagonists to see themselves in another moment of their lives. These creates the Freudian concept of ‘‘the uncanny’’, that is, ‘‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’’ (Freud 1-2). Therefore, both Scrooge and Holm are puzzled as they observe their past beings, since they recognise themselves in those ‘‘shadows’’, yet they are different. 

Interestingly, Freud and Dickens employ German Romantic author E.T.A Hoffmann in their texts; Freud explains ‘‘The Sandman’’ (1816) to illustrate his definition of ‘‘the uncanny’’, while Dickens introduces the fantasy of his tale with Marley’s face on Scrooge’s door knocker. This echoes Hoffmann’s ‘‘The Golden Pot’’(1814), in which the protagonist Anselmus distinguishes the face of the apple-monger/witch before him at the Archivist’s doorknob at the beginning of the narrative.

''The Door Knocker: Marley's Face'' by John Leech

In fact, doors are vital in the pieces of fiction here considered. Paul K. Saint-Amour explains how Dickens’s tale is ‘‘obsessed with thresholds, be they doors or doornails or doorknockers or doorsteps, invitations or arrivals or entrances or visitations. If the Carol is a friendly ghost, it also claims to be friendly to guests, setting itself up as a textual house whose walls, no less than its doors, were made for walking through’’ (94). 

Similarly, doors are significant in Lagerlöf and Sjöström’s pieces. In their excellent audiovisual essay, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye emphasise the employment of doors in The Phantom Carriage: they study the significance of ‘‘the thresholds and the liminal spaces’’ which represent doors that ‘‘physically, psychologically and spiritually block the characters’’ (Minute 6:55-7:03 of the second video). They give examples of different scenes in which doors isolate the characters, such as in the already seen moment of the axe, or the opposite, moments when doors are open as new life chances begin. The role of Sister Edith as a host when she opens the door to David is highlighted. In Lagerlöf’s novel, she is able to describe Georges when he is in her room before she dies: ‘‘She opened her eyes and examined the room with the closest scrutiny. Then, by dint of great pains, she discovered that ‘‘something’’ was standing by the door-not so visible as a shadow, but what she called the shadow of a shadow’’ (Lagerlöf 106). The blurring of dimensions is present here, since Edith employs the term ‘‘shadow’’ to define the ghost, resembling Dickens’s spirits utilisation of the word to refer to moments of the living characters. 

Lagerlöf’s use of thresholds is additionally linked to the author’s theosophical ideas, since the plot of her novel illustrates several concepts the occultist movement mainly established by the Russian Helena Blavatsky employed. The last section of the blog post will scrutinise how some ideas of this tradition emerge in the narrative and the film.

Theosophy in The Phantom Carriage:

Erland Lagerroth explains how ‘‘the concept of evolution becomes extended to the metaphysical when David Holm’s journeying is extended to the world beyond’’ (23). He states that ‘‘Selma Lagerlöf’s dependency upon occult doctrines in the depiction of the world beyond is put in the foreground by means of a panorama of the Theosophical spiritistic literature that she had studied and through a demonstration of what she adopted from it’’ (23). Lagerlöf underlined her interests in a letter to a friend:

‘‘I am sure I would have become a theosophist or spiritualist a long time ago, if I had had any experiences or acquaintanceship with Higher Worlds, but the only thing I have experienced with complete certainty is the poetic intuition which has fallen upon me with such power and strength that I simply dare not believe that it came from within myself’’ (Fehrman 133).
Lagerlöf was aware of the ideas of the unconscious and subconscious, and she perceived the creative process of her writing as a source of inspiration. For her narratives, she included the abovementioned erudition of folklore, besides her spiritual beliefs.

In Theosophy, ‘‘elements have been drawn from all sorts of sources: magic, gnosticism, masonry, mystery, religions, philosophical schools, scientific works, and various historical religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism’’ (Woodburne 637). One of the main ideas Lagerlöf depicts is the division between body and soul. Sjöström illustrates that detachment when David Holm is hit on his head and collapses:

David is able to see the Death’s driver once he faints. This fact emphasises the importance of the soul over the body in the theosophical doctrine. While Christianity accentuates the flesh, and that is why Christ’s followers eat His flesh during the Eucharist, ‘‘Gnosticism is quite different; it rejects the flesh and considers the material plane to be realm of the unreal, not unlike Plato’s view of the world as expressed in his ‘‘Allegory of the Caves’’(380)’’ ( Guffey 174).  In this myth, human beings and their material interests are equalled to shadows on the cave’s wall. The real world is outside the cavern. Therefore, the term ‘‘shadow’’ is repeated in this legend, and the body is but a cage to the true knowledge the individual has to learn. When George shouts to David  ‘‘Prisoner, return to your prison!’’ (Lagerlöf 181) at the end of the novel, he is demanding the latter to go back to his body. The body is a confinement, as David suspects: ‘‘David shuddered with fright. Human life seemed to him something suffocating and deadly. Would not the soul’s fresh development stop, if he became a mortal once more? All his happiness was awaiting him in another world!’’(Lagerlöf 180). When David accepts his wickedness and is ready to change, he feels lost: ‘‘I do not know where to turn. I do not even know whether to pray to God or to Christ. I am a newcomer in this world. Who is it that has the power?’’ (Lagerlöf 179). Consequently, when David does not receive and answer, the reader accepts that there is no Christian God which leads the fates of men, but that Death’s driver is the one to teach him how to correct his attitude.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem,1604, Albertina, Vienna

The soul must be ready for this knowledge once it abandons its flesh though, as, for example, David is seen as having an infant soul, and he expects to achieve the Driver’s prayer: ‘‘O God! Vouchsafe that my soul may come to maturity ere it be reaped!’’(Lagerlöf 190). 

Robert Guffey clarifies how for the Theosophists, ‘‘Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of the species- though hardly Theosophical in intent- offers sound advice to the unenlightened: evolve or die’’ (176). The transformation Holm undergoes until he redeems echoes this statement. The supernatural help he receives allows him a second opportunity. When a bottle of alcohol is slammed into his head, he must face his actions. It is no accident that he is hit by alcohol, for Theosophists, intoxicants damage the astral body. The influential member of the Theosophical Society Charles Webster Leadbeater expounds:

‘‘The malpractices which may more gradually injure this protective web are of two classes- use of alcohol or narcotic drugs, and the deliberate endeavour to throw open the doors which nature has kept closed… Certain drugs and drinks-notably alcohol and all the narcotics, including tobacco- contain matter which on breaking up volatizes, and some of it passes from the physical plane to the astral…’’ (Guffey 178).  

George Cruikshank, Alcohol, Death and the Devil, circa 1830.
Besides alcohol, tuberculosis is another key element in the development of Holm’s story. As mentioned before, Lagerlöf wrote her novel in order to educate readers about the disease. Gibbs and Pye explicate how ‘‘like doorways, David’s disease and accompanying cough have both naturalistic and metaphorical significances’’. As in the novel, coughing represents the ‘‘harm the characters do one to another’’. It is seen how out of seven scenes in which Holm coughs, six depict his psychological struggle between being a family man and his drunkard condition. Therefore, alcohol is related to disease. When David rejects the ‘‘social, spiritual and respectable’’, his illness emerges (Minutes 10:30-12:49 of the second video). His malice is most present as he coughs over his sleeping children trying to sicken them. In the novel, his wife protests: ‘‘That murderer! He won’t let me send them away; he means to stay at home for him to give them consumption, that they may die. In this way he has calculated to be revenged on me’’ (Lagerlöf 117-118). Even though in the silent film it can also be seen how David wants his vengeance after his wife escapes with their offspring, in Lagerlöf’s text he does not allow his children to be looked after in a hospital.

In conclusion, this blog post has analysed Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, and it has compared it to the novel it is based on, Selma Lagerlöf’s Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! To do so, it has taken into account their folkloric sources, their similarities to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and, finally, their employment of Theosophical ideas. With its huge influence on other significant filmmakers, the film is frequently studied by scholars from different approaches. Whether one’s intention is to investigate its effect on other pieces of fiction or not, it is a magnificent motion picture to be watched at Christmas, especially on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

[i] For further reading, check out Larry W. Danielson’ ‘‘The Uses of Demonic Traditions in Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berlings Saga’’


Guffey, Robert, ‘‘Here Among the Dead: The Phantom Carriage (1921) and the Cinema of the Occulted Taboo’’, chapter in Expressionism in the Cinema (ed. by Brill, Olaf) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)-via Google Books.

Danielson, Larry W. ‘‘The Uses of Demonic Folk Tradition in Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berlings saga’’ , Western Folklore ,Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 187-199 (Accessed 10th December 2018)
Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, ( First published in 1843) (Accessed 15th November 2018)
Evans Wentz, W.Y., The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911)-via Google Books.
Fehrman, Carl Abraham Daniel, Poetic Creation: Inspiration or Craft (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980)- via Google Books
Freud, Sigmund, ‘‘The ‘‘Uncanny’’’’, (Accessed 10th December 2018)
Gibbs, John, and Pye, Douglas, ‘‘The Phantom Carriage: A Revaluation’’, (Accessed 20th November 2018)
Lagerlöf, Selma, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, (First Published in 1912) (Accessed 10th November 2018)
Lagerroth, Erland, ‘‘Selma Lagerlöf Research 1900-1964: A Survey and an Orientation’’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, No.1 (February 1965), pp. 1-30. (Accessed 20th November 2018)
Lagerroth, Ulla-Britta, ‘‘The Troll in Man- A Lagerlöf Motif’’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1 (February 1968), pp. 51-60 (Accessed 25th November 2018)
Le Braz, Anatole, La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (Honoré Champion, Paris, 1893) (Accessed 1st December 2018), The translation is mine.
Miller, Andrew H., ‘‘The Spectres of Dicken’s Study’’, Narrative, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Oct. 1997), pp. 322-341. (Accessed 1st December 2018)
Oxford Reference, ‘‘Ankou’’, (Accessed 1st December 2018)
Ruffles, Tom, Ghosts Images: Cinema of the Afterlife (Jefferson: McFarland, 2004), page 50-via Google Books
Saint-Amour, Paul K., ‘‘‘‘Christmas Yet to Come’’: Hospitality , Futurity, the Carol, and ‘‘The Dead’’’’, Representations, Vol. 98, No. 1, (Spring 2007), pp. 93-117. (Accessed 1st December 2018)
Schwartz, Howard, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 467-via Google Books.
Sjöström, Victor, The Phantom Carriage, Svensk Filmindustri, 1921, (Accessed 10th November 2018)
Woodburne, A.S., ‘‘Review: A Study in Theosophy’’, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Oct. 1931), pp. 637-640 (Accessed 9th December 2018)


The Door Knocker: Marley’s Face by John Leech:
Alcohol, Death and the Devil by George Cruikshank, c.1830

Sunday, 7 October 2018

''The Raven'': How Folklore, Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge Dwell in Edgar Allan Poe's Dark Poem

In January 1845, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works was published: his poem The Raven’’. Even when at first it was not published under his real name, when the text was released in The Public Mirror it became an overnight success. The storyline of a talking raven entering a distraught scholar’s room after the death of his lover Lenore grabbed the attention of both general public and scholars.  Poe’s works have been scrutinised through various approaches, yet this blog post will focus on the figure of the raven. As French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss explains, ‘‘carrion-eating animals are like beasts of prey (they eat animal food), but they are also like food-plant producers (they do not kill what they eat)’’ (Lévi-Strauss 224). The employment of the raven in Poe’s narrative can have different meanings, and the influence of folklore is vital in the American author’s poem. Perceived as a trickster, and connected to death and war in several mythologies, the bird is given diverse interpretations throughout legends. This blog post will develop three fragments to study the figure of the raven: how its classical folklore emerges in Poe’s poem, how devil’s folklore is present in the plot, and how Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narratives are significant to set the text. A Jungian explanation of some of his archetypes will be given.

In order to introduce the reader to the verses, the following video with ‘’The Raven’’ read by actor Christopher Lee and with illustrations by Gustave Doré can be seen here:

Classical Folklore in ‘‘The Raven’’:

Russian occultist, philosopher and co-founder of the Theosophical Society Helena Blavatsky penned: 

‘‘DARKNESS is always associated with this first symbol (the origin) and surrounds it, - as shown in the Hindu, the Egyptian, the Chaldeo-Hebrew and even the Scandinavian systems – hence black ravens, black doves, black waters and even black flames … Noah lets out a black raven after the deluge, which is a symbol for the Cosmic pralaya, after which began the real creation or evolution of our earth and humanity. Odin’s black ravens fluttered around the Goddess Saga and ‘‘whispered to her of the past and the future.’’ What is the real meaning of all those black birds?’’ (Blavatsky 443).

The question Blavatsky poses echoes the likely interrogations of Poe’s bird. The American author claims that the raven is ‘‘the bird of ill omen’’, and that the idea of a creature ‘‘capable of speech’’ makes the corvid ‘‘infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone’’ of the verses than a parrot (Poe). Nevertheless, this quote leaves some of the bird’s characteristics in the poem aside, since night and darkness are key features of the text. Actually, Blavatsky’s connection of the raven with Noah can be endorsed in the poem when the narrator listens to the tapping at his chamber and opens the door:

‘‘Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before’’ (Poe 25-26)
''Noah and the Raven'' by John Buck

In the Genesis, a raven is sent out by Noah ‘‘to see if the water had abated’’ (Genesis vii), and the Hebrew text claims that the bird ‘‘continuously went out and returned until the waters had dried up from the earth’’ (Genesis). Nevertheless, as R. W. L. Moberly illustrates, ‘‘the Greek (text) continues ‘‘and the raven went out and did not return until the water had dried up from earth’’’’ (Moberly 346). This difference in the quote ‘‘raises the question of how the raven could survive all this time, and so may already presuppose (or else it may give rise to) the interpretative tradition regularly attested in postbiblical literature, that the raven, an unclean bird in Mosaic law (Lex. xi 15, Deut. xiv 14), fed on floating carcasses’’ (Moberly 346). This last view of the bird leads to the conclusion that the bird is a trickster, he represents vice in contrast with the virtuous dove Noah releases afterwards, since he does not return to inform Noah. Carl Jung considered the trickster as an archetype from the collective unconscious, that is, a prototype ‘‘buried in the mind of all human beings’’ (Carroll 105), a buffoon or clown which both helps but hides selfish intention as well. 

Poe’s raven is also a trickster for the narrator at the beginning of the poem:
‘‘Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling’’ (Poe 49)

The speaker considers the entrance of the corvid a humorous anecdote, yet as the narrative continues, the raven is given the role of informant as in the aforementioned tale of Noah. Sailors employed the bird frequently in long journeys when seeking land; therefore, adding the power of revelation and knowledge to the animal. Whereas the Genesis mentions the waters and the darkness around the Ark, Poe’s scholar is surrounded by an obscure emptiness which represents the unconscious. 

''Odin'' by Sir E. Burne-Jones

Vikings also gave the responsibility for information of an unknown land to the ravens when sailing, and Norse mythology emphasises the bird as a relevant figure. The god Odin, ‘‘the raven-god’’, was said to own two ravens which enlightened him about the facts which occurred both in the man’s world and also in the underworld: Hugin (Thought), and Mugin (Mind). In this case, the raven is not perceived as a trickster, but as a key figure to the acquirement of wisdom. The loss of the birds worried the God, as it can be read in the Eddic poem Grímnismál:

‘‘Hugin and Munin
Fly each day
Over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin
That he come not back,
Yet more anxious I am for Munin’’ (Guerber)

This fear of lack of knowledge is seen in Poe’s poem, when, in despair, the narrator cries out:

‘‘‘‘Prophet!’’ said I, ‘‘thing of evil!- prophet still, bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore-
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore’’ (Poe 97-100)

This relates to the Greco-Roman Apollo, the god of prophecy. According to Ovid in the Metamorphoses (8AD), Apollo sends a white raven to spy on his lover, Coronius, and when the bird informs him of her unfaithfulness, the god changes the white feathers of the bird, and, consequently, that is why the corvid is black. The raven also murders Coronius following Apollo’s commands, although the deity regrets this action shortly. In Poe’s poem, the speaker may have killed the deceased Lenore, and that is why the raven claims ‘‘Nevermore’’ throughout the stanzas. Not only the American poet employs the bird as a prophet itself, he also relates it to a possible deed committed against Lenore. 

Nevertheless, Poe’s ‘‘The Raven’’ is also related to darker folklore, since there are continuous mentions to the Devil and evil forces, as it has been cited previously. The following section will study closely how the bird is connected the malevolent threats upon the narrator.

Devil Folklore in ‘‘The Raven’’

In ‘‘The Philosophy of Composition’’ Poe explains how ‘‘he (the narrator) speaks of him (the raven) as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore”’’, and how the ‘‘revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the dénouement’’ (Poe). The speaker is doomed because ‘‘it is the folkloric connotation of the raven as the Devil’s bird and as one of the forms he takes upon occasion for convenience which makes clear exactly why the young man will never again see his lost Lenore’’ (Granger). The main features which relate Poe’s scholar to evil forces are the bird’s landing on the bust of Pallas, the speaker’s mention of the Greco-Roman world of the underworld Pluto, and the raven as the embodiment of the devil. 

When the speaker opens the window of his chamber, the raven sits on a bust of Pallas. Poe clarifies how he uses the sculpture ‘‘as much in keeping with the scholarship of the lover’’ (Poe- Composition). Pallas, the ‘‘goddess of wisdom, scholarship and enlightenment, seems an emblem left over for the eighteenth century, when reason had an owl and not a raven as its tutelary bird’’ (Merivale 960). Consequently, the fact that the scholar reads ‘‘a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’’(Poe 2) can be understood as lore of black magic, as if the student were trying to summon his deceased lover, but instead he calls upon the devil himself. Therefore, the search for knowledge represented by the Greek goddess, who is also given the byname of Athena, leads to the appearance of forces which will curse the narrator.
Illustration by John Rea Neill for ''THE RAVEN'' and Other Poems Edgar Allan Poe

Furthermore, Poe indicated English poet John ‘‘Milton as his source’’ (Haviland 841), with ‘‘additional annotations by his editors, and a considerable number of references to the bind bard in his essays and critical pieces’’(Haviland 841). This is significant when in the second book of Paradise Lost (1667), Milton ‘‘alludes to the parallels between the birth of Athena and the birth of Sin’’(Mulryan 16):

‘‘In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast
Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,
Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,
Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,
Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized
All th' host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid
At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign
Portentous held me; but, familiar grown,
I pleased, and with attractive graces won’’

Athena/Pallas is not the only deity from classical mythology the American author employs. As the poem continues, the narrator claims:

    ‘‘Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!” (Poe 46-47)

    The mention of Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld whose earlier name was Hades, is also related to Hell. In medieval mythographies, which conflated the Greek and Roman deities in an attempt to emphasise Christian values, Pluto was equalled to a double of Satan, Lucifer or the Devil. In the Little Book on Images of the Gods, Pluto is represented as

    an intimidating personage sitting on a throne of sulphur, holding the scepter of his realm in his right hand, and with his left strangling a soul. Under his feet three-headed Cerberus held a position, and beside him he had three Harpies. From his golden throne of sulphur flowed four rivers, which were called, as is known, Lethe, Cocytus, Phlegethon and Acheron, tributaries of the Stygian swamp’’ (Chapter 6).

Consequently, Poe’s use of the raven in connection with Pluto represents the narrator’s dark side, what Carl Jung names the ‘‘shadow’’:

‘‘That hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors…If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses etc’’ (Diamond 96)

Furthermore, the myth of Pluto/Hades and its involvement in the abduction of Persephone makes it possible that Poe’s scholar may have been responsible for an evil deed against Lenore which ended unfavourably, and now the Devil is demanding the narrator’s soul. 

The raven answers ‘‘Nevermore’’ to all the questions posed by the speaker, until the latter falls into madness for his loss of hope and self-torture. Nevertheless, the bird may be requiring the narrator’s soul after he strikes a deal with the Devil. If this consideration is taken into account, Poe’s plot echoes that of Faust and his exchange of his soul for limitless knowledge. 

''Doctor Faust'' by Rembrandt van Rijn

On the subject of demonology and devil-lore, the ‘‘Black Raven’’ is present in the Raven Book, and ‘’explained as the form in which the angel Raphael taught Tobias to summon spirits’’(Conway 335). Therefore, necromancy is present in Poe’s verses with this association. Moreover, ‘‘in this book (Raven Book), poorly printed, and apparently on a private press, Mephistopheles is mentioned as one of the chief Princes of Hell’’ (Conway 336). Faustian tradition underlines the treacherous relationship among Faustus, Mephistopheles and Satan, yet it is German playwright Klinger who makes use of imagery similar to the one found in Poe’s poem: ‘‘Night covered the earth with its raven wing. Faust stood before the awful spectacle of the body of his son suspended upon the gallows. Madness parched his brain, and he exclaimed in the wild tones of dispair’’ (Conway 344). 

Nonetheless, Poe’s employment of the bird also has non-folkloric sources of inspiration. The last section of the blog post will explain how Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are represented in the American poet’s verses.

Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Influence

In 1841 Charles Dickens published his historical novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of Riots of Eighty. It had appeared serialised in the author’s Master Humphrey's Clock, a periodical edited and written by Dickens, between 1840 and 1841. The plot is set in the Gordon Riots of 1870, and it combines history with the intrigues of two families. Nevertheless, what is notable in the novel is that its main character, the eponymous Barnaby Rudge, has a pet raven called Grip with an extraordinary talking ability. Dickens himself had three pet ravens in his lifetime, and Grip was the first one. He had it taxidermied once the animal died and now it can be seen at the Philadelphia Free Library.  

Image of Grip at the Philadelphia Free Library

Poe reviewed different works by Dickens and, on this occasion, he praised Barnaby Rudge(and especially Grip) in a review for Graham’s Magazine’’ (Redmond 88). The fact that Poe published his famous poem four years after Dickens’s novel raised suspicions of plagiarism among critics, as James Russel Lowell penned: ‘There comes Poe, with his raven like Barnaby Rudge / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge’’ (Dauber 645). 

The truth is that Poe focused his attention on the raven from the beginning of his comments in his reviews, as he penned: ‘‘Intensely amusing though it is, might have been made more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croaking might have been heard prophetically in the course of the drama” (Poe 128). The fact that he mentions the bird as a prophetic figure foretells the intentions of his poem.
Furthermore, there are similarities between Barnaby Rudge and Grip and Poe’s scholar with the raven. Both men attempt to communicate with the talking birds rationally. When Barnaby is imprisoned for his role in the Gordon Riots, he is accompanied by Grip, and they lament together:

“You hope! Ay, but your hoping will not undo these chains. I hope, but they don’t mind that. Grip hopes, but who cares for Grip?”
The raven gave a short, dull, melancholy croak. It said “Nobody” as plainly as a croak could speak’’ (Dickens 363)

Not only does Poe purloin the use of one unique word by the raven (in his case the famous ‘Nevermore’’), the American writer also follows Dickens’s idea of the bird as a devil. Dickens’s bird claims: “I’m a devil! I’m a devil! I’m a devil!”(Dickens 80). 

Nevertheless, other great author inspired Poe’s poetic bird: Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. ‘Poe felt without a doubt that he had discovered the voice of a kindred spirit in Coleridge’s early poetry, a voice that would continue to reverberate in Poe’s prose, where elements of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere resurface with the persistence of those subconscious depths of guilt and speechless dread that fascinated both writes equally’’(Schlutz 195). Coleridge’s voice is echoed in Poe’s prose, but in his poetry too. Despite the fact that the American writer disliked Coleridge’s insistence in analysing imagination and the different categories the Romantic poet labelled it with in his Biographia Literaria (1817), Poe’s devotion to the poet is clear:

‘Of Coleridge I cannot speak but with reverence. His towering intellect! his gigantic power. . . In reading his poetry I tremble -- like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below" ("Letter to B. --", Schlutz 197).

Therefore, it is uncomplicated to create connection between the two authors, and the first possible association is the albatross killed by the sailor in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-98). In this case as with Poe’s raven, the bird creates the protagonist’s fate. As the mariner is guilty of the crime of shooting the bird and its consequent back luck, Death (a skeleton) and the ‘‘Nightmare Life-in Death’’ (a deathlike woman), play dice for the souls of the crew. Afterwards, Death takes the sailors’ lives, and Death-in-Life curses the mariner. Similarly, Poe’s raven curses the narrator though the latter does not harm him; the damage has previously been done. 

‘‘I shot the Albatross’’ - from ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' - by Gustave Dore

Furthermore, stylistic similarities emerge between Poe’s ‘‘The Raven’’ and Coleridge’s ‘‘Christabel’’ (1816), as ‘’the mention of “each separate dying ember [which] wrought its ghost upon the floor,” is reminiscent of Coleridge’s “Christabel” in which other embers reflect the presence of evil in much the same way’’ (Granger).

There is one significant connection, however, which is not commonly considered: Coleridge’s ‘‘The Raven or, A Christmas Tale, Told by a School-boy to his Little Brothers and Sisters’’ (1798). This poem, set in December, as well as Poe’s ‘‘bleak December’’ (Poe 7) employs the corvid. The variation is that the raven is the main sufferer in Coleridge’s verses, since a woodman brings down the oak tree where the bird and his family dwell, and uses the wood to build a ship. After all the raven’s family dies (his young ones when the woodman cuts the tree down, and his partner dies of sorrow), the bird revenges with the aid of Death sinking the ship with its passengers.

Therefore, Coleridge once more relates a bird to the sea and Death, yet this time there is no survivor:
‘‘Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,
And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank'd him again and again for this treat:
They had taken his all, and Revenge it was sweet!’’ (45-48)

Although ‘‘some proposed interpretations read it (Coleridge’s ‘‘The Raven’’)in political terms, the felling of the oak being seen as the destruction brought about by French Revolution, and the raven identified with the melancholy Burke prophesying the Revolution’s effect’’ (Beer 108), Poe’s raven may also seek to avenge the narrator and, thus, psychologically tortures him. 

In conclusion, Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem can have different sources, some folkloric/mythological, other are merely literary influences. This blog post has analysed some of them, with the focus on the classical folklore appreciated in the verses, the demonic folklore as the poetic narrative presents dark characteristics related to evil forces, and, finally, on Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and how they did influence the American’s writing.


Beer, John, Romanticism, Revolution and Language: The Fate of the World from Samuel Johnson to George Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)-via Google Books
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Conway, Moncure Daniel, Demonology and Devil-Lore (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1879) (Accessed 15th September 2018)
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De deorum imaginibus libellous, Chapter 6,"De Plutone’’
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Mulryan, John, ‘‘Satan’s Headache: The Perils and Pains of Giving Birth to a Bad Idea’’, Milton Quarterly Vol. 39, No. 1 (March 2005), pp. 16-22 (Accessed 2nd October 2018)
Poe, Edgar Allan, Review in Graham's American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art and Fashion, Volumes 20-21- via Google Books
---, ‘‘The Philosophy of Composition’’ (First published in 1846) (Accessed 1st October 2018)
---, ‘‘The Raven’’(First published in 1845) (Accessed 1st October 2018)
---, ‘‘The Raven Read by Christopher Lee’’ (Accessed 1st October 2018)
Redmond, Matthew, ‘‘If Bird or Devil: Meta-Plagiarism in ‘‘The Raven’’’’, The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring 2018), pp. 88-103 (Accessed 3rd October 2018)
Schlutz, Alexander, ‘‘Purloined Voices: Edgar Allan Poe Reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’’, Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 195-224 (Accessed 26th September) 


Noah & The Raven by John Buck

Illustration by John Rea Neill for THE RAVEN and Other Poems Edgar Allan Poe Drawings By John Rea Neill The Reilly & Britton Co. Chicago 1910

Doctor Faust by Rembrandt van Rijn

‘‘I shot the Albatross’’ - from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - by Gustave Dore