Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The original of the Faust legend was Georgius Faustus (or Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus Junior) (circa 1480-1540/1), recorded in official documents, memoirs and letters from the first third of the 16th century. A practising supernaturalist who wandered about much of southern Germany, he claimed to be a university Master of Arts, an astrologer, an expert in various types of medieval and Renaissance Magic, and a skilled alchemist. There are records of his being consulted for horoscopes and divinations of the future. Working the markets and fairs, he was an aggressive self-advertiser and promoter, passing out literature (none of which survives) that detailed his accomplishments. One of his claims was that, if the books of Plato and Aristotle were lost, he could recreate them from memory. He had a few highly placed patrons (who later rejected him) but a bad reputation; he was banned from several cities and was generally regarded as a rogue, swindler and mountebank.

Beyond this little is known except that his contemporaries associated him with the area or university of Heidelberg. His true identity is not known. He used to be identified with a Johannes Faust who matriculated at Heidelberg University in 1505, but the chronology does not support this. More recently he has been identified by some scholars with a Georgius Helmstetter, who attended Heidelberg somewhat earlier. Other authorities have speculated that there were two Faustuses, perhaps father and son, and that the claims to an MA were false. Part of the problem lies in the name Faustus itself. It is not known whether it is from Latin faustus ("fortunate", "happy"), perhaps with reference to earlier men named Faustus, or the fairly common German surname Faust (fist). In any case, Georgius Faustus seems to have died circa 1540.

The historical Faustus exemplified a not unfamiliar type of the day: a man who brought university classical training into the world of popular literature and folklore. Nostradamus also emerged from such a mixture of Humanism and folkways, as did François Rabelais.

After Faustus's death his legend grew, perhaps because he became posthumously involved in the polemics of the Reformation, which coincided with heavy witchcraft persecutions. Faustus was taken by the Lutherans as the prime example of a Demon-sponsored Villain. Anecdotes, some of Classical origin, some folkloristic, began to accrete around his name, which now became Johannes Faustus. According to such later stories Faustus sold his soul to the Devil (> Pacts with the Devil), travelled with two familiars, a horse and a dog, and was strangled by the Devil when his term was up.

As a result of this legend-development, the Faust that became a powerful force in literature and social thought has little to do with the historical Faustus. The literary Faust came into being with Historia von D. Johan[nes] Fausten dem weitbeschreyten Zauberer und Schwartzkuenstler (1587 chap) attributed to Johann Spies (d. 1607), published in Frankfurt-am-Main; this has formed the substructure for almost all later writings about Faust. A primitive episodic novel, it described Faustus as a university professor who struck a bargain with Mephostophiles [sic] for 24 years of service in exchange for his soul. With Mephostophiles' guidance Faustus travelled widely and instantaneously; he visited the court of the Emperor Charles V, where he gave exhibitions of his magic (> The Golem); he invaded the seraglio of the Grand Turk and had intercourse with his wives; he conjured up Helen of Troy, with whom he cohabited; he performed various magical pranks; he rejected repentance and prayer; and at the expiration of his contract he was torn to shreds by his servitor/master. Capitalizing on both the subterranean reputation of the historical Faustus and the general interest in magic and the occult, the book contained other popular elements: the intense interest in travel, the japes of a Trickster figure, and colorful erotica. It became a contemporary bestseller, was translated almost immediately into foreign languages, and appeared (with some modifications) in English as History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus (circa 1588). This work, usually called the English Faustbuch, formed the basis for Doctor Faustus (circa 1589) by Christopher Marlowe and his collaborators.

Marlowe's play (written circa 1589-92), dropped the trivialities, misdirections and padding from the Faustbuch. It offered: a psychological study of the breakdown of a learned egotist who is torn between Good and Evil in his soul; a morality play in the long English tradition; a second statement of hubris and overreaching in the mode of Tamburlaine (1590); a glorification of the forbidden; and (probably most important of all historically) an occult thriller (> Occult Fantasy).

English strolling players carried this play back to Germany, where it gave rise to a host of adaptations, imitations, parodies and rechannellings, even to popular Puppet shows (a tradition embodied in Jan Švankmajer's movie Faust [1994]). Thus Faustus and his fate remained very much alive in the German public consciousness for the next two centuries. By the 1750s, when Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) wrote his lost Faust play, the magician's name had shifted from Georgius or Johannes Faustus MA to Dr Johannes Faust, its present form.

The second great embodiment of Faustus/Faust in literature is the play Faust, Eine Tragoedie ["Faust: A Tragedy"] (1808-1832), which Goethe worked on intermittently from the middle 1770s until his death in 1832. The final two-part Faust has been interpreted variously, but it is generally taken to be a consciously metaphoric statement of aspects of (then) modern Man. Faust, who is ever striving, is not just a man who has run out of scholarly resources, like Marlowe's Faustus, but a man who recognizes the emptiness of his knowledge, desires to savour all human experience and passes through tragic moments, but grows with his failures and trivial pursuits. His associate, Mephistopheles, is no Christian Devil but, in a way, a statement of flux, an equivalent of Siva. He destroys so that new and better things can emerge. He is the spirit who denies, who tries to work Evil but always works good.

The bond between Faust and Mephistopheles is not a matter of years. As originally posited by Faust, it will hold until "I say to the passing moment, stay a while, you are so beautiful" – or satiation. This sensualism soon disappears. The hidden point of the drama, however, is Mephistopheles's growing, unwitting predicament: Faust must live so that the Devil can receive his due, yet, the longer Faust lives, the surer the man is of salvation – which turns out to be the case. His eternal striving has outweighed his sins.

In addition to totally redirecting the Faust theme, Goethe added much: the tragico-sentimental romance of Margarete and her salvation; Faust's visit to the Brocken on Walpurgisnacht; the winning of Helen and the birth of poetry (Euphorion) from wisdom and beauty; Faust's would-be Utopia; and his final salvation. Faust's redemption is a result partly of his growth and partly of Goethe's stated principle that he could not send anyone to damnation.

Goethe's Faust created a new persona for the Devil. He was no longer a crude, bellowing teratological monstrosity but a suave, insinuating, sarcastic, sardonic, fascinating, debonair gentleman who could be at home in the parlours of polite society. The Faust lithographs of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) placed this image, which we still largely retain, into pictorial form. The adjective "mephistophelian" has a quite different meaning from "satanic".

Faust has also had a brilliant career in music, in most cases derived from Goethe's drama. Hector Berlioz's La damnation de Faust (1845-1846), Franz Liszt's Eine Faust-Symphonie (1854-1857), Richard Wagner's unfinished Eine Faust-Ouvertuere (1840; rev 1856), Charles Gounod's Opera Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito's opera Mefistofele (1868) and Ferrucio Busoni's unfinished opera Doktor Faust (1925) are examples.

In addition to the direct line of Faust and his fate, the general theme of the Faustian Pact has become important in Supernatural Fiction (> Pacts with the Devil).

Today the Faust story is still very much alive in literature, music, dance, popular art and other areas. Both Marlowe's play and Goethe's symbolic work are still vital on the stage. Gounod's Faust remains one of the most frequently performed operas. [EFB]

More recent versions As one of the four great literary Archetypes identified by the critic George Steiner as central to the European consciousness – the others being Don Juan, Hamlet (> William Shakespeare) and Don Quixote (> Miguel de Cervantes) – Faust might seem to have a permanent place in the imaginations of Western writers. Over the past past century or so, however, two fundamental shifts have diminished his importance: the growth of the scientific ethic, through which the search for knowledge is understood as an essential intellectual task; and the loss of a moral universe whose precepts might control (or shackle) that imperative post-Faustian drive. Without the moral universe, without a threat of genuine damnation, Faust becomes a mad scientist, his story defaults from myth to Horror, and Mephistopheles becomes a monster foiled by Quibbles.

Nevertheless, much modified, the drama continues. The best early-20th-century fantasia upon Faust is probably Eugene Lee-Hamilton's The Lord of the Dark Red Star (1903); less impressive, and presented from a more orthodox Christian-Fantasy viewpoint, is The Devil to Pay (1939), a play by Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957). In the greatest 20th-century version, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947), Faust himself becomes the composer Adrian Leverkühn, and Mephistopheles manifests as a genius-inducing disease (probably syphilis); significantly, parts of the novel are told in an archaic form of German, and other distancing devices are employed. Later attempts to take Faust seriously include John Faust (1958 chap) by Anthony Borrow and The Devil's Own Work (1991) by Alan Judd (1947-    ). William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel (1978), Robert Nye's Faust (1980) and Emma Tennant's Faustine (1992) also use Faust as an Underlier for contemporary fantasy, where the bargain, the debate, and the consequences are presented indirectly; and Kim Newman's The Quorum (1994), a horror novel, searingly dramatizes the late-20th-century lack of a moral universe by presenting a pact and a Mephistopheles, but rendering the Faust figure as a conglomerate of doomed conspirators.

More commonly, the metaphysical drama between Faust and Mephistopheles devolves into Slick-Fantasy contests, some of them, like Stephen Vincent Benét's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937 chap), extremely well conceived. Novels like The Missing Angel (1947) by Erle Cox (1873-1950) reveal the poverty of the Faust myth when treated lightly; some late comedies, like If at Faust You Don't Succeed (1993) by Robert Sheckley and Roger Zelazny and Tom Holt's Faust Among Equals (1994), more or less deftly defuse the drama into surreal farce. [JC]

Movies It is widely reported that there have been over 40 Cinema versions of the Faust legend, but in fact most of these are, rather, tales of Pacts with the Devil. It could of course be argued that all such tales owe their inspiration ultimately to the Faust story, but, while the basis of such an argument is sound, the conclusion is false; for example, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and the Stephen Vincent Benét's story obviously show consciousness of their origins, but cannot be regarded as retellings – rather, they are adaptations of a theme. Much the same could be said of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which few would instinctively class as a Faust tale.

The Faust story itself has been filmed remarkably few times, although there were several silent versions, most now lost – although a masterpiece, Faust: Eine Deutsche Volkssage (1926), dir F W Murnau, survives. La Beauté du Diable (1949) by René Clair was a comic variation on the theme. More recently there has been Jan Švankmajer's Faust (1994) which, while surrealistically treated and uprooted into the 20th century, can be classed as a retelling. An earlier movie consciously based on Faust is the comedy Bedazzled (1967), in which everything is thrown Topsy-Turvy: the protagonist is no bearded sage but a short-order cook, and his Faustian voyages serve merely to frustrate him (and are designed by the Mephistopheles figure so to do). In the same year there appeared the filmed stage adaptation Dr Faustus (1967), dir Richard Burton and Nevill Coghill, written by Coghill and based more closely on Marlowe, with Burton as Faust, Andreas Teuber as Mephistopheles and Elizabeth Taylor as a scantily clad Helen of Troy; it was excoriated by the critics. Oh God! You Devil (1984) is another Faustian comedy. Both Phantom of the Opera (1983) and Phantom of the Opera (1989) make much of the fact that the opera currently in production is Faust; the latter version and Phantom of the Paradise (1974) are in their very different ways more deeply concerned with Faustian pacts (> Phantom of the Opera). [JG]

further reading: Faust in Literature (1975) by J W Smeed; Doctor Faustus from History to Legend (1978) by Frank Baron; Faust through Four Centuries/Vierhundert Jahre Faust (1989) ed Peter Boerner and Sidney Johnson; Doctor Faustus: A- and B-texts (1604-1616) (1993) by Christopher Marlowe, ed David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen; The English Faust Book (1994) by John Henry Jones.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.