A Faustian Pact

I’ve recently read the question what the song “The Educated Fool” (Virtual XI, 1998) was about. Considering that it is safe to say that the respective album is not exactly a favourite of Maiden-dom, to put it mildly, it still seems to be of interest enough to raise questions about the lyrics, a fact which genuinely surprised me. Well, it was suggested that it was about Dickinson (current singer Bruce Dickinson had left the band priorly to record his much beloved (much beloved on my side) solo records). I know that there are persistent rumours that some Nightwish songs are about former singers, thus suggesting a parallelism of bands who pen songs about former singers. I am not a Nightwish expert, but I believe that bands, especially bands like Nightwish or Iron Maiden who have a tendency to produce very sophisticated material when it comes to lyrics, are too professional to display personal grudges in songs, as it is secretly suggested in these rumours. No, I think, and I hope you will agree with me, that the song in question is another adaptation of a literary text.

I claim that this song is a straight-foward adaptation of the story of Dr. Faustus, as most famously adapted into theatrical plays by Christopher Marlowe (1616) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808). This proves that Virtual XI may be considered an underrated album. I am not into reviews and ratings and there are enough blogs and other sources out there if you are into this. But I will show by highlighting the references to a literary classic that Virtual XI too has its moments of what some consider classical Maiden-ish quality: references to history and / or literature. (And I am not saying “The Clansman” now and “First War of Scottish Independence” and “William Wallace,” no, I’m not.)

Dr Faustus

The story of Dr Faustus is quickly told, at least the part relevant to us. Although the single adaptations differ, the main story-arch is more or less the same. Dr Faustus is a scholar who believes to have learned everything he could possibly learn and who still finds himself dissatisfied. Smelling weakness and a possible target, the devil sends him a demon, Mephistopheles, to trick him into selling his soul. I argue that this moment, when Faustus contemplates his fate and hereby attracts the demonic forces is what we see in the song. If we assume that the narrator is, indeed, Faustus, he is debating with himself. The song is a longish monologue which would follow very much the tradition of the mentioned theatrical plays.

Why do I think that this text is a Faustian monologue? I will give you some facts why I assume it is:

We have an undefined observer who must definitely be a higher power because he can see the secret thoughts of our narrator. The Faustus narrator feels watched. He can feel the demonic forces approaching.

He is wondering whether what he is offered, the pact, is a step into a new life or into death, a description very apt for a demonic pact.

He has found out that the knowledge he has acquired so far is pretty useless.

He seeks knowledge; he desperately seeks new experiences. This graving appears as an enumeration in the chorus, which is basically a long list of everything our narrator wants. This is something Faustus wants to. Most strikingly, he wants something which must be considered supernatural, or can only be achieved by the supernatural: he wants to be reunited with his dead father. This is not straight-forward Faustian, but it firmly proves that the narrator is about to cross a line to the supernatural.

The things he wants can be described as suicidal or self-destructive. He does not only want to cross undiscovered boundaries, he wants to deliberately put himself at danger. He literary wants to play with the fire.

Now comes the exception to the rule, as I have claimed that this was a monologue. I am not sure who speaks in the third stanza. Is it the narrator himself who is pondering on his rather ordinary status or is it already the luring voice of the demon? I think that both readings are possible, but to ascribe these passages to Mephistopheles would make more sense (in case you go with me to take this for an adaptation of Dr Faustus).

Last but not least, he is termed a schooled idiot, which implies that all his learning did not gain him true wisdom, a thought which is very much in line with Faust. The fact that the song ends with this description in a rather melancholy way, I say that it may mean more literary that the idiot is an idiot by having agreed to the pact.

The Adaptation

This makes for a rather interesting adaptation because it isolates one element of the story-line and reduces the adaptation to it. We only see the monologue and (maybe) the moment when the pact is made. But we cannot even be sure if that is the case. Still, I argue that enough elements are present to make it recognisable as a text referring to the story of Dr Faustus. The story has been reduced to its most decisive moment, the contemplating of Faustus whether to agree to the pact or not. By isolating these elements they gain more weight and impact. The song highlights a crucial moment by erasing the following adventures and consequences of the pact. They are not so much of importance once the pact is made. The song only presents the monologue in which Faustus contemplates whether or not to make a pact with a demonic messenger, a topic which is an ideal basis for a moody and aggressive heavy metal song at the same time. I do not say that we have a different narrative here, but a snippet of a narrative to get a great heavy metal song. Not all Maiden adaptations are the same and follow the same principle. That is what makes them so great, the creativity employed to always find the best use for source material.

Sources

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