NPJ Book Review: The Fortunes of Faust by E. M. Butler

The Fortunes of Faust  by E. M. Butler (PB, 1998, first published 1952)is the third in a series of works on the evolution of the Faust tradition. As an avid reader and collector of Faustian lore and works written about this  “legend” and “historical character” I found Ms. Butler’s work to be a provocative, scholarly study. Her writing style is clear and studied. She takes the readers through the evolution of the Faust tradition and its roots in the practice of magic. Ms. Butler provides details that even this student of Dr. Johann Faust found informative – whether it is her insights about the Spiess’ Urfaustbook and the German Faust, thoughts on Martin Luther, the variety of hybrid and miscellaneous Faust’s up through Goethe’s Faust among others. The author views Marlowe’s Faustus “the greatest of all the tragic versions the legend has inspired.”

The Fortunes of Faust is a compelling drama of the role of magic in history and literature through the character of Faust. This is a fascinating read especially for anyone with an interest in the Faust legend and whether it bears any similarity to the historical Faust that Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon may have encountered. Or something rather different. Unfortunately, much was added to the legend in the name of religion, such as magicians being servants of Satan and so forth.

This work seems increasingly appropriate to balance our knowledge of the legendary and historical Faust and to reassess the numerous examples of the “Faustian bargain” that have taken place when an individual exchanges “moral integrity” for power and wealth while feeding his or her narcissism.

Another side might be found in the exploratory fictional work The Fragments of Faust and the lengths people will go for a supposed fragment of Faust’s writings. Regardless of the perspective, Dr. Johann Faust still entertains our imagination.