Guest post from my academic alter-ego. This is my write up of a paper given at the Sheffield Gothic Reimagining in May. It’s a bit niche but I hope one person can enjoy it. It’s not quite the same as presenting so I hope it has translated acceptably into the written word! I think I’ve managed to contact all the artists whose work I’ve cited, if I haven’t, my apologies and please contact me here or @RomGothHolly if you’re unhappy with my use or the way I’ve credited it. Also, everyone should read Lermontov’s Demon in one of its versions, it’s amazing.
‘You shouldn’t have killed my cat’ vs. ‘I am your God. Long May I Reign’:
Gothic Masculinity and Demonic Theo-Aesthetics in Critical Role
I’m an eighteenth-centuryist by trade, which, at first glance seems a world away from an online real time roll-playing game. But, in this paper, I aim to examine how divergent traditions of demonic theo-aesthetics, founded in the 18th century, continue to influence portrayals of Gothic masculinity. The case study I’m using is Critical Role with specific attention being paid to two characters: Mollymauk Tealeaf – our devil, a bloodhunter tiefling – and Caleb Widogast – our fiend, a human wizard.
The Lingering Signs of a Theo-Aesthetics of Demon Depiction
Before beginning my paper, I recommend watching the following video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcnYhQT3lys. (Hollaback Nerds) It’s an (amazing) rap battle between the two characters that form the focus of this paper and demonstrates the ways in which demonic discourse has been taken up both in canon and by the fandom in depictions of these two characters. (The character names at the top of the sheet refer to the person described, the colour coding shows who says the phrase. Purple for Molly and red for Caleb).
|‘The devil who can’t remember versus the man who can’t forget’
‘The devil’s been defanged with a DC of elf (eleven)’
‘You’re a fiend, Caleb, so let me switch to devil’s tongue. “Suck my Devil Dick”. That means, I won.’
‘Here’s morals from the devil, you’re so poor in humanity.’
|‘If you fight me, light your own pyre’
‘You’re a fiend, Caleb, so let me switch to devil’s tongue. “Suck my Devil Dick”. That means, I won.’
‘Your own mind is your dungeon.’
‘No scroll that you stole could help you hold or control fate.’
‘You sold your dirty soul.’
As we can see from the quotes taken from the video, there is both explicit reference to the demonic and clear intertextual referencing of pre-existing demonic figures. ‘Your own mind is your dungeon’, for example, echoes Milton’s Satan’s complaint that he carries hell within his own heart.
A Theo-Aesthetic History of Demonic Depiction
Before addressing the ways in which these characters reflect different theo-aesthetic trends, we have to go back to the 18th century and understand the roots of the theo-aesthetics of demonic depiction. The 18th century saw the rise of the discourse of ‘the sublime’ in the writings of critics and theorists such as John Dennis, Joseph Addison and, of course, Edmund Burke (arguably three of the most influential critics on the use of the sublime in the Gothic). The sublime of the period was ineradicably linked to concepts of the divine and God’s self-revelation in the natural world. The sublime was God writ large, a human perception of divine qualities. (This assertion forms part of the larger body of my research, which I do not have time to fully go into today but see this article for further explication.) However, conversely one of the most paradigmatic examples of sublimity was that of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. This close association of the demonic and a putatively divine aesthetic raises theological questions, appearing to negate or at least question the boundaries between divinity and the demonic. This claim for sublimity, however, persists in discussions of the demonic and specifically Milton’s Satan.
If we look briefly at Satan’s depiction in Paradise Lost Book 1, we see clearly the language of physical sublimity in the size, ‘might’ and ‘elevated’ status:
Forthwith upright he rears from off the pool
His mighty stature; on each hand the flames
Driv’n backward slope their pointing spires…
Then with expanded wings he steers his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky air.
Likewise, we find evidence of ‘moral sublimity’, echoing qualities of the moral sublime found in the wider 18th century discourse in his unconquerable pride, his ‘eminence’ above other demons and, of course, the remnants of his angelic form and nature:
Their dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a tow’r; his form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than Archangel ruined, and th’ excess
Of glory obscured.
(John Milton – Paradise Lost – Book 1 589-594)
The intersection of this depiction of the demonic with the sublime is clear, and was widely cited, but the theology associated with Milton’s work and its aesthetic choices is still, broadly speaking, ‘orthodox’; the devil is the enemy and antagonist of God, an avatar of evil contrasting with an ineffably good God.
This orthodox conception of the demonic figure, and the concomitant theo-aesthetic strategies of sublimity, are found in works of the early Gothic. One of the most famous examples is, no doubt, that of Matthew Lewis’ devil in The Monk. Having appeared originally, deceptively, as ‘an angel of light’ (an attractive adolescent male), his revelation of his true form at the moment of the monk Ambrosio’s final downfall (his imprisonment in the inquisition and the sale of his soul) is sublime:
He appeared in all that ugliness which since his fall from heaven had been his portion. His blasted limbs still bore marks of the Almighty’s thunder. A swarthy darkness spread itself over his gigantic form: his hands and feet were armed with long talons…Over his huge shoulders waved two enormous sable wings…The daemon grasped one of Ambrosio’s arms, spread his broad pinions, and sprang with him into the air. (Matthew Lewis, The Monk, vol. 2, pp.255-6, (Dublin: N. Kelly, 1797)
It is hard to ignore here the very deliberate echoing of the imagery of Satan bursting free from the fires of hell at the beginning of Paradise Lost. Likewise, there is an almost identical emphasis on his size, greatness and on his fallen status. His tremendous ugliness, as Burke has informed us in his influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and the Sublime, is no barrier to sublimity. Again, he fulfils a broadly orthodox role: the antagonist of good and enemy of God.
His theologically understood role is, however, somewhat more nuanced and more problematic than straight antagonism. In his triumph over Ambrosio, Satan cries out, ‘You well deserve a place near her [Mathilda – the demon/ess who seduced him], for hell boasts no miscreant more guilty than yourself.’ Indeed, as Ambrosio has crowned a career of hypocrisy, lust, dark magic and matricide with the incestuous rape and subsequent murder of his sister, it’s hard to disagree. Here, however, we see the devil take on a function not simply as an enemy of the divine but as an agent of his justice. We frequently find, most clearly in Lewis’ ‘Isle of Devils’, the connection between sublimity and judgement – as the devil reveals himself as an agent of damnation but significantly one of judgement, not usurping but serving the judgement seat of God. This, of course, raises tricky questions about free will, agency and determinism, which I don’t have the time to fully explore here. Certainly, though, if the devil himself is unable to escape acting as an agent of his greatest enemy, what chance does man stand to act outside his will?
I have mentioned that the demonic sublimity of the devil in these accounts appears to create tension with a broader conception of the sublime as a ‘divine’ aesthetic. However, when we look at these broadly ‘orthodox’ depictions of the Satanic figure, it becomes possible to reconcile the devil’s sublimity with the sublime as a revelation of divinity. Firstly, his sublimity is a remnant. Frequently the devil is depicted as deceitful, clothing himself in the guise of ‘an angel of light’, wearing the remnants of a lost sublimity. That which remains to him (his size and power, for example) is a remnant of a former state. Secondly, his sublimity is borrowed. It is a lesser reflection of the Divine’s characteristics. The Devil is fallen. His sublimity is a shadow of what it was when he sat by the throne of God. Thirdly, the devil partakes in a sublimity of judgement as an agent of Divine justice. The emphasis in all these depictions is on the relationship between God and the devil. The questions they raise are of the reality of free will and the justice of God.
A second strand or tradition in the theo-aesthetics of demonic depiction is to be found in the Romantic rereading of the Satanic figure. These depictions retained the external features of the devil but re-read his internal reality, focusing on the moral sublimity evident in Milton’s account:
Yet not for those [his dire arms]
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change…
What though the field is lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.
(John Milton – Paradise Lost – Book 1 94-96, 105 -111
In this monologue, one of Satan’s many, the Romantics found a rebel, a symbol of freedom against a tyrannous overlord, one who would not be cowed nor defeated. The relationship between the divine and the demonic was reread. (It is worth noting that this Romantic reading goes against the overarching message and aesthetic coding of Paradise Lost beyond Books 1 + 2 which reveals the callous cowardice and vindictiveness of the demonic motivation and ends with his submission to the form of the worm – a far more fitting shape.)
This Romantic re-reading of the Satanic figure appears in numerous writings. Byron’s Cain (1821) is a perfect example. In it, Satan appears to Cain to tease, torment and tempt him. While the tragic consequences of the Cain tale remain the same, the devil’s speeches remained unchecked and unchallenged. His sublimity remains (unlike Milton’s Satan) and, as contemporary critics bemoaned, validates and supports his message of rebellion. He counts himself as one of those
‘Souls who dare use their immortality
Souls who dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in
His everlasting face, and tell him, that
His evil is not good!…
Sit on his vast and solitary throne,
Creating worlds, to make eternity
Less burthensome to his immense existence
And unparticipated solitude!
…He is alone
Indefinite, indissoluble tyrant!’
(Byron – Cain – 1821)
Here, the divine and demonic roles are swapped. God is the ‘indefinite, indissoluble tyrant’, who created (and damned) man not from love but from solitary boredom, who remains unreachable, untouchable and uncaring. His evil is not good and it is the devil’s role to act as a symbol of rejection of and rebellion against this tyrannical power.
This rereading of the demonic figure then developed into a ‘romantic’ reading of demonic figures. We see this strikingly in the Russian writer Lermontov’s ‘Demon’. The text’s origin demonstrates the reach of this Romantic rereading and the spread of this theo-aesthetic strategy of demonic depiction (noticeably distinct from the theological and theo-aesthetics traditions of Russian Orthodoxy).
It’s my translation so I apologise for its lack of poetic grace.
Mournful demon, spirit exiled
Flew above a sinful earth…
Sowing evil without pleasure
Nowhere did his art
And evil bored him now…
In the barren breast of the exile
No new feelings, no new strength arose
And all that he saw before him
He despised or hated
(Mikhail Lermontov – Demon)
If we removed the term ‘demon’, the similarities between this figure and the Byronic hero become clear and show the proximity between the Byronic figure and the Romantic reading of Satan. Like Byron’s anti-heros, this Demon is a rebel outsider, alone, working beyond the rules of normal ‘men’, contemptuous, empty and seeking a love which he cannot help but destroy. Such demons become the Byronic heroes of the Brontes, with their piercing eyes and swarthy faces. A physically demonic coding remains but the internal realities of these characters are being rewritten – outsiders, rebels, avatars of freedom, they stand against a God, a world, a society that would control them.
The third theo-aesthetic trend is worth noting briefly. The Scottish Gothic offers a very different depiction of the demonic figure, one which emphasises not the relationship of the devil to God but rather of the devil to man. The common figure, found in works such as The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by Hogg and Markheim and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Stevenson, is that of the demonic double. In the Confessions, the devil appears as the figure Gil-martin, a double of Robert Wringham. Their identities become gradually more and more confused as the devil appears to possess or act in the shape of Robert. The emphasis here is on the relationship of man to the devil and the reality of original sin. Man is conceived of as flesh and spirit, fighting continually with a ‘devil’ within. There is a focus on duplicity, and particularly self-deception, and internal duality – no man is wholly ‘good’. Devils look just like everyone else.
The Three Strands of the Theo-Aesthetic Traditions of Demonic Depiction
We have the three strands of demonic theo-aesthetics. Firstly, the orthodox conception of the demonic figure (in sublime garb) as an enemy of God but equally as an unwilling or unconscious agent of divine justice. The second retains the demonic exterior but rewrites the interior, reimagining the demonic figure as a freedom-promoting rebel or outcast. The third emphasis the relationship between man and the devil and depicts the devil in a man’s skin. All these inherently theo-aesthetic trends have survived to the present day, forming a easily accessible (theo-)aesthetic language ideally suited to the purposes of a show like Critical Role. It forms a shorthand easily accessible to both real-time players and the active fan-communities and their fan-creation. While these borrowings may or may not be conscious, they reflect the existence of a surviving pattern of depiction, whose influence, while rooted in 18th century British theo-aesthetics, is wide-ranging.
The ‘Theo-Aesthetics’ of Critical Role
If we look first at the character of Mollymuak Tealeaf, we can clearly see the ways in which his depiction (both in canon and fan content – as reflected in the rap battle) reflects an engagement with the second strand of demonic depiction. As a tiefling, he possesses ‘traditionally’ demonic aesthetics and we see this parity with the demonic figure referenced in the rap battle with his own reference to the ability to speak ‘devil’s tongue’ and Caleb’s taunt that ‘the Devil’s been defanged.’ However, like the Romantic reimagining of Satan, this demonic exterior belongs to the moral ‘heart’ of the group. While this status is perhaps debatable, it was strongly played on (particularly after episode 26) by the cast and in much fan content: ‘Here’s morals from the devil.’ In episode 14, Mollymauk makes the claim that ‘I left every town better than I found it.’ At first, one of his companions, Beau, is sceptical but after his death, her reflection on his statement cements his status as the moral core of the group: “He told that fucking story and I realised: even in his scams, when he was doing something shitty, he was still making people feel good or feel special.”
His connection with Satanic theo-aesthetics does not end with this exterior/interior juxtaposition. His status as divine ‘opposition’ is reflected in one of his most famous lines after a session of bisexual pleasure when he comes to find his friends bearing a platter of fruit and dressed in a dragon blanket: ‘I am your God. Long May I Reign.’ The hashtag #LongMayHeReign (episode 18) became particularly popular after episode 26 and remains active in the fan community. While light-hearted, the connection to demonically rebellious and resistant narratives are clear. This emphasis on resistance is evidenced further at the moment of his death, when Taliesen Jaffe (the actor who ‘plays’ him) tells the audience that he ‘never closed his eyes’ (episode 26). This motif of resistance and rebellion is further nuanced by his status as ‘the devil who can’t remember.’ Effectively, Molly is two years old as that is when he found himself in a shallow grave with no memory. When asked by Nott (another member of the Mighty Nein) whether he really doesn’t want to know his past, he argues that ‘that person is someone else. I don’t want anything to do with it.’ Unlike Milton’s Satan, who is trapped in a hell of his own making, Mollymauk cements his rebellion against his former self, and any former allegiances, by a complete disengagement from that self: a deliberate choice to abandon his former reality, its goals and, importantly, its worship.
Turning to Caleb, we see more clearly a mix of the first and third strands of demonic depiction. Caleb is just a man (strand three) but as we can see from the picture below, is frequently depicted through engagement with a demonic aesthetic register, including the concentration on flame (one of his key tools in-show) and through the use of shadow and obscurity as we can see from the drawings below. (It is worth noting that his depiction in fan art has significantly changed as his story develops after episode 60).
@annathenewt @gears2gnomes @ovaettr
In the pictures above, and particularly that on the right, there is also a clear link to another important feature of the first strand of demonic theo-aesthetics. As the rap-battle says, ‘If you fight me, light your own pyre.’ Caleb here, as elsewhere, performs a function as judge, dispensing a ‘demonic/divine’ judgement in flame. In the picture on the right above, we see his vengeance against Lorenzo who kidnapped and tortured his friends and, most importantly, killed his cat. As he states, ‘You shouldn’t have killed my cat’, Caleb literally burns Lorenzo from the inside out in an act of horrific vengeance. He becomes a demonically sublime judge.
His characterisation as a demonic figure (or understood partly as such especially in the first 30 episodes of the series) is made explicit in the rap battle’s reference: ‘You’re a fiend, Caleb’. It is worth nothing that it is an identity that he takes upon himself. He is ‘the man who can’t forget’ and ‘his mind is his own dungeon’ – he, like Milton’s Satan, is trapped in a hell of his own making. He is haunted by his service to a divine/demonic figure and the murder of his own parents. Frequently slipping into catatonic states at the sight of fire, he is imprisoned in his own facsimile of hell. As the rap battle mockingly reminds us, ‘No scroll that you stole could help you hold or control fate.’ Like Satan, despite his powers, which are not inconsiderable, he is still pictured (or pictures himself) as a tool in the hands or under the control of a higher agency, unable to escape fate, destiny or the path traced for him by an uncaring ‘God.’
While Caleb’s depiction appears to echo an orthodox demonic depiction within the first (and third) strands of demonic depiction, it would be erroneous to state that this reflexes a theological orthodoxy on the part of the show or its viewers. This is made clear when we reference the DnD alignments (and alignment changes) of the two characters. While my alignments are not all canonical (or have been declared canonical) there is a clear pattern to be discerned. Mollymauk appears to fit a ‘chaotic good’ alignment. As the moral core of the group, this suggests the highest order of good is aligned with a ‘chaotic’ (rebellious, individual, free) interpretation of the nature of good. Caleb started his journey as ‘Lawful Evil’. His (partial) redemption arc is not taking him ‘up’ the scale from ‘lawful evil’ to ‘lawful neutral’ with a supposed ending of ‘lawful good’ (which we would expect from a ‘theologically orthodox’ redemption narrative) but rather from ‘lawful evil’ to ‘true neutral’. This diagonal movement (across the chart) suggests an endpoint of ‘chaotic good’. The arcs of both characters therefore appear to suggest that the ‘over-arching theology’ of the series is far from ‘orthodox’ but rather one which accords with the second strand of theo-aesthetic demonic depiction and a rejection of the ‘divine’, and the totalitarian and oppressive structures which are aligned with him in the Romantic reimagining of the divine/demonic relationship.
Demonic aesthetics can be traced back to specific theo-aesthetic roots in the 18th century and three distinct strands of demonic depiction. They provide a pre-existing theo-aesthetic code which forms a common aesthetic language with which players and fans can engage, building on the characters’ mythologies together. They provide an effective short hand of characterisation and facilitate the intersection of fan content (such as art and fan-fiction) and player content in developing stories through pre-existing patterns. They allow for shaded and coded character development at speed and across a wide group. These codes are intrinsically theo-aesthetic but time and repetition have weakened the conscious associations between these aesthetic trends and their theological roots. In Critical Role, with its broad alignment with an overall ‘theology’ in keeping with the Romantic reimagining of the Satanic figure, theo-aesthetic codes are used alongside an almost complete emptying out or defiance of conventional theological frameworks. After all, we have our own God. Long May He Reign.