The Devil Rides Outside
Date Published: 1954
Number of Pages:
Print Price: $22.18
eBook Price: $7.99
The Devil Rides Outside by John Howard Griffin is a beautifully crafted tale of maturity with a superb set of character studies. It is a fictional account of a young man’s experiences when his music studies place him outside of his comfort zone. This happens because he places himself in a monastery where the outlook and way of life is in complete contrast to that which he leaves behind in Paris. Griffin accentuates the storyline with brilliantly fleshed characters such as Salesky, a man of the world, and Fr. Clement, a man of God.
While that may be a standard story mechanism, this is anything but a standard story. The writer describes a war between the Devil, who uses temptation and manipulation, and God’s grace.
The story is set in the poverty stricken French countryside, which is recovering from the World War II. The composer presents himself as a young American musicologist with a passion for Gregorian chant. He decides to pursue this interest by studying in a monastery famous for its Church music. Once the stage is set, Griffin introduces his representation of the Devil.
Certain negative influences are about to come to bear on the young musicologist. These include his health and appetites, the hardship of the monastic regime, and the characters around him. These play out the battle of temptation against God’s grace. As the tale unfolds the contest for the man’s soul escalates. Griffin introduces the Devil in the form of one Madame Renee.
On one hand our hero is enlightened and encouraged by the monks who share his hardships and love for sacred music. On the other, the superbly drawn characters of the countryside pull him back to earth.
It can be difficult to portray the grace of God in a palatable way. However, Griffin uses the main character’s atheism to achieve this end. He is brilliant in using the supposed faith and standards of Madam Reneé to illustrate the Devil. She must be one of the great evil characters of fiction. Of the many representations of Satan in literature, she is one of the more tangible.
One important observation brought out by this book, is the beneficial influences of Catholic culture. The composer has enough humility to grow thanks to the guidance from Fr. Clement. The good Father is allocated by the monastery to provide the young man with what is now known as Spiritual Direction. This advice comes against a background of contrasts. The man compares the sexually decadent life he left behind, with the challenging life of monastic rigor. The Benedictine Monks, with respect, love and care, try to explain to him how and why they live in such austere conditions and how this helps them appreciate God. Their happiness in their condition is the example that causes him to seek understanding. He receives the gift of grace as they explain the turmoil he is experiencing and how his resistance to temptation changes. The young man’s witness relates the effect his surroundings, and the characters they contain, have on his own outlook on life. The sacred music draws him towards the spiritual, helping him witness the reality of God. The example and spirituality of the monks augments this effect.
The other main observation is the power of temptation. The weakness of the human condition is very clearly illustrated throughout this book. The man’s battle against weakness is discussed throughout. Griffin is clever in using the character of the writer in an attempt to teach the opposing character of Reneé to resist temptation. The horror of this character is in the realization that Reneé uses the writer’s attempts to drag him back from spiritual salvation. We realize that we can never battle temptation and the Devil on our own.
This book follows a now dead fashion of taking time to establish its foundation and setting. It does not rely on a first line hook and the subsequent race of modern stories. The writer takes time to establish the atmosphere of the setting and the character of the story’s protagonist. This may tax most modern readers, but this story is worth the effort it takes. The author also stays true to his method of personal testimony and so the story flows at differing speeds, giving it realism.
This tale also concerns itself with the ongoing growth in maturity of an adult. It accepts the reality of a person’s mental, physical and spiritual aspects. This throws it against the fashion of our times. The hero does not change his opinion; he changes his character. It is not a frivolous piece. Griffin’s use of the witness of an agnostic allows the behaviour of those within the grace of God to be presented as proof of its possibility. This would not be acceptable if the writer had started with an opinion born from an already active faith.
It is difficult to claim that everyone would regard this novel as on a power with Lewis or Chesterton. I would argue that it is a brilliant and unique piece of work. Griffin has presented the Devil, real and present, showing the true horror of Satan’s active presence among man. He gives hope in daily conversion by relying on and trusting in God. He also reminds us that Christ’s saving work continues in the actions of all those who devote their efforts to God: in music, in spiritual direction and in literature.Publisher: Pocket Books
Original Language: English
Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"
Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.