Readers will find the bungling version of Satan in Natalie Babbitt’s The Devil’s Storybook more reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s humorous Falstaff than an embodiment of evil. The delineation of the Devil as a comic figure reduces his traditional, epic proportions and affords a look at a cosmic landscape with relatively small dimensions. The Devil tries diligently to maintain his reputation as the supreme trickster; however, he fails miserably. From humans who outdistance his intellect to minor demons who diminish his power by insubordination, this version of Satan wades through one confrontation after another slightly out of control.
Each tale of the ten exhibits the literary elements of traditional folktales. The time and places are vague. Locales are thinly identified as “Heaven,” “Hell,” and “the World.” Introductory phrases such as “There was a little girl once” echo fairy-tale openings and create a universal time frame. Human characters are flat and static, elements that underscore their one-dimensional qualities and relegate them to symbolic depictions of all humanity. The plots plunge quickly into conflict, and resolutions provide tidy, satisfying endings. The universal themes qualify the explicit didacticism present. “Nuts,” for example, ends with the dictum “We are not all of us greedy.” The third-person, omniscient point of view enables readers to observe the internal motivations of all the characters as they clash over issues of good and evil.
The Devil’s Storybook returns the literary folktale to its traditional arena of storytelling appropriate for older audiences. Even though the Devil portrayed in this work cannot be taken seriously, his capacity to create chaos arbitrarily in human activity and to drive innocent victims to the brink lies quietly in the framework of each of the tales. Couched in a humorous context and peopled with stock characters, the ten tales coalesce to form an intricate whole that articulates the fact that evil lurks in the most unexpected places. This excursion into the literary folktale affords Natalie Babbitt with the opportunity to continue her exploration of the supernatural. The Devil’s Storybook demands more of its audience than do such light fantasy titles as Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1975) and The Eyes of Amaryllis (1977). The Devil’s Storybook and its sequel, The Devil’s Other Storybook (1987), rely on a nonthreatening version of the Devil and the simple folktale form to make readers ponder their own ability and endurance to withstand the guile of evil in its most primary forms.