Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Curse of the Darkling Mill

First published in German as Krabat, then translated into English as The Satanic Mill, Otfried Preussler’s haunting children’s story was later republished in English with the rather bland title The Curse of the Darkling Mill.

Despite the success of the film of the novel, the book is still very difficult to obtain in English, which is a real shame because it is both “an eerie tale of sorcery and nightmares” (as the publishers describe it) and a deeply Catholic work.

The novel is given an explicit Christian context from the very first pages when Krabat and two friends, dressed as the Three Kings, are begging during the Christmas season.

However, it is Krabat’s pride, his rejection of the other magi, which, at least in part, brings about his downfall. By breaking the highly symbolic group of three beggar boys and striking off on his own, he places himself in the power of an evil miller and becomes one of his twelve dark apprentices. Quite what he has let himself in for only becomes apparent later in the novel when he discovers that the mill is grinding not wheat but human bones.

Krabat is an assertion of the importance of the Wendish culture and language in modern day Germany as well as a Christian fable, but it is also a meditation on Hitler’s rise to power and the horrors of the holocaust. Krabat becomes, if not one of Hitler’s willing executioners, then at least an accomplice as he is seduced by the mill’s material comforts into ignoring the evidence of evil around him.

After a while the evidence becomes too hard to ignore completely: each New Year one of the apprentices is murdered and replaced but by then Krabat is in too deeply to be able to escape. When his friend, Tonda, is murdered Krabat tries to say the Lord’s Prayer over his grave, “but somehow it had slipped his memory; he began it again and again, but he could never get to the end of it”.

Drawn deeper and deeper into the mill’s satanic rites, Krabat’s only link with the outside world comes each Easter when he hears the voice of a young girl singing as part of the village’s Easter procession. Ultimately, it is this young girl and the power of love which overcomes the darkness but to write more would be to spoil the plot even more than I have done already.

This is a book which packs a punch: Preussler, one of Germany’s best-loved children’s authors, writes about both the banality and the lure of evil. However, in a world where few topics now seem to be off-limits for children’s fiction, we should not be concerned about a book which deals with such topics from a Christian perspective and without preaching. The Curse of the Darkling Mill deserves to be more widely read.

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