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Literature / The Mysterious Stranger

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In Austria during The Middle Ages,note  three boys meet a charming teenager who claims to be an angel; in fact, his name is Satan. Predictably, no good comes out of this.

Also known as No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger is one of Mark Twain's last works that he was unable to finish before his death. It was written just after his wife and favorite daughter died and Twain entered financial trouble, so it was much more vicious and depressing than any of his other works, and many of the bitter and misanthropic things Satan says are as good as coming from Twain himself. There are three different versions of the work in varying degrees of completion, but all involve the titular mysterious stranger using his powers to show how much of a Crapsack World we live in.note 

Another version of the story is perhaps best-known for receiving an Animated Adaptation in the claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain, being the Signature Scene in an otherwise overlooked movie (though the scene ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, was cut from a lot of TV showings). While that movie is generally a lighthearted adventure, the adaptation took a nosedive into surprisingly creepy territory as Satan explains his misanthropic, nihilistic philosophy to a group of impressionable kids, playing God with a doomed civilization that he destroys from within and without. This is a children's movie. It still manages to be an effective Adaptation Distillation of the novella, keeping most of Satanís philosophical arguments and key quotes while condensing it to a few minutes, although instead of appearing as a young boy he appears as an empty suit of armor and a mask.

As an interesting side-note, it has long been suspected that this was one of the works that inspired Neon Genesis Evangelion, particularly the character of Kaworu. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, writer of the Evangelion manga, has practically admitted as such.

The full text can be found here. Tropes from any version of the novella are welcome.

This work provides examples of:

  • Clones Are People, Too: The Duplicates, who not only think for themselves, but, (as Emil Schwarz explained) only become limited in their near-omniscient and omnipresent powers once they take human form.
  • Crapsack World: A truly horrifying example. The ending may or may not mitigate this.
  • Devil, but No God: Averted. Satan claims to be not the Devil, just an angel with the same name. Also in the story neither God or the devil directly intervene Also the end implies absolutely nothing is real at all, nor God, Heaven or Hell.
  • Double Meaning: Satan holds true to his promises, and, as Theodor found out, suggesting his words to be a cruel and underhanded Prophecy Twist seems to be his only Berserk Button.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Possibly. Taking the ending at face value implies that the whole story was just a nightmare, and that the godlike entity Theodor could make better worlds in the future. On the other hand, it is far more likely that Theodor really is just a lowly human, all of the horrible events he experiences really did happen, and Satan made him think he had god-like power so that he no longer knows of those horrors. Considering what Satan did to Father Peter, this second interpretation is depressingly plausible.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Literally. Satan is noted to be quite handsome.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: The Magician, who is no less confused than anybody else with all of the fantastic occurrences, but still reaps in all of the praise. Deconstructed when he fakes burning Forty-Four to death in front of everybody in a show of strength. It actually happens, and there's no one to blame but him.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Satan's initial hospitality is quickly undermined by his disregard for human life, as shown when he kills two figures over their petty dispute, then destroys their village to stop the sound of its mourning. It takes a little longer for him to show his true colors in the last manuscript, but by the end it's clear that he's doing the whole thing for his own amusement.
  • The Genie Knows Jack Nicholson: No. 44 can make various references to trivia from future periods in time because he can travel to any point he wishes. See Orphaned Etymology below.
  • Happily Ever After: Horrifically subverted: Satan believes that only an insane person would be genuinely happy in this world, so he turns Father Peter insane near the end of the book.
  • Humans Are Bastards: One of the major themes of the book is that humans are petty, extremely cruel and insignificant.
  • Immune to Fate: Satan claims that humans can't really make decisions that change their fate—but he can. He also claims that the seemingly random and trollish things he does are really to change their fates for the better.
  • Invisibility: Satan can hide his and the boys' presence when he feels like it.
  • Invisible to Normals: Nobody even senses that there's something off about Satan.
  • It Amused Me: Satan screws around with the lives of lowly mortals because it amuses him.
  • Light Is Not Good: Satan is described as handsome and charming in the book. However, this trope is averted in the Animated Adaptation segment in The Adventures of Mark Twain, where he is given an Obviously Evil appearence.
  • Live-Action Adaptation: A PBS made-for-TV film was produced and aired in 1982, based heavily on the "No. 44" version.
  • Lou Cypher: Averted, but the protagonists aren't any better off. Their gullibility may be justified because they're children.
  • Meaningful Name: Crosses with Bilingual Bonus. "Eseldorf" translates roughly into "ass village" in English, and "Traum", Satan's self-given surname, is German for the word dream.
  • Mind Screw: This generally straightforward story suddenly takes a baffling turn in the last three pages, leaving the reader to wonder what, if anything, was real in the tale.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Let's see... How about "Satan"?
  • No Ending: "No. 44" is as close as the tale gets to seeing an actual ending. Both "Schoolhouse Hill" and "The Chronicle" end, rather abruptly, right in the middle of character dialogue.
  • Omniglot: In "Schoolhouse Hill", Forty-four can master any language in an instant, much to the surprise of everyone else.
  • Orphaned Etymology: Zig-Zagged. Forty-Four/Satan goes out of his way to perform an action or use a term August/Theodor may not understand, then, off the latter's confusion, explains that an Austrian in the Middle Ages would have no frame of reference for it.note  However, the author occasionally forgets that he's writing from the perspective of an Austrian in the Middle Ages, which is why it seems jarring to read August/Theodor use colloquialisms that are not only American, but regionally-specific.
  • Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Every time August tries to defend the flaws of the human race, Forty-Four shoots him down with a biting analysis of human stupidity and corruptibility. After a while, he becomes Genre Savvy enough to know Forty-Four will talk him down, but not fast enough to stop his own wording before the stranger can step in.
  • Our Angels Are Different: At least, that's what "Satan" says: he claims only his uncle has "moral sense" and that all other angels do not, that they can do no wrong because they do not know what wrong is...and yet Satan repeatedly criticizes human morality by pointing out their morally wrong decisions... Hmm...
  • Religious Horror: Most of the story frames Christian piety as dangerous and Abrahamic figures as cruel and all-powerful. The last bits of the tale, however, dip right into existential Cosmic Horror by outright rejecting everything that was, is, and ever will be.
  • Sadistic Choice: The protagonists are forced to choose between a life of suffering for their friend or a quick death. And that's just the first one...
  • Satan: The angel's name is Satan, but he insists that he's that other Satan's nephew and that it's a common name for angels. Of course, there's no way to confirm this, and Satan himself (the traditional one) is a notorious Unreliable Narrator.
  • Self-Immolation: No. 44 does this to make the Magician's otherwise empty death threats completely true.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: August, the protagonist of the third section, comes to rely more and more on the assistance of his "friend." By the end of it, he's having almost as much fun causing chaos as No. 44 himself.
  • Southern Gothic Satan: The overall premise of the story, though the primary version is set in Austria, and a secondary, unfinished version is set in Missouri.
  • Take That!: The last chapter contains one of the most venomous and scathing criticisms of Christianity ever written. Though bear in mind that it is Satan saying this....
    A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell ó mouths mercy, and invented hell ó mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!
  • Tomato in the Mirror: "Oh, by the way, didn't you ever realize that the entire universe only exists in your imagination and that you barely even exist yourself? Well, so long."
  • Translation Convention:
    • Set in Renaissance-age Austria, the characters are obviously speaking German to one another.
    • Forty-four's conversation with his headmaster in French in "Schoolhouse Hill".
  • The Treachery of Images: "It was a vision — it had no existence."
  • Unfortunate Names: Lampshaded in the claymation:
    Becky Thatcher: Who are you?
    Satan: An angel.
    Huck Finn: What's your name?
    Satan: Satan.
    Huck Finn: Uh oh.
    Satan: What's the matter?
    Huck Finn: Nothing. Just that it's sure a sorry name for an angel.
    • The book explains Satan as being named after his uncle.
  • Villains Never Lie: Played With. Everything in the story makes just as much sense if one assumes that Satan really is lying his ass off the whole time, and it is often impossible to tell whether he is or not. Though there are times where the protagonist can tell that Satan is lying to another character.
  • Voice of the Legion: Satan in the Animated Adaptation.
  • You Are Number 6: In some versions, Satan goes by "Fourty-four", or, "No. 44, New Series, 864,962".