By Noemi Arellano-Summer
***SPOILERS for both the manga and anime versions of Black Butler, as well as Goethe’s and Marlow’s “Faust”.***
Black Butler is a unique Deal with the Devil scenario. Begun in 2006 and still being released, it was originally conceived as a yaoi (homosexual relationship) manga. Yana Toboso converted it into a Boy and his Demon story that spends remarkably little time on the actual deal with the devil, especially when compared to Goethe’s and Marlow’s versions of Faust. Ultimately, Black Butleris an adaptation that carves its own path.
In 1888, 13-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive has two jobs: by day, CEO of the Funtom toy company, and, by night, Queen Victoria’s “watchdog”, caretaker of England’s criminal underbelly, a position the Phantomhive family has held for generations. Most of this crime, though it may appear mundane at first, eventually turns out to be supernatural in nature. Aiding him in both tasks is his butler, Sebastian Michaelis. However, Sebastian is no ordinary butler; he is, in fact, a demon, bound to Ciel until the Earl achieves his revenge for his family’s deaths, at which point Sebestian is allowed to eat his soul.
This premise is given out in small chunks over the course of the story. The main plot consists of the various cases Ciel and Sebastian take on, including Jack the Ripper and a dinner party murder mystery. Slowly, the audience learns that the Phantomhive mansion caught fire, Ciel’s family died, and Ciel was held captive, eventually due to serve as a sacrifice to a demon-worshipping cult. He begged someone to save him, and a demon appeared, requesting a contract with him. Ciel agreed. The story proper picks up three years later. And even this is slightly assumed backstory; the picture has some missing squares, but it is relatively easy to see what fills them in.
Johann Goethe’s “Faust” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” serve as major literary examples of the Faust legend. The physician Faust/Dr. Faustus is in search of knowledge that the material world won’t give him; he wants to know about magic, heaven, and hell. In Goethe, the demon Mephistopheles makes a deal with God to turn Faust to darkness and the devil, while in Marlowe, Faust summons Mephistopheles and engages his services. More generally, both plays chronicle the 24 years of Mephistopheles’ service to Faust, and end with Faust being taken to hell.
What makes the Ciel-Sebastian bargain engrossing is that, for one, Ciel has no desire to get out of the contract. In the first half of the series, there is little to no search into who set the mansion on fire, who kidnapped Ciel, or who killed his family. He’s perfectly content to let Sebastian act as his butler, provided Sebastian fulfills his every command. Sebastian completes this part of the bargain; he doesn’t drag Ciel on side trips like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, or avoid questions Ciel wants to know the answers to like Marlowe’s.
Sebastian is a fascinating character in that we only see one side of him: Ciel’s butler. We don’t know whether he has a completely different personality without a master telling him how to act. We don’t even know his true name. Ciel gave him a purpose and an eventual reward—his own soul. Goethe’s and Marlowe’s demons are very clear about who they are—they are demons, even when they are playing a role for Faust.
Ciel, as a frail child, often plays the role of damsel in distress, so the more physically-adept Sebastian can play the hero and rescue him. Even at the beginning of the series, Ciel is incredibly comfortable with this scenario. When being held captive, he is not afraid for his life, nor afraid of being hurt. There is only concern as to how long his rescue will take. It shows he’s played this role several times before, and is completely confident in being rescued.
Other supernatural creatures who get a glimpse of Sebastian and Ciel’s bond have their own opinions. The grim reaper William Spears refers to Sebastian as a ‘dog’, and feels that he is only slightly more tolerable than other demons since he is ‘leashed’ to a master. This, again, paints an interesting view of archetypes: Ciel plays a damsel in distress more often than not, but is still the master to Sebastian’s servant.
In Goethe and Marlowe, Faust spends parts of the text wooing a woman named Margarita. In Black Butler, Ciel already has a fiancé: Lady Elizabeth Midford. Both versions of Faust proclaim to love Margarita and don’t seem to care if they get her into trouble. However, when she ends up in prison, he tries to rescue her, and get Margarita to run away with him. Unfortunately for him, he fails, and Margarita dies and is brought to heaven. Ciel, on the other hand, clearly cares about Elizabeth, but she annoys him with her love of femininity. He also doesn’t want her getting mixed up in his troubles.
Toboso eventually reveals (in the Campania ship arc…the one with the zombies) that Lizzie is an action girl as well, being an expert fencer. Prior to sharing this, Lizzie has been treated as the burden of the group. She argues with her ideals, feeling that she needs to stay a Victorian proper lady to match Ciel’s perception of her. Eventually, she chooses to pull swords on the enemy, joining Sebastian as a physically active character, while Ciel remains the one who plans intellectually. Given this is historical fiction, Lizzie’s predicament of choosing to be a Victorian lady when she knows she can help is accurate, and it leads to further discussion of subverted gender roles.
Black Butler puts forth an intriguing beginning to a Faustian bargain, but the main plot veers away fairly quickly in a fantastical crime direction. The manga and anime’s gender and character roles are eye-catching. Black Butler holds up superficially to a comparison of Goethe’s and Marlowe’s Faust, but easily finds its own way after the beginning. This adaptation is a good example of media that can find its own feet after leaving the shadow of its parent material.
Noemi Arellano-Summer is an arts and culture journalist currently working in the Boston area. She has experience as a writer, editor, copy-editor, photojournalist, and arts critic. She is passionate about arts, history, culture, entertainment, film, and literature. You can often find her roaming through a bookstore or working on her novel at a cafe.