In the end, the narrator appears to be swayed, or possessed, by the dark forces, and joins them. But don't worry, for we are shown the way to salvation by the album's cover art: Amid a field of flames and an ominous night sky, a small man, representing humanity, dances on puppet strings held by a horned, red devil, who is himself attached to strings wielded by Eddie, Maiden's ubiquitous undead mascot. The message is clear: While humankind may be weak and easily led astray by the Hoofed One, it is the power of rock — or more specifically, metal, as represented by Eddie — that can save us and help us to conquer our fears. The words of the song tell one story, but the sheer visceral power of the music itself transforms and redeems the lyrical narrative. Evil may exist — in ourselves, on Earth, and in the universe — but by the empowering grace of metal, we can exorcise our demons and tame the beast within. Metal becomes the negation of the negation.
Theologically, of course, before the devil became the grotesque and irredeemable character of novels and horror movies, he was the Adversary, the Fallen Angel, the Forsaken One of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Remember his friendly wager with God over Job's soul, or his cordial philosophical debates with the Nazarene, long before Faust's wager or Linda Blair's projectile vomiting. It was he who questioned and encouraged others to do the same, the one who opposed and dared to think for himself. He was the rebel, the gadfly, the thorn in the side. The subsequent notion that questioning authority and tradition is the devil's work, though intended to scare us straight, gives rise to a certain curiosity — and yes, sympathy — toward Lucifer, in some who cherish freedom of thought and expression. No doubt some of the titillation we feel watching Rosemary's Baby or listening to the "The Number of the Beast" comes from such an impulse to defy a hallowed authority, from the safety of our imaginations.
Twenty-four years after it was released, the Iron Maiden album retains its power and vitality. It continues to be a benchmark for good, honest heavy metal now obscured by retro-fixated irony, emo-inspired whininess, embarrassing misappropriations of hip-hop, and false metal generally. The fact that Maiden has stuck to its guns through the waxing and waning of true metal's popularity and has continued to record and tour on its own terms to this day somehow adds to the record's staying power. The music is not tainted by revisionist questions about the band's motives or integrity. In this, as well as the music, Maiden continues to be an inspiration to generations of musicians and fans.
I like to think of "The Number of the Beast" as a kind of "White Christmas" for the day of the beast. (Too bad it's a holiday that only happens once a century — it could mean a gold mine in royalties for Harris and co.) Never mind that the nice chaps in Maiden are not actually Satanists at all — Irving Berlin was Jewish, and we all know you don't have to be a Christian to have a tree. It's the spirit of the day that counts. So on 6/6/06, do yourself a favor and crank up some Maiden. If you listen carefully, you might almost hear the children's voices caroling: