Beyond Good and Evil

My final Norwescon panel was kind of an odd one. It was a late addition to the schedule, so the only way for people to find out about it was from word of mouth or just walking by the room and poking your head in. (In retrospect I could have tweeted about it or something. I should have checked to see if there was a panel on self-promotion.) It also took a look at fantasy — interesting ground for me, as I haven’t been primarily a fantasy reader since I was a kid getting bedtime stories from my mom. (My mom was reading The Lord of the Rings to me in preschool. I had kind of an awesome childhood.)

One of the unsettling things about The Lord of the Rings and other fantasies of this type is that the Orcs and Dark Lords are flat, 2-dimensional evil characters with no hope of redemption.  Is there an argument for making things at least somewhat black and white?  If we reject the 100% evil creatures, what do we use for the all-encompassing threat?

My short answer was to say I think The Lord of the Rings is a problem only insofar as people take the wrong lessons from it.

While nominally about a bunch of scrappy adventurers on a quest to stop the Dark Lord and his army, the story isn’t just about Sauron and the Orcs — and in many ways, they aren’t the show’s true villains. Instead we have characters like Gollum and Saruman, who are both really tragic in their own ways, and Boromir, the closest thing the story gives us to the dashing knight who’s also the first guy we see get corrupted by the ring. I could even get metaphysical and say the story’s real villain is temptation, with the message that even the most good and decent people in the world aren’t immune to it.

Secondly, the evil horde really does serve a useful purpose in literature, by creating a unique kind of challenge for our heroes. It’s why zombie fiction is so appealing: When the villains don’t need characterization or complex motiviations, it lets the narrator focus entirely on your protagonists. Writing is, ultimately, a zero-sum game: The more attention you give to one character, or one side of a conflict, the less you can give to the other.

At the panel, we spent a fair amount of time discussing whether zombies counted as evil because they technically do have a motivation — specifically, they’re hungry for brains. Then we got into a discussion about whether the orcs had legitimate motivations, too, which led into a discussion of the medieval approach to human rights and a number of other fascinating topics that, I thought, generally missed the point of whether having an evil horde is justifiable in a story.

Or maybe they didn’t.

“Evil” is a word that I don’t think is particularly useful, since it’s both highly emotionally charged and really vague. You can argue that no actual human action is purely evil because humans can justify what they do to themselves, and therefore any evil character is by definition badly written. It’s a position that has the advantage of being totally nonfalsifiable — and one that renders this whole discussion meaningless, since labeling a character as evil would automatically make them a case of bad writing.

I think it’s more useful to remember that fiction is never truly omniscient — even a narrator who knows everything won’t actually tell you everything. The Lord of the Rings didn’t even have an omniscient narrator; we’re told right at the beginning that it was written by Frodo and Sam, much like Bilbo wrote The Hobbit. So it makes perfect sense that the story focus almost exclusively on the travels of the Fellowship, while the Orcs are presented as ciphers and Sauron never appears at all.

Obviously, none of this is to say a story can’t provide a more balanced view of war, or that a story like The Lord of the Rings can’t make its villains seem sympathetic — indeed, Kirill Yeskov has done that for us through the art of what Serious People don’t like to call fan fiction. My argument is just that an evil horde can be a good thing, if you use it to tell a good story.

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