How evil must evil be? As we march steadily closer to Halloween here in the US, and the “celebration” of evil that the holiday has become, at least in some respects, I find myself thinking more about evil in fiction, particularly fantasy. Must fantasy include a unifying evil force that opposes the good?
We know in real life that there are evil people who do malicious and harmful things because they love to hurt others. But I suggest those are in the minority. Rather, any number of people would declare themselves neutral. They simply want to go along to get along. They don’t want to bother anyone else in hopes that no one bothers them. Are they evil?
Is the mom who did not get help for her troubled son or did not correct him when he started lighting fires in the neighborhood—and maybe even covered for him so others wouldn’t know about his issues—is she evil?
How about the guy who says he’s protecting others and in the process denies their freedom and right to choose? Is he evil?
The point is this: evil in the real world is not so easy to pin down—not without God’s clear standards. There are a number of Psalms in the Bible, even some by King David, that talk about the way of the righteous in contrast to the way of the wicked. But David was a murderer and an adulterer. Would he be part of the righteous or the wicked?
Sometimes I think our speculative fiction, because it is predicated on the trope of good versus evil, approaches the subject in a way that draws a stark line between the two, when in reality there is no such line.
Narnia certainly told stories with clear lines of a sort, but then Lewis slipped in “the good dragon” Eustace who was trying to protect the Dawn Treader rather than destroy it. But he was a dragon. Was he good or evil?
The Narnia books had central antagonists, wicked characters, such as Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew. But that book also includes Digory, who Aslan must rebuke, and his Uncle Andrew, who brags, from time to time, about his association with the witch. So was Digory evil, until he wasn’t? How about the somewhat repentant Uncle Andrew?
Ultimately, would a fantasy be strong if the only evil was “quasi-evil” acting independently and unattached from a clearly defined evil antagonist?
I think of The Lord of the Rings and the many evil characters in those books. Some were independently wicked, such as the white wizard-turned-to-his-own-way, Sauruman. What about Wormtongue and King Theoden? Or Boromir’s father, Denethor II? Or Bormmir himself? He wanted to force Frodo into giving him the One Ring to Rule Them All, so that he could protect Gondor. Was he evil?
The consequences of his actions seemed wicked. Are a person’s actions what qualify him as evil or are we to look at the character’s thoughts and intentions?
In truth, in the real world, all people are born into sin, essentially putting us into the camp of the enemy, as either a victim or a perpetrator, until we are rescued and transferred into the Kingdom of God’s own Son.
Must Christian speculative stories show this ultimate divide between God and His enemy? Is that truly what sets fantasy apart as a genre because it can show the realities of spirituality in ways that other stories can’t? Or is it OK for stories to center on a dragon who is terrorizing the Lake Town or Shelob, the spider who guards the passage into Mordor? Can a story be about a Boromir who wants to accumulate power for himself as a means to do good, but by doing so, becomes the very evil he wants to defeat? Are those stories “evil enough”? Or must there be the over-arching enemy of all that is good that takes center stage in the conflict?
Interestingly, in Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord, Sauron, rarely makes a personal appearance. Yet, clearly, he is the motivating factor behind the forces aligned against the men of Gondor.
I wonder which would be the scariest on Halloween: a dragon, a witch, a spider, an orc, Golum, a black rider, or a searching eye. Which, if it were real, would be the biggest threat? My guess is, the greatest wickedness would be the one we least fear. It’s familiar, comfortable even, without the dangerous elements we usually associate with evil.
And the parallel: which characters in our contemporary Christian speculative fiction are the scariest to our characters? to our readers?