Thursday, January 15, 2009
Versus: Heroes and Villains
Here’s the thing about the Best Fictional Hero and Best Fictional Villain categories: you’ve got to choose from a range of figures that are larger than life. These aren’t normal characters. Harry Potter isn’t just some dude at a boarding school; Dracula is more than an aging aristocrat with yen for bloody marys. These are Heroes, man. Villains. There has to be some quality that sets them apart.
It’s tempting to identify a certain set of abilities (e.g. super-strength, magic, the ability to consume an impossibly large plate of nachos at one sitting) as the defining element of the hero. I think, though, that it’s a willingness to do what other men or women won’t that makes for a hero. I mean, if Wonder Woman didn’t use her butt-kicking skills & magic lariat to fight crime, she’d just be some lady in a bathing suit, am I right?
Villains are tricky. An awful lot of them, including some of the best, follow the formula H + F = BBV. (That’s Hero + Flaw = Bad, Bad Villain.) Voldemort, one of the most memorable villains of the last ten years or so, is a powerful wizard much like Albus Dumbledore. Unlike ol’ AD, however, Voldemort has a singular obsession that edges him out of the “good guys” column and into the “attack on sight” column: he’s terrified of death, and he’ll do anything to anyone in order to avoid it. Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, is very much Holmes’ mental twin, save for what A. C. Doyle describes as “a criminal strain [that] ran in his blood.” But there are those villains who need no inverse twin. Hannibal Lecter, one of the classic villains, is moved by his own internal sense of right and wrong and needs no white knight to motivate him.
Aaaaanyway. I’m starting to ramble (again). Today’s “Versus” installment is about heroes and villains, obviously. As I look over Arthur’s and my picks, I see that we’ve once again done practically the opposite of each other. Arthur’s pick for Best Villain is thoroughly larger than life; His Best Hero pick is a character who lives in the shadow of the story's canonized hero. I’ve gone the other way, as you’ll see. It makes one wonder if Arthur and I might be nemeses. But who is the hero, and who is the villain? Only time will tell…
(Arthur, you go first.)
My VILLAIN is a character from the Song of Ice and Fire series named Tywin Lannister. Tywin is the patriarch of the Lannister family. The Lannisters are one of the wealthiest families in the world at the time of the novels. Tywin is rarely seen in A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings but we learn about him heavily through the actions of his progeny, Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion. Jaime is the golden boy of the family, the pride of his daddy’s eyes. He has been groomed from a young age to take the family over and I believe he secretly wants Tywin to die so that he can do so. When the books begin he is embroiled in a secret incestuous affair with his sister Cersei. Cersei is the female equivalent of Jaime. She is totally ruthless and uses her sex and attractiveness to manipulate men, including Jaime. Their incestuous affair eventually leads to Cersei telling Jaime to through a young man off the side of a tower because he saw them together. Where Jaime is brawn and Cersei manipulative, neither is as clever or quick witted as Tywin's bastard dwarf son, Tyrion. Tyrion is nowhere near as evil as his siblings. He has led a life of being a bastard and it has caused him to become hardened. His aloneness has however led him to becoming sly. He understands things at a deeper level than his siblings. In many ways he is more like Tywin than the others. Tywin rarely acts on his own preferring to manipulate his children or underlings to do his dirty work. Nonetheless the dirty work is real dirty. He orders Cersei to seduce the king thereby becoming the queen so as to further his own goals. Jaime was ordered to kill the former king because he disliked Tywin. Tywin reign of terror ends in the books, killed by his own son, Tyrion. In the end, Tywin wrought what he sowed.
Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings is my HERO of choice. The very first time we meet Samwise, we only know him as a friend of Frodo. That is really all we need to know about him, it is what lies at the very heart of Sam, friendship. It is the reason he travels to the very pit of Mount Doom with Frodo. Sam never sees himself as a hero. He is one of the few people the ring has no effect on. I believe it’s because at his very heart there was no desire for the ring to manipulate. He never sought out attention or fame. Throughout the travel Sam never loses track of who he is. He is one of the only hobbits who express a desire to go home. Sam sees protecting Frodo as his duty, not to the world or a higher power, but as Frodo’s friend. Sam is first foremost and forever a friend. Samwise stares into the heart of evil repeatedly and does it all for no gain of his own. Even after the ring is gone he tries desperately to help Frodo hold on to reality. He is a consummate friend and that makes him heroic to me.
My VILLAIN of choice is Montresor, from Poe’s story The Cask of Amontillado. Montresor is a small man, driven to murder by nothing more than a profound dislike of a man and an desire to avenge what he perceives to be an insult to his (Montresor’s) character. Poe excelled at creating such characters—driven by greed, pride, and above all madness to commit acts of revenge and torture. Montresor describes his seduction of his victim and his method of murder (no spoilers here) in a detached but harrowing style that has haunted me since I read the book as a kid. He’s cold, he’s ruthless, and he’s got nothing more than mere pettiness driving him to murder. In creating such a small villain, Poe managed to convince a very young reader that evil doesn’t always announce itself with a dark cape and a corny one-liner.
I guess I was very taken with good guys and bad guys as a kid, because I went back to my childhood for my HERO pick as well. I’m going with Robin Hood. Specifically, I’m going with Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood. He’s an outlaw, but only because some really bad dudes are running things. He’s a thief, but he gives all (well, most) of his loot to the poor. After barely escaping from the law, he and his men like to kick back and sing songs and eat and drink. The notion of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor really resonated with me as a kid. (It’s probably why I’m a Democrat today, but let’s not get into that right now…) More than anything, Robin Hood represented a life that was so far away from mine, so remote from my own experience, that I could believe everything I read about him. When I read Pyle’s Robin Hood as an adult (and I do, often), it of course seems in some ways exaggerated and silly. But to the ten-year-old me, Robin Hood was grand, and tough, and true, and believeable.