Matt Bell on the Villain in the Mirror
Bell explores the power and need for fictional evils @ The Collagist. I - To begin, two bits of personal background: the first is that I grew up in a very religious household, one in which good and evil were verifiable forces at work in the world, forces that influenced and caused human actions. The second is that almost all of my early reading was fantasy and science fiction and horror novels, novels where often the villains were also the representatives of some greater force, some ancient power—one that was implicitly or allegorically religious, but of course not always.
Think Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia. Think Dracula, or else Grendel, Grendel's mother: these were the kind of villains I feared most when I was young. Perhaps because I grew up in a home in which I was rarely if ever in actual physical danger, it was instead the long arm of ancient, spiritual evil that I feared the most, that I believed waited outside the perimeter of a house's light, its circle of prayer.
II - A second breed of villains came from a secular but ultimately similar place, a simple patriotism or nationalism: When I was growing up in the 1980s, Nazi and Soviet soldiers were the bad guys in so many books and movies and video games (and still are, in surprising numbers). Later these villains changed mostly by staying the same, and certainly they'll wear other faces in the future, speak in different accents, but always they will be some other, usually dehumanized to the point at which no sympathy is possible or even expected. It is perhaps a profound moral problem when a soldier from another country—a stand-in for a person who actually lived, who presumably had the same complexities of character as you or I, whose involvement in whatever conflict was probably at least as complicated as the involvement of my friends who served in our most recent wars—is then used in a narrative as the equivalent of an orc in the Lord of the Rings: some unit of cannon fodder ready for dispatch by the heroes, who are inevitably more like us than like them. When I was a kid I ate up this sort of equivalency, or at least did not think about it: For instance, in Wolfenstein-3D, a video game popular when I was a teenager, you played the role of an American soldier, B.J. Blazkowicz, sent behind enemy lines in World War II. The enemies were without exception some variety of Nazi soldier, and the final episode of the game—titled "Die, Fuhrer, Die!"—has the player storming a hidden bunker, fighting through ever more difficult enemies. The games' end boss was a pixelated Adolph Hitler, wearing a suit of mechanized armor equipped with four machine guns.
A walkthrough found online complains of disappointment at this, stating that the end game is too simple, that "Destroying Mecha-Hitler is surprisingly easy."
The war started by the real Adolph Hitler—the war the game is based on—lasted six years and contributed to the deaths of at least 22 million soldiers and up to 78 million people. At its end, Hitler shot himself with his pistol rather than face capture at the hands of the Allies. The reduction of this historical villain to a sneering obstacle trapped inside a robot is an incredible and perhaps unbearable diminishment.
Image: Carl Dimitry at Itch Magazine