I watch a lot of TV and I have read a lot of books. A lot of these things would come under the broad mantle of dystopia, or even the broader mantle of science fiction. It tends to be speculative, set in a world in which we do not live. I tend not to favour the fiction which is set in a world of our direct and tangible understanding. This is one of the things which seems to set apart my tastes from others.
The problem is that I have issues with one of the aspects of such forms of fiction: I am never able to buy the motivations of the bad guys. I can’t thoroughly root for the good guys if the bad guys are just cyphers of generic ill-content. I want them to be being bad, hating the good guys, for logical reasons. I need to know that they have thought all of this out, and have motives, not just that they are bad.
It is often shown that their motivations are that they are miserable or angry. I am often miserable and / or angry: it doesn’t mean that I am the big bad around here. I see myself as the good guy in my story: I would save the world from itself and let everyone live happily ever after. I do not want to kill half of humanity, just so we have greater chance of being able to feed ourselves with our resources.
I have just finished watching the first two series of an American comedy programme called The Good Place; I really enjoyed it, and the problems I have with the motivations of bad guys came back to my mind while watching it. In the series there are two places: The Good Place and The Bad Place. They are where the dead go to spend their time after they have left our mortal plane. Heaven and Hell.
In this construct, the people who are in the good place get to swan around eating frozen yoghurt to their hearts content (or dining from fountains of clam chowder), while paired up with their eternal soulmates. So far so good: It seems like a good fit for many of the morality codes we have going.
Then there is The Bad Place: demons torture bad people for all eternity. The metric for such badness is well defined, but the world of evil is not. It is implied at points that the tortured souls live in small neighbourhoods, in apartments, from where they go to be tortured on a daily basis for all eternity. But this is a comedy, and that is too concise. Instead the comedic potential for bored demons and demons looking for promotions are fully explored, and their side of the world becomes muddied.
But only muddied; at least their motivations are clear: it’s what they were created to do. Punishment.
By contrast, the motivations of the Death Eaters of the Harry Potter series are completely opaque to me. I have read the books, some several times. I have watched the films, all of them many times. I will continue to watch and read Harry Potter throughout my life, because I like it all a lot. Good.
What I have never been able to grasp is why the Death Eaters are so poorly behaved. I get that there is some form of aristocracy thing going on, where magical purity is required: That purity being told in the form of blood, and the lack of muggle influence on that blood. But Voldemort is hardly pure of blood, yet he is their leader. I understand that they see magic as might, and want to crush our world of muggles under their feet, but I don’t understand why. We are not oppressing them, are we?
To my mind the Death Eaters are just naughty posh kids who want to take over the wizarding world from the multicultural liberals and their inclusive policies. They have then made up some guff about blood and supremacy, just because they have acquired a Hitler type to lead them. It feels hollow.
Apparently Tolkien and Lewis grappled with similar problems when attempting to depict their own faces of evil in Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. They had both lived through some of the worst horrors humanity has ever thrust upon itself in the world wars at the start of the twentieth century, and wanted to depict a modern evil in literary form. Probably for children, too. Great idea.
For Tolkien it was the senseless destruction of nature by the mechanical forces of Saruman and the like which was his big evil. He kind of left the real evil at the heart of the piece – Sauron and the pull of ultimate power – understated. It was as if the thirst for power was merely a given, and the true source of all of the evil in the world. Perhaps this is why the Death Eaters follow Voldemort after all.
Wraithdom to power is the driving force of all of the negative actions taken in Lord of the Rings; the desire to wield that power directly seems to be the driving force in Narnia. I find the former more of a realistic representation of the world than the more fairy-tale kings and princesses view of the latter. There is no mention of reward and there is no description of ideology; only the will to power.
It may be that personifying evil is our big mistake; that by giving it a focal point we have to define its details. If we do not define its details it remains nebulous and generically ‘badguyish’, and that feels like the writers couldn’t be bothered to put the effort in. I suppose that’s my whole problem, really.
In the great dystopian novels of 1984 and Brave New World the big bads are defined in terms of the guiding hands of society: in 1984 we are controlled by an authoritarian elite, bent on wholescale subjugation and rule by torture; in Brave New World we have become slave to our own desires, in thrall to the infinite distractions of the world we choose and blind to the privations of outsiders.
I suppose Orwell’s picture of a dystopian society rings more truly with us, because it is an imposed ideology of repression and control. Brave New World is far more insidious than that: it is our own doing; that we have sleepwalked in to our prison cells; that we are the frogs in the beaker of water, and no one has noticed that the heat is rising. Perhaps we shun the latter view because it can be recognised as being all around us, and increasingly dangerously so. We are our own bad guys.