While looking at Twitter a few days ago, I noticed that Neil Gaiman linked to an anti-Tolkien article by Michael Moorcock, written in the 1970s. I haven’t read anything by Moorcock, and the article often just makes him sound like a cranky old man (even though he was still pretty young when he wrote the majority of it), but there are some points I thought were valid. In general, Tolkien and his ilk, particularly C.S. Lewis, wrote works that demonstrated a particular sort of English conservatism, longing for a mythical golden age of knights in shining armor and people communing with nature. A lot of this sort of fantasy glorifies earlier ages, while ignoring the less convenient aspects of the distant past, like the unsanitary conditions that caused people to contract virulent diseases. I guess in a fantasy world, these can be fought with magic. Moorcock briefly mentions L. Frank Baum as a better writer, and I’ve observed before how his work has a more ambivalent attitude toward the yesterday vs. today debate. At the beginning of The Enchanted Island of Yew, we see some of the typical romanticism of a simpler past: “In the old days, when the world was young, there were no automobiles nor flying-machines to make one wonder; nor were there railway trains, nor telephones, nor mechanical inventions of any sort to keep people keyed up to a high pitch of excitement. Men and women lived simply and quietly. They were Nature’s children, and breathed fresh air into their lungs instead of smoke and coal gas; and tramped through green meadows and deep forests instead of riding in street cars; and went to bed when it grew dark and rose with the sun–which is vastly different from the present custom. Having no books to read they told their adventures to one another and to their little ones; and the stories were handed down from generation to generation and reverently believed.” Later on, however, he adds, “To-day the fairies are shy; for so many curious inventions of men have come into use that the wonders of Fairyland are somewhat tame beside them, and even the boys and girls can not be so easily interested or surprised as in the old days.” And Oz is a fairyland without railroads and automobiles (well, until John R. Neill took over the series, anyway); but with sentient robots, radio telegraphs, and submarines. The impression seems to be that there are advantages to both the old and new ways, and while technology definitely brings detriments, it can sometimes be just as marvelous as the old tales of magic. Mind you, the fact that Moorcock complains about books that don’t acknowledge the reality of death makes me wonder if he had read more than the first few Oz books.
Another point Moorcock makes about Tolkien is that “we are not sure – because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders – if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told.” This reminds me of a comment I remember Terry Pratchett making to the effect that he enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, but felt for the Orcs and Trolls because they never had the chance to better themselves. They were just undeveloped evil henchmen.
Picture by Michael Hague
It seems to me to be a typical aspect of epic fantasy that the villain has to be a force of pure malevolence, which often means they aren’t characters so much as representations of evil.
Picture by Cortney Skinner
Sauron has a back story, but since it’s basically that he’s the Devil’s right-hand man, he doesn’t really need motivations or character development. His goal is simply to corrupt the world. I remember seeing a complaint that Voldemort in the Harry Potter series was “smalltime” as he was just a really bad human wizard who rose to power in the 1940s, not some kind of super-demon from the ancient past. In a way, though, this makes Voldemort more believable, and more able to stand as a character in his own right.
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of Baum, and while he does have totally evil villains who are regarded by the narrative as more or less deserving death (the Awgwas and their allies, the Wicked Witches of the East and West, Zog), most of his evildoers were more of the selfish sort, often a bit childish and requiring a new outlook rather than an introduction to the sharp end of a sword.
I won’t say one kind of arch-villain is necessarily better than another. The epic demon lords are often more formidable and harder to defeat (even though Sauron could be killed simply by throwing a ring in a volcano, it was certainly a challenge to get there), but with the more human villains we often get more of a sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and sometimes even a bit of sympathy.