Even though it was first proposed by writers like Ursula Le Guin back in the eighties, a view I’ve seen commonly expressed these days is that the chief appeal of traditional Tolkienesque fantasy is that it contains “moral absolutes.”
The argument is that young (usually male), readers are drawn to fantasy because it presents a simplistic view of morality. On one side is the powerful and ultimate evil, the dark lord, the mad god, the evil emperor/empress and their hoard of ugly fowl smelling minions who spend their time conquering, slaying and being generally nasty, whilst on the other side are the nice but far less powerful good guys (usually but not always handsome heroes, unexpectedly lucky children and beautiful princesses) who always do the right thing, wash behind their ears and only ever get all bothered and angsty about things like duty and honour and not being able to save everyone all of the time.
Said argument often also comes with a caveat that the person making the argument has seen the error of their ways, or is clever/sophisticated/female enough to see such simplicity for the shoddy trick it is. More recently, said argument also often adds a note in praise of that patron saint (or maybe arch sinner), of moral ambiguity, George R. R. Martin, with remarks about how “grey” Martin’s books are because there is (supposedly a lack of absolute evil in Westeros.
This claim that Martin is “morally ambiguous” however is one I find a bit confusing. For a thing to be “morally ambiguous”, it must be open to different moral interpretations, or must involve a conflict between two different moral principles, like those Spoktacular debates about the good of the one vs the good of the many. Yet, Martin is a writer who has a nine year old boy crippled for life by a casual act of cruelty in the opening chapters of his first book, then proceeds (often in graphic detail), through mass murder, torture, mutilation, rape, and slavery; matters which only Hannibal Lecter would consider to be open to different moral interpretation.
Of course, Martin does have his share of morally ambiguous situations, John Snow’s conflict over whether to help his family or maintain his vows to the Night’s Watch, Daenerys attempts to bring peace to Myreen, and to what extent the slavers should be treated as brutally as they treated their charges etc, but these aren’t usually what people are referring to when they call Martin “morally ambiguous”.
What people usually mean, is that Martin lets us know why otherwise noble or likable characters might on occasion do hideously horrible things, and even perhaps to an extent sympathise with those characters in spite of said horribleness. Yet, to sympathise with a person’s reasons for action, to understand why someone acts as they do, is not quite the same as believing their actions might represent an alternative moral principle; after all, however much we might feel for Jaime Lannister, I doubt the argument “well I’m sorry I pushed this child out of the window your honour, but I was having sex with my sister at the time and didn’t want anyone else to know about it” would really hold much water with most judges.
It’s also true that Martin has a fair few purely psychotic characters; those who engage in brutal actions either because they see such acts as furtherance to a personal cause or goal, against which other people’s suffering ceases to matter, Like Cersei or Tywin Lannister, or because they are creatures of pure appetite and self interest such as Gregor Clegane or the Boltons, characters who have no capacity for compassion whatsoever, and are; at least according to most moral standards, evil.
Martin does not have the monopoly on understandable but occasionally immoral characters either, even in the traditional Tolkienesque fantasy which Le Guin’s argument seemingly condemns.
Lord of the Rings of course has Gollum, almost the text book example of a so called “grey” character (a fact which Gandalf the not Grey himself remarks upon), but also Boromir and his father Denethor, both beset in their conflicts despite the evil they both do. Then of course, there are characters who, though they remain firmly working for the “right”, side, don’t always behave in the right way or have attitudes that are necessarily morally okay, Éomer‘s racism against elves, Lobelia Sackville Baggins’ petty snobbery, and even Théoden’s initial obstructionism.
Lord of the Rings is only the start of these. The Wheel of Time, despite the classic setup of a fight against “the dark one” spends more time in the bickering and scheming of supposed allies, many of whom commit atrocities of their own just as bad as the Dark One’s minions, whilst Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn makes even its big bad someone whose motivations you can understand and to an extent sympathise with, given the murder of himself and most of his people by invaders centuries before.
Of course, it is also true, as I said in my formula article, that the more formulaic and standard a character, the more an author will have to work to make that character interesting, however to automatically assume that evil characters equates to uninteresting characters is a generalisation in the extreme, and as we all know generalisations are always wrong.
Le Guin herself featured several notable characters driven by selfish or psychotic motivations, for example the wizard Cob who causes the magical imbalance in The Farthest Shore, or the mysterious and ark powers in The Tombs of Atuan. That such characters were represented more as disturbing the natural order of the world, rather than being some sort of “ultimate evil” did not for practical purposes make them any less evil to be around either, and of course disrupting the natural order is often a mission statement for dark lords everywhere, as in Michael Morcock’s Universe of Law and Chaos.
This isn’t to say Le Guin’s own work suffers due to its inclusion of dark powers and evil characters, far from it, indeed Tombs of Atuan features some of the finest and most down right terrifying dark powers I’ve ever encountered, along with their zealous and oppressive worshipers, just that those who are looking for fantasies with no evil characters probably shouldn’t look at Le Guin too closely.
There are purely aesthetic reasons why evil is interesting to read about, from horror and mystery; it’s not too surprising the most frequently asked question of Lord of the Rings is what does Sauron look like, to the fact that obviously the more evil the character and the more power they have, the worse things are for our protagonists and the worlds they inhabit, indeed listing why evil is interesting to read about would probably require a whole other article, if not a series of articles.
What I am concerned about here though, is the Le Guin argument’s contention that there is no moral lesson adult readers can learn from the concept of a dark lord.
Note that while here I use the term “dark lord”, I simply mean the powerful and ultimate antagonist of a traditional fantasy series which might just as easily be a dark lady, as the likes of Jadis, Bavmorda or Takhisis can attest to.
The basic principle that any dark lord is built on, is one of power. It doesn’t matter if the dark lord is trying to rule the world in full or in part, get revenge for something, or remake reality in their own image. The fundamental characteristic any dark lord has is that of the desire to possess.
As C. S. Lewis said of that famous of all dark lords, Satan himself, the ultimate aim is to be able to say simply: “mine!”.
Whether it’s a not so petty thug like Gregor Clegane torturing and raping and murdering, or the Dark one of Rand land wanting to remake the world in his own image, it comes down to simply a matter of the dark lord, desiring to control, destroy and possess things and people just because they can.
Even when there is a secondary reason for their actions, like Tywin Lannister’s supposed loyalty to his family, or Voldemort’s struggle with death, said reason usually breaks down to this one central fact of possession. “my family”, “my land”, “my life”, “my vengeance”.
So, are there those in the world who behave like this? Are there people who use the power they acquire to simply make things “mine”, irrespective of what gets in the way, or who they might have to hurt?
Of course, one can just see the likes of Gregor Clegane by turning on the news and perusing the latest crime statistics, however it goes further. Do we have those who sit in their hidden fortresses, uncaring of the feelings of those around them, not seeing people as anything but tools to say “mine!” of more of the world?
Again, a simple consideration of the world we live in, the increasing concentration of power into the hands of a few, and the companies and even governments whose chief care is their own personal control and influence over everyone else will show a pretty disturbing parallel.
Of course, not everyone in power is a dark lord, but there have been enough through history, and these days, in an age where so much of our lives from the clothes we’re able to buy to the jobs we do and the very views on the world we hear, are dictated not by truth or logic but by the central acquisition of prophet by a few highly placed individuals, one of the purist ideals of people saying “mine”, that could be imagined, the shadow of the dark lord seems closer than ever.
In most fantasies there tends to be one and only one dark lord, a concentration of the idea of “mine!” into one place, a black hole attempting to suck in everything and everyone around it, whilst sadly in reality the dark lords we have tend to be both more numerous, and less powerful, though none the less extant, and unfortunately, it seems their power is just increasing.
So, if there are indeed such dark lords around the place and their domination is as absolute as it appears, what does fantasy teach us about them. Namely that there is still hope.
One of my single favourite moments in Lord of the Rings is when Frodo and Sam discover the statue at the crossroads before taking the path to Cirith Ungol, a broken and vandalised remnant of something once beautiful. Yet, despite the mangling, the obscene graffiti and the waves of darkness emanating from the mountains ahead, a shaft of sunlight illuminates the statue, and nature has crowned its severed head with trailing wild flowers.
It is here that Frodo, in his simple Hobbit way speaks the lesson of the dark lord, the thing which we who live in the shadows of our own world’s ever growing dark towers need to remember, however crushed we might feel by the massive faceless apparatus of their control, however disheartened by the gulf between their power and ours, however insignificant we may seem among the faceless hoard they rule, the thing which a truly well written fantasy can always help us to remember.
They cannot conquer forever.