Once upon a time, the villain of the piece was the King of Lies, who would lead the main character astray, away from the truth and light and all good things.
Sounds epic, biblical even, doesn’t it?
Thing is, this has changed. The King of Lies has lost his crown and I’m not sure when exactly.
Perhaps the change happened with the Renaissance and the introduction of translations of Platonic texts to the Western philosophical tradition, or with Romanticism with whatever they were really on about, or on, full stop. Or there’s an argument it happened with the 19th century obsession with collecting or codifying fairy tales. There’s something to be said, too, for WWI being a catalyst for a new kind of realism in literature to better reflect war and life.
Whenever it changed, it did change. Story tellers came to prefer nuance in their villains, perhaps some sympathy. Most of all they like them to be honest. Or honestly manipulative. For convenience, let’s look at Tolkien’s story’s of Middle Earth, and even more conveniently the films upon which they are based. Everywhere there are the bad characters. They are story telling throwbacks to the ye olde ancient evil, uniformly bad with a Big B without nuance or empathy. They are the embodiment of corruption, hate, greed, murder and the ‘will to power’.
Tolkien’s villain’s may attempt guile, but they don’t lie. The King of the Goblins doesn’t lie to Thorin when he reveals his great enemy Azog the Defiler is alive. He tells he truth when he uses Thorin’s title as King Under the Mountain, and he is also right when he says Thorin is ‘no one really’. Similarly, he doesn’t lie to Gandalf about the killing blow to him. So to, Azog himself promises to hunt down the House of Durin and to kill them in order. I don’t need to tell you what happens except to say he is not made a liar.
Smaug, the most cunning villain of The Hobbit, also doesn’t lie. In fact, he sees more penetratingly into Bilbo and Thorin than perhaps even Gandalf. Smaug, ever a powerful enchanter, prefers to use the truth to corrupt the intentions, deeds and achievements of his victims. And while he is mistaken as to the involvement of Lake Town he also does what he promises to it.
Do we think Smaug cursed Bilbo to betray Thorin, or did Smaug help Bilbo by saying out loud what he must have been thinking already? Still not sure.
What about Gollum? While he was corrupted by the ring, and was perhaps never a good being, Sting never glowed around him. He was never a personification of evil, but rather the ruined remains of what evil deeds do to those who start out just like you or me or Bilbo. Bilbo doesn’t kill Gollum because while he is quite awful he is pitiable too. Similarly, a generation later Frodo sees Gollum as a version of himself. If there is Smeagol and Deagal or Slinker and Stinker so to there is Frodo and Gollum. The thing is Gollum doesn’t directly lie either. He is tortured and reveals what he knows to the Nazgul. While he wants to murder Bilbo he does play genuinely play the riddle game, while with Frodo it is a matter of lying by omission rather than directly telling untruths.
So who lies? Bilbo lies or omits the truth to Thorin and Gandalf, while Gandalf lies to just about everyone, including initially to Elrond about the goal of their quest. There is an argument too about whether each of the Dwarves lying to themselves about their motivations and ability to fulfil or even survive said quest.
However, the entire story is written by Bilbo and he is only telling it to correct the lies he told about how he found the ring. At least, that is how the books have it. Bilbo and Gandalf tell lies to protect others, to protect secrets, or from shame. The Big Bads use the truth to inflict pain (Goblin King, Azog) and do harm (Smaug).
Mostly, we don’t quite have villains like Tolkien’s any more. Even Bond bad guys deploy comedy or have some aspect to their characters that humanises them, or at the very least, humanises their eventual suffering and defeat. War films too depict the humane moments of the enemy so as to emphasise their fall or corruption or general defilement through violence and suffering even further. In this post-modern world we see the worst of monsters are not disembodied gods of malice like Sauron but your average soldiers who film themselves joking around over tortured prisoners.
But a part of us still wants the monster. Who doesn’t occasionally yearn for simpler times when bad was identifiable, defeat-able and without troubling expressions of kindness or humility or regret to throw up questions of how bad should be treated in return?
Tolkien makes it easy for us. For instance, there is no debate about the value of Smaug as the last of his species. He simply must die. There are no Fire Drake Defenders, or First Age Re-enactors who require authenticity, or Lake-Town and Districts Fauna Conservationists speaking up in dissent.
Animals, when they are directly involved, get to choose sides. Giant moose and deer are on the side of good, so to boar and goats, ponies, horses, rabbits and hedgehogs, mice, bears and eagles. Spiders, wolves and some birds are bad. Easy, peasy.
Just so, we occasionally want our heroes heroic. Life and literature would be less complex if good were good. If, say Jack Bauer in 24 could save the US or the President without doing horrific things in the name of noble sentiments.
This is part of the enduring appeal of Tolkien. We identify with Bilbo because he is a small town gardener who likes armchairs and books who becomes a hero. Like anyone he is tested and hurt by his experiences.
Bilbo faces the questionable aspects of his own character and gets the better of them as he watches his friends attempt to do the same. During all this we know we can safely cheer him on without worrying about his ethics or debating whether he’s on the right side.
Quite frankly, that’s a relief in this day and age.