Who’s the baddie?

Arthur Rackham illustration for Jack the Giant Slayer

“Who’s the daddy?” is a Cockney phrase used to imply the dominance of the speaker — to which the statement “You’re not the boss of me now” could be seen as an optimistic rejoinder — but, too often, the daddy turns out to be a bad ‘un. The big bad boss figure — the bully boy or the strong-arm man, sometimes a threatening witch-like figure — is a powerful archetype which, reflecting real life, often appears in literature, from children’s tales to classical legends. The ‘baddie’ reaches their apotheosis in fantasy literature, where no end of baddies are the mainstay of the conflict that drives the plot along until, for the most part, they are defeated. Indeed, ‘Overcoming the Monster’ is claimed as one of the seven basic plots* that all narratives rest on.

I’ve been more than aware of these baddies in recent reading and so would like to explore this theme a little bit, though this post won’t be more than a very superficial skimming over of a deep ocean of antecedents, analogues, varieties and meanings.

I’ve noticed that these adversarial figures range along a spectrum, from the externalised cosmological to the internalised personal, sometimes even partaking of both extremes. In The Lord of the Rings Sauron is ‘over there’ in Mordor, bringing chaos and death into the rest of Middle Earth, but in a sense he’s also Frodo’s personal enemy in the guise of the One Ring, an object which gradually corrupts whoever bears it. The same paradox applies to Voldemort in the Harry Potter books: he appears first as a distant figure but his personal connection to Harry is revealed in more detail as we progress through the series of books.

Some figures regarded as universally beneficent can also have a dark aspect, demanding absolute obedience, exhibiting jealousy and promising punishment on those individuals who fail to deliver the expected loyalty. The classic example is the Old Testament god Yahweh:

I am Yahweh your god, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. […] You shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your god, am a jealous god, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20 (World English Bible, slightly edited)

This “jealous god” archetype is one which has mirrored spiteful despots through the ages, rewarding sycophants and targeting opponents. (Arguably one could substitute “god” with “leader” and “Yahweh” with a certain POTUS and not lose its relevance.) It’s unsurprising that myth, fairytale and fantasy have all riffed on this trope through the ages and that they continue to do so.

Gatto e Volpe, the Cat and the Fox in Collodi’s Pinocchio (Wikimedia Commons)

As I’ve mentioned before, Neil Gaiman is one of best writers of chillingly evil baddies in fantasy that I know. In his Neverwhere (1996) the two flâneurs Croup and Vandemar (who most remind me of the Fox and the Cat in Pinocchio) are seemingly able to be omnipresent whenever they choose, in effect trolling the hero wherever he happens to be. They may be the direct ancestors of those other nightmare creatures, Goss and Subby in China Miéville’s Kraken (2010). The baddie-as-duo is potentially more to be feared because of their apparent ubiquity, even given that one of the pair — should they play a good-cop/bad-cop two-hander — can appear to be marginally less threatening than the other (though that can be a dangerous assumption).

But even single baddies in Gaiman’s works have visceral menace: “the man Jack” makes his terrifying appearance right from the start in The Graveyard Book (2008), his presence flitting in and out of the narrative. And not all the Gaiman baddies are male: there is equally horrific “Other Mother” with her button eyes in Coraline (2002), and we mustn’t forget the being who calls herself Ursula Monkton in The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013). They have a distant kinship with the White Queen in C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), but an even closer one with many of Diana Wynne Jones’ baddies: the Witch of the Waste who turns Sophie into an old woman in Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), Polly’s smooth adversary Laurel in Fire and Hemlock (1985) and the malicious Aunt Maria in Black Maria (1991) are all examples of powerful magical females who at first seem to have no limits to their ability to adversely affect the lives of the heroines.

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) manages to introduce two equally alarming figures, one of each gender: the Dust Witch and Mr Dark. In this fantasy horror both characters have the propensity not just to play mind games and magic but to also inflict bodily pain. Mr Dark has the same sadistic, psychopathic streak as Jack in The Graveyard Book, as has also the Rumpelstiltskin figure called the Crooked Man in John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things (2006). In fact, psychopathy is at the heart of pretty much all the baddies — a complete absence of empathy or conscience in what they do to people, paradoxically combined with a trickster-like ability to manipulate individuals due to an innate social intelligence.

The fear that these villains engender is twofold: linked in with the psychological threats, menace and bullying is the violence, the physical hurt they are able to do (and may actually inflict). It is everyone’s nightmare, the torture from which no-one can escape. In history, in narratives, in actuality in our modern world, that violence is ever there, always possible, never banished forever. In Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Of Giants: Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages (University of Minnesota Press 1999) the author retails a purely historical perspective of the baddie, seen through psychological eyes. The medieval view of the monster, ogre or giant was of a reality which existed just around the corner, mostly in male guise, whom the hero (less frequently the heroine) had to vanquish — or perish in the effort. Cohen notes that this adversary starts to be treated as a more comic figure as the Middle Ages draw on, even shrinking in size. In this scenario the baddie becomes a kind of evil twin for the protagonist, an ‘intimate stranger’ without whom they cease to feel a sense of wholeness.

Whether Cohen’s hypothesis is correct or not, it’s true that we — those of us who are perhaps lucky and don’t have to continually confront evil personified — can experience a vicarious sense of the baddie through fiction. The fact that we are drawn to fantasy where the adversary with a thousand faces is vanquished, again and again, perhaps suggests that we carry the baddie within us and that the struggle to overcome him or her is essentially a struggle with oneself.

That may partly explain the attraction of this genre in which, as with Joseph Campbell’s Hero, we play the movie of the ‘monomyth’ over and over again. Try this with any fantasy you can think of: the demons to be confronted by Jonathan Strange and Stephen Black in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are not just external (albeit in a magical dimension) but also of internal — the demons of ambition, jealousy, revenge and recklessness, for example. In Alison Croggon’s The Bone Queen the young bard Selmana must battle not only with a powerful and terrifying adversary but also face up to her fear of slipping uncontrollably into worlds that drain all the positivity out of her. And in Among Others Jo Walton describes the several ‘monsters’ Mori has to overcome — trauma arising from a sibling’s death, constant physical pain from a lamed leg, fear of alienation and rejection — all of which are somehow mixed up with her dangerous and disturbed mother, from whom she is estranged.

The Monomyth according to Joseph Campbell (image: public domain)

In most fantasy we look for, and hope for, a final resolution that favours the plucky protagonist. But it doesn’t explain the attraction for fans of horror fiction featuring an ultimate scenario, in which evil triumphant vanquishes everybody and everything. Does this trope imply that the baddie within has finally learned to turn the tables, especially after suffering years of narratives in which they fail? I confess it’s not a genre I’m drawn to — there’s enough unresolved evil in the world as it is — but it obviously has an appeal.

* Links are to my reviews 

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27 thoughts on “Who’s the baddie?

  1. When the film of Coraline came out there was an app on the website where you could upload a picture of yourself to have black button eyes applied. I’ve kept my picture to remind me to not be that other mother!

    1. I’ve only seen clips from the film, Annabel, but I do remember it capturing rather too well the menace of those button eyes! The mutilated toys in the first Toy Story film somehow also brought the image of the Other Mother to mind when I saw that for the first time.

  2. Without good villains, how boring stories would become!

    Unresolved evil is, to me, boring and pointless.

    On the other hand, having a villain redeemed works well, as in Tale of Two Cities.

    Then there is the delightful turnaround, as with Elphaba in Wicked, or with the Shrek animated series.

    I’ve been racking my brain to remember a villain in classic fiction who was, apart from being a villain, a complete gentleman and quite likeable. Won’t come!

    1. Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, who married recklessly and imprisoned his wife in the attic springs immediately to mind, though some wouldn’t see him as a ‘villain’ as such. I’m sure there are nuanced baddies out there in classic fiction — I’ll list them when I’ve reached a significant handful.

      “Good villains” — I do know what you mean by this dichotomous phrase! — do not make a badly told narrative less boring, they just reveal an author’s simplistic thinking, in my opinion. It’s true there are psychopaths and sociopaths out there in the world who appear to have no redeeming features, but I’d argue that purely evil characters are as boring as a purely good protagonist: most heroines and heroes are flawed individuals who have to find the spark of redemption within themselves. In Frankenstein who is the hero, who the villain? The monster Frankenstein creates or the monstrous aspects of Frankenstein’s own character?

      Ah, then there’s Milton’s Satan, nominally a villain but one we feel sorry for (from what little I remember dipping into Paradise Lost.

      I’ll get back to you, Col — you’ve got me thinking further now with your additional points. And I did say in my post that it would be a very superficial examination!

      1. By ‘good’ I was meaning that they were effective in their roles. Still, the ones who do have features one can admire and where one wonders if, in their shoes, the same course would not have been taken, are of special interest.

        Then, in popular fiction there are the villains-as-heroes like Robin Hood, The Saint, or Modesty Blaise.

        I may have mentioned recently editing a book that represented The Devil in a sort of necessary Yin/Yang role — an interesting concept, indeed.

        1. I realised what you meant by ‘good’ villains, Col, but acknowledged it rather ambiguously!

          The heroic outlaws I didn’t consider because they fall into a category of their own, antiheroes like James Bond achieving good through questionable means require some adjustments to our moral compass!

          Your mention of a Yin/Yang Devil *is* interesting, similar in some ways to the Jungian Shadow where our psyches are concerned. Curious to imagine how this scenario would eventually pan out.

  3. This will be extremely brief due to time constraints, but I find Rowling interesting in this regard because she has a variety of “baddies” operating at different levels:

    The Safe Evil (the Malfoys, whom it’s safe to like because they never really do anything more than talk & they’re really ok people underneath it all; which is itself dangerous & insidious, especially re: issues of racism)

    The Insidious Evil (Umbridge, perhaps Rowling’s most effective villain in terms of accomplishments & posterity)

    The (Ultimately) Ineffective & Selfish Evil (Voldemort; nothing he does ever lasts & it’s all about him)

    The Unrestrained Evil (Greyback, who goes beyond even Voldemort’s limits)

    Really simplistic take at the moment.

    1. Interesting, Brent, and your fourfold typology immediately put me in mind of the traditional Four Humours (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic) and psychological extrapolations of these into opposites straddling two axes (introvert/extravert and people-oriented and thing-oriented). I wonder how closely your Four Evil Types relate to either system?

      I must get onto a structured reread and review of the Harry Potter sequence soon — so little time to fit everything in!

            1. I see I ‘liked’ it at the time, and having reread it I remember thinking of the Four Humours first time around too! Thanks, all valid points and one to ruminate further on.

  4. Ooh, what a wonderfully tantalising post this is. Some wonderful villans you’ve chosen there, Chris. Gaiman is great at villains, isn’t he? Croup and Vandemar and the man Jack spanning loquacious, almost inane chatty evil and near silent, sadistic menace. Such great choices and after all the villain is so important in a story – without pure evil you can’t have true heroism.
    Cracking post – and loved the Rackham print too

    1. Thanks, Lynn! Glad too you liked the Rackham — used to have a book of fairytales with all his illustrations (including this one) but lost sight of it when my mother died — probably one of my sisters has it now!

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