Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Readercon: The Case for Archetypal Evil in Fantasy

Immediately after the "Inner Landscape" panel, so it had the same sound problems, though less so—I think the panelists were better about their mikes, or I was more used to it.

The Case for Archetypal Evil in Fantasy.
Ellen Asher, S. C. Butler, Jeanne Cavelos, James Morrow (L), Joshua Palmatier.
The pervasive trend in modern fantasy is to give the bad guys moral complexity and psychological depth-good reasons to be bad. This approach stands in stark contrast to the legions of past Dark Lords who were utterly evil because, well, they were utterly evil. Tolkien, however, wrote pages of philosophy on the nature of Melkor / Morgoth (published in Morgoth's Ring), suggesting that our rejection of the old model was a reaction only to badly done Dark Lords. Is there an argument for making things at least somewhat black and white (how much psychological depth does a human sociopath have, anyway)?

Morrow: he doesn't agree with the premise. The single worst idea humans ever came up with is Manichaeism. He and his wife were hired to write a school curriculum based on LotR, and he continues to be very troubled by its Manichaeism.

Butler: there are reasons for both. In epic fantasy, it's hard to get away from archetypal evil. What are you doing? If you're George R.R. Martin, for instance, showing all sides of all questions, can do complex evil, especially if the villains are human. If villains are more than human, it's harder. (His are. He did Manichaeism without the good part, where the bad guy created the world.) The best example of complex he can think of is Milton's Lucifer, who is fascinating.

Asher: once you start with archetypes at all, you can use any archetype. She agrees that the type of story you're trying to tell (allegory v. realistic) will affect the success of your use. One of reasons she's turned away from archetypal evil is that it becomes sort of boring & pointless.

Morrow: any allegories you admire?

Asher: in medieval epics, the black knight is the bad guy because that's his function in story. Similarly, in folklore, the evil witch or whatnot is evil because that's what she does in the story.

Morrow: his objection to archetypal evil is political: how easy becomes to identify certain people with that archetype.

Butler: it's a very primate urge.

Morrow: and then people exempt themselves from responsibility for their own evil.

Palmatier: is the story about the evil or about the good? He used to read books in which the evil didn't show up until the very end, because the story itself was about the trials of main character in getting to archetypal evil. (When asked for examples, he said that Terry Brooks was the first author to come to mind.) So when you construct a story, do you need a Dark Lord [*] or not? If not, then you must get into nuance. Also, it has to do with the interest level of the character: a giggling maniac is not very interesting.

[*] See his follow-up post: Writing Discussion--The Dark Lord

Asher: is the Dark Lord a MacGuffin?

Palmatier: yes.

Morrow: to play Devil's (heh) Advocate: if one rejects archetypal evil, then one can fall into a secular humanistic naivete, and not recognize how bad people can be

Cavelos: "I'm all for evil." *audience applause* She thinks sff creates an alternate setting of metaphor, which is purified/intensified to reveal something about our world (it's not a 1:1 correspondence). Authors externalize internal tendencies & forces to dramatize them (e.g., the Ring is the temptation to power), It's interesting to explore the two natures of evil, external & internal, and having the extremes allows the whole range to exist in a work.

Asher: keeping hold of archetypal evil helps defend against humanist sentimentality: "even the worst person has reasons, and if we can really understand those reasons, we can help/save/reform the person." Which is not always case. Not that we shouldn't try to understand, because we may be able to prevent, but once evil is full-blown . . .

Morrow: in response to Cavelos, called LotR a "schizoid world" (I think he thought it had no middles to its range, but I didn't quit hear). However, to give it its due in an ontological sense (aside: "we can use that word, this is Readercon"), there is that wonderful moment in the Council of Elrond scene where Gandalf says "let folly be our cloak": we good folk can imagine what it's like to be evil, but not the reverse.

Morrow asked the panel: are there works of fantasy other than Tolkien's that are good but still black & white?

Asher: Narnia. Lewis defines evil as a property of imagination, such as (?) in The Last Battle when dwarves reject salvation even though it's open to them (I am not at all sure I understood thing).

Butler: [talked about sex offenders instead of answering the question]

Cavelos: fantasy explores humanity's reaction to evil (while sf does the same for technology). She edited lots of novels in which evil is committed by the mentally disturbed, and that explanation can also take away free will. Fantasy is a way to wrestle with this.

Morrow: rants about C.S. Lewis and demonizing people.

Audience: does anyone see archetypal evil as being unable to be saved?

Morrow: objects to whole concept.

Butler: there's a difference between religion and good & evil. Faramir is the fulcrum of LotR because he really struggles, so what an unreligious reader like him sees is how people evaluate archetypal evil and choose when faced with it. It's why putting in archetypal evil useful (asserts a. good not there, which is interesting)

Morrow: let's do complex evil now!

Cavelos: JRRT's orcs are not evil. They're twisted elves who've lost their free will and have no path to redemption, which is an interesting place to be on the spectrum.

Asher: but they do evil, are you saying they're not moral agents?

Cavelos: yes.

Audience: examples of non-religious evil: the Thomas Covenant books, which split things on a different axis, hope v. despite. A Twilight Zone episode about something that no-one was forced to do, but if you didn't want to, there was something wrong with you and they could fix that. Psychopaths, with their complex shallowness.

Morrow: the famous quote about "banality of evil": what's often missed is that evil itself isn't banal, but that Eichmann was

Audience: if you make evil an exponent, then it vanishes from the earth (and Auschwitz was supernatural power, not us). Or it's dangerous & attractive. Either end has dangers.

Audience: [something I missed about Greek gods]

Cavelos: Melkor incarnated himself into the material world so everything would have a tie or be drawn to him.

Audience: Dark Lord is usually presented as already known to be Dark; is there ever anything that actually proves to the reader that the Dark Lord is evil?

Morrow: JRRT does have the myth of the fall, which is expressed as discord & disharmony.

Audience: often thinks archetypal evil is authorial laziness. Also, people are very comfortable with it because we know it's not us.

Morrow: Le Guin essay "The Language of the Night" is very good on this, about the wired appeal of archetypes.

Asher: [made a point about Sauron being off-stage that I didn't hear]

Cavelos: JRRT has so many evil shadow figures. Manichaeism versus the evil from within one's self. (I think the shadow figures are those not directly working for Morgoth or Sauron, but I'm not sure now.)

Audience: is pure evil unreasoning, as the panel seems to be suggesting?

panel: no, evil can be completely reasonable because it has no emotion!

Audience con't: maybe that's laziness, not exploring a logical structure within the evil character's self (this doesn't make much sense to me either now).

Butler: a lot of this might not work just because of bad writing, either the giggling psycho or the Dark Lord

Morrow: agrees about the danger of disconnected rationality: the second great gift of the Enlightenment was skepticism

Butler: it's one of the great SF tropes, scientists taking over

Audience: art has moved to evil from machine or similar things that are very "other," because social relativism has gotten far enough that we can understand human manifestations of evil. We have to back it out of humanity to be frightening, through a complete inability to relate to it.

Audience: extension of that: evil acts can come out of feelings/emotions but no empathy.

Morrow: evil as lack of empathy, privileges its own understandings.

Cavelos: on the other hand there's the evil of the collective, the Borg or so forth.

And then they ran out of time.

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Tags: cons, readercon, readercon 2007
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