The real face of evil looks a lot like a garden slug, or why J. R. R. Tolkien kept the Big Bad off stage

I’m two-thirds of the way through The Two Towers, where the point-of-view swings back to Tolkien’s unlikely hobbit-hero Frodo and his faithful sidekick Sam, several days into some seriously uninviting territory. There’s a lot of rather foreboding and on occasion actively hostile landscape in this book. To date, my favorite is the malignant forest that rearranges its collective roots to make travelers lose their way. The minions of evil, the faceless Black Riders, have put in cameo appearances but more often they’re told. Thus far, the real Big Bads are safely off-stage.

Nobody gives Tolkien the chops he deserves as a suspense writer. I know how it turns out (having been strong-armed into seeing the movies) but that doesn’t matter; the setting and the hints are keeping me on edge. As is well known, the Nameless Horrors in the Back of the Fridge are way scarier than the expired pickles with the fuzz on them but the label on the jar still intact. (H. P. Lovecraft didn’t write about expired foodstuffs, but he could have. And by the way, mycologically speaking, it’s not the shapeless veggies themselves but the grainy black fungus on them that’s worrying … )

Writing evil is a tricky business. The medieval theologians were right on this one; it’s pure sucking void walking around tits out, but that’s a rather difficult thing to draw. We know it when we see it (or hear it), and these days it’s wearing a crisp suit or hipster drag or the electronic carnival-mask of the internets. It loves cliches, and the dialogue is usually more Dilbert than Dante. Most real-life villains conspicuously lack personality. Zoom in on historical Big Bads, like Hitler & co, and you discover a bunch of tedious yahoos in tacky suits boring the hell out of their dinner guests with racist screeds and anecdotes about their dog.

And large-scale evil, the smash-and-grab, fire-and-sword kind, imperial genocide with a side order of cultural obliteration, is organized and energetic laziness. Co-operation takes some brains and effort. Zonk ’em on the head and take their stuff? That’s easy.

When I think about the Seven Deadly Sins these days, Sloth is the one out front with the screaming electric guitar. The rest of them are backup singers.

So J. R. R. Tolkien is one smart writer, because I have the suspicion that if Sauron got serious screen time, he’d be boring us with Evil Wizard anecdotes.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Books, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The real face of evil looks a lot like a garden slug, or why J. R. R. Tolkien kept the Big Bad off stage

  1. Jean Lamb says:

    And when Sauron got any screen time–well, let’s just say his parody diary (can’t remember the site, sorry) mentioned mascara. Prominently. For another example, my husband enjoyed Stephen King’s IT till the end. Even with his spider phobia (there were bits of the LotR’s movies he screened his eyes for, Shelob reminded him of what he found in the garden shed when clearing it out), the Villain in that TV presentation failed to deliver. Shoulda kept it an Evil Clown, frankly.

  2. Sumi Rebeiro says:

    Of course your title reminded me of Jabba the Hutt, who worked well as a villain, but was not the Ultimate Evil. The Emperor worked much better in the (chronological) first three films precisely because of the dynamic you describe. But perhaps it’s a power issue, as well. My take is that very powerful figures, good or evil, really have no need to explain or speechify; they act, and the repercussions thereof force others to act. From the point of view of rendering drama and conflict on a human level, that makes ‘first movers’ very difficult to portray directly; they have no need for explanation or justification, so the only available version of either is that of the mere mortals responding–who are, of necessity not privy to most of what’s going on.

    Of course, it’s that very fact that allows dramatic tension to build based on anticipation. And ‘deus ex machina’ is disappointing not only as a plot shortcut, but because imagined gods and demons are always so much more puissant and terrifying. I, as a reader, find that when characters feel the need to explain themselves, I instinctively think of them as less powerful. (Perhaps this is another personal bias inappropriately generalized.)

    P.S. This sentence is going in my Evernote list of ‘Favorite Excerpts’: “Zoom in on historical Big Bads, like Hitler & co, and you discover a bunch of tedious yahoos in tacky suits boring the hell out of their dinner guests with racist screeds and anecdotes about their dog.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s