Representing Evil in Fantasy Literature (part I)

The question of good and evil is a largely philosophical question. Entire books on the subject have been written by scholars and philosophers through the ages. Nowadays, there seems to be some question as to whether or not good and evil actually exist. On one side are the relativists who claim that everything is relative, that good and evil are only figments of perception. On the other side are the absolutists who claim that morality is measured by absolute moral precepts that cannot be violated. Of course, that distinction may be something of a simplification. I’m sure there may be other flavors of nihilism besides relativism, and there may be other flavors of … what’s the right word here? … ethicism? … besides absolutism. Personally, I lean far more toward absolutism than I do relativism. However, I don’t think morality is limited to just absolutes. There are definitely some: rape is wrong, murder is wrong, etc… but not everything is so clear cut. There are some shades of grey and even some things which are entirely relative (arguing which is more sacred, Hannukah or Christmas, seems silly to me). That said, I do want to be clear: I believe evil to be very real. The question I wish to address here is: How do you represent evil in Literature?

 

What must be present for there to be evil? A few things come to mind: sentience (a rock cannot be evil), free will (a magically enslaved creature is not evil, insofar as its actions while enslaved are concerned), and ill intent. I’m sure I’m probably missing one or two. It’s been a while since I studied philosophy. Anyway, if you look at these characteristics the first two appear to be prerequisites of evil but not causes of evil. But the third is such a cause. Ill intent is almost a circular definition for evil. Hmmm. Perhaps I was too quick there. Although it is most certainly a cause, it may not be the only cause. I can imagine an evil being that holds no ill will toward someone while traveling with said someone for a short period of time. It is like the evil is repressed for a while. This makes me think that the evil is more permanent than simple ill intent. It is a property of the creature’s soul, if you will, or their character.

 

In the comments of an earlier discussion we mentioned ideology as the source of evil. Upon reflection, that seems accurate. If an individual’s ideology causes that person to kill and maim others without cause, it is safe to assume they are evil at heart. But that is an extreme case. Evil can occur in degrees with murder and death on edge of the spectrum, and simple selfishness on the other.

 

More can be said, of course, but I’ll leave it there for today.

3 thoughts on “Representing Evil in Fantasy Literature (part I)

  1. worldsbeforethedoor

    I would like to say something intelligent and erudite, but I’ll settle with saying lots to chew here. Funny enough I think Vampire Hunter D captures or explores these ideas. The absolute good of D, the absolute evil of the Queen Carmila and the gray of Meier Link.

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  2. Steve

    What about a simpleton who rapes or kills without the knowledge of evil versus the twisted soul who takes pleasure in causing suffering and agony in others? There is nothing simple about such a weighty topic. Evil comes in many shades of terror.

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