This week’s TTT topic is Villains. Since Halloween is just over a week, I decided to go with the scariest villains, but at the bottom, I also added a few of my favorite complex and interesting villains… the ones I secretly like, or at least feel conflicted about.
Sauron (Lord of the Rings) is essentially the devil; he’s a vastly overpowered being who seems to exist for the sole purpose of being evil and seeking dominion over, well, everything. There’s no complexity to Sauron; he is frightening merely because of his immense power and impersonal evil.
Voldemort (Harry Potter) has a little more complexity, partly because he has more of a backstory (OK, to be fair, Sauron has a backstory if you read The Silmarillion, but most people don’t) and partly because he’s human, and therefore his motivations are easier to understand. Abandoned by his Muggle father and orphaned by his mother’s death, he grows up in an orphanage, unloved and emotionally neglected…and probably bullied by older children in the orphanage. But it’s clear that he is bad from an early age; by the time Dumbledore encounters the 10- or 11-year-old Tom Riddle, he is already stealing and playing nasty magical tricks on other children. (Given the character of his wizarding family, the Gaunts, Rowling seems to imply that there’s at least some genetic predisposition toward evil… nature and nurture, if you will. This conclusion grows stronger when you contrast Harry and Voldemort, who have similar childhood experiences but choose very different paths, Voldemort because of his experiences and Harry despite them.) Nonetheless, Voldemort, like Sauron, is something of a stock Dark Lord; his sole focus is his own power and immortality, and he enjoys the pain and death of others. There is no hope of redemption for Voldemort; he stands as the embodiment of Evil.
The Ringwraiths / the Nazgul (Lord of the Rings) are terrifying because they evoke our fears of the undead. They seem to exude a miasma of fear and despair; they are (mostly) unkillable; they are implacable and untiring huntsmen. They remind me variously of ghosts, revenants, and the huntsmen of the Wild Hunt. It’s their inhumanity that makes them so frightening, despite or perhaps because of the fact that they were once human.
The Chandrian (The Kingkiller Chronicle) are scary because they are mysterious, because they appear to be demigods or at least near-immortal, and because they are cruel. Most folk think of them as imaginary bogeymen, tales to frighten children with, but the reader knows better… without knowing very much at all. Two very long books into the series, we can only guess at what and who the Chandrian, are based on stories and myths and a few glimpses of them. And we still have no idea whether Kvothe will encounter them again, nor if he will triumph if he does… though so far, the latter doesn’t seem likely.
Prof. Umbridge (Harry Potter) is the exception in this gallery of scary villains. She is frightening not because of the ways in which she isn’t human, but because of her her ordinaryness. Umbridge’s villainy stems from her arrogance, the petty pleasure she derives from having power over others, and her belief that the ends justify the means. Initially, her allegiance is to the Ministry, and her goal is to increase its power as a means of maintaining order; she sees Dumbledore, Harry, and their supporters as a threat. She seems to neither notice nor care that her methods and those of the Ministry become ever more similar to those of Voldemort. “Power corrupts,” as the saying goes, and Umbridge is a prime example: the more power she wields, the more she craves, and the more openly nasty and cruel she becomes… yet she persists in believing herself justified in the actions she takes. She is clearly based on the ordinary people who carried out atrocities under Hitler and other despots, and a chilling reminder of the dangers of authoritarianism and the abandonment of principles and common human decency in order to further the ends of the state (or of its head.)
The Shadows (Babylon 5) are another creepy, heavily overpowered villain—in this case, an entire race of them. One of the First Ones, the oldest races in the universe, they operate on the principles of social Darwinism: the weak die, the strong survive. To quote the Bab5 wiki, “The Shadows embrace chaos as the defining characteristic of their race and the supreme force of the universe.” They encourage conflict between the younger races (humans, Narn, Centauri, Minbari, and others), often working through thralls (beings they have taken over, or who agree to their influence.) Spiderlike in appearance, the Shadows’ spider-shaped organic spaceships are terrifyingly powerful, but their ability to control and manipulate individuals and whole worlds is even more frightening.
The Borg (Star Trek) frighten me because of their implacable drive to “assimilate” all intelligent species they encounter. Where human beings think in terms of either coexistence, conquest, or annihilation, the Borg want to turn everyone and everything into Borg. Borg collectives are essentially hive-minds; all individuality is subsumed and the assimilated being becomes, essentially, an ant or a bee, with no sense of “I” and no individual needs, desires, or drives. The threat posed by the Borg is the loss of self, and of everything that makes us human; to me that is more terrifying than pain or death.
IT (A Wrinkle in Time) is much like the Borg in IT’s drive to impose order through removing individuality. IT—a disembodied, telepathic brain—rules the planet of Camazotz and forces everyone into conformity, physical as well as mental… and makes them “happy” to be thus controlled. This is mind control and loss of individual agency taken to the extreme; it’s also a thinly-veiled portrait of Communist dictatorships as perceived by the author. (The closest example today would be North Korea.) IT is less scary than the Borg mainly because Wrinkle is a children’s book, but unlike Star Trek’s Borg, it is not defeated. Meg is able to break her little brother free through love, but she isn’t able to defeat IT; though Meg and Charles Wallace escape, Camazotz is still firmly under IT’s control.
Most Interesting Villains
I didn’t want to leave this topic without quickly referencing some of the more interesting villains I’ve come across—villains whose complexity and, in a few cases, likableness make them much more rounded characters.
Loki (Marvel’s Avenger films & MCU) Loki is a trickster; you never quite know whether he’s against you or for you. Add to that the fact that he’s charming (particularly as played by Tom Hiddleston) and that his relationship with Thor is a normal sibling love-hate-rivalry taken to the nth power, and Loki makes a very complex and compelling villain. Or antihero, depending on the movie.
Zuko (Avatar) has one of the best redemption arcs I’ve encountered, despite the fact that he’s a teenage villain in a children’s animated TV show. He starts out arrogantly convinced of his own and the Fire Nation’s superiority, and completely determined to find and kill the Avatar to restore his honor, lost in a duel with his own father. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, we see how he became so driven, the ways in which his father’s cruelty shaped him, and the slow eroding of his arrogance and dawning of compassion and humanity, influenced by both his uncle Iroh (whom I love) and his encounters with ordinary people of other nations.
Magneto (Marvel’s X-Men films & MCU) Marvel has given us a lot of Magneto’s backstory, both in the comics and onscreen, and it’s a tragic one. It’s no wonder that he rejects the idea of co-existence with ordinary humans, and works to empower mutants at their expense; his own experiences lead him to expect nothing but cruelty, loss, and exploitation from “normal” people. He’s not evil for the sake of being evil, like a Sauron or a Voldemort; he’s driven by his own pain and the belief that mutants will never be accepted as equals by ordinary humans, so why should they even try? Somehow he and Prof. X manage to be friends even when they are enemies, each convinced that he is right and the other is wrong, but unwilling to cut ties entirely. And Magneto is (mostly) loyal and supportive to those who follow him. In short, it’s very hard to see him as “just” a villain; he’s a complicated man for whom you can feel compassion even when you think he’s wrong.
Gol Dukat (Star Trek: Deep Space 9) is conniving, self-serving, self-justifying, a tyrant, and a bigot. The former military ruler of Cardassian-occupied Bajor, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Bajorans. He’s also sometimes charming, a father who loves his half-Bajoran daughter despite his bigotry, and a patriot, though his loyalty to Cardassia leads him to do some pretty despicable things. And occasionally, he is a useful ally, as long as you don’t trust him too much or turn your back on him. In short, Dukat is complex enough that you can’t simply hate him, because as soon as you do, he’ll do something or say something that makes you feel sympathetic… until the next time he does or says something terrible.
Garack (Star Trek: Deep Space 9) ST:DS9 abounds in complicate, messy, very human characters. (Even the aliens are often human in character, if not appearance.) And the Cardassians seem to be a favorite source. Elim Garack is a Cardassian exile working as a tailor on the DS9 space station. He is also, you come to suspect and eventually know, a former (and perhaps current) spy, one of the best in Cardassia’s feared intelligence service, the Obsidian Order. He wears a harmless, congenial persona aboard the space station, but underneath is someone much more complex, with hints of a dark, even sinister side. He sometimes helps the Federation or specific members of it, but it’s never quite clear what his motives are nor where his loyalties lie. Federation doctor and resident genius Julian Bashir becomes his friend and something of a protege, but even Julian isn’t entirely sure how much to trust Garack. To be honest, I rather like him, and put him in the “villain” category with reservations; I’m not really sure he belongs there anymore, though he certainly did during the Cardassian occupation.
Villain I’m Most Conflicted About
Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker. I debated which list to Vader on the list. I mean, he’s the iconic villain of my generation, but… well, he’s scary but not invincible, and he’s somewhat complex but not that sympathetic, at least in my eyes. He has a sad backstory, I’ll grant you. (We could have a whole discussion about what sort of “good” people would take a child away from his mother and leave the mother in slavery and expect the child to be fine with that…yes, I’m looking at you, Obi-wan.) But he also makes some bad choices even before he turns to the dark side of the Force. And his so-called redemption really doesn’t work for me. Vader did all these horrible things—participated or at least acquiesced in the destruction of at least one planet, killed his former mentor, and tried multiple times to corrupt or kill his son—but then suddenly when Luke gives himself up and says he “feels the good in [Vader]”, Vader changes his mind, switches back to the Light side, and kills the Emperor. It just doesn’t ring true. There’s no real reason given for him to change so abruptly. We don’t see any self-searching, and there’s very little to indicate he’s having any second thoughts before that time. In fact, at one point he wants to coopt Luke so they can overthrow the Emperor and take the power for themselves (read: for Vader himself.) Even as he is dying, Vader doesn’t express any real regret or repentence for his actions or his choices. In what way is he actually “redeemed”? Saving Luke and killing the Emperor, no matter how self-sacrificing that action was, can’t make up for all the people Vader killed and tortured. The Star Wars universe doesn’t appear to have a theology that grants absolution for repented sins (which, as I said, he doesn’t repent onscreen, anyway.) So by what right or grace is Anakin/Vader able to become a Force ghost beside the likes of Obi-wan and Yoda?
Who would you choose for a Best or Scariest Villains list, or a Most Interesting Villains list?