Book Meme 2012 Week 3: Magnificent Villainy

Topic: Which literary villain is the best?

 Even acknowledging the great diversity of ways a villain can be a good character, and the difficulty of finding a paragon of one such Way that can be judged higher than those of other Ways, the shortlist for this topic was easy to compile. The reason is simple: the best villains embody something that we instinctively realize as something we are Against, and thus the most powerfully-written or conceptualized baddies will become reference points for other evils we encounter, both in literature and real life. They are Memorable.

But different kinds of villain are Memorable for different reasons. The Golden Bookwyrm lays out three main criteria: slimeballness, cunning, and malicious intent. For Jubilare and Terpsichore, the best villains are the ones that are preeminently effective; perhaps so much that even after their defeat they retain a nightmarish power to influence people and invade a readers’ dreams. For Thalia and EmilyKazakh, the villain may not even think of himself or herself as evil, and may even masquerade as a member of the “good guy” team. For Urania, the best villain must be uniquely integral to the story’s plot and atmosphere; if you replaced him with another personality, the story would be fundamentally altered.

All these are common and excellent factors for making a villain great, but I think the most important is the one Urania mentioned – it must be impossible to imagine the story without them!

That doesn’t narrow my shortlist at all, though. I initially thought of Emperor Brandin, from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, who is magnificently complex and terrifying, precisely because his evil does not prevent him from being wise and genuinely caring for his people. One of the scariest parts of the story is when our heroes realize that the conquered citizenry are beginning to love the brutal tyrant, and may not support a heroic rebellion, instead letting Brandin get away with a grievous psychological war crime. His charisma, both in the book and as it extends to the reader, is considerable. But he is not quite archetypal enough for this post.

Then I thought of Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (a review of which has been in the works for a few months now…*guilty cough*), whose literary greatness is proven by his continued popularity, but whose main weakness in this category is that he ends the story rather humiliated and ineffective, and wouldn’t stand much of a chance against any of the other villainous candidates. Not enough to stop him from being near the top of my list, but enough to give me an excuse for passing him over just now.

In fact, I nearly had to just copy Urania’s post, for when she chose Captain Hook, it seemed so blindingly obvious that for awhile I could contemplate no other choice. Dastardly villainous and always entertaining, Hook truly is an archetypal figure from children’s nightmares, who is perfectly suited to his story. After all, what would the world be like without Captain Hook?

Indeed, my final choice is one I consider to be Captain Hook’s equal in Magnificent Villainy. She haunts you and the protagonists long after her initial defeat, she can use subtle manipulation and brute force equally well, and she nearly wins by charisma alone. Yet what wins her this topic for me is how well she represents the nature and end of Sin.

She’s the White Witch from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

What else can I say about the White Witch, the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia? She’ll wrap you in furs, serve you hot chocolate, and persuade you to betray your family to their deaths. She’ll nearly turn you to stone if you forget to call her “Your Majesty,” unless you have something she wants and don’t yet suspect her, whence she will abruptly act in a convincing manner both motherly and seductive – a disturbing combination when you realize it, but the danger is that many, like poor Edmund, don’t realize it until it’s too late. She even drove Father Christmas out of the world! Now that’s evil for you, folks.

Oh, and she also destroyed her entire homeworld by the uttering of a Deplorable Word, out of mere hatred for her sister. She would rather be queen of a murdered planet than live without power over others.

Her archetypal power comes from how well she embodies the nature of sin. Not only is it corrosive, hateful, and greedy, but it’s lonely, conniving, and desirous of appearing good. The White Witch looks attractive: her face is beautiful, her clothes stylish, her manner sometimes quite flattering and understanding. Her determination and strong charisma can be deceptively appealing even while you’re aware that she’s cold and cruel to her core. Yet one would be a fool to take her at her word, or to let themselves near her at all. She loves nothing, not even herself. She tries to salve her hatred with rebellion against everything good, against everything Aslan created. She wants to possess what she herself could not create.

Yet for all her rebellion and power, she is still bound by heavenly laws. She takes Aslan’s life in exchange for Edmund’s, but cannot prevent this from leading to Edmund’s salvation and Aslan’s resurrection. For all evil is but a cringing, pathetic thing in the light of the holy God. The White Witch, for however “cool” she seems when we read the books or watch the exciting movie adaptations, is really a desperate, dying, disgusting creature, incapable of anything good. She has lost from the beginning. It was written in the Deeper Magic by Emperor-Over-the-Sea Himself.


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

8 thoughts on “Book Meme 2012 Week 3: Magnificent Villainy”

  1. Good choice! I can’t believe I didn’t think of her! She is a truly ruthless being (and fits my three criteria quite well, actually). I had never really thought of her being seductive and motherly at the same time, but when you mentioned that particular trait, I found myself saying, “Yup – that is totally true!”

    1. And she’s terrifying! Until you realize that if you stay true to Aslan she cannot truly harm you. I really like both movie versions of her (the Disney and the older BBC one).

    1. It was actually kinda hard to figure out what to say about her, since she’s so well known. So I reread Edmund’s first encounter with her and was struck by the sin allegory in her, how she manages to be unstable and singularly driven at the same time.

  2. I like your take on this. That she is both terrifying and pathetic, deceptive and self-deceived, really does make her an image of true evil. Lewis has such a gift for creating characters that are simultaneously allegorical and yet believable as characters in their own right.

  3. The White Witch is a great choice. I’ve always personally loved the three-dimensional villains I can have sympathy for – Morgan le Fay and Mordred are two of my favorites in their various versions just because I feel they have some strength in their reasons for villainy, especially in The Mists of Avalon and television shows like Merlin.

  4. My son read me the Narnia series as a part of project to raise money for literacy. His eldest is in college now, so imagine how long ago that was, so I have to confess that I am more familiar with White Witch of the film series. My son didn’t think she was layered enough, but I loved the character, to because she had so much delight in her evil. I know the story is symbolic, but I was disturbed and slightly offended when one of my grandchildren came home from Sunday school and said Aslan IS Jesus. No, the character is not Jesus–Aslan merely represents certain aspects of the Story of redemption. I don’t mean to offend, but I prefer my offspring learn about Jesus from Gospels.
    But back to villains, I like the Witch in the film, possibly for all the wrong reasons–she’s powerful, she’s warrior, and many of the attributes one would expect from a Warrior-Queen-King turned tyrant. I’m alright if the stone table means the old pagan laws–and not Mosaic law which Jesus upheld and said would endure forever. I get a little queasy when people suggest at that image of table after the Resurrection suggest Jesus breaking the Law of G-d.

    My other favorite would be Modred from any of the Arthur Sagas. A fan of Le Morte, I don’t consider Morgan a villain in that sense. In Le Mort, Arthur seduces his other sister, both of them willingly committing adultery, unaware they are siblings. And Young Arthur also has a tyrant phase. Morgan is just a woman trying to avenge Merlin’s betrayal of her father and Mother. And Arthur adores her, no matter what she does, so I would add Le Morte’s Morgan and her nephew Modred as a seconds in the enduring image of villians.

  5. Excellent choice! She is truly horrific, isn’t she?

    “She loves nothing, not even herself.” You know, I never thought about that, but it’s true, isn’t it? She has nothing to commend herself.

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