I don’t think it’s possible to discuss evil without talking about the literature of the fantastic. We hear people talk about “evil incarnate,” usually in reference to some person or institution that has committed particularly heinous acts, as if evil were a tangible, measurable thing that exists outside the human imagination. In real life, things are rarely that simplistic.
Certainly, history and even some current religious thought puts forth the notion of those, human or not, who are inherently evil. To this day, some people believe that snakes (or spiders or other animals) are evil (I encountered one such man in a pet store, warning his young son that the garter snake would steal his soul if he weren’t careful). Once the mentally ill (or physically ill, such as those who suffer from epilepsy) were thought to be possessed by demons. Such beliefs persist today on the fringes of mainstream Western society, although they have largely been expunged from medical and psychiatric practice. We believe that such conditions as schizophrenia and sociopathy arise from disorders of neurophysiology, even if we cannot yet pinpoint the precise etiology. Even when we do know exactly what neurotransmitters and part of the brain are involved, it is still a widespread and understandable human tendency to ascribe unexplained phenomena, whether beneficial or destructive, to supernatural agency. Even though intellectually we may understand that a mass murderer is not an incarnation of some demonic spirit, nor is he possessed by one, and even if we cannot explain why such a person is utterly lacking in empathy for other human beings, we still often use words like evil, wicked, damned, devilish, satanic, and demonic.
Humans are capable of cruelty and viciousness so extreme in degree or scope that few of us can comprehend it, let alone the motivation behind it. How can we make sense of atrocities like the Holocaust or its equivalents, historical or modern? Of the massacres in Africa, Central Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, to name but a few?
I think we can’t, not by ordinary thought. The mind numbs with the magnitude of such deliberately inflicted suffering and takes refuge in numbers, pop psychology, and political analysis. It is difficult enough to struggle with the petty unkindnesses of everyday life, the irritations, the mundane acts of thoughtlessness, the emotions like jealousy or vindictiveness. Almost everyone loses their temper with one another at one time or another, or an unhealed resentment prompts them to strike out without thinking. These acts are understandable even when we disapprove of them, because they lie within the scope of our own experience. As we seek forgiveness for ourselves, we find the means to extend it to others. While these moments, and the means of making and accepting amends, smooth our relationships, they don’t make for a very dramatic tale.
Fantastical literature, on the other hand, enlarges the sphere of reality. This could be the introduction of magical elements into the ordinary world (urban fantasy), or parallel worlds (such as Faerie or Narnia) that interact with our own, each with its own set of rules. Or completely independent worlds (Discworld, Middle Earth).
Fantastical literature is also characterized by the use of archetype and metaphor to evoke experiences for which we have no direct vocabulary. We don’t need to have personally surrendered to the Dark Side of the Force in order to understand why the temptation is at once seductive and terrifying. Nor do we need to have witnessed an atomic bomb blast to imagine the devastation of dragonfire or a wrathful volcano god/dess.
In discussing how to portray interesting, multi-dimensional villains, it’s often pointed out that these characters – antagonists to the point of view character – are often heroes in their own eyes. They don’t get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, “I’m going to be evil today” or “Evil! Evil! Rah-rah-rah!” The best and most frightening villains have the same capacity for greatness as do heroes, whether it is physical prowess, intellect, a wounded heart, or simple charisma, only it is applied either in the wrong manner or for the wrong ends. If a tragic hero has a fatal flaw but is nonetheless admirable, then a great villain also has his blind spots, to his ultimate ruin.
Evil in fantastical literature ranges from the motivating force in such otherwise sympathetic villains to a “pure” black-and-white quality, one that is so alien to ordinary human sensibilities as to be utterly incomprehensible. We cannot know what it is, but we can know its effects – what it does to individuals, nations, and entire worlds. Black-and-white evil is in most instances a whole lot less interesting than those who come under its influence but still retain some degree of choice. That choice may be a once-and-for-all decision, informed or otherwise, or it can be the continuing possibility of turning away from the inevitable consequences, a possibility that diminishes with each step toward the abyss.
If Evil is monolithic, unmixed with any goodness, and incapable of change, then the resolution of the story conflict is reduced to either/or, yes/no, win/lose. This is not to say that such tales are less adrenaline-fueled than those that are more complex, only that there are fewer possibilities for a denouement: Evil wins and everyone dies/suffers; Good wins and the hero lives happily ever after; Good wins but the hero meets a tragic, sacrificial end. The first two may lead to an exciting climax and catharsis but are unlikely to offer the deeper emotional resonance of the third. If, on the other hand, Evil is one among many conflicting motivations, other resolutions become possible. The evil character discovers the capacity for love and sacrifices himself for a greater cause; the hero and villain form an alliance; either hero or villain crosses the gulf between them and healing ensues; the villain makes a last-ditch effort to salvage some good from the harm he has done; the possibilities become endless. All these rely on the capacity of sentient beings to choose their future actions, even when they had no power over what happened to them in the past and cannot undo what they have done. And in the course of these journeys, we ourselves gain insight into our own unhealed wounds, our festering resentments, our self-condemnation, and ultimately, our hope for redemption.
The demon is from Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, 1863, and is in the public domain.