Thursday, 1 July 2010

Five Villains I Love to Hate - Ellen Renner

What makes a good villain? Much of children’s literature, especially that written for a younger audience, goes for the out and out baddie – the caricature of villain as monster – larger than life and deliciously wicked. Think Cruella DeVille or Captain Hook.
Roald Dahl was a master of the out and outer. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda has no redeeming qualities – she’s a cartoon figure of pure child-hating spite, and the same goes for those evil aunts, Spiker and Sponge, from James and the Giant Peach. These are the sort of villains that young children love to hate.
There is a large chunk of children’s fiction which takes as a theme the classic battle of dark and light, with villains to match: Voldemort in Harry Potter; the White Queen in Narnia; Abner Brown and Mrs Pouncer in Masefield’s The Midnight Folk; ‘It’ in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and many more.
Enjoyable though these baddies from the dark side are, they tend to make for two-dimensional characters and I seldom give them a second thought after I’ve finished the book. Their story doesn’t continue to unwind in my mind. That’s the sort of villian I wanted to talk about here: characters which have stayed with me and made a lasting impression.
My list of five favourite villains starts with Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson transcended genre when he wrote the character of Long John Silver. Is Silver the first anti-hero in children’s literature? I don’t know. But I do know exactly what made that story stick in my memory from the first childhood reading: the character of Silver – a cold blooded murderer who cannot even be trusted to be thoroughly, safely evil. Silver might, depending on his mood on a particular day, stick a knife in a boy or save his life. Silver has dimensionality. You can’t see all the way round him. He keeps you guessing. He is as unknowable your next-door-neighbour or the woman sitting across from you on the train. He is real.
My next villain makes Long John Silver seem tame, for all the pirate ever did was murder and cheat. Aunt Maria, in the book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, is that most frightening of creatures: a villain who believes she is doing good. Aunt Maria knows best and all she does is for the benefit of others. In fact, like all good villains, she desires power – the power to control those about her: family, friends, community. Hunched in her wheelchair like a black cockroach, armed with her two walking sticks and sweet reasonableness, she looms over her seaside community like the black witch she is. Her evil is not supernatural, it is chillingly human. Who among us has not met an Aunt Maria?
My third villain comes from one of the most terrifying books I have ever read, Changeover by Margaret Mahy. The theme of the book is a familiar one: the desire for immortality, the jealousy of the young by the old, and the lusting after their youth. The sinister Carmody Braque is sucking the very life-force out of Laura’s little brother, Jacko. Carmody’s evil has taken him outside the normal realm of human existence, but his desire to live is totally human and comprehensible. As one of the characters says of him: ‘He began somewhere ... He wasn’t always like that. He was a baby and a boy and a man, and in the beginning he probably didn’t seem very different from ordinary people. Somewhere along the line he made a wrong decision ...’ Much as I might like to, I have never been able to forget Carmody Braque.
In our relativistic, post-modern age, children’s books abound with equivocal villains and anti-heroes. In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, you have two to choose from, because the heroine, Lyra, has a pair of extraordinarily dysfunctional parents. Some people might find her mother, Mrs Coulter, the most satisfactory villain of the book, with her manipulative beauty and willingness to sacrifice her child for her beliefs. But to me Mrs Coulter seems more an attempt to personify the evils of religious fanaticism than a real person. She’s hideous, yes, and frightening, but it’s in a similar, fairy-tale way to Lewis’ White Witch or Andersen’s Snow Queen. It’s Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who gets my award for top villain. His crime is the very human desire to know the truth. He’s an adventurer on an ego trip, certainly, but it’s his suppression of all impulses of morality, compassion and the most basic empathy in order to prove the existence of another universe which drives him to child murder, a murder he seems barely to notice committing.
In end, of course, the line between hero and anti-hero becomes blurred. Hester Shaw, in Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines series, is morally ambiguous from her first appearance. Her mother has been murdered and Hester is left hideously scarred. Her only motivation is revenge. Hester is never a comfortable or likeable character. She is scarred internally as well as externally, full of hatred, grudging. But her story is so extraordinary, especially her relationship with the Resurrected Man, Shrike, that the reader cares about what will happen to this girl. In the second book of the series, Predator’s Gold, Hester’s status changes. She switches from hero to villain when she betrays the love of her life. She does so out of weakness: fear of loss, lack of self-esteem, insecurity. Most of us can identify with Hester’s all too human fears, and although her actions are unforgiveable, we understand the reasons for them.
It was really difficult to narrow my list to five. I’d love to know other people’s favourite villains.

13 comments:

Charlie Butler said...

I'm so glad you mentioned Carmody Braque! He is one of my favourites - as is The Changeover in general. And yes, Aunt Maria is another great one, though my top DWJ villain has to be Laurel in Fire and Hemlock.

Gillian Philip said...

What a great post, Ellen - I don't know Aunt Maria (though as you point out, I - we all - know one or two Aunt Marias) and I will have to seek her out. And I adore Hester and Shrike. And is it wrong to say one can love to love a villain, as well as hate them? Lord Asriel certainly comes into that category for me.

frances thomas said...

Miss Murdstone.

Or her counterpart for younger children, Aunt Fidget Wonkham Strong (who wore an iron hat and took no nonsense from anybody)

kathryn evans said...

That hideous toad woman Dolores Umbridge...far more terrifying than Voldermort....

michelle lovric said...

Really interesting, Ellen.
How about Miss Slighcarp in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the queen who eats the bleached bones of drowned little girls to preserve her complexion in The Stolen Lake ...?

Lucy Coats said...

Carmody--he is just so unredeemably awful. And I agree with Kathryn about Umbridge. Voldemort is almost a cartoon baddie--but I've come across Umbridges or their like. Only too believable. There are also excellent baddies in Jenny Nimmo's Charlie Bone series. A whole family of them!

Linda said...

I agree about Dolores Umbridge - I've taught with a couple of people like her!

Linda

James Bow said...

Great picks! I especially liked your pick of Hester Shaw, because I don't think she's a villain. She is, however, an exceptionally damaged character around whom several universes revolve. And, really, what purpose does a villain serve if not that? If there were no villains, the heroes would just sit around, drinking lattes.

I'll have to think of my own picks and come up with a list on my blog.

Ellen Renner said...

@Charlie. I've noticed we seem to like the same books!
@Gillian. Thanks! Yes, the Hester/Shrike relationship is compelling.
@Michelle. Yes, if the slant had been different would have included Slighcarp; and The Stolen Lake!!! LOVE Aiken
@Lucy. I couldn't get into the Charlie Bone books. Don't know why: Snow Spider trilogy is brilliant.
@Kathy. Yes, Umbridge is a much better villain; just dislike her so much didn't want to talk about her. She's ghastly, but totally lacking in evil charisma.
@James. That's what makes her so interesting: she's the pivot of the series. Poor old Tom becomes a bit of a non-entity after the first book, he's so nice.

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John Dougherty said...

Great list, Ellen! Another vote for Umbridge here - yes, she does lack evil charisma, but that's part of what makes her so plausible as a character. She embodies more the mundanity than the banality of evil.

Long John Silver: who could argue with that? I read once that Stevenson based him on a friend, imagining what the man would be like with the same gifts and characteristics but without his sense of morality.

Katherine Langrish said...

That's interesting, John - I never heard that before. What a great idea. Now then - hmmmmmmmm.....

Miriam Halahmy said...

The fairy stories give us so many villains its hard to make a choice and they were utterly hateful and terrifying. But how we needed those extremes to make the story work. I think I'll pick the first ugly sister. I have a bit of a soft spot for the second one!