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.