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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Good vs. Evil and the Simple World That Never Was

(Or the Problem of Absolutes in Fantasy Literature)

Good vs. evil.  It forms the basis of our religions and fills the narratives of our stories, myths, legends, and day-to-day conversations.  But the more I look at the world, the more I get the sense that such a simple dichotomy never existed.  Nothing is ever so simple as "good vs. evil."  There are always tugs and pulls from other parties, some of which are so torn between the good and evil spectrums that they seem to reflect a strange and un-containable neutralism.

Some people, however, aren't interested in those tugs and pulls.  They want to see the world in
absolutes.  A recent discussion I had with an older man on Facebook (we'll call him Bob) bears this reality out.  When talking about U.S. involvement in imperialist projects around the world, I pointed out that the U.S. often does great wrong, and that very few "pure" good acts exist.  Bob took this to mean that the I was saying that the U.S. is always wrong, and that the rest of the world is always right.  When I tried to explain that I was actually pointing out the problem of trying to talk about U.S. involvement in absolutes, he shrunk away and left the conversation.  He didn't know how to handle the fact that the world isn't actually a pure dichotomy; he wanted to think of the U.S. as occasionally incorrect, but more often than not very much right in its military and economic involvement in the rest of the world.  The fact that doing "good" elsewhere often hurts people didn't occur to him (when I said as much, he accused me of wanting the people of Libya to be murdered by Gaddafi, which couldn't be farther from the truth).

Bob is obviously not alone (though perhaps the particulars of his viewpoint make him a minority).  In the fantasy literature community, there is a whole segment of readers who clamber for the opportunity to read the next fantasy novel where the good guys and the bad guys are clearly laid out.  I suspect this group is small, in part because some of these individuals demonstrate an underlying or explicit sexism/racism in their calls for more Tolkien or C. S. Lewis (again, this group may be a minority even among those who like "good vs. evil).  Fantasy literature hasn't moved completely away from these simple notions; there have always been people who desire such a simple view of the world.  But the overall feel of fantasy to me is like a gray-ing up of the medieval model.  George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones is not The Princess Bride (William Goldman) or The Never-ending Story (Michael Ende).  Even the proliferation of the new fantasy anti-hero suggests that the genre has been moving away from simple worlds for a good while.

But moving away doesn't change the world we live in or the people who are readers, leaders, and so on.  In the U.S., we've seen more and more people who see the world in black and white getting their fair share of air time, rejecting the notion of grays outright.  Politicians routinely use the "good vs. evil" model to wage cultural wars in the country.  Paying close attention to the last election makes it clear that partisan logic is one which holds to that simple world view.

But what makes us desire "good vs. evil?"  Is it the sheer simplicity of it?  Thinking in terms of hard dichotomies might mean that we don't have to think about the subtle nuances of our lives.  We can look at single actions and say "they are good" and "they are evil" without having to wade through the complexities of history, culture, and so on.  Maybe it's because the more we realize that the world is gray, the more we also realize that any decision we make has consequences somewhere else -- that is that our actions reverberate elsewhere like socio-economic earthquakes.  Because the world never was a simple one (at least, not in recorded history; perhaps the "good vs. evil" dichotomy is a part of our primitive, pre-civilization hangups).

Why do you think we are so attached to "good vs. evil?"  Why are you attached to it, and do you think fantasy is moving away from such dichotomies?


  1. I've tried to refrain from talking about the United Kingdom because I don't feel as though I can adequately talk about the people who live there.  If anyone from the U.K. would like to chime in on this topic, feel free to do so in the comments.
  2. I don't want to suggest that the fantasy works I've mentioned above do not contain areas of grey.  They do, but the overwhelming sense in Tolkien or The Princess Bride or The Never-ending Story seems to confirm the absolutist "good vs. evil" narrative.

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  1. Anonymous3:00 PM

    I think there are absolutes. It's not a mental construct, and if we persist in exploring these moral topics from afar, as if we could determine their truth through thought experiments, we will continue to find absolute good and evil are unreal to us. Let us try to attain these concepts through experience and self-betterment. I think in dealing with the real world it is important to keep black-and-white ideals in mind, while understanding actions will necessarily seem grey. A blend of Tolkien and more recent fantasy, if you will.

    That's my two cents anyways. Much more to say on it, but I think that expresses the essence of my belief.

    Trying to be a good writer, I recognize that GRRM's writing seems more realistic to some, but feel that the overarching hopefulness, the absolute good v. evil idea exists. Therefore, I think I'd like to see fiction that blends Tolkien's vision with GRRM's penchant for description.

    For now though, the genre seems to be moving towards a greyish view.

  2. I guess I'd need to see some examples of things that are absolutes. That is, things that do not, in some aspect of their makeup, continue areas of grey. That they are pure objects. I can't imagine anything that is pure. You might be able to approach pure, but you can't really attain it. Good and evil are especially true in this respect.