Wednesday, September 24, 2008

50 Greatest Villains in Literature

You just never know what you're going to find when you walk out the door in the morning. Or as Bilbo Baggins once said, "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Metaphorically speaking (of course) that can be applied to a few minutes of internet browsing combined with a hefty dose of serendipity. Today, while doing something completely different, I landed on an article that made my literature-major-antennae perk up and take notice.

The Telegraph (A London paper) got a few literary critics together and compiled a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature. The article begins:

Compiling a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature, without too much recourse to comics and children's books, proved trickier than we'd imagined - but gosh it was fun.

It's perhaps the nature of grown-up literature that it doesn't all that often have villains, in the sense of coal-black embodiments of the principle of evil. And even when it does, it's not always so easy to tell who they are. Is God the baddie, or Satan?Ahab, or the white whale?

Yet even writers as subtle as Vladimir Nabokov have spiced their work with a fiend or two. And here they are. We hope you'll furnish a few more we missed. These are the best of the worst: bloodsuckers, pederasts, cannibals, Old Etonians...the dastardliest dastards ever to have lashed damsel to track and waited for a through train.

So check it out. See where villains like Voldemort, the White Witch, Iago, Milton's Satan, Moriarty, and Sauron fall in the grand scheme of things. I'm still considering who I think was seriously overlooked. Certainly some Stephen King bad guys are missing - Randall Flagg and Annie Wilkes, and non-human characters like Cujo (who probably contributed to my deep-seated fear of large dogs!).

And the authors bring up a good question. Why is it that adult literature often has really distorted villains, such that we are never really sure they're a bad guy at all? And kids' books just nail it - you know exactly who the villain is and you rejoice in his ultimate downfall. Indeed, because you KNOW he's the villain you know, just KNOW, he will never triumph in his nefarious plans. Is it because the books for children have, as part of their structure, "life lessons" in the form of good guys and bad guys? With the implicit (or explicit) encouragement to be like the ones wearing white? And if so, is that really the ultimate purpose of literature? Should a book be read as an example of good and evil, a teaching tool for right belief, a way to discern and build upon a particular worldview?

Or, on the other hand, is literature simply a way to build upon more prosaic endeavours - the more you read the more you learn about good writing, the more you learn about good writing the better you write, the better you write, the better a student you become and so on and so on. The characters are interesting because if they weren't no one would read and ... well, you get the idea. (I'm not saying I have an answer here - it's an honest question.)

Well, I suppose I do have an ulterior motive, if not any kind of answer. The philospher is working on a book about classical education, and we've been having conversations about whether or not literature should be included as part of the trivium. And if it should be included... why? This summer we spent a large part of a West Virginia vacation with our favorite biologist debating this very question. We were talking about higher education, but the question applies equally well, I think, to juvenile literature. The philosopher managed to shoot down both of the theories I mentioned above, using his well-trained philosophic craft and deep understanding of the underlying issues. If I had a brain for that kind of thing I'd happily relate his conclusions, but I only vaguely understood him then and now that several months have passed the rhetoric is even more muddled in my mind. He tells me that he's come up with an excellent argument for the inclusion of literature in the classical trivium now, but I have yet to hear his exposition on that particular case.

So anyway, what do y'all think? Did you see any glaring holes in the villains list? And if you're so inclined to stretch your brain along the lines of my other train of thought, do you think there's a good argument for including the study of literature in the trivium?

1 comment:

Blondie said...

it's late, but here are my thoughts:

Classical education is language-focused, so, to me, any reading - particularly literature - helps to build a foundation for forming thoughts, ideas, opinions. TWM recommends literature in the context of studying history. While I think that is a great idea, I am just thrilled to get my child to read a book regardless of the history we are studying!

As far as villains, I have nothing to add, but I am impressed that Voldemort is so high on the list!