Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Benchmarks in Villainy: Action, Potentiality and Tolkien

I can blame The Silmarillion for many things, including my fascination with family trees, drool-worthy descriptions of armour and weaponry, and an irrational fear of giant spider-demons.

However, I think there is one aspect of this epic that doesn't get half as much attention as I think it should. Admittedly, in a story with a cast big enough to make the Song of Ice and Fire look like a pre-school rendition of the Nativity, it's a little hard to keep track of what's going on.

But I'll eat my left sock if the Dark Lord Morgoth isn't one of the best villains in the history of literature.

From the archetypal viewpoint, Morgoth is just about the most unoriginal concept out there - characters like him existed long before Tolkien wrote, and they continue to appear under a thousand different names and guises to this day. Essentially a fallen god, Morgoth - or Melkor, as he is known before a particularly cranky elven smith gifts him with the former title - is present right from the very beginning of the story as a bottomless pit of malice and wanton destruction. His motives are somewhat unclear - different interpretations by readers have boiled it down to jealousy, misguided creativity, megalomaniacal greed and even unrequited love.

Essentially, then, a being of boundless evil whose soul aim in life seems to be to instigate enough chaos to overthrow his fellow Valar and . . . wait for it . . . TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!

Sound familiar? I bet it does. His minion Sauron has the exact same aim in mind in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But how does Morgoth succeed where his more famous lieutenant does not?

The answer lies in a single word: action.

Sauron spends all of the Ring saga as a giant flaming eye atop the towers of Barad-Dur. Admittedly he is very intimidating, and the sense of his constant malevolent vigilance makes for a great atmosphere in places, but he is inevitably overshadowed by his minions: Saruman, the Uruk-Hai, the Nazgul, even Shelob to some extent. Although Sauron's influence is behind the actions of all but one of the above, the indirect nature of his involvement means he rather falls into the background, and thus loses much of his effectiveness as a villain.

Not so with Morgoth. Right from our first interactions with him, in key early stages of the narrative, the reader knows this Vala is a nasty piece of work, and as the story goes on and the stakes rise higher and higher, so does the scale of Morgoth's evil. There's no sitting atop a tower and letting his minions do all the work here: Morgoth takes to the battlefield personally, recruiting allies, leading raids and battles, laying traps, orchestrating betrayals and kidnappings and lies, and caving in the chests of beloved characters left, right and centre. The battering ram at the gates of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, Grond, gains its name from Morgoth's warhammer. If that legacy doesn't make a point, nothing does.

This is the key to Morgoth's brilliance as a villain - he is defined by his actions. And because of that, instead of being ridiculed as a straw villain who is easily overshadowed by more active minions, one only has to whisper his name in the proximity of a Silm fan to instigate a high-pitched meltdown that sounds suspiciously like a rendition of the Oath of Feanor.

Also, the scale of his actions perfectly compliments his power as a villain. One of the major issues with super-human sources of embodied evil is that their acts and intents often fall short of their potentiality. If he's so powerful, why doesn't Mr Evil just use all that power to march right into the enemy base an annihilate the source of his problem? And, if he is faced with a power that can rival and overcome his, why doesn't he use that infinitely connoving, cunning nature of his to work out a way around the problem rather than smashing his head into it repeatedly like a second-rate schoolground bully?

Morgoth exploits every inch of his potential, and the results are glorious; the more personal involvement of the villain provides much  stronger sources of conflict for many of the main characters, as well as providing more excitement and tension for the readers, as they are far more tangibly aware of what these characters are up against.

I'm not usually a one for one-dimensional Big Bad Villains in writing, even fantasy, but Tolkien's masterly construction and usage of Morgoth means that I still hold him as benchmark standard of comparison against all other villains today.

Any Silmarillion fans out there, do you agree with me? And non-Silm fans - what do you make of the issue on the whole? Do you believe it's possible to make use of such a raging cliche effectively, especially today? Leave me a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Agree wholeheartedly!! Not many villains have the audacity/means to march into the heart of the hero's fortress, desecrate their holy light, and touch off a thousands years of bitterness between former allies, all in a single afternoon.

    Wow... suddenly got the urge to read the Silm again!

    1. Indeed! Plus, it makes sense in this context - I know Sauron / Annatar wins big points for being so sneaky, but the scale and power of Morgoth just makes him awesome. Not to mention walking, desecrating proof that the Big Bad archetype is still alive and kicking.

      Glad you liked the post!

  2. Absolutely. I've made my feelings known before about Sauron's existence, but this hits the nail right on the button, I think. Morgoth is active. Some people say your protagonists have to be proactive and can't just be waiting around for evil to fight, but villains have to be just as active. They usually are, however, which makes the hero problem much more obvious, but you make a good point.

    1. I'm glad! And I have to say a lot of your thoughts on Sauron niggling away in the back of my head inspired bits and pieces of this post, too. So you do get some credit for it - glad you liked it! :D

    2. And you have inspired much of my latest post on villains, as I'm sure you've guessed.

    3. Just a wee bit. You do it somewhat more condensely than I ;)

    4. Occasionally, one can read only the first sentence of every paragraph and still get the same information. The same probably happens with me, but I don't read my own posts.

  3. Blergh. Why did you say that thing about ASOIAF and The Silmarillion? Now I'm not so sure I can get through something as big as The Silmarillion. xD

    Seriously though, Morgoth sounds better than Sauron. Tolkien has some GREAT villains but the main guy isn't one of them...

    1. Don't worry, I joke - the cast of the Silm isn't THAT big, as most of the characters are fairly minor, or have a self-contained story within a few chapters before we move on. You'll remember the ones you need to.

      Yes, Morgoth is easily the better villain. I love him to bits.

  4. The greatness of Sauron is his overall threat - he doesn't do anything because he can't until he gets the ring and is able to return to physical form. So, in the meantime, he has to scheme and draw others to him. As a nearly invisible mastermind, he is brilliant and frightening. The greatest threat of all is that if they fail, he will succeed.
    That being said, Morgoth is a better villain overall - an awesomely nasty dude.

  5. Yes, indeed. Very, VERY true:) I just read The Silmarillion for the first time, what was it, two weeks ago? (Sorry, it's hard to keep track if when I read books, having read the large amount of 97 already this year.)
    Hmmm... this made me think of ways to improve my villian... in more than one way:)