Tom Simon (superversive) wrote,
Tom Simon

All hats are grey in the dark

Ten things I hate in a book, continued:

6. Characters who are sold as heroes, but act like spoilt adolescent sociopaths.
The first five items on my list were all matters of literary technique. Now I propose to change tack and take up some points of subject matter. And first, because sartorias was good enough to remind me of it in the comboxes, I shall deal with a very common fault that is all but guaranteed to knock me right out of a book: the villainous hero.

Now, I have no trouble with flawed heroes; I expect them, and rejoice to see them overcome their flaws, or find ways to succeed in spite of them. I can even find much to admire in anti-heroes. And I have much patience with ironic protagonists, the Yossarians and Babbitts and Humbert Humberts, who are never represented as heroic in any way, and whose authors are well content to portray them as the schnooks, schnorrers, and schlemiels that they are. (How did we ever find words to express abuse before Yiddish came along?) What offends me violently is when a character is represented as a Good and Upright and Virtuous Hero, when almost his every act betrays him as a villain of the most heinous kind.

Consider the works of Mercedes Lackey and her horde of collaborators. Lackey writes straightforward, button-pushing wish-fulfilment fantasies aimed at the sort of adolescents who feel unbearably Special and Unique and Misunderstood, but in fact are no better or more sensitive than anyone else their age. She identified and saturated her target demographic of emo kids before emo had a name. Writing for such an audience, the temptation to lower the bar of heroism to the emo-kid level must be almost irresistible; at any rate, there seems to be precious little evidence that Ms. Lackey ever resisted it.

I have, as it happens, only read one book by Lackey, Magic’s Pawn. I am told that it is somewhat below her usual standard, but not unrepresentatively so. The so-called hero of this book is one Vanyel, a thoroughly spoilt teenage boy, a nobleman’s son who is supposed to grow up a warrior and learn to defend his family’s lands, but wants to be a musician instead. Instead of doing anything to make the best of a bad job, he constantly shirks every duty his father sets him, refuses even to learn one end of a sword from the other, and hides behind his mother’s skirts to escape punishment.

So far, we have a good candidate for the title of anti-hero. In the terms of the three classic plot patterns, Vanyel has the makings of ‘The Man Who Learned Better’ in extraordinary abundance. But he is something worse than that. He combines an exceptionally thin skin with a total insensitivity to the feelings of others — not an uncommon combination in real life, but certainly not a heroic one either. One of the first scenes in the book shows him casually seducing a fifteen-year-old serving wench — not even out of appetite, but just because he is a rich pretty boy and feels that it is expected of him — then casting her aside out of sheer boredom, without the slightest regard for her feelings. In fact, he is rather carefully represented as wilfully unaware that she even has such things as feelings. From that point onward I positively hated Vanyel, and wanted him to die slowly of a loathsome disease whilst being lowered an inch at a time into boiling oil. But I was destined to be disappointed.

Instead, he is miraculously sprung from the fate-worse-than-death of doing his hereditary duty, and sent away to study to be a Herald Mage. He discovers that he is actually homosexual, a thing he had somehow never heard of before, despite his precocity in the matter of sexual experience. Lackey as much as tells us that this excuses his abominable behaviour to the serving wench, and indeed all of his other faults. Apparently homosexuality is a positive virtue in Lackey’s world, for it causes its devotees to be unjustly persecuted, and we all know that anyone who has been unjustly persecuted is thereby immune to any criticism whatever. Or something like that.

So Vanyel immerses himself in Herald-Magery, despite having no discernible talent for the work, and a variety of tacky liaisons with men and other boys, playing roughly the part of a Coll. Tart at C.S. Lewis’s ‘Wyvern’. And at the end, in the most disgusting deus ex machina I have ever read, he is struck by magical lightning and instantly receives every magical talent in the world at maximum intensity, fully trained and ready for use, together with the wisdom to employ them properly and heroically. And so the scene is set for the remaining books of the trilogy.

I threw the book against the wall so hard that I broke the wall. It didn’t do the book much good, either, but at least the book was fortified by the hardness of Vanyel’s heart and the thickness of his skull. This so-called hero had spent three hundred pages being a self-centred ass with all the charm of an ingrown toenail, and seemed to have learnt absolutely nothing from the knocks he took and richly deserved. Now all my hopes were dashed, for I would never see him run over by a bus, lest his superhuman powers should damage the bus. But I think I have made the nature of my objections sufficiently clear.

Now to my principal corpus vile: the collected works of David Eddings, or, as he prefers to be called nowadays, David-and-Leigh. (I am irresistibly reminded of 1066 and All That, with its chapter ‘King Williamandmary. England ruled by an Orange.’) For the sake of chivalry and brevity, I shall ignore Mrs. Eddings’ complicity in writing their early books, and refer to Eddings in the singular and masculine.

Eddings really was a man of one book, though he has made a fat living for two decades now by issuing it again and again under different titles and with different names for the characters. Andrea Leistra summed up his M.O. in this wonderful Usenet screed, which I reproduce here with impenitent apologies to its author:

A David Eddings Series

Once upon a time there was an innocent farmboy (I realize what’s-his-name in The Elenium wasn’t literally a farmboy, but he acted like one). This farmboy thought he knew a lot. In encounters filled with heavy foreshadowing, he realized that he didn’t know much of anything. So he set off with a beautiful dark-haired sorceress who liked tea on a great quest for a magic blue rock. They acquire a vast supporting cast of cliches, who serve only to crack jokes (not needed to round out the plot or defeat baddies, since all the baddies die without hurting anyone anyway). Along the way they fought several battles with huge numbers of stupid baddies who they managed to defeat against vast odds. At long last, they find the shiny blue rock that is almost omnipotent. Farmboy uses the shiny blue rock a few times and realizes, oh no, he isn’t done yet. He has to go on another quest, this time to defeat Ultimate Evil with the shiny blue rock. So he sets off again with his supporting cast of cliches and off they go to face possible destruction of the world, laughing all the way. They soon find Ultimate Evil who they easily defeat without a scratch and go off so farmboy can marry a beautiful princess, still laughing.

Congratulations! Now you, too, can write an Eddings series! Just substitute names and stretch this easy-to follow formula out to about 1200 pages. Repeat formula until rich.

I wish I had written that.

Aside from the dreary repetitiveness of Eddings’ paint-by-numbers fantasies, their really striking feature is the almost total absence of moral depth or insight. Let us consider The Belgariad, since it defined the template, and remains perhaps the best known of his works. Garion, the ostensible hero, is an utter ingenue, who (without ever seeming to learn much) gradually takes on colour and personality from his older and worldlier companions. And what a lot they are!

We have Belgarath, the 7,000-year-old sorcerer, who was a petty thief as a boy and is one still, even though he could just as easily create things out of thin air as steal them. He is also a grave-robber, a murderer, and a superbly accomplished liar; but let us not flatter him unduly. Somewhere or other in the books, he says frankly that he prefers not to think in terms of Good and Evil, but merely of Us and Them. A franker admission of moral bankruptcy would be hard to find.

Polgara, his 3,000-year-old daughter, exhibits the maturity and self-control of a spoilt teenage drama queen. She delights to play the prim and proper lady, and apparently has never heard of sex, but she is a consummate cock-teaser and a master manipulator. She makes no effort to control her awesome temper, which she expresses in tantrums that wreck castles and cities, for which she never shows the least sign of remorse. That she should pay the damages, of course, is simply unthinkable. Her principal occupation is raising a line of small boys, the successive generations of her sister’s descendants, whom she ‘protects’ from their ancient and implacable enemies by keeping them carefully swaddled in ignorance, illiteracy, and incapacity. She regularly loses her temper with Garion whenever he shows a generous impulse to others, or demands a morsel of truth from her.

These protagonists attract about the kind of followers you would expect. There is Barak, the Viking berserker, who counts his enemies by severed heads and has apparently never heard of negotiation. Hettar, who has the trappings of a Rider of Rohan gone very wrong indeed, has dedicated his life to the psychotic mission of committing genocide single-handed. Mandorallen is a stock mock-feudal aristocrat, ripe for the Jacquerie, the kind who knows nothing and cares less about the misery of the peasants who support him. (Such aristocrats did indeed exist. They were never common, except in rare and peculiar cases where they formed a class of absentee landlords, like the French nobility once gathered at Versailles, or the francized Russians of St. Petersburg. That the bloodiest revolutions in European history came to those two particular nations is no accident.) Mandorallen is also, by way of a hobby, a lifelong adulterer. The Princess Ce’Nedra is the world’s most outrageously spoilt brat. She tries to enforce her will by gross emotional manipulation, and would be dangerous if she were any good at it. Relg is a bog-standard religious zealot, totally misconstruing the teachings of his God, with a pathological fear of human contact born of his exaggerated and Pharisaic notions of ritual purity. Silk, a.k.a. Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, is a thief, a spy, an assassin, a crooked merchant, a cheat at dice, and a wholesale purveyor of the finest gold-leaf filigree pathological lies. And so down the line.

Glenda Larke’s list makes mention of

5. A mass of truly horrible characters none of whom I can empathise with, doing truly horrible stuff, none of which I can sympathise with. You’ve gotta offer me something better than that to keep me reading.


8. Villains who have no purpose to their villainy except to be villainous. Why? What's the pay-off ?

The payoff, dear lady, is that the villains exist to make the other horrible characters look virtuous and sympathique by contrast. They are the kettle for the pot to call black. Nowhere is this clearer than in Eddings. His principal villains are the Grolims, an improbably murderous priesthood whose sole religious function, as far as anyone can tell, is to perform wholesale human sacrifices in the Aztec style, carving out the victim’s beating heart to burn it in a charcoal brazier. No matter what problem they are faced with, their inevitable solution is to make another sacrifice. This is intended to frighten their underlings into performing superhuman feats to propitiate the Grolims’ wrath. It never works.

The Grolims also write their sacred scriptures on vellum made from human skin. Belgarath roundly curses them for this, not because it is wicked and wrong to murder human beings for leather, but merely because human skin won’t hold ink. You would think that even a Grolim might have the intelligence to do his writing on a substance that would hold ink, that being the purpose of writing, but these are Eddings villains, whose malice is exceeded only by their stupidity.

Now, obviously a society infested with such rulers cannot possibly endure. (The secular kings of Angarak are little better, besides being as superfluous as boils to a leper.) Not even the Aztecs were stupid enough to sacrifice their own people, or to arrange their horrific rites in a way so bizarrely reminiscent of the old management joke, ‘The floggings will continue until morale improves.’ But Eddings would have us believe that Angarak has been organized on these lines for thousands of years, going back even before Belgarath’s time.

Of course there is only one reason for all this exaggerated awfulness. As long as Eddings’ ‘heroic’ band of robbers, cutthroats, and bunco-steerers don’t go performing human sacrifices and writing necromantic grimoires on dead bodies, they can excuse themselves for all the other evil that they do. And Eddings can pretend that he is writing about White Hats versus Black Hats, when in fact he is only dealing with two slightly different shades of soot.

This is an old game, but not as old as the ages. For instance, it was not until the Boer War that governments began to systematically use atrocity stories about their enemies to justify their own atrocities. The technique has since become a staple of wartime propaganda. Even the Nazis had vestiges of conscience, which they could assuage by picturing themselves as Roland at Roncesvalles, defending Christendom against a godless horde. As it happened, Stalin’s minions really were a godless horde, which made Dr. Goebbels’ job easier; but that did not make the Nazis heroes.

Do we really want to set up the thugs of the SS as our standard of heroism? Eddings does not precisely do that, but given the context of mock-mediaeval fantasy, he comes as close as makes no difference. It stinks of moral cowardice and atrophied conscience. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Eddings assigns his white hats and black hats almost at random, and expects us to accept it as a shorthand for heroism and a substitute for ethics. Now, ethics may not be merely a matter of black and white, but if they are anything at all, they are a matter of lighter and darker; and the Eddings method is very dark indeed. He could have saved himself the trouble of buying two colours of hats, though. All hats, like all cats, are grey in the dark.
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