Thursday, July 09, 2009

Always Chaotic Evil?

On the website—I urge you to explore this site, it’s not to be missed, but be warned, it’s the ultimate Internet time vampire—there’s a category labeled “Always Chaotic Evil.” It refers to races, e.g. the Drow (dark elves) of the Dungeons and Dragons system, all of whom are evil by definition (except for the occasional anomalous individual). Having read several of the Redwall novels by Brian Jacques (set in a world inhabited solely by animals, centering upon Redwall Abbey, inhabited by good mice and other good-aligned beasts), I've been consistently irritated by the moral species determinism practiced by the author. If a type of animal is defined as evil—e.g. foxes, ferrets, wolverines, rats, stoats, carrion-eating birds, etc., collectively known as “vermin”—all members of that species are irredeemably evil with no positive qualities whatever except, perhaps, brute courage and devious cleverness. There’s no honor among thieves and almost no genuine affection, except its very rare appearance in mated couples and mother-child dyads. As Ursula Le Guin discusses in an essay on animal stories in her recent collection CHEEK BY JOWL, the species in Jacques’ series are typecast in other ways, too. Mice stand at the top of the social hierarchy and speak standard English. Most other “good” animals represent the working classes and speak in various dialects of the British Isles. Badgers are noble, although subject to berserk rages in battle, and hares, all military, are either stiff-upper-lip English officers or gallant Highland warriors.

The older novel I’ve just read, OUTCAST OF REDWALL, features a baby ferret abandoned by his father, a ruthless warlord, then rescued and brought up at the abbey. Here at last, I thought, I'd find some sort of nuance in the portrayal of a vermin character. No such luck. To my surprise, given his prominence in the title and cover blurb, the young ferret, Veil, has relatively little “onstage” time, not even born until halfway through the story. The childhood of the foundling is skipped over; after his rescue, we next see him as the animal equivalent of a young teenager, already hardened into a liar and thief. An unpardonable offense leads to his exile from Redwall (this isn’t a spoiler, since it’s on the jacket flap, even though it doesn’t happen until the last third of the book). I was disappointed that there’s almost no mention of the possibility that his having been treated with suspicion from earliest childhood might have contributed to his antisocial personality. By the end of the book, even Veil’s tenderhearted foster mother acknowledges that he was born Just Plain Bad. Aargh. True, Jacques is writing in the tradition of animal fables, in which the various species conform to their traditional archetypes; he’s said as much in interviews. What bugs me is the double standard in applying this principle. Good animals can have flaws, make mistakes, quarrel among themselves, and even (in childhood and youth) occasionally be naughty. Bad animals aren’t allowed any trace of goodness.

This lack of psychological realism makes it impossible for me to completely suspend disbelief in the Redwall universe. I always feel a bit remote from the action, critiquing the stories while reading them. It might be different if we saw the villains only from a distance through the eyes of the heroes, but Jacques writes many scenes from the vermin viewpoint. To me, they can’t help but come across as Kick the Dog (another topic) caricatures. Good grief, even Hitler loved his dogs and seemed to have genuine affection for poor Eva Braun. The Klingons and Romulans in STAR TREK started out as Always Evil (even if not chaotic) but developed into three-dimensional cultures with characters capable of good as well as bad deeds. I prefer the kind of fiction displaying awareness that the antagonist seldom thinks of himself as the “villain” and always has credible rationalizations to justify his behavior to himself and the reader. Even Satan in PARADISE LOST (although in his case there’s a sound reason for his being totally Evil by definition) is presented in the best possible light in his early scenes.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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