Villainous by Intisar Khanani
Fairy tale villains are often portrayed as purely evil, willing to do horrific things because—why not? They want power and they’re going to get it; their hearts have been cut out and placed in a sealed box for safekeeping, or have turned to stone (metaphorically or literally). Even in contemporary fantasy, one needs to look no farther than Sauron in Lord of the Rings, or Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars fame, to find examples of villains without a single human saving grace: unadulterated evil.
I struggled a lot with this in writing my fantasy novel Thorn, a retelling of the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” The original villain (a lady-in-waiting whom I named Valka) betrays her mistress on their journey to a neighboring kingdom, switching places with her and demanding her silence on pain of death. Towards the end of the tale, when Valka is asked to decide the punishment for a woman who has betrayed her princess so thoroughly, she suggests a horrifying and tortured death—thinking she is sentencing the true princess and not herself. Valka shows no remorse, just outrage and panic as she is led off to her death. She is, to put it mildly, hardly human: a stock villain, so callously greedy and cruel that the only thing that worries her is her own suffering.
The idea of a stock villain is dangerous. It normalizes the idea that our enemies have neither conscience nor history but are evil for evil’s sake. They are not human: they are the demon-creature Sauron, the Sith lord Palpatine. Fairy tales, by allowing the malevolent villain to be a person (e.g. the wicked stepmother), reinforces the idea that an enemy can be so purely evil as to be stripped of all humanity.
But people are complex, and, so therefore, should be our understanding of evil. In writing about Valka, I realized that sometimes what we see as evil often arises because of experiences in the past. We are all familiar with the idea that an abused child may grow up to become an abuser. Why does it seem so foreign that someone who has experienced injustice and cruelty could grow up to visit the same upon others? We have a tendency to dehumanize our enemies as a prelude to war; but remembering their humanity allows us to ask the questions that need to be asked—about past experiences of injustice and so forth.
Valka also had an experience that, through her eyes, unfairly robbed her of her future. This perception drives her behavior throughout the story. Having a more complex approach to understanding “evil” acts and the people who do them in the stories we read enables us to pause in our own lives and consider the humanity of the people we call enemies. After all, if we knew Emperor Palpatine was a regular volunteer with the local Greyhound Rescue program, or that Sauron supported the gothic arts movement, perhaps we would wonder a little as the forces of good took them out.
Intisar Khanani grew up a nomad and traveler. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She first remembers seeing snow on a wintry street in Zurich, Switzerland, and vaguely recollects having breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo when she was five. She now resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and young daughter. Intisar writes grants and develops projects to address community health with the Cincinnati Health Department, which is as close as she can get to saving the world. Her approach to writing fantasy reflects her lifelong passion for stories from different cultures. She is currently writing a trilogy set in the same world as Thorn. This is her first novel.
Author website: http://www.thornthenovel.com
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