Friday, July 23, 2010

Heroes and villains

The mark of a good hero, they say, is the quality of his villains. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I'll grant you that the mark of a good villain is often the quality of his hero but I think the reverse is a largely modern phenomenon. There doesn't have to be a single mirror point of antagonism for the heroic ideal to be displayed against. More often than not, in both legend and literature, quantity not quality is the measure of the hero.

The rise of the arch-enemy is largely a post-Great War thing, amplified and simplified after the Second World War. In times of massive change and widespread uncertainty there is a primal need for simple explanations for conflict and the war against Hitler, and the horrors that came to light, could be presented as a straightforward fight against a single, coherent evil, whatever the messy realities. Ever since then, Western culture has sought to satisfy the same craving, whether in its politics, films or literature. And when no good-enough villains defined good-enough heroes we created and celebrated anti-heroes to fill the void.

But what of Holmes and Moriarty? They were Victorian, weren't they?

Indeed they were. How often does Moriarty actually appear in the works of Conan Doyle? Really? You'd be surprised if you didn't already know (and if you don't already know you'll just have to go and read them, won't you?) Professor Moriarty was created as the villain who would kill Sherlock Holmes; he was the author's instrument of murder. Conan Doyle, being no fool, knew that it would be beneath both author and character for Holmes to be bashed on the head by a passing cut-purse. Holmes could only be credibly destroyed by a creature of equal stature. And so it came to pass. When Conan Doyle finally, reluctantly, resurrected Holmes he did not also bring Moriarty back to life as well. He had served his purpose and would only be an infrequent back-reference in future stories. Only in later incarnations did the hero require the recurring villain.

In these modern times it seems more rational to pit man against man or monster than to have him battle unreasoning fate. Which doesn't mean it's right.


fairyhedgehog said...

I never thought of the arch-enemy as a modern invention.

Kevin Musgrove said...

fairyhedgehog: outside of morality plays and Shakespeare I can't think of that many before Moriarty, and even in those cases I'm pushing it a bit.

I expect that somebody will disabuse me of this notion. 9-: