We’re told, in our good-vee-evil world, that everything is about “heroes and villains”. This is a post-monotheist way of seeing the world, though: not only were other cultures less inclined to be one-or-the-other, they never would’ve used “hero” and “villain” so carelessly. “Hero”, in the Greek sense, is one who goes to extremes rather than a goodie. Anyone reading the Iliad, expecting to find good and evil, might be surprised to discover that even the losing side – y’know, the one Homer wasn’t on – is described in glowing terms. The baddies in classical myth tend to be monsters, representations of nature at its most vicious, not people with dodgy morals. “Villain” is a medieval term that suggests “peasant”, i.e. it’s about class, our modern use of the word as “evil” being another product of posh people re-writing histories. I’ve never believed in good and evil, in heroes and villains. Fiction survived without that face-off for thousands of years.
I conceived of my approach to matters of practical and cosmological ‘alignment’ years before encountering Miles, but the territory he maps out in that there linked post is essentially that which I’d be happier exploring.
I’ve never been keen on the idea of top-down Good and Evil, Law and Chaos. On one level I see what they’re for – a mechanical process by which antithetical forces can be modelled for the purposes of things like Turn Undead. That’s actually okay, I’m all right with that. The problem I have is when we start talking about people rather than playing pieces; the emotional and political structures implied by having a cosmologically functional idea of alignments just gets on my wick.
Only people who are sick in the soul wake up and think “I’m evil, me, what evil shall I do today?” Everyone else tends to think of what they’re doing as either Right or Wrong But I’m Doing It Anyway. The only time “I’m just evil, okay?” has ever made sense to me was Soon I Will Be Invincible, when the tendency to elaborate plans, weird science and twirly moustaches was pathologised as Malign Hypercognition Syndrome – a condition which drives the afflicted to be, well, evil geniuses, whether they want to be or not. They can’t help themselves. They may be quite personable people to sit down for a brew with, but they can’t not build a death ray out of kitchen utensils while the kettle’s boiling. That’s… not even particularly interesting, but it’s amusing, and it adds a dimension to the archetype.
The axis of Law and Chaos I find similarly lacking, and I can sort of see why Good and Evil were bracketed onto it. One doesn’t want the Robin Hood archetype automatically and inherently aligned with the Ravening Barbarian Horde or the Nasty Beasties From The Cosmic Outerdark just because they’re all definitely non-Lawful; neither is one necessarily comfortable with the idea that Sauron and the kings of Gondor all build cities and social structures and are innately Lawful.
You can make the argument that Orcs are Chaotic and dominated by something stronger than them, but that doesn’t wash with Uncle Von, hoo no. I’ve been reading The Last Ringbearer of late, you see. It’s a story set in Middle Earth and has at its core the idea that history is (re)written by the winners; that the caricature ‘evil-ness’ of the Mordor-Isengard axis of power is a deliberate misrepresentation of defeated nations by victorious ones. You can find out more here, if finding things out is a thing that you do (and it had better be, if you’re hanging about round ‘ere).
My sympathies in The Lord of the Rings have always lain with Saruman anyway – here’s a man with the will and wit to kick-start an industrial revolution and still has – in the books, and this is one thing I detest about the Jackson films – his Wizardly goal of opposing Sauron at heart. Where Gandalf manipulates the existing powers, Saruman tries to set himself up as a newkindof power, and it’s his failure to secure the Ring as its foundation that precipitates the unwise invasion of Rohan. When he screws up, he falls from grace and enacts a petty, spiteful revenge, which makes him a worse person but doesn’t do him any harm as a character. Very much a Wizard of extremes.
Still, this one-man’s-terrorist-is-another-man’s-freedom-fighter angle is one that I instinctively have some sympathy with, and so it might be understood why I take issue with the top-down morality imposed by the classic 3×3 alignment grid and the sort of uncritical “Good is Good, Evil is Evil” attitude that comes with it. No interesting world is ever that simple.
Let’s go back to seminal texts for a minute and talk about Gormenghast. That Mieville character, and I’ll spare you another quotation from ‘Fantasy and Revolution’ – this time – referred to the idea of a tradition in which Gormenghast was the dominant influence and not The Lord of the Rings. Oversimplifying matters somewhat, but let’s see what we have in Gormenghast, shall we?
We have a society of grinding, meaningless daily ritual done for its own sake, regardless of whether it benefits anyone. It’s an exploitative society, with its ‘free’ peasantry free to starve, free to give the best of their labours and their love to an aristo-class that doesn’t even care about them enough to oppress them – but its aristocracy are themselves imprisoned by the fortress of legislation they’ve built around themselves.
As above, so below. Into this arena step extremists. Both Titus Groan and Steerpike are revolutionaries, of a type. Titus just doesn’t see the point in all this ritual – it gets in the way of being human, and if he can’t change it, he’ll keep running until he finds a space to be human in – but he won’t let it become worse, turn into an engine of surveillance and control and authentic, actual oppression, particularly not one run by a man he hates.
For me, the telling moment of the Gormenghast trilogy is the snapshot of Steerpike reclining in his hidden room at the heart of the castle, watching his pawns and his enemies through a network of mirrors in tunnels. It’s an inverted Panopticon – not a place where the occupant could be seen at all times and so must always behave as if they are being seen, but a place where the occupant can see anyone at all times and they do not know about it. A dark riff on an elementary societal process, and a prescient one too, all things considered, since if Steerpike’s surveillance became known… he could be watching. Best keep your head down.
I suppose in that respect the trilogies aren’t that dissimilar. The Eye is always watching. Steerpike could be.
Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a rehash of that one Master’s essay I did on how Gormenghast is the perfect literary analogy for Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Moving on. The point I’m trying to get at here is that neither Titus or Steerpike are conventional heroes or conventional villains and that they aren’t embedded in simple cosmic notions of morality or ethics. Good and Evil don’t really come into this, Law and Chaos are complex realities with which neither of the two characters entirely occupies with any comfort. They’re people, with political and personal goals, with extreme methods; they hate each other but neither can eliminate the other without a total breakdown of the Castle’s social ecosystem.
That feels… smarter. That’s the kind of fantasy I can get into. Fantasy that’s not grim for grimness’ sake, but not simple for simplicity’s sake either. Fantasy that offers a complex world in which simple people, sketch-people like RPG characters, can thrive. Because that’s what a ‘hero’ is, maybe, in the end. A simple person in a complex world. Simple not in the sense that they’re one-note, but that they’re… well, larger than life. Too weird to live, too rare to die, as another of my favourite authors put it.
This is why I’ve been looking at Greg Christopher’s game Errant recently. It has the structure of D&D around it, for sure, but it does away with alignments and replaces them with a single scale called ‘karma’. Now this is not something which I find totally unproblematic if it’s viewed metaphysically, but if it’s viewed physically, in terms of consequences… in terms of ‘do things and you come to the attention of various opposed powers, supernal or mundane’… then it becomes quite interesting.
Let’s say you go around raising people from the dead, to co-opt my favourite fantasy activity. The powers that approve of necromancy are drawn to you; the supernal ones may offer you deals for greater necromantic efficiency, the mundane ones may offer you patronage or beg apprenticeships of you or whatever. The powers that disapprove of necromancy are also drawn to you; bestowing similar supernal (might be how undead turning could work) and mundane support on those opposed to you, possibly manipulating individuals into opposing you. It’s a kind of relative alignment, without the descriptor grid but with the idea that people are embedded in a broader world which responds to what they do in increasingly outrageous and fantastic ways. It offers the same mechanical processes but it’s embedded in what, to me, is a smarter and more nuanced idea of how worlds – and artificial universes with active gods and demons – work.
I can dig that. Maybe you can too.