Does every story have to be about good versus evil?

I love the Lewis Chessmen.

This week I read a fascinating essay called The good guy/bad guy myth: Why is pop-culture obsessed with the battle between good and evil and you should read it too. While the author does get the date of the Icelandic Eddas wrong (they were written in the early 13th century), everything else is wonderful and thought-provoking.

The author says:

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki

I think this is so central to what I find very shallow about so much pop culture. There is a lot to love about Lord of the Rings, though also a lot of racism, but what is interesting about it to me is not the battle against Sauron, but how different flawed characters approach that battle. In fact, the story ends up rising above a boring good vs. evil story at the end with Gollum’s decisive move, and no one emerges unscathed or uncorrupted by their battle with evil. (Except Sam, but that’s okay. Sam is the best.)

What is good? What is evil? Most humans, even humans who do awful things, are usually trying to do what they think is right for themselves, and even for others, though how they define the others they are willing to help, and the others they are willing to harm, can be incredibly dangerous. In fact, as this essay argues, good vs. evil stories set up an easy way to make the other side into faceless evils that we can kill with impunity. Defining people as good vs. evil is not only boring storytelling, it paves the way for atrocities done in the name of good.

What is good? Is it someone who has never done a bad thing in their life? That sort of thinking leads to purity politics, where we can never support or accept anyone who has done the slightest thing wrong, and so we are exempted from supporting anyone.

What is evil? Can evil become good if they are very sorry for it? Is being sorry enough? That sort of thinking leads to communities where if the perpetrator apologizes for sexual abuse, then it can never be spoken of again, and they can offend again. Also, if evil is always the “other” then it makes it very hard for us to see our complicity in harmful systems.

Should good triumph and evil lose? Stories where that is consistently the case lead to a dangerous belief in a “just universe”, which further leads to societies punishing those with misfortunes, and rewarding those who have already been given much. The American hostility to universal healthcare comes from this “just universe” idea, because if people wanted healthcare, they should have made every choice right and had enough money to afford it. Understanding that the universe is unjust allows us to be more charitable to those who have suffered.

I can see the attraction of good vs. evil stories, but they are a way of hiding from the complexity of the world. While I grew up on fantasy novels, I often do find the villains in them very tiresome. They are evil and proud of it, and sometimes sexual abusers of children as well, and, not to make light of such a difficult subject, but they are dull, dull, dull. The reason that people get away with doing horrible things is usually because they are “good people” as we judge such things in other parts of their life. People deny crimes happening in front of them for decades because of entrenched power structures, yes, but also because we’ve been trained to believe that people who do awful things are different from us in some fundamental and easily-recognized way.

This, I think, is one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to writing historical fiction. I don’t pretend that the characters I’ve created are anything like the “real” people from history who they are based on, but I have tried to be true to the idea that they all have reasons for doing what they do besides being eeeeeevil (or good). What I have tried to do, and I think mostly succeeded at doing, is giving (almost) every character in my novels, even the antagonists, recognizable and understandable motivations. And with the ones that don’t it’s because they don’t have enough screen time for me to develop complex motivations.

The essay above details the historical shift that led to giving almost every story and folk tale a good versus evil component, which came about with the rise of nations and nationalism. There was a strong nationalistic motivation to create a national mythology that held up good, national values, and led to the othering of people of different nations, and sub-groups within those nations, like Jews and Traveling People.

Literature, pop-culture, storytelling always has a political and moral component. I don’t think this has to be overt, and, you will not be surprised to learn, I think it’s dangerous and wrong to cast certain people as evil and certain people as good in literature. It seems inescapable these days, especially in “big” stories. It’s worth remembering that we come back to folk and fairy tales not because good is rewarded and evil is punished, though sometimes it can look that way, but because they tell us a story that uses symbols that resonate with psychological truths. (See The Uses of Enchantment for more.)

If there’s one thing that I am trying to do in my books, and hope to do for my entire writing career, it’s to show that different people have different perspectives, desires, and values. That everyone in a situation can have a good reason to do what they do, and still fall into conflict and tragedy. That perhaps we never fully understand each other, but there is good reason to try. That even with those differences, as humans there are basic things we want all, like love and independence, self-determination and safety, survival and meaning. It is the work of a lifetime to find the balance between those things, and it is always complex. Stories that tell us it is simple do us a disservice.

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  1. A fine and thoughtful discussion of an important topic, well done. I have been dismayed to watch the return of “the Great Good” and it’s battle with “those Evil Ones,” always projected outward, be it individuals or nations. Seen in recent dramatic sitcoms, and popular culture, as well as on the inter-national stage. I rarely make recommendations for reading Carl Jung’s own writings, preferring to send people to second and third generation writers for more accessible discussions, however . . . Carl Jung had ‘one’ book that he felt compelled to write, a bit of a ‘forced march’ by his description, but well worth the effort, in the writing and in the reading. It cruises around the territory of ‘good and evil’ but it is more of a polemic on the complex nature of the evolution of the “God” imago, as reflected in the “Book of Job.” This is a challenging read and reflects a host of similar writings in books throughout the world of literature. “Answer to Job,” focuses on the nexus of “God’s evolution” as reflected in this particular book, in which the older order of “the moral universe,” “God’s” role, is placed at question by a mere mortal, Job, a prelude for much of 20th century philosophy. It is one book that I have read on more than one occasion to be challenged each time.

    1. Thank you for this recommendation. I find The Book of Job to be one of the most important and thought provoking books of the bible. It does not answer the question of why bad things happen to the righteous, but it does at least show that (a) they do, and (b) the righteous may ask why they happen.

      I recently read God: A Human History by Reza Aslan and it talks about the evolution of god from a historical and anthropological–but also psychological–perspective. I think you might find it interesting.

  2. In my study group, Friends of Jung, I had recommended the movie “Spirited Away,” still one of my favorites, as it is to Mark also.
    My discussion colleague mentioned not knowing that “Baba Yaga had a benevolent twin sister,” so, a clarification seems in order, as seen in the movie. An archetypal figure such as her, is always ‘dual’ in nature, as all archetypal figures are implied to be. In an effort to portray this in the story/movie, the artist Hayao Miyazaki, generated the “Twin” motif, so as to be less confusing to the Viewer, in that they might get confused by, “oh? I thought she was a bad(good) character” as the fluid nature of antipodal representation is inherently confusing. In the story that I had referenced from Marie-Louise von Franz’s book, “Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales,” chapter 8, ‘Taboos,’ specifically the story explicated titled “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” the Great Earth Mother representation in Baba Yaga, offers the potential, to ‘swallow you alive’ and/or, if you manage the challenge at each stage, give incalculable gifts of wisdom.
    Can’t think of a more ambivalent figure than that…!!
    I included the full text of my response for you here (above), but my real intention was to call your attention to the book mentioned. Marie-Louise von Franz, was a protege of C.G. Jung and this book is one of her more approachable. She is one of those 2nd generation writers that I referenced in the earlier posting. As this book deals with ‘Evil’ in such a story bound way, I thought of you.

  3. Hello Ms. Hartsuyker, I have throughly enjoyed both books in the trilogy (and waiting for the third). You have a wonderful gift for holding the readers attention, and created an enjoyable story that just drips with verisimilitude. I have a question or observation in the “Sea Queen”. On page 393 at the top where Oddi states, “… Sometimes it is hard, though, to feel as though you are a chess piece, with Ragnvald the Wise moving you about the board.” This bothered me a bit as chess came to Spain and Sicily very early in the 9’th century, and it took another 200 years to become known throughout Europe and Russia. It seems difficult to think that Oddi would know anything about it. Tafl would have been a better candidate I think. But perhaps your research has informed you otherwise? On other matters, I too and a descendent of Harald Fairhair (as is everyone in Norway according to my father) so we are no doubt quite distant cousins! cheers

    1. Great question, and excellent point. Chess as we know it would probably have been unknown in Scandinavia, though it’s not impossible–the Vikings had very wide trade networks–Chinese coins have been discovered in Viking hoards, and the Varangian guard, Norsemen who guarded the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople began with Swedish Vikings in the 9th century. So Vikings might have heard of chess!

      And you’re right, that tafl would have been more accurate. Or I could have just said a “game piece”. Tafl was sometimes known as “Viking Chess” so it’s arguable, but I probably could have made a better choice there.

      Thank you for reading!

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