Les Miserables and Fantasy (or how Javert is the perfect modern villain)

Reform is a discredited fantasy. Modern science tells us that people are by nature, law breakers or law abiders. A wolf could wear sheep’s clothing but he’s still a wolf.” — Javert (or rather, someone paraphrasing the character for a modern audience.)

Today I saw the movie adaptation of Les Miserable. I did not want to go. The musical, and the movie, based off Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel never fail to break me down. It is one of my favorite stories, through and through. It is unrelentingly brutal throughout, moreso because I care about the characters and their predicaments and thus really feel it when life drags them down. Many writers in modern fantasy seek after the holy grail of grittyness (likely a paper cup filled with blood and “mud”), but few can actually make me connect with their cast of misfits and anti-heroes before the suffering begins. Hugo manages to make me connect with multiple characters, even when I try not to sympathize with them (because I don’t want to cry in public :P), partly because he ultimately rejects wallowing in cynicism, despite the deeply negative aspects of his setting. He is similar to Dickens and Zola in this respect.

There is much to learn from this. As society moves into the information age and begins to leave the industrial age behind it, I feel that it is one of the great tasks of Fantasy to mythologize and memorialize in the same way that it has with the classical ages, middle ages, and the enlightenment. Authors could not go wrong taking Hugo’s work as inspiration for their works in the same way that many of the grittier tales of post medieval city based fantasy seem to draw very heavily on Dickens. Les Miserables Steampunk could go wrong in so many ways but China Mieville’s tales of New Crobuzon have convinced me that it could also be quite good, in the hands of a master. It makes me wonder what Joe Abercrombie or George RR Martin would do with an early industrial fantasy tale. Perhaps I’ll give it a go after honing my writing skills on the next few Domains of the Chosen books…

The character of Javert, the antagonist in the Les Miserables is a great example of how to write a interesting villain. He is the ultimate agent of The Law, the true villain of Les Miserables, propelled by his own dark past into becoming an absolutely uncompromising man. Javert, born to criminals in a prison, feels that it is part of a man’s fundamental nature to either break or uphold the law. He does not think that any man can really change his nature, and sees all infractions, however minor, as indications of a person’s lawless nature. He does not believe in reform or redemption. Thus he sees Jean Valjean’s theft of bread (to help someone survive) as an indication that the man will do worse in the future and hounds him mercilessly. He is believable because We all know people who adhere to rigid beliefs, and we can see how these beliefs can become twisted in the face of reality, turning an otherwise admirable person into a fearsome foe. Hugo reminds us of this throughout his work. Think of Javert singing of the brilliant stars and perfect justice in the musical.

Javert makes a great villain because he is so human. He displays qualities that are tremendously admirable, and often appear in heroes in other books: iron conviction, tremendous courage, dogged persistence  and a sense of duty that would make a samurai proud. He never takes advantage of anyone. He feels he is making the world a better place by bringing order. He even goes so far as to warn Jean Valjean that his dedication to The Law means that he will pursue the man despite the fact that he owes him his life. As a twelve year old, seeing les Miz (on stage with Colm Wilkinson, who plays the Bishop in the movie) for the first time I was drawn to Javert. In many ways he is an echo of the heroes of old, a resolute defender of order, and yet he is a villain without a doubt… it always puzzled me.

After thinking about it, the Samurai comparison has helped me understand why such an admirable man is such a vicious villain. The Samurai may be perfectly honourable and dutiful  but if his master is a monster then he will be compelled to do ugly things by his duty. In this case the more perfect the Samurai, the more monstrous he becomes carrying out his corrupt lord’s orders. This is what makes Javert a villain, and I feel it demonstrates Hugo’s genius succinctly. Javert is the perfect servant of an unjust, broken system. In the end, as the inadequacy of his Master (The Law) is revealed and he is unable to carry out that last order, Javert takes the same last resort that a Samurai would. Thus he transfers from villain to victim seamlessly, in a perfect moment that demonstrates just how helpless and hopeless we all are when the great wheels of our social constructs run amok. The real evil in Les Miserables is not Javert but rather the uncaring, vicious system of public order that put a poor man behind bars for trying to feed his starving family. The idea of broken systems is one that we, in the modern world, know well, and Hugo’s grasp and demonstration of this is simply amazing.

As Fantasy moves into the later ages, we writers will take up the themes that dominate those ages. Fear of orc raids and the wars cause by oppressive aristocracies that mimicked the conflicts of the middles ages will be joined or replaced by more modern conflicts such as those shown in books like Les Miserables. You could do much worse than a villain like the paladin Javert, servant of a broken system, and I find myself eagerly looking forward to these new tales.

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8 comments on “Les Miserables and Fantasy (or how Javert is the perfect modern villain)

  1. judaidan says:

    Excellent post. I’ve also thought of Javert as a Palladian figure (it’s nice to know someone also echoes that idea and validates it). I always felt pity for Javert too, in the book, live musicals and the movie incarnations (although I had some problems with Russel Crows performance and ultimately think he was miscast). Javert and Valjean have an almost symbiotic connection, like two halves of the same man in negative and positive aspect. So interesting.

  2. grimkrieg says:

    I have yet to read the book 😦 Did not mind Russel Crow. As for Jean Valjean and Javert, I agree, they do have an interesting connection and every act seems to revolve around their encounters… in the end though they are both victims of the system. Perhaps Javert is a hero for ending the cycle by taking his own life.

  3. Dorothy Lou Harris says:

    History is filled with accounts of people like Javert who were basically good, with strong moral convictions, but who found themselves supporting systems that ultimately destroyed them. They represent the most dangerous villains of them all, because we have to admire their many good qualities, which sometimes blinds us to their weaknesses. Redemption was possible for Javert, just as it was for Valjean; he almost made it when he pinned his medal to the child and when he chose not to shoot the man he had pursued to relentlessly. At his lowest moment, perhaps what he needed most was what Valjean received at a similar period in his own life – an encounter with a wise old bishop who seemed to be dealing in grace and love. This is probably a stronger Christian message than most of us who actually went to church on Xmas Eve got!

  4. […] Canadian fantasy writer C.P.D. Harris has two great connected posts about unjust or just plain evil systems as villains, using Les Miserables and the character of Javert as an example. […]

  5. […] as villainous on this blog, turning a person who could otherwise be seen as good into a monster. Javert from Les Miserables is perhaps my favourite example of this, but it can be seen in Fantasy as well. Sauron’s obsession with order and control […]

  6. […] is how systems, especially broken or corrupted systems, can define a character or a conflict. My favourite example is Javert from Les Miserables, an unrelenting, scrupulous Paladin of an utterly dysfunctional system […]

  7. […] it is a bit of a running theme actually, including my review of Django unchained (link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5). The gist of the idea is that the system is the monolithic, monstrous villain that Fantasy […]

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