Lord of the Rings is frequently criticized with having a faceless, oppressive, and unrealistically evil villain in the form of Sauron.
After writing my last blog post, where I discuss how Javert is an excellent modern villain, I was spurred to think a little more about the villainy of systems. When I refer to systems, in this case, I am thinking of a set of agents, processes, and related parts serving a overarching whole. In the case of Javert he is the devout agent of a very broken legal system. He cannot reconcile how flawed the justice, the system, is with his desire for justice, the idea. In the end the only real evil in Les Miserables is this dysfunctional set of laws that treats a man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family as a dangerous criminal. I like the idea of systems as villains, because I feel that it rings true in the modern world where massive impersonal forces like the state, the economy, corporate interests, political parties, and other systems often seem to take on lives of their own and will even cause havoc as a byproduct of their pursuit of whatever ends they were made for.
Almost everyone hates at least one of the systems that we are forced to deal with on a daily basis, usually an institution of some kind. Some people hate the government because they feel it takes and wastes money and deprives them of various freedoms. Some people hate the systems that regulate the labour market, forcing them to whittle their days away for minimum wage while their bosses rake in record profits. Think about it, I’m sure you can think of times where it seems like one of these systems is picking on you. The monumental power of these institutions and the way their various components mindlessly pursue their tasks gives them a monstrous quality, especially when they run out of control.
“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 5
Agents of an institution often have tremendous authority, taken from the system they serve. The police, for example, are empowered to enforce the laws of the land. Ideally this authority is balanced so they they have enough power to perform their tasks without impinging too much on the freedoms of others. If the system gives them too much power then those of them who are so inclined will become corrupt, using that power to further their own ends while shielding themselves with the authority of the law. If the system restricts the police, making if difficult for them to catch criminals, then it creates a different set of problems. The third, and most interesting option, is that the law itself might be flawed, perhaps fatally in conjunction with other events (like a wave of poverty and starvation that forces people to steal food to survive), and is a source of harm.
This might sound a little boring as pure theorycraft, but it is the basis for much of modern conflict. A man whose brilliant idea is stolen and patented by a massive multinational, and who spends his life trying to reclaim it is facing down his own dragon. If he wins he will be seen as a hero by many people. The destruction of a system, revolution, is perhaps the ultimate act of modern heroism, usually accomplished through a series of acts that are later regarded in the best of lights. Slavery, as repugnant as it seems to us now, was once a system that much of the world though was necessary humane, and even honourable. Even among people who knew it was wrong, slavery was seen as too big of an institution to change or overcome, just another brutal fact of life in an ugly world. Slavery is a prime example of a villainous system, one that is quite evil, and also one that has a long history of real heroes standing up to it and eventually overcoming it.
In my book, Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, the characters often struggle against the system. Gavin is bothered by the fact that he is denied his freedom because of his Gift (magic is seen as too dangerous to be used freely — a fairly common fantasy trope, because it makes sense if magic is powerful) and struggles with what he must do to win the freedom to use it. I also include themes of aggressive imperialism, another system that has inflicted real damage in the real world.
Conflicts with systems a form of struggle that most people can understand and relate to. Systems can also be quite evil, perhaps intentionally, and certainly when they spiral out of control. The are tremendous foes, with power far beyond most people. Thus they, and their agents, make awesome villains. I wonder if Sauron, faceless and monolithic in his evil, is simply Tolkien’s way of expressing this. Regardless, systems make awesome villains, and I look forward to reading more Fantasy novels that use them the way Hugo and Steinbeck and other “mainstream” writers do.