Corruption and the villainy of systems: how every hero who lives long enough becomes a monster…

It was done for our own good, at least initially...

It was done for our own good, at least initially…

I believe in entropy, not only as a half-understood (by me :P) scientific concept, but also as a metaphorical construct.

Every thing that exists in the world, no matter how pure and close to perfection, is subject to change. Every ideology, no matter how well it is thought out, frays a little when it leaves theory and enters practice. This is probably not absolute, especially when dealing with simple ideas or easily observable phenomena, but when dealing with complex structures like modern institutions, economics, warfare and so on — it seems to me that those who possess absolute certainty  are always proven fools in the end. This is why I support science and democracy, which both admit that getting things right is an ongoing and problematic process, and very much subject to change and refinement.

I have frequently written about how ideologies and systems can be seen 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 could have been a good thing at one point. King Arthur’s quest for the rule of law over the rule of might starts off well, but gives us Mordred, the Knight who follows all the laws openly and is thus protected by them, even though he is obviously rotten. These characters are all introduced as villains, however, what about characters who begin as heroes and are made villainous by the systems they support?

I have often seen this in real life. We invest a great deal of time in the ideas we believe in and the relationships that we build. Sometimes it can be difficult for us to admit when something that we love or believe in becomes flawed. Politics is the obvious example, only the most callous hack or foolish dupe would be unable to point to examples of corruption in the party they last voted for. But that is an easy and cynical observation, hardly worth a story these days. What about a respected family member who is doing something wrong? or an organization that a person has helped build that needs to be defended? These do not have simple answers and make for epic conflicts.

A personal example would be my forays into writing. I am an avid reader. I follow many authors and even count myself as a fan of several publishing companies, especially those who brought my favorite genres to the fore. I am, however, a self-published writer. This puts me at odds with some people who I once saw as great, almost heroic figures. A few traditional authors who benefit from the current system are naturally drawn to defend it, and some go too far in their resistance to change. It puts me in the interesting position of seeing how people who I admire can end up being my enemies.  It is particularly crushing to see some authors and critics violently attack all self-published works. It does, however, give me ideas.

A more fantastical example would be the Trojan war. Fate and the machinations of the Gods aside, it is Priams and Hector’s love for Paris that dooms their city. If they had promptly returned Menelaus wife to him and negotiated a suitable punishment for their thieving son, would Troy have survived? Probably not, but you can see how it would have robbed the Greeks of the moral high ground that  they used to launch and sustain their invasion. Ten years away from home is a long time to fight without a cause you believe in. Of course that would have required Priam and Hector to go against their own family. Few of us are so in love with justice that we would not have done the same.

There is the seed of a simple and great Fantasy story in the idea of a hero turned to villainy through their support of a system.

1) Loyalty to the Crown: Loyalty is a virtue. But what about the Hero who gives their loyal support to someone unworthy. The Samurai who serves a lord who is cruel, or a knight who is loyal to a corrupted church are excellent villains if written with sensitivity.

2) Old Prejudices: The orcs were once dire enemies of the free peoples. People who killed orcs were considered heroes. But times have changed, and a man who became a hero acting on his hatred of orcs now becomes a villain for acting on the same impulses that made him famous. Any race, ethnicity, or creed could be substituted for orcs. The idea is that the inability to swallow that enmity makes a hero a villain.

3) Changing Circumstances: The virtues that once made you great do not always hold. The founder of a great kingdom might be a hero during war and conquest, but turn out to be a terrible ruler in peacetime. A revolutionary who overcomes a great evil could turn out to be a tyrant in the end. A man who drags himself from the gutter with nothing but ambition and wit often becomes dangerous if he assumes that everyone can do the same and persecutes them if they don’t.

4) Traditions: Over time, traditions that once made perfect sense can become burdensome and downright oppressive. We all know that a suggestion to act modestly written in a holy book can be used by a zealot as an excuse for murder. But what about less obvious choices? Dragons may once have been the scourge of all, but at what point does a noble dragonslayer become a maniac bent on the genocide of a sentient race?

5) The Nature of Power: Power corrupts… why? because those who wish to retain power must often work to enforce their office. Even those who want to give up that power might find it difficult to do so. A man who has power has enemies, and those enemies may not feel benevolently inclined even if you give up that power. Power thus becomes an end unto itself, turning even a heroic reformer into a potential monster…

A final modern example is the NSA. They spy to prevent terrorism. We cannot know what they are doing because that would tip off the people that they are spying on. It is easy to see how those goo intentions have led to the current debacle, where those who protect us are arguably far more dangerous to our liberty that those who they are protecting us from. It is not to hard to take this basic idea and turn it into a great fantasy story!

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