Nazis are bad. If you carry away one thing from this blog post, it’s that Nazis are bad.
In fact, Nazis have become a handy shortcut in storytelling for representing evil. Need a bad guy? Make him a Nazi. No reader of books or viewer of films or player of video games thinks twice if Nazis die. They are evil. They are all evil!
There’s only one problem with this convenient idea.
Not all Nazis are evil—rather, Nazis are not all evil.
You see, people are complicated. No person—Nazi or not—is absolutely, one hundred percent wicked. No person is completely good, either. Bad people have virtues, and good people have flaws.
As satisfying as black-and-white moral struggles are in storytelling, they’re not very realistic. It’s hardly ever as simple as “good versus evil.” It’s usually “something versus a different something.” Even in cases of clear-cut good and bad, it tends to be “something mostly good versus something mostly bad.”
It’s hardly ever good storytelling to make the good guys perfect and the bad guys irredeemable. In real life, when does that ever happen?
Granted, it can work. J.R.R. Tolkien, who somehow managed to write great books while ignoring a lot of basic rules for storytelling, pits (mostly) good and selfless hobbits, men, elves and dwarves against orcs—twisted creatures damned to an existence of pain, war and cruelty. Tolkien’s black-and-white struggles work because they’re sort of symbolic. Orcs seem almost like Tolkien’s fairy-tale representation of absolute evil in his fairy-tale realm of Middle-earth. The villain, Sauron, is more like the concept of badness than an actual bad guy. (I should note that Tolkien did manage some morally ambiguous characters, such as Gollum and Boromir.)
For the most part, however, the best stories have good guys that are sort of bad and bad guys that are sort of good. Consider Avatar: The Last Airbender, the fantastic fantasy show. In its world, the Fire Nation is a lot like Nazi Germany. It attempts to conquer, exploit and control other countries: in this case, the Water Tribe and Earth Nation.
Guess what? The “good” countries have their fair share of bad guys. A psychotic criminal belongs to the Water Tribe. The Earth Kingdom is the home of thugs and thieves, not to mention a corrupt official and the merciless secret police under his control. The “evil” Fire Nation is populated largely by innocent, well-meaning citizens.
Hayao Miyazaki also does a great job of creating morally ambiguous characters. Probably his best films in this regard are Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, in which the villains are… no one, really. Princess Mononoke has a bunch of characters fighting selfishly for their own survival and prosperity; they’re self-centered, but not really evil. Spirited Away has characters that seem bad, but when you get to know them you realize they’re just gruff and insensitive.
People are hardly ever all good or all bad, and conflicts are usually more complicated than “good versus evil.” Ambiguity and subtlety are invaluable assets for any story or character!
You mentioned Tolkien. I can’t not comment. 😉 Yay.
“Tolkien…pits (mostly) good and selfless hobbits, men, elves and dwarves against orcs—twisted creatures damned to an existence of pain, war and cruelty. Tolkien’s black-and-white struggles work because they’re sort of symbolic. Orcs seem almost like Tolkien’s fairy-tale representation of absolute evil in his fairy-tale realm of Middle-earth. The villain, Sauron, is more like the concept of badness than an actual bad guy. (I should note that Tolkien did manage some morally ambiguous characters, such as Gollum and Boromir.)”
First, Boromir and Gollum (who you’ve already mentioned) aren’t all good. There are more, too – Grima Wormtongue, I personally think, isn’t entirely all-bad. Denethor is another wait-is-he-good-or-evil one. Also the men serving Sauron (who aren’t really major characters, but still exist). Sauron had been controlling their lands for ages, so they didn’t really have a choice to do anything other than serve him. Sam’s thoughts on the Haradrim: “He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.” Yea. Are they all evil, or is there more to them than black-and-white-ness? Also Hobbits – when the Shire gets overrun by Sharky in the end, a few of the “good and selfless hobbits” turn to his side. Hobbits aren’t al good either. In the greater legendarium, too, there are more characters that are morally ambiguous or that shift loyalties.
Second, orcs. Yes, they are pretty well portrayed as absolute evil, but we’ve also got to remember that they, like Wormtongue, were not always so. They are twisted, mutated Elves – and Elves are Tolkien’s representation of absolute good, if anything is (though, yea, there’s also lots of “bad” elves, I suppose, especially in pre-LotR timeperiods). So, I wouldn’t classify orcs as absolutely evil. Also, if you read the passages in LotR after Frodo has been stung by Shelob and Sam is following the Orcs into the tunnel and he listens to their conversation, a lot of it is rather more human than we like to think of Orcs as being. If I remember right, they talk about breaking away from Sauron, settling down, making their own home somewhere far away from Sauron’s rule, getting out from under the gaze of the Eye, setting up their own business. Interesting – because, while they still may be bad and have bad intentions for this “business,” they don’t seem to be quite so unshiftingly, absolutely evil in these parts…they’ve still got a bit of free will and imagination left in them, which destroys the “mindless pawns of evil” idea, makes them more human, and…less absolutely evil.
Anyhow. Not disagreeing with your post…it’s quite true, especially if you look only at LotR – most of the characters are either all-good or all-bad. But it’s not universally true of all of Middle-earth. And I love this stuff, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment. 😉 Apologies for the length…ha.
You’ve pointed out quite a number of things I’d overlooked! I’d forgotten the orcs’ conversation, and missed a number of morally ambiguous characters: particularly some hobbits during the occupation of the Shire.
All the same, I think my point remains more or less intact. The fact I overlooked these ambiguous characters is telling. Setting aside the pre-Lord of the Rings legendarium — I seem to remember Galadriel having something of a past, for example — most conflicts in the book are pretty black and white.
Thanks for your thoughts! I’ll never pass up a discussion of Tolkien. 🙂
Your point is definitely intact. And as for Galadriel, you’re right – I forgot her. Quite a few other Elves seem to have a similar past, though…if only by default of association. I do love, though, how Tolkien is able to craft a story where having such black and white characters isn’t a problem. The story suffers no harm from it – it is still vastly believable, and it really highlights the struggle in the characters who aren’t all black and white.