As part of my ongoing plans to have more consistent content on the blog, I’ve decided to start doing a weekly exploration of common themes in fiction, starting with perhaps the most common – Good vs. Evil.
In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson
Whether it’s a fantastical monster or a cruel but frighteningly ordinary human, fiction is constantly exploring the battle between good and evil.
It’s a theme that can be explored across a huge range of scales – from the epic battles between the armies of good and evil, to the small scale choices that a character makes day to day.
I think one of the reasons that Good vs. Evil resonates so well with audiences is because it’s a struggle that we all go through, and the idea of ‘what would you do’ in certain situations can be enough to keep you up at night. We all like to think that we’d fall on the side of good, but if the theme is presented in a realistic way, it can often leave us questioning if we wouldn’t choose ‘evil’ for all the right reasons.
There’s also the fact that we love to cheer the good guys and boo-hiss the over the top bad guys. When the theme is done to pantomime levels, it’s never going to leave you questioning moral dilemmas, but it is usually brilliant good fun.
The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
The one fantasy epic to rule them all, The Lord of the Rings featured nine valiant heroes who set out on a journey to defeat the evil that is Sauron. Tolkien was clever because Sauron as a bad guy is very distant and not really all that scary, but his ring represented his evil, and each of the characters had their own personal ‘good vs. evil’ battle with the ring’s evil influence – notably lost by Boromir, who tried to take the ring from Frodo. So Lord of the Rings has Good vs. Evil on the epic scale – battles against monstrous armies of orcs – and smaller, personal battles.
The Stand – Stephen King
My second favourite Stephen King book, The Stand features an epic face off between two camps of survivors in a post ‘super flu’ America. While the people in the camps aren’t particularly good or evil, they are the pawns for the group leaders – benevolent Mother Abigail and the sinister Randall Flagg. Interestingly, the ‘bad’ camp initially appears better organised and more appealing, but their habit of crucifying people does rather put you off joining them.
Hollow Earth – John and Carole E. Barrowman
This, along with countless other Middle Grade to Young Adult books features the theme of good vs. evil heavily. It’s the ‘Star Wars model’ – ordinary kids have extraordinary powers and must decide whether to use them for good and evil. This is a particularly lovely and inventive take on the tale.
Subverting the Theme
Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Modern fantasies do seem to be leaning towards more ambiguous conflicts. While Game of Thrones does have some clear antagonists (I’m looking at you, Joffrey) by the time you get on to books two, three, four etc, the characters have done so many different things, their motives explained in ways that makes it difficult for you to take sides absolutely. Martin’s genius is taking characters like Jamie Lannister and the Hound and making you like them, even respect them. It raises really interesting questions for the reader and explores the nature of good and evil in humans in a much more authentic way.
The School for Good and Evil – Soman Chainani
While not the best book I read last year, by a long stretch, The School for Good and Evil did do interesting things with the concept of good and evil, taking two friends – one stereotypically ‘good’ the other ‘evil’ and switching them round, showing that false ‘goodness’, selfishness and self-centredness are true sources of evil, while being a loner doesn’t mean you can’t be ‘good.’