Themes in Fiction #2 – Power Corrupts


Picture by zigazou

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. ~ Lord Acton


With great power comes great responsibility. The theme of power is a popular one in fiction, particularly the abuse of power and its ability to corrupt. Like Spiderman, whose misuse of his power lead to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben – a hard learned lesson about responsibility and the duty of those in power to those without it.

But what happens when those with power don’t learn that lesson? Many a book has plotted the dark path that protagonists or antagonists can find themselves on whilst in pursuit of power. From Macbeth’s heinous murder of King Duncan to Voldemort’s attempted murder of an innocent baby boy, characters in books (and history) have been doing terrible things to acquire power, and worse things to keep it.


Lord of the Flies – William Goldinglord of the flies

Lord of the Flies is all about power and how it corrupts. It explores the idea that all humans are capable of evil through the character of Jack. Jack wants power above all else, and the more power he gets, the more brutal he is to the other boys on the island, including beating small children for no real reason, stealing the glasses of another boy and effectively rendering him blind, and eventually hunting down his main opposition like an animal. It was written shortly after World War Two, and lots of people have drawn comparisons between Jack and Hitler. Golding does an incredible job of making Jack’s choices absolutely believable. It must have been a real kick in the teeth while people were still reeling from the events of WW2 and wondering how on earth they were allowed to happen.

Animal Farm – George Orwellanimal-farm-book-cover

Keeping up with the pig theme, Animal Farm is another great book that explores how power corrupts. When the animals of Animal Farm usurp their human oppressors, they decree all animals equal. But the intelligence of the pigs mean they are soon able to take a bigger slice of the pie. The more power the pigs get, the more like the humans they become, eventually wearing clothes and engaging with other nearby farmers. And who could forget the infamous amendment to their initial decree: All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

(Incidentally, I LOVE that book cover. My copy had this awful drawing that looked like a ten year old did it with colouring crayons. Also, this is one of the few books that the Boyfriend has read – he still quotes it now, many years later.)

Mixing it Up

I hate to come back to The Lord of the Rings trilogy so soon (I will try to be more original with my examples next week, promise!) but the fact is, the trilogy plays with some interesting ideas about power and corruption.

Tolkien was quite clear that the Ring (symbolic of great power, but also corruption and evil) was quick to act on men, and in their greed for rings of their own, they were tricked and turned into Ringwraiths – beings so corrupted they are shadows of their former selves and completely under the control of another. We know Aragorn and book Faramir (the one thing I hated about the movie was that they made Faramir want the ring) to be good and true leaders because they are able to resist the allure of the ring completely.

And then there’s the fact that Hobbits are least susceptible to the Ring. Bilbo is able to carry it for many years without suffering too much, and even as the power of the ring grows, between them Sam and Frodo are able to destroy it. Hobbits are simple folk, not driven by desires for more than what they have – suggesting that power corrupts those who desire it much faster than those who fall into it.


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