I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but every time the hero spares the life of the dastardly, evil villain, I roll my eyes. Even when I was a kid this annoyed me.
Don’t get me wrong, in the real world I’m no fan of vigilantly justice, or the death penalty. I don’t think random good Samaritans should be offing people because they decided it was the right thing to do.
But in the fictional world, when the ass-kicking, world-saving, all-round nice guy or gal battles the evil villain, and finally gets the chance to end their reign of terror once and for all… and they let them live??
It’s especially irritating when you know it’s going to be followed by one of those villain-makes-last-dash-surprise-attempt-to-kill-the-hero moments.
I can see why it happens though. Firstly, I guess it has to do with morals… we don’t want people thinking the solution to any threat is to just kill someone. More importantly, it’s about the hero, isn’t it? We don’t want to think the hero is in any way evil or murderous, especially if they’re a cop. If the villain makes an attempt on the hero’s life, and the hero has to kill the villain to save themselves, well, it’s just self-defence. They didn’t intend to kill them. They were forced to.
What got me thinking about this whole notion of sparing or not sparing the villain was this: the other day I was watching the last episode of the third season of Sherlock (the British TV series… which I am totally in love with by the way). Here’s a YouTube clip of the pivotal scene (SPOILER WARNING – it gives away a major plot point at the end of the season if you haven’t seen it yet!):
It completely subverted my expectations, which made me realise I had some.
Villains in Fantasy
So then I thought about fantasy books, and how I feel when villains get spared or not spared. And it was then that I realised, to my surprise, that when I thought about it… this whole ‘hero spares the villain’ thing just isn’t that big in fantasy.
Perhaps in some children’s stories or young adult fiction, yes, but in most mainstream fantasy, be it of the epic or paranormal or portal kind, it seems to me that the bad guys just get offed. End of story.
I mean, think of these two notorious specimens of fantasy villain-dom: Sauron and Voldemort. They had to die. Well, Voldemort had to survive a few times first, but only so that he could die later. Did the heroes have any sort of existential crises over whether or not they should deal the killing blow? I guess maybe Harry did, but only because he thought he’d kill himself in the process, which would understandably not be ideal. I don’t think there was much concern for the preservation of Voldemort’s existence.
And in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, well, the White Witch gets pretty much mauled by a lion and everyone cheers… though with none of the explicit detail.
I guess part of the reason we have no issues with seeing a fantasy villain die is that they’re often not really human. Sauron seems to barely have a physical form at all, most of the time he’s just a burning eye and a voice in a creepy ring. Voldemort’s had his soul spliced up and shared around, and been resurrected a couple of times. The White Witch is… well, a witch, and just generally rather awful.
And in most paranormal series? The villains are vampires, or werewolves, or fairies, or angels, or devils, or some other paranormal creation. I guess occasionally you get a twisted evil human doing the dirty work. But still, if we see a villain spared, it’s usually for the purposes of a sequel, not because anyone’s particularly worried about seeing them brought to trial.
When you look at the grisly ends of fairy-tales, I guess it’s not surprising that fantasy authors have few qualms about disposing of the villain. It’s arguably the genre from which modern fantasy sprung (even Tolkien called them ‘fairy stories’), and fantasy fiction still shares a lot of common traits with these age-old tales. So what happened to the villains in those?:
The witch in Hansel and Gretel? Cooked alive in an oven.
The giant in Jack and the Bean Stalk? Plummets to his death.
The Queen in Snow White? Forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes.
The Big Bad Wolf? Cut open with an axe. Or boiled in a cauldron while attempting to descend a chimney… depending on the fairy tale.
And I don’t think it’s just because these villains aren’t human that they die. It’s the whole ethos of the genre, the medieval code of justice and honour. Fantasy stories and fairy tales are so often about battles, swords, punishment, justice, the vanquishing of evil, the triumph of good. There’s a sort of fairy-tale morality to them where the hero destroys evil and no one feels compelled to involve things like the laws or courts or prisons.
So as a 21st century citizen, and generally a fan of democracy and the justice system, it’s amusing to notice how I cheer on what’s essentially archaic vigilante justice in the fiction I read. Even in action films and crime thrillers, I’m often delighted if the evil murdering villain meets a nasty end. The handcuffs just don’t do it for me.
Of course, it’s fiction. The people aren’t real, and I guess a feeling of narrative satisfaction is more important than a moral showing of mercy. The catharsis of finally seeing ‘justice’ delivered to the villain in the form of their demise… well, it’s enjoyable.
And clearly I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recently I was looking at a collection of twitter comments relating to the demise of a certain Game of Thrones character. It was impressive to see how much people delighted at this murder… and I must confess, I shared their delight.
The truth is, by the end of most novels or films, we’ve seen the evidence of the villain’s evil. We’ve seen their crimes plastered all over the screen or written on the page, we’ve lived through the injustices along with the hero and know that the bad guy is rotten through and through. Particularly in fantasy, we know that no amount of prison time is going to change or contain them because they are irrevocably evil. In a way, we’re the jury, and by the end of it we’re well and truly ready to see them bring out the executioner.
Going Against the Grain
Part of what made that Sherlock episode so shocking was that it deliberately played with what we have come to expect of heroes in the crime genre… and very appropriately too, given that Sherlock Holmes is an unconventional hero. In fantasy, however, we have quite different expectations. From the mental run-through I’ve done of fantasy stories I’m familiar with (by no means a comprehensive survey), it seems the murdering of baddies is common fare. I guess what would be interesting to ask now is this: are there some fantasies where the hero doesn’t kill the villain, purely out of the goodness of their heart? And was it annoying or did it work? And to twist it another way, are there any fantasies where the hero does do some villain killing, and we think less of them for it?