This is my final paper for my Renaissance and Enlightenment Lit class… I got an A on it, so I thought I’d post it up here… It’s long, just to warn you. But it’s about two of my favorite “villains.” Enjoy!
He swaggers around like he owns the world, but he feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere. He smirks, seeming to enjoy the havoc he wreaks around him, but his heart is tearing in half. His striking features reflect the torment inside of him, the knowledge that he is not who he once was, because, the truth is that he despises himself and the monster he’s become. Why then is he so irresistible to us? When I write “us,” I mean fangirls – or those who adore to the point of obsession particular characters from literature or films.
I became fascinated by my attraction to villains after viewing Marvel Studio’s Thor, nearly three months ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, do it. Thor is fabulous, and I’m not talking about the actor. Granted, there is no denying Chris Hemsworth is one hunky character, but that’s about all he has going for him on the big screen. Actually, I could not take my mind – and eyes, of course – off of his scrawny younger brother, Loki. Since then, Loki has been smirking devilishly at me from my computer desktop, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin.
Loki isn’t the only conflicted villain worshipped by movie fanatics, such as myself. There’s Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, Boromir from The Lord of the Rings, and Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars who later becomes the menacing Darth Vader. I’ve had a bit of thing for Anakin since middle school, when I first saw Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Something about Anakin’s distressed expression and set jawline has stuck with me all these years. While each of the characters mentioned above are conflicted about where they stand in the bad-guy/good-guy spectrum, Anakin’s story mirrors Loki’s nearly scene for scene.
Instead of starting a blog dedicated solely to Loki/Anakin pictures and fangirl drivel, I sought to rationalize my attraction to these charming villains via literary analysis. After all, I am an English major… That’s what I do best. So I went way back to the first positive look at conflicted villainy in recorded literary history – back all the way to the 17th century’s Paradise Lost.
Author John Milton doesn’t write about Satan as a purely evil being, intent on destroying humanity with sin and death. Not at all. Milton’s Satan is a far cry from the unruly demon of the Bible, who left heaven of his own accord. To Milton, Satan is a victim of circumstance, thrown from heaven without a second chance at receiving God’s grace. Anglican England had no idea what to do with this very new representation of Satan, and they probably thought Milton’s suggestion that Satan was in the least bit indecisive about his disobedience to God was sacrilegious. Satan had no ability to regret, no desire to repent…or does he?
Milton made Satan a complex character, one who expresses humanlike emotions of regret and loneliness not usually portrayed by purely evil humans. In Book One of Paradise Lost, we read that, after being cast from heaven, Satan is actually depressed by his situation and regrets his decision “to set himself in glory above his peers [the other angel]….and to have equaled the Most High.” The 17th century considered Satan evil to the core, an absolute monster incapable of emotion and without any trace of regret. The pride that caused him to seek equality with God caused him to be cast out from heaven, and he forever lived to turn all of humanity against his heavenly Punisher. Milton shocked the world by writing about a Satan who not only regretted his disobedience to God but sought to retain his perfection, even while dwelling in hell.
Before Paradise Lost, Satan had always been a nightmare, the monster that frightened children into obeying their parents. The knowledge that a purely evil creature even existed, one who destroyed the perfection of humanity, compelled people to live within God’s will for fear of being cast out of His presence, just like Satan once was. In essence, Satan’s fall from glory warned humanity that no one was safe from similar destruction. And really if an angel can fall from the glory of God, so can a messed-up human being.
Paradise Lost’s account of Satan shook Christianity’s absolute code of morality. Do we forgive all sin – even the unforgiveable? What about Satan? Does he deserve a second chance? In my opinion, absolutely not. I’ve had a hard time accepting Milton’s Satan. But I came to realize that as a piece of literature, not as a religious text, Paradise Lost accurately details the confliction of villains, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Milton’s Satan should be named the father of all modern villains, villains like Loki and Anakin, who are both conflicted about their evil deeds.
Milton doesn’t mince words either. He first claims divine inspiration from God for credibility and then jumps into his description of Satan as feeling conflicted about his decision to assert himself to the same or higher level than God. Directly after Satan has been cast out of heaven, the reality of his situation settles in, and he is distrubed by the gravity of his actions. This is something we don’t see much of in villains like Sauron or Lord Voldemort. To explain this confliction, Milton writes,
But his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him. (Book One, lines 53-56).
Satan is actually tormented by his regret. His emotions are all over the place: he feels hate and regret, as well as wrath and fear. Satan knows he made a mistake, and he also knows he should be sorry. Part of him undoubtedly is, some far part, hidden away from the world. Let’s face it. Who hasn’t ever felt like this? Satan’s reaction to his own sin here is so human, for how often do we do something that pricks our conscious yet don’t admit to having done anything wrong? We hide it away. Only our resulting attitudes of anger and bitterness may give away our feelings of guilt.
Satan felt this same way, yet there is something inside of us that feels funny admitting this. Out of all creation, Satan is the one creature that God is supposed to have no compassion for. So shouldn’t we react to Satan in the same way? The Bible records Satan as being a fully disobedient, prideful creature capable of making intelligent decisions for himself. He is crafty, wily, and purposeful. People with any knowledge of who Satan is in Biblical terms may feel that they should show no compassion towards the demon who screwed up our universe. But, according to Milton, Satan deserves as much of a second chance as you and me, because who doesn’t make mistakes and regret them?
This is essentially where our sympathy for conflicted villains comes from: the knowledge that we are all messed up to some extent and the desire for acceptance nonetheless. In the cases of Satan, Loki, and Anakin, however, this acceptance is denied, and our favorite villains are unable to redeem themselves.
In the beginning of each of their stories, not one of these characters makes himself the villain purposefully. It’s through a series of circumstances which cause him to become evil. Each character starts out at the top, with so much promise and so many people rooting for them. Satan was an archangel who sat at the right hand of God until he was lifted up so high that he began to take the lower angels’ admiration for him too seriously. Then he challenged the absolute authority of God. Loki was the prince of Asgard, second-in-line to the throne, until he discovered that his father, Odin, was not really his father. In fact, he had been lied to his whole life and was actually adopted, a son of Ice Giants. Anakin rose from poverty to train with the Jedi until he joined Emperor Palpatine, who misled him into killing innocent people. Then Anakin turned to the Dark Side. In each case, these villains were deceived first by others and then by themselves. And we feel sorry for them because, frankly, we aren’t sure if we’d act any differently in their position. They are as vulnerable as we are, and we have trouble blaming them for the mistakes they make later in their stories.
While Satan lives in the shadow of Christ, so does Loki live in the shadow of his big brother, Thor, the future king of Asgard. While Thor fights with strength and his hammer, Loki uses magic and illusions, as he is the god of trickery, after all. But Thor denies any power behind this, claiming that real warriors fight with physical strength. Just as God denied Satan’s assertion of power and cast him from heaven, so does Thor remove Loki’s power by repeatedly insulting his brother’s unique gifts. Eventually, Loki suspects his alienation is brought on by something deeper, something to do with his heritage. Odin, the brothers’ father and king of the Norse gods, tells Loki that he was actually adopted and an Ice Giant by birth. Loki is a shapeshifter, and having lived with the gods his whole life, he possesses their form. Completely devastated, Loki screams at Odin until the king succumbs to a stress-induced coma. At this point, Thor has been banished for his unruly escapade into Jotunheim, and Loki is made temporary king until his father recovers. Trying to prove himself to his father and Asgard, Loki allows the Ice Giants through the portal and into his father’s bedroom. Just as the Giants are about to kill Odin, Loki betrays the Giants and kills them instead, doing so in hopes of appearing to have saved the day. However, the attention immediately switches to Thor’s banishment and the hope in his return, and Loki’s moment of fame ends in disappointment. Having tried to prove himself, he was only rejected – again. After years and years of trying to gain respect, one can grow fairly weary.
Just as Loki struggled with his heritage, so did Anakin, who was a slave in his childhood. When he came under the wings of the Jedi, he was separated from his mother and never saw her again. For years and years, he had to live with the discomfort of never knowing where she was or what had happened to her until he sees her in a vision. She is in trouble, and so he goes looking for her. As it turns out, when Anakin finds her, she had been tortured for years by an enemy tribe. Seeing her son for the first time in years, she peacefully dies in his arms. Anakin is furious. He takes his vengeance out on the tribe by killing everyone in it. Just as Loki never admitted to letting the Giants into his father’s bedroom in the first place, Anakin doesn’t report his actions and is plagued by a heavy conscience because of it. He knows he made a mistake, like Satan too was aware of his own sin. He knows it was wrong to kill the entire tribe of people to avenge his mother’s death, and he sees the potential for evil inside of him gaining strength. He fears it. He buries those horrible feelings deep inside of himself and denies their very existence. Loki too buries his feelings of hatred toward his brother for years. Loki, the god of trickery, tricks even himself into believing he is not unhappy with his life. Then one day, both characters experience something that reveals their potential for evil, and they stifle it. Both characters try to avenge themselves, in a sense, only to be disappointed, as usual. Eventually, the feelings they allow to simmer deep inside of them boil over, and they snap.
Loki and Anakin’s inner displacement – their feelings of alienation – are similar to Satan’s physical displacement from heaven to hell. Once, Satan tries to get out of hell, only to find the gates bared. There is no way out. There is no second chance for the devil. When the gates finally do open to him, however, he sees only a vast chasm between himself and the heaven he once belonged to. Loki’s newfound knowledge about his origins separates him from the family he once considered himself belonging to, and Anakin’s murdering of the entire tribe separates him from the do-good mission of the Jedi, a group of people to whom he once felt he belonged. But now he’s not so sure. Maybe he’s evil. Maybe he’s destined for ruin. Maybe there’s no hope trying. All three characters harvest feelings of bitterness and close like a heavy iron gate.
And there is no key with which to open them up again. At unique points in all three stories, these characters accept their dark sides with no turning back. Their internal battles become too much for them to handle, and they give their dark sides complete control. Satan says he’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven, proving that he has made his choice. He continues to disobey God purposefully when he instigates the Fall. Satan sought to make himself like God yet again by banishing humanity from perfection just as God had banished him, and by doing so, Satan rejects any hope there may have been for himself. Likewise, Loki tries to destroy his own race of Ice Giants in order to please Odin. When Thor confronts him, Loki says, “I will prove that I am a worthy son.” He thought that by killing the race of creatures he came from would be the ultimate show of loyalty to his father. It was a physical demonstration of his desire to destroy the monster inside himself – the monster he knew he had been all along. Just as Satan seeks to destroy the people in his domain of Earth, Loki seeks to destroy his domain of Jotunheim, land of the Ice Giants. When his efforts are rejected for a final time, Loki snaps and turns on the Earth. But we’ll see more of this in the new movie, The Avengers, which will come out next summer.
Anakin too sought to hide away his bitterness at his mother’s death and the guilt he felt at wiping out the entire tribe that had tortured her to death. He allowed it to build up inside of him. His was a constant battle to stay on the side of the Jedi, no matter how conflicted he felt. He wanted a job that allowed him to take his anger out on those who were causing harm to innocent people ,and Emperor Palpatine offered him just that. Anakin ignores Obi Wan’s warnings and obeys Emperor Palpatine, just as Satan ignored the unspoken rule of never asserting oneself higher than Him. By listening to Palpatine, Anakin falls further and further into the dark side, and eventually his inner monster is released. He hates himself for killing innocent people and for nearly straggling Padme, but he doesn’t stop. Anakin feels like he’s becoming a monster. Loki really is a monster, an Ice Giant, and he shouts at Odin, saying, “I’m the monster parents tell their children about at night!” Satan too becomes more and more of a monster, physically, as Paradise Lost continues, eventually turning into a snake in Book Nine.
The cinema tries to help viewers understand villains’ transformations from good to bad by giving the actors darker makeup and angrier expressions as the storyline progresses. No one can walk away from Star Wars Episode III without seeing Anakin’s distraught, tear-stained face in his battle against Obi Wan, or Loki’s sadness as he releases Thor’s hand and falls from Asgard permanently, saying, “I could have done it, Father.” Likewise, Milton writes with such powerful description as we are able to see Satan’s transformation from beautiful angel of light to the ultimate power of darkness.
In their transformation to the dark side, these villains’ eyes are quite notable: they dart from one dark corner to the next, restless, uneasy, in search of something to rest upon, something solid and unwavering, unlike themselves. Milton writes of Satan,
Round he throws his baleful eyes,
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate. (Book One, lines 56-58).
Satan’s conflicted feelings are revealed – despite his attempts to conceal them – in his eyes, which are “mixed” with two feelings that together create the perfect combination for villainy: “obdurate pride” and “steadfast hate.” These two elements combine and manifest in the villains features, causing him to appear ill at ease, unsettled, and quite preoccupied. But the resulting moody contemplation, the character’s silent brooding over himself is often just what causes many fangirls to go into cardiac arrest.
Perhaps it is the knowledge that these villains have no control over their fate – granted, until they make the ultimate decision to turn away from good forever – is what makes it so difficult to accept them as purely evil beings incapable of emotion. The pain is in their eyes – which are often an attractive shade of blue or else dark and menacing. The sole fact that all three characters tried so hard to prove themselves worthy of their high callings in life makes their falls that much more traumatic for us. We want to reach out and help Anakin as he literally burns under the apathetic eyes of Obi Wan. We want to pull Loki to the safety of the bridge, never letting him fall away from Asgard. We even feel sorry for Satan when he returns to Hell after tempting Adam and is rejected even by his demonic servants. Milton writes,
“…Awhile he stood, expecting
Their universal shout and high applause
To fill his ear; when, contrary, he hears,
On all sides, from innumerable tongues
A dismal universal hiss, the sound
Of public scorn.”
All of that trouble for nothing. Satan realizes that his act of destroying humanity severed him not only from the grace of God but from what fame he held in Hell – the only place he thought he was respect. Instead, he is met with disdain and disappointment in his minions, just as Anakin’s working for Palpatine is rejected by Obi Wan and Loki’s assistance with the Giants is rejected by Odin. No one wants rejection, and the effect of feeling alienated, for whatever reason, is lasting on anyone who experiences it. When each of the villains makes that final decision to go against good purposefully, we sympathize with them. We know what it feels like to be left out, to be excluded, or for our talents and aspirations to be shot down by people who are close to us.
When these villains decide to turn away forever, we can’t blame them. No one wants to put up with repeated rejection. Why not find some place, someone who will appreciate us for who we really are? Each of these villains makes that decision and suffer the consequences. Satan makes himself ruler of the earth, although he is punished forever by God for his sin in asserting himself as His equal. Anakin becomes Darth Vader, but he is forced to live with hatred and bitterness for the rest of his life. Loki descends to Earth in search of the ultimate source of power, something that will bolster his lack of self esteem and bring him the recognition he never had in Asgard. All three villains come to thrive on evil, wreaking havoc wherever they may, but each character looks back over his shoulder in regret at some time or another. Despite seeming to enjoy the destruction they cause all around them, no villain is actually happy with himself and his evil accomplishments, and their inability to continue without some form of regret is what pulls at our heartstrings: we feel sorry for them and want them to come back to the light, because that means, if we ever find ourselves in a similar position, we can come back too.
Our sympathy for these distraught characters causes us to root for them to the very end. We’ll still love Anakin and Loki, no matter what they do in the future, because behind all the makeup and lighting used to make the actors as evil-looking as possible, we still see them as poor, confused souls battered by circumstances for the most part outside their control. They are deceived – either by themselves or by others – into believing that they are someone else, and they have to embark on a journey of their own to discover who they truly are, but they are loaded with hatred and bitterness, which shapes who they later become. What’s so evil about that? The truth is that there must be rules for good and evil in order to claim that a character is either. As much as Milton meant to “justify the ways of God to man” (Book One, line 26), his description of Satan has certainly made it difficult to explain this concept of good and evil. The lines are blurred, and it’s now easier for people to get around the absolute codes of morality described in the Bible. People now explore their own relative morality and determine for themselves what is acceptable and what is not. But to be honest, without a little conflict, can’t life get pretty boring?
Even good guys with a little “bad boy” in them are more interesting than good guys who are perfect. Take Iron Man for example, another Marvel Studios film. He is deemed “the good guy,” but he is also a womanizer and extremely arrogant. Going outside the two films, Boromir, from The Lord of the Rings is “good,” but he tries to take the Ring from Frodo. Even Thor is “the good guy” of the movie but has anger-management problems. Obi Wan is also “the good guy,” but he doesn’t allow Anakin to take charge of his own destiny. While Satan, Loki, and Anakin are rejected for who they are, these “good” characters are readily accepted for who they are. The difference? In these cases, the character with a few “minor” flaws is deemed “the good guy,” and the struggling character with a few valiant attempts at being “good” is deemed “the bad guy.” Absolute codes of morality come into play, and the lesser evil is chosen by default. And it just so happens that the characters we end up calling “villains” are those who openly and repeatedly rebel against the system. The “bad-boy syndrome” takes its effect and we’re hooked.
Their bold disregard for behavioral expectations is alluring. And actually, any time these three villains consider the weight of their actions, women are involved. Satan sees Adam with Eve and wishes he could have the relationship like they have with one another – loving, accepting, welcoming one another as valid individuals capable of doing good. Satan was denied that chance, having been banished forever to hell for his pride. Anakin too reaches out from his inner darkness to woo the lovely Padme, hoping he can replace his dark side with feelings of good he gets from being with her. Loki is jealous of Thor’s relationship with the Earthly Jane, and he claims it makes Thor weak. In a sense, this is true. Women do soften all three of these characters, but in different ways. Satan’s heart melts at the prospect of being loved, as does Anakin’s. Loki, however, hardens almost instantly, rather than allowing himself the time to consider the possibility of being loved. Perhaps this is because every time he had ever made himself vulnerable, he had been hurt. The injustices done to these characters makes us feel sorry for them, and the fact that they struggled against the monster within for so long gives us reason to think that they never meant to become evil. The pressure just became too much, and they broke in half.
No matter how sacrilegious the idea that Satan is deserving of our pity may have seemed in the 17th century, it certainly stuck. The image of a conflicted Satan was too relieving to ignore. The lines between good and evil were blurred, making the idea of sin less uncomfortable and easier to get around. Besides, black and white are simply too easy, too predictable. Grey? Grey means confusion, frustration, suspense, and tons of wonderfully conflicting emotions that make for the very best films. Now almost every modern movie possesses at least one conflicted villain. The reality is that life is too questionable. The everyday thrives on murky grey areas. Often, there is no one direction, no one answer. Everyone is both a victim and a suspect, deceived and the deceiver. There is a monster inside all of us, waiting to break loose, gnawing away at our morals until they are too frayed to withstand temptation. The truth is that it takes lots mistake-making and risk-taking to come out on top. And we have to hand it to these villains for trying so hard.
I don’t believe that I will stop being fascinated by Anakin, Loki, or even Satan – as strange as it is just to write that. I plan on keeping Loki on my desktop for months to come, at least. And when I go and see The Avengers next summer, where Loki goes completely to the dark side and plays the role of primary villain, my heart with break. But I will never stop loving him.