In Search of Fantastic Banality: Arendt’s Evil in the Genre

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on Portrayals of Evil in Fantasy. My motivation then was addressing what I considered to be a straw-man on the part of George R.R. Martin – the idea of Evil as being a dichotomy of external or internal. Today, I thought I would revisit the issue from a different angle, namely Hannah Arendt’s famous conception of “the banality of evil,” and how it has been portrayed within the fantasy genre. The matter is of interest to me, since I think fantasy has tended to neglect banal evil in favour of a more remarkable flavour – a neglect that is understandable, in that the latter is generally more fun to read and write about, but which is still a shame. The rules of real-life may not be the rules of the page, but in exploring the fundamental question of why villains act as they do, a dose of reality does not go amiss. And I am a great believer in the idea that most real-life evil is very, very banal.

As a refresher, Arendt explores the idea in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), where she analyses the trial of the Nazi war-criminal. Her point is that Adolf Eichmann was not a criminal mastermind, or a psychopathic lunatic, but rather that he was a very dull, very ordinary man of no great intelligence, who committed atrocities because his superiors wanted it that way, and because he was going with the social flow. Hence the banality of evil: a realisation that many people who commit monstrous acts are not Adolf Hitlers, driven by unhinged passion and fanaticism, but rather grey little men in grey little offices who are just doing their job before going home for the evening. People who shrug off moral responsibility as “too hard,” and prefer not to think about it. Or indeed think about anything at all.

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All well and good… so where are the examples in fantasy, and what interpretive spin does the genre put on it?

It turns out that examples are actually quite difficult to find. As I mentioned earlier, the genre prefers to make evil more memorable and exotic. Part of this is the Dark Lord motif popularised by Tolkien – Dark Lords are too powerful and individualistic to be mundane mediocrities, and are indeed examples of the “grand” capital E-evil Arendt was arguing against. On the other hand, the genre throws up the likes of Peake’s Steerpike, Martin’s Roose Bolton, Adams’ General Woundwort… none of these are Dark Lords, all of them are villains, yet none of them are Eichmanns. They are all much too interesting to attract the label of banality. And, well, good. Don’t we as readers want interesting villains in our stories? No-one wants to read about grey little men in grey offices. Even the cheesiest villain from the cheesiest sword-and-sorcery yarn, gibbering world-conquering wizard that he is, is more fun than that – it’s why popular imagination has turned so many of the Nazis into a sort of demonic hierarchy of Hell. Dull accuracy is still dull.

Yet, at the same time, the genre is conscious of the idea that real evil is less than glamorous. C.S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters (1942) makes the following comment in the preface:

“I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business con­cern.”

A soulless, white-collar, mechanical evil, shorn of the energy of psychopathy. It chimes rather well with the petty dull-mindedness Arendt saw in Eichmann. The Screwtape Letters, framed as a series of missives between a senior devil and a junior one, certainly explores that idea thoroughly – Screwtape advises his nephew, Wormwood, on how to corrupt his human charge, all the while illustrating that Hell itself is a very banal place. There is no Miltonian grandeur to be found here, no tragic villainy, just misery, both humourless and boring.

But The Screwtape Letters is an overt Christian apologetic novel, and Lewis was deliberately trying to subvert the notion that Evil is Cool. What of more mainstream fantasy? Where is the banality of evil there? I would argue that Dolores Umbridge, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, is a poster-child for Arendt’s thesis.

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One of the most fascinating things about Umbridge is that notwithstanding her banality – she is a bureaucratic dullard full of petty spite and self-importance – she is a much more interesting villain than Voldemort. In fact, she might actually be the finest creation Rowling has yet written, all the more terrifying because we have all met ‘Umbridge’ at some point in our lives (I worked with her at one point…). Whereas Voldemort is all passionate hatred and capital E-evil, more caricature than character (he’s most interesting as a self-loathing bully), Umbridge does not parade her evil around. The woman wears pink, fluffy cardigans and keeps kitten plates in her office, has her prejudices – but she’s no worse than Vernon Dursley there – and responds to breaches of rules with more rules. She allows a spiteful sadism to creep into her actions, but it is a very precise, rule-bound sort of sadism, designed to make a point rather than invoke destruction. Rowling’s error is making her look like a toad too (sadly, ugly = evil appears too often in these books), but that is corrected in the film. In short, there is nothing darkly glamorous about Umbridge – she is no Beatrix Lestrange – and nothing grand either. She is just a very ordinary woman, wielding very mundane authority.

So if banal evil is boring, how on earth does Rowling make it work? Believable characterisation, and playing into reader familiarity with the ‘up-jumped little Hitler’ plays a role, but putting such an antagonist in a position of nominal authority over our protagonists – even Dumbledore is sidelined – generates a glorious sense of nauseous suffocation, as though we are being enveloped by a thousand tiny tentacles. Umbridge traps Harry and friends in a way that Voldemort never does – our protagonists are never forced to carry out Voldemort’s instructions, but they do have to obey Umbridge. This accordingly feeds into any frustration that the reader has ever felt towards uncaring or incompetent bureaucracy, and generates palpable catharsis when she is defeated. Who hasn’t channelled their inner V for Vendetta, and fantasised about blowing up The System now and again?

A second major example of the banality of evil in fantasy is Edmund Pevensie, from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

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Edmund is an odd example, in that he’s a protagonist, not an antagonist. He betrays his family to the White Witch, not for high-minded motives, or because he was forced to, but through a combination of childhood spite, the possibility of being able to lord it over others… and enchanted confectionery. Edmund himself starts off as a nasty little boy (he learns better), but one does not get more banal than committing treason for a fix of Turkish Delight. It’s not too far off Homer Simpson selling his soul for a doughnut.

I would also make three further points, tangentially related to how Lewis deals with Edmund in the book:

(i) Edmund, in contrast to Umbridge, is never in a position of power. Certainly, he wants power (even if he has no idea what to do with it, beyond getting one over his brother and sisters), but he enters the hierarchy of Evil very much at the bottom. The White Witch considers him nothing more than a means to an end, and plans to turn him to stone with all the rest – Evil in Lewis is not grateful for favours, and it certainly does not play as a team. Mean-spirited backstabbing is all it is.

(ii) Umbridge does not need Voldemort to do her thing: she has all the power she needs via the Ministry. Edmund, however, cannot betray his family for the Turkish Delight without the White Witch… and Empress Jadis is non-banal. Yes, in the prequel she destroys a world just to defeat her sister, but she also has glamour, power, and touch of the sexual – a tad odd for an author who in The Screwtape Letters tries so hard to dispel that image of Evil. Still, the implication is that one cannot have petty, banal evil (Edmund) without the temptations created by a grander, more spiritual variety (Jadis). In a sense, those “quiet men with white collars” from Lewis’ earlier quote are (literally) doing the Devil’s work.

(iii) If banal evil is an offshoot of spiritual Evil, it can still be rescued by spiritual Good. Unlike Umbridge, Edmund is not irredeemable, and is saved by Aslan’s sacrifice. Which ties into Lewis’ irritatingly heavy-handed Christian allegory – but in contrast to Rowling, it’s at least a thematically consistent sacrifice (*cough* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows *cough*).

One handy thing about Edmund being a protagonist – his betrayal of his siblings is actually dramatically interesting. Never mind his motives, Edmund’s actions are of significant importance to the plot and theme of the book. The result is that we aren’t bored by this depiction of the banality of evil, though having things spiced up via Jadis turning people to stone certainly helps too.

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J.R.R. Tolkien does not, at first, seem fertile ground for the banality of evil. Not only is he the genre-populariser of Dark Lords, but so many of his villains are cases of the paragon rebelling – these are grand figures who succumb to their flaws, and turn to Evil as a result. Melkor is the most powerful of the Ainur, Sauron a powerful Maia, Saruman the most powerful wizard, Feanor the most gifted of the Elves. And so on: there is no banality here, just the tragedy of talent turned to ill use and dark purposes. Even the musical interpretation of Good vs Evil during the Melkor’s Discord scene early in The Silmarillion portrays Evil as:

“loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.”

This is crudity of evil, ugliness of evil, but not really banality of evil, except insofar as it is unimaginative and believes itself to be more important than it really is. No-one could describe Melkor as an everyday mediocrity.

So does Tolkien consider the subject at all? It turns out he does – through the Scouring of the Shire.

Recall that while our protagonists are busy with the War of the Ring, fighting grand Evil, Saruman is busy doing trade deals with the Shire. And those trade deals end up with the former White Wizard taking over politically. Saruman – an immortal spirit from before the creation of the world – is reduced to bullying hobbits out of petty revenge. Then he is beaten by them, both physically and morally. Quite the come-down.

There are a couple of observations to make here. If Lewis separates spiritual Evil (Jadis) and banal evil (Edmund), Tolkien has one decaying into the other – Saruman starts out a grave threat, and ends up utterly pathetic. It is also a decline we see with Melkor too (from most powerful being in creation, to a mundane tyrant trapped in his physical form), though no-one falls quite as far as Saruman. The other point is that while the ruination of the Shire is Saruman’s handiwork, he takes advantage of what is already there – the bullies, the compliant, the self-satisfied, the greedy. Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Ted Sandyman, the Shirriffs… none of them are monsters. Instead, Frodo and company encounter dull little perpetuators of autocracy, so mundane that Merry Brandybuck even comments on it:

“Of all the ends to our journey that is the very last I should have thought of: to have to fight half-orcs and ruffians in the Shire itself – to rescue Lotho Pimple!”

As with Umbridge, of course, Sharkey’s Shire is also joyless and rule-ridden. It is a world of little food or firewood, environmental vandalism, and no beer. Small, nasty, and so very banal, yet it is an evil so close to home (literally!) for our protagonists – and it is this closeness that prevents the story becoming boring. This isn’t some abstract setting, some faraway Mordor, but the Shire itself. I still remember crying alongside Sam Gamgee on my very first read-through. 

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Terry Pratchett’s villains tend to fall under the categories of supernatural entities, ambitious wizards, aristocrats, and psychopaths. None of these inherently lend themselves to studying the banality of evil. But that is not to say that Pratchett does not tackle the theme – he just normally does not address it via actual villainy. Instead, one encounters commentary from the likes of Lord Vetinari in Guards! Guards!:

“Down there,” he said, “are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no…”

Vetinari is a supreme cynic, of course – his argument is that there are no good and bad people, only bad people on different sides – but as a summation of the banality of evil, it is a pretty good one. Incorporating it into the rest of Pratchett, I am not sure, however, that this “mass produced darkness of the soul” is ever necessarily treated as the source of great evil on the Discworld. Far from being an explanation for Discworld Eichmanns, it is more a shrug, a leader’s low expectations of his subjects, than an insight into why things happen. If anything, Pratchett tends to present us with the banality of good – on being asked to name their reward for saving Ankh-Morpork in Guards! Guards!, the Watchmen ask for a five dollar pay rise, a new tea-kettle, and a dartboard. And they think the dartboard is pushing it.

That said, one example of genuinely banal evil in Pratchett is Captain ‘Mayonnaise’ Quirke, of the old Day Watch. Rich, thick, and oily, he is explicitly described as lacking the imagination required to be a bad man – instead he is simply a corrupt, self-important mediocrity, with an overlay of racial prejudice, and a tendency to do as he is told. But Quirke is, alas, a side-character, who serves as a foil to Vimes, and as someone detestable (and punch-worthy) without being overly dangerous. He never gets the chance to be an Eichmann.

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A setting as cynical as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is a likely candidate for banal evil, and we find an (arguable) portrayal of it in the deeds of torturer protagonist, San dan Glotka. Glotka’s job is extracting confessions for the Inquisition (as a past torture victim himself, he is very good at this), but there is absolutely no sadism or malice involved at all, let alone fanaticism. Evil is a job, no more, no less, and there is no regret or remorse on Glotka’s part. Why would there be? It’s a job, and he’s performing a role. He’s not even sure why he does it.

That same question came into his head, over and over, and he still had no answer.

Why do I do this?

Why?

Abercrombie’s spin on the idea is that while Glotka reduces torture and death to complete mundanity, he is hardly a stuffed bureaucratic shirt. Glotka is not a mediocrity, but rather someone forced to commit mechanical acts of evil on a daily basis – fully aware of his predicament, but unable to break out. He is even rather disappointed by the mundanity of the confessions he elicits. Is it banality of evil if one is aware of the banality? On the other hand, he is no psychopath or cackling monster, is following orders from above, and he certainly goes through the motions while performing his role, so I think he warrants a place in this list. Your mileage may vary.

That said, far from being dull, Glotka is a genuinely witty man, with a sharp mind, which makes him fun to read. He has, however, lost himself in cynicism, self-pity, and his own excruciating pain – a combination of which actually provokes sympathy in the reader, even while we know all about his horrible deeds. It rather helps, of course, that in contrast to Umbridge, Edmund, and Saruman, we have no particular emotional attachment to his victims, but in contrast to the others on this list, Glotka is a real victim himself, trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. It is no accident that the trilogy ends with Glotka inducting another into the cycle.

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The final example on the list is Janos Slynt, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. A corrupt mediocrity in charge of a city guard, he is similar in many respects to Pratchett’s Quirke – though we see Quirke through Vimes’ working-class eyes (as a bully), and Slynt through the eyes of the nobility (as a lower-class sleazeball with a distinctive manner of speaking). Slynt has his ambitions, but he is really a stuffed shirt willing to sell himself to the highest bidder.

I do find it odd that in a series populated with such a diverse array of loathsome characters, I am forced to hunt out a character so comparatively minor. For all his commentary on the genre’s lack of realism in the portrayal of evil, Martin’s own rogues gallery prefers the psychopaths (Gregor Clegane, Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey Baratheon), the politicians (Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, Walder Frey), the psychopathic politicians (Cersei Lannister), and the Others. Notwithstanding the realism of banality, Martin definitely prefers writing remarkable Evil over banal evil. His treatment of the latter largely focuses on mercenaries, and even then he prefers the clever rogue-types (Bronn) over the dull ordinary ones (Slynt).

(The only other candidate from Martin that springs to mind is the even more minor Merrett Frey. Bowen Marsh too, if you consider him evil. Grand Maester Pycelle… maybe).

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That concludes our look at how the fantasy genre has depicted the banality of evil. Apart from the two big examples of Dolores Umbridge and Edmund Pevensie, it is surprisingly slim pickings (I am still not sure about Glotka) – examples are there, Tolkien and Pratchett acknowledge it, but such portrayals are not front and centre. I have already suggested that this may be due to writers and reading (understandably) preferring “what is interesting” over “what is realistic.”

Thinking about this dearth a bit more, perhaps in addition to the previously mentioned genre fondness for Dark Lords, there might also be some other structural reasons. As per Lewis’ comment about Administration, banal evil thrives in a more bureaucratic setting – it divorces one from the direct consequence of one’s actions, and merges the individual into an unthinking mechanical system. Bureaucracy rarely lends itself to the pseudo-medievalism that has so dominated the fantasy genre, and even more modern settings don’t give it much attention – it’s there (otherwise we would not have Umbridge), but comparatively rare.

5 thoughts on “In Search of Fantastic Banality: Arendt’s Evil in the Genre

  1. You’re right about the genre as a whole. Looking at RPGs, having a dramatic looking evil overlord seems almost to define the heroic-fantasy genre.

    Pratchett deserves a second look, though. Off the top of my head, I can remember a torturer drinking coffee from a “world’s best dad” mug. The big bad guys who drive the plot of Hogfather are “the Auditors”. But the best part of Pterry’s subversion is that the character who looks like the Dark Lord is actually a good guy. And Death is frequently the protagonist. Black is a friendly color in Discworld. Grey is the color you shouldn’t trust.

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    • I thought about the Auditors. In hindsight, I should probably have included them, unimaginative cosmic bureaucrats that they are. I think my reasoning for omitting them was that as alien supernatural entities, they are not really evil in a strict sense, and they aren’t really representative of Pratchett’s “mass produced darkness of the soul.”

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  2. There were propably a lot of banal evil off stage in the administration of Mordor (agricultural quotas in the area of Nurnen etc). If I remember correctly, one of the orcs in Cirith Unghol threatens to report name and number of another orc. Orcs having numbers implies that Mordor was a managerial bureaucratic state.

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  3. Screwtape is the best example, IMHO. A spiteful, pompous, harassed, middle manager, toadying to his superiors, and bullying his inferiors.

    Actually, Lewis loved this trope. Shift from The Last Battle, Eustace and Gumpas from the Dawn Treader, Fairy Hardcastle from That Hideous Strength, are all examples.

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