You’ve just downloaded a promising new book, found a comfy place to read, have snacks close by and are reasonable sure that no one will bother you for a while. Or perhaps you are old school and have an actual “book”. You hold it, take time to look at the cover, flip through the pages quickly to get a better whiff of the smell of the paper and the ink and then…you crack open the book with that satisfying sound of the spine of the book snapping. Ahh, enjoying the art of reading can be one of life’s simplest pleasures. For us fantasy and science fiction aficionados the thrill of losing ourselves in a brilliant, exciting unknown world with unbelievable technologies, super powers or magic is an addiction. There is always room for a new hero to cheer on as they battle the forces of evil! I’d like to spend some time talking a bit about those bad guys. Let’s put aside for a moment, the main actors. They get the best lines, the coolest powers and more often than not find a way to survive no matter what befalls them. Let’s examine a bit closer the role of the little guy, the minion. They are the poor ones that have to stand in the front row as the powers of good advance. In film and print they are usually dispatched with little effort or regard for who or what they are. Now I enjoy a good battle scene just like most, but let’s consider how these characters are portrayed. Entertainment is influenced by money, hype and flashy effects. Often the bad guys serve only one purpose and that is to give the good people targets. Subsequently, the costume designs, meager backstories and physical characteristics seek to eliminate any hint of individuality or self-worth. Yet, I wonder if one digs deeper into a fantasy world is it possible to garner a better understanding of what motivates the hordes of evil?
It feels right to begin with the Star Wars saga. Stormtroopers. Where to start? When George Lucas began it seems clear he had a larger back story, but had no idea how much of his space opera would actually make it to the screen. Stormtroopers are faceless, featureless, nameless. We get a hint that they might all be the same build when Princess Leia remarks that Luke is a bit short to be a stormtrooper. There is mention of a clone war, but I certainly had no idea what a clone was when I first saw Star Wars. I wonder how many did? The stormtrooper design works great for what Star Wars was in 1977. As the concept was allowed to evolve decades later, we learn what stormtroopers were. Honestly, the idea of clones is not really an improvement since these minor characters are manufactured and can simply be replaced. There is a reality that most fantasy/science fiction tales have a lot of violence in them. Dehumanizing the slaughter of the enemy makes it easier to read. I get it. But, the interesting thing about the Star Wars franchise is, as it became larger than any one story arc, a myriad of writers have set out in many new directions. It isn’t as simple as good and evil anymore. I highly recommend to anyone the animated Clones War series. I like this tv show for many reasons, but I really appreciate how the show addresses war, military conflicts, causalities and most importantly how the clones truly are individuals. In a way that couldn’t happen in a movie, the series shows how the clones name themselves, cut their hair different and have differences in their personalities. It humanizes these characters and changes the whole feel to the battle scenes. Deaths are mourned. The stormtroopers show emotions. The end result is a story that is more authentic and forces us to reflect on our own world’s troops, wars and the value of life.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and then The Lord of the Rings. Most people do not realize that his true work wasn’t published until after he died. The works he is famous for are spin offs from the central story he had hoped to create. I will forever be enthralled with his attempt to fashion a whole mythology and history for his world. Again we do find ourselves confronted with enormous battles and loss of life. This is through and through an epic tale of great powers battling over the control of the destiny of creation. Tolkien employs a different technique to make the killing of the enemy more palatable to the reader. The orcs or goblins are grotesque, disfigured, ill-kept, unmannered, uncultured, foul-tempered …you name it…they have all the most horrible qualities. I am a person who tends to abhor violence in the real world. I champion the call to allow people the chance to redeem themselves when they have erred. So, what’s the deal with these orcs, trolls, goblins? Were they always this bad? Where did they come from? Being raised Christian, I realize geez…Jesus would probably be hanging out in the orc’s den trying to get them to shape up. I say that somewhat in jest, but I think you get the point I’m driving at. If a reader takes the time to branch out and explore more of Tolkien’s writing, one is shocked to learn that orcs are actually elves. Say what??? Yes, it’s true. Deep in the earlier ages of time after a cataclysmic war between powerful angelic-like beings, the forces of good didn’t really win. They withdrew into a fortress realm to guard against the armies of evil. It was a truce of sorts. The world where elves and men were to appear was left in darkness and all but abandoned. Melkor, an exceedingly powerful demonic being, was ever watchful, waiting for the appearance of the elves. He lied to them presenting himself as friend. He betrayed them and dominated many. They were enslaved and their very nature was twisted into the hideous form of the orc. The equally noble ents are the source material for the creation of trolls. No wonder the orcs, trolls and goblins are they way they are. They hate what they have become and hate anything reminding them of what they lost. Tolkien tells this tale, but does not explore the concept of salvation or remedying this corruption. One has to wonder if slain orcs go to the Undying Halls to await the end of time with the elf spirits. I get the sense Tolkien felt orcs had been damaged beyond any hope of restoration to their original beauty and dignity. Makes me think of how our own world collectively has groups of people it considers twisted beyond deserving the hope of rehabilitation. I would encourage all to take the time to read Tolkien’s masterpiece The Silmarillion. It gives The Hobbit and The Lord for the Rings more clarity and a greater sense of purpose.
So, I return to my poor minions. The message I am trying to impart is these armies of minor characters serve a purpose providing friction against which the hero strives to overcome. They are essential elements which if absent make for no conflict; no story. But, I am eager to find more authors that bring to bear the complexity of hard ethical questions about the value of a life into their writing. I hope, as I begin to contemplate my own villains and legions of bad guys, I can convey hints at least as to why they act so horribly. What will motivate them to walk the dark path? If you have a favorite book, movie or series that you believe does a good job of humanizing the poor minion please share with me.