"Aeon" Article Claims Racism and Nationalism Are the Driving Force Behind Good vs. Evil Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories
In Aeon magazine, freelance writer Catherine Nichols has an interesting but flawed essay speculating on the reasons that modern pop culture narratives are “obsessed” with the conflict between good and evil, while ancient and medieval myths, legends, and folktales lack a recognizable locus of evil. It’s a question that is good for generating discussion, but Nichols only identifies some of the reasons for the difference between ancient and modern approaches, leaving out one of the largest and most important.
Her thesis is summed up in two sentences: “Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics.” That this is untrue can be seen in her very next sentence, where she gives an example comparing the Thor of Marvel comics to the one of Norse mythology: “In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.” And yet the Arthurian romances provide a clear counterexample, such as when Arthur could extract the sword from the anvil (or stone) to become king because he is morally worthy (Robert de Boron, Merlin 5), or that the knight who obtained the Holy Grail must similarly be of exceptional moral purity. (Nichols dismisses this, arguing that Arthur originally battled monsters who had no relationship to “moral weakness.” For her, monsters have no moral dimension, which would be news to the Serpent in Genesis.)
The Greeks, too, were deeply concerned about purity and worthiness, but they approached the issue from a different perspective. Nichols rightly notes that in Greek epic, Achaean heroes like Achilles are not absolute forces of good, nor are their enemies absolutely evil. There were no good gods and evil gods, though the gods aligned on different sides of the Trojan War. The Greeks, though, had clear ideas on what made a hero worthy, and that hero had to be ritually pure. In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, for example, the hero must exculpate the impurity of murder with rituals, and ritual purification was necessary to obtain the Golden Fleece and to demonstrate worthiness for such a task.
I think from these examples you have probably already guessed at the major difference between ancient and modern stories: the influence of Christianity and its dichotomous division between God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, good and evil. Nichols, however, ignores this difference in order to make a somewhat strained case that modern narratives are control mechanisms created by elites to justify nationalism and racism and other forms of hatred.
“In old folktales, no one fights for values,” Nichols writes, and then immediately conflates folktales with myths and myths with epic poetry. Thus, for her, the entertaining tale of the Three Little Pigs is no different than the Indo-European religious narratives of Loki and Thor. Her claim isn’t true, however. While no one might fight for our values, the characters of ancient literature fought for their values, which were the legitimacy of royal and aristocratic houses, the importance of bravery and loyalty, etc. Nichols dismisses such ideas as mere illustrations of values rather than inherent facets of the narrative, and yet what is Odysseus in the Odyssey if not a man animated by the values of loyalty and family, as the Greeks understood them?
“The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one,” Nichols said. She traces the change in literary style of the French Revolution and argues that Romantic writers purposely began to contrast good and evil in order to argue that goodness was an inherent facet of the ethno-nation, contrasted with evil people who lack those values, thus justifying identification with the nation and visiting genocidal cruelty on the Other. “Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause,” she writes. “This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.” Achilles died for the cause of Greece, and Hamlet died for Denmark. Arthur died in service to Camelot, and Prometheus risked the wrath of Zeus in service of knowledge. Going all the way back as far as we can find, Gilgamesh’s quest had a purpose, to seize the boons that belonged properly to the gods because he believed humans were equal to the gods. These were not ideas that emerged in the 1800s, but rather the issue is whether we as modern readers choose to recognize the values embraced by ancient and medieval people or insist on reading their works through a modern lens. Ancient stories seem to lack a fight for “values” to those born into an Abrahamic worldview because pagans, Nichols correctly realizes, did not view the world as a Manichean battle of good and evil.
Yet Nichols never makes the logical leap to see in the Christian mythos the template for the modern Euro-American storytelling trope of hero vs. villain—not that villainy is really a modern invention. The wicked step-mothers of folklore are clearly villains, for example, as is the vicious Aeëtes of the Argonaut myth, and Grendel’s mother in Beowulf. The difference is that people of the past shaded heroes and villains more subtly and understood that villains are the heroes of their own stories.
Modern stories of good and evil succeed because they are simple tales that are easy for mass audiences to understand and consume. Nichols believes that they exist to dehumanize other nations by asking us to identify with the heroes and see them as representatives of the nation they embody:
When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals.
This point is one of the reasons that so many Anglo-American fantasy and science fiction narratives have a patina of racism, where the villains often seem to be literally or figuratively representatives of other races. There is certainly truth to the notion that the genre fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries served to justify imperialism and colonialism. But I think Nichols overstates the point immensely since this issue is largely limited to a handful of subgenres, notably science fiction and fantasy, and perhaps spy thrillers. Crime narratives complicate this immensely because there are good guys and bad guys, but their morality plays usually occur within the nation and represent, at one level, efforts to cleanse and purge society of its unwelcome or disturbing elements but nevertheless recognize that society is imperfect.
Ultimately, Nichols is right that many modern stories draw on colonialist and imperialist tropes that purposely or otherwise demonize non-Euro-American peoples as enemies of “freedom” and apple pie and all the other stories we tell ourselves. But the origins of these tropes are not to be found exclusively in the awakening of nationalism, but in the worldview of good vs. evil that emerged from the dichotomous contrast of God and Satan in Christianity, especially in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, when the question of evil seemed of exceptional importance in demonizing those who believed wrongly. It was in the fires of Reformation that the varieties of Christian faith became territorial and married to states and nations, and transferred to those nations the moral absolutes of faith.
1/27/2018 11:51:01 am
Heh, after reading the first sentence, my first thought was, "only if you don't count Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam and Christianity". You've summed it up nicely.
1/27/2018 12:26:31 pm
Think about how judge historical figures, in WW2. We always try to frame them in a narrative of good vs evil. We like to think Hitler was fighting for an evil cause but he wasn’t. He was just trying to make Germany great as he saw it, and harsh to its enemies. Churchill was the same. He wasn’t fighting Germany because he felt it was evil, but because he saw them as the greatest threat to the British Empire. So I think the rulers always know that the real issues that guide their decision making are not based in morality at all, but that morality is just a propaganda device to convince the masses that their actions are justifiable.
1/27/2018 01:11:11 pm
And when something goes wrong we can blame the refs.
1/27/2018 06:48:11 pm
1. Real issues that guide decisions often ARE based in morality. Hitler was not being amoral when he made the decisions he did; he simply had a morality based in hatred and anger.
1/27/2018 08:52:22 pm
1 and 2. Okay, I agree with you on this
1/28/2018 08:43:37 pm
"Think about how judge historical figures, in WW2. We always try to frame them in a narrative of good vs evil. We like to think Hitler was fighting for an evil cause but he wasn’t. He was just trying to make Germany great as he saw it, and harsh to its enemies."
1/29/2018 02:41:37 pm
It’s just an example of what human beings and societies do when they feel like they have nothing left to lose. Think about what the policy of many nuclear states today is if it is invaded and is about to be conquered and forced into an unconditional surrender. It will launch nuclear weapons and kill millions of people in retaliation. That’s human nature. Is it evil for people to strike out and seek vengeance of whatever kind they can have when they feel like they have nothing to lose? Maybe it is. Maybe people should just accept their fate quietly, but that’s not how human nature works and I don’t think it can be called evil.
1/29/2018 02:46:50 pm
Forgive me for giving you the impression that I would entertain any sort of discourse with you.
1/29/2018 03:38:16 pm
Brady, your argument makes no sense. what does one have to do with the other ? The Nazis murdering people in concentration camps had nothing to do with winning or losing the war, or feeling like they have nothing left to lose. The people they murdered were for the most part not even their enemies, and were often their own countrymen.
1/27/2018 12:37:09 pm
Well let's see. Extend the analysis to today's video games, and the functions become easier to understand.
1/27/2018 01:58:43 pm
No, the problems start when the UN decides to carve out a new country in the Middle East and Sinn Fein gets called the political wing of the IRA when the IRA is really the military arm of Sinn Fein. Also when the U.S. has a we-don't-ask-for-permission military presence in Syria. The problem starts when a disagreeable harridan thinks "We came, we saw, he died" is an appropriate thing to say. Ironically it also applies to the Ambassador,
1/27/2018 06:42:49 pm
*snorts* I see your 20th century history and raise you "the problems start when Europeans make a massive land grab and genocide entire peoples completely in their own lands, for the sole sake of those lands being turned over to greedy foreigners."
1/28/2018 10:39:22 am
Hi AN -
1/27/2018 06:41:26 pm
But "conflict" doesn't have to BE "good" vs. "evil." It's very possible to have it be "them" vs. "us" with both sides having their own good AND evil to them. Heck, the stupid little PC game I'm playing now is "heroes vs. the quest" and "heroes vs. the harsh environment" and there IS no evil, just hardship.
2/2/2018 08:40:28 am
Which is why it bugs me that The Last Jedi was part written to be a "Take that" to people who wanted a less simple conflict then simple evil empire versus righteousness rebels.
1/27/2018 06:55:44 pm
Nichols obviously never read much of non-European folktales or mythology, either; Indian and Japanese mythology are rife with stories of nobly dying for beliefs, of virtue being more important than success, etc. She undermines her own entire premise with such obvious bigotry--a very nationalistic style of viewpoint, to insist that your values are the only "true" values.
1/29/2018 08:01:38 am
I wonder what Nichols would say after they'd read the Water Margin, one of the classics of Chinese literature...
1/29/2018 08:57:50 am
This sounds like a case of ideology dictating comprehension. But it is certainly true that much of our popular fiction/drama has been impoverished by this simplistic reduction of all conflict to massive battles of good v. evil. Look at Disney's egregious "Little Mermaid" (or just about anything by Disney), which took a nuanced fairy tale and added a massive tempest of good v. evil at the end.
1/29/2018 01:46:16 pm
" The Greeks, too, were deeply concerned about purity and worthiness, but they approached the issue from a different perspective.....There were no good gods and evil gods, though the gods aligned on different sides of the Trojan War...."
2/1/2018 02:19:19 am
There are those who think me ridiculous but,let's be honest here. These tales didn't spring from nowhere. People like Idi Amin,Adolf Hitler,Jeffrey Dahmer,and others like them have ALWAYS existed on this planet. To try to claim otherwise,is unbelievably stupid. In the ancient world,there have been people like Attila the Hun,Nero,and Caligula and they've done things that would rightfully put them in the villain column.
2/1/2018 11:17:03 pm
It's interesting to look at how Good and Evil are treated in modern Japanese Media. Where Christianity has been an influence, but is the one nation where old school Polytheism still thrives.
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