"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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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