Classic fantasy contains formulized images of good and evil; heroes and villains, both clearly defined. Fantasy has given us creatures that embody evil: The dark witch, the vampire, the werewolf, the dragon. The evil presents itself, and the hero braves danger to destroy it.
So, what’s happened to the classic role of evil in modern fantasy? It seems that characters traditionally relegated to the realm of evil are taking on a decidedly more sympathetic role. The vampire perhaps most of all has become a romanticized figure embraced rather than condemned. There was always a subconscious underlying sexual theme to vampirism; that’s primal. But, lately, the vampire has evolved from the villainy and horror of Dracula to the sympathetic, romantic leads of “Twilight” and “Vampire Diaries.” When did this begin, exactly? Most credit Anne Rice for giving the point of view to the formerly reviled undead back in the 70’s. Personally, I think it started earlier with Jonathan Frid’s portrayal of lonely, tormented vampire Barnabus Collins on “Dark Shadows” in the 60’s. Whatever the reason, the vampire, though just as blood hungry and homicidal as ever, is now an appealing fairytale creature with skin that sparkles like diamonds in daylight, instead of sizzling and burning. Now, vampires can walk in daylight, plan school dances, go to college, attend outdoor barbecues in the bright sunlight. (What’s happened to standards?) Even the dark prince Dracula himself has been re-invented as a 15th century superhero in the modern prequel “Dracula: Untold.” (Was that Bram Stoker turning in his grave?)
The re-definition of evil isn’t limited to vampire fiction, though. Fairytales, the very things that shaped our mindsets as children are being stood on their heads. Angelina Jolie turned Maleficent from villainess to heroine on the big screen, delightfully mangling the all-time classic fairytale of the Sleeping Beauty. The king is the villain who used and abandoned Maleficent, abused her trust and stole her power of flight (an obvious feminist metaphor.) The handsome prince means well, but he’s weak and ineffectual, so his kiss fails to revive the sleeping princess, since his love is childish and still needs time to mature. Maleficent reclaims her power and overcomes her bitterness with love, slays the evil king and wakes the sleeping beauty not with a lover’s kiss, but with a mother’s. “No truer love,” we’re told.
Every fairytale ever written is being turned inside-out in the television series “Once Upon a Time” (my personal favorite.) In the course of the show’s storylines, Peter Pan is cast as villain and Captain Hook as hero, and classic villains like Rumpelstiltskin and the wicked queen who poisoned Snow White are more dysfunctional and misunderstood than evil. Mainly, they just want what everyone else wants: a happy ending. The classic rules of fairytale morals are upheld: Henry, the youngest character on the show reaffirms the classic rule that good always triumphs over evil and that happy endings always come only to the heroes, not the villains. But, Henry still loves his adoptive mom, Regina, even though she was the wicked queen. He never gives up hope that she can be redeemed, and she’s desperately trying to change. Regina’s nemesis, Emma Swan, daughter of her sworn enemy Snow White is going through changes as well as she struggles with her unpredictable life and the cruel twists of fate. Emma and Regina started out as enemies, but they’ve become allies of necessity, their opposites of dark and light magic combining against common enemies for the sake of Henry, whom they both love. And, Emma even hopes she and Regina might someday become friends because, though on opposite sides, they understand each other; They’re both lonely and unlucky at love.
So, what does this re-examining of the classic myths say about the evolving mindset of our society? Does this changing of points of view, seeing the story through the eyes of former antagonists, this new emphasis on change and compromise indicate a coming of age, a maturing? Let’s hope. God knows we don’t see enough of it in real life. We think of our enemies (foreign and domestic) as the “bad guys”, the embodiment of pure evil. We’re always swift to judgment and eager for revenge. Even our elected officials are regarded as less than human. We seem to embrace hatred and darkness, while seeing it only in others, never ourselves.
In “Black Goddess,” the protagonist is a young man whose life has fallen apart. Through his eyes, nothing makes any sense. Life seems like random configurations of cosmic dust without meaning. Ironically, he seeks meaning and ultimate truth by seeking ultimate evil. Pure, unadulterated evil born at the very moment of creation.
Since evil is the mainstay of all classic myth, it seems we need irredeemable evil to justify our existence, to give it meaning. But, does it truly exist, or is evil just how the other guy looks from where you happen to be standing? Given a history so littered with dead bodies, it’s hard to believe true evil doesn’t exist. But, in looking for it elsewhere, we often feed it in ourselves. Maybe our upcoming generation will benefit from fairytales that teach them to look through another’s eyes.