Defining evil can be difficult, especially for the nuanced and sophisticated mind. Every act, you see, springs from a place of positivity, essentially. Very few people go forth to act in an evil manner; even the selfish believe that, thanks to their selfishness, they are somehow helping the world if only by proving to everyone else that the world needs no help. All villains, on some level, can have their behavior boiled down to that which is understandable, if misled. Barring that, we write them off as ‘insane’ or ‘ill’ – conditions that rob them of their free will.
What, then, is the source of true evil? To me, true evil is comprised in something akin to ‘gleeful apathy’ or, to put it another way, as the refusal to believe or even care about something as being any more important than any other thing. Nihilism, essentially.
When I was teaching John Gardner’s Grendel to my students recently, we were discussing Grendel’s conversation with the Dragon (which, by-the-by, is one of the more mind-blowing sections of prose I’ve ever read). We wound our way (as we often do) to the point where the Dragon is compared to Satan or the Devil. The Dragon, for those of you who don’t know, lays out the most profound example of a bona-fide nihilist I’ve seen in fiction. Grendel, trying to search for a place in the world, wants the Dragon, in his omniscience, to explain to him the nature of Truth as it interacts with Art. The Dragon explains, as patiently as he can, that it doesn’t matter in the least what Grendel thinks about Art or Truth or anything else. For him the entire universe is:
A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak – pure metaphor, you understand – then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding universe…Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!…Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident until…Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse…Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief, hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending, of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time’s stream.
So, then I ask my students this question: What if the Dragon is lying?
It is all very easy for us to assume nothing really matters. In point of fact, nothing really does, right? We are ripples in time’s stream. We are the copulating dust. This belief, though, gets us nowhere. If we do nothing but find gold and sit on it, what are we, really? If we go out and do evil or do good, we are still doing. We are making an imprint on the face of the universe, no matter how inconsequential. Even the most wicked killer does less for the forces of evil than the deepest, most apathetic nihilist. If nothing really matters, nothing really is worth changing. Without change, there is no motion. Without motion, there is death, bleak, empty, and silent.
To me, that’s a heavy part of true, unutterable evil. The kind common to demons, devils, and the deep abyssal reaches of damnation. No matter how misled, even to believe wrongly is to believe – we have that much in common, we may yet have more. To not believe is to forsake all but the Void.
For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.
Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.
Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are the real Klingons, here?
- Why the love affair with a violent death?
- What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?
Who are the Real Klingons, Here?
Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.
Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.
Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?
In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:
- You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
- You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
- You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)
Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.
(cue theme music to Fame)
What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?
Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.
But if you win…
There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.