By. R.E. Brooker
Warning: Contains mild spoilers from the following book series –
Lord of The Flies, Othello, Gormenghast, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Mysterious Benedict Society series, Darren Shan series, Harry Potter, and the Itch series
Don’t you just love them?
From the snarling school bully, to the machievolan mastermind, there is no getting around the fact that villains are absolutely fascinating – and that, we – as passionate readers and writers – simply can’t get enough of them.
In this latest essay, I am going to be looking at the reasons behind our fascination with some of the most iconic literary villains in history – and – (in true dissertation style!) along the way, I will also be using quotations to support my findings, and I’ll be analysing certain personalities and comparing them to other literary works.
With this in mind, I am splitting my essay into various parts and themes, (i.e. manipulation) and from there, I will mention characters which link to this theme, and back it up with evidence.
So, are you ready to dip your toes into the pool of villainy?
The first character who plays across my mind when I hear this particular word is Iago (Othello, Shakespeare) In fact – there will be many times that I drop his name into this essay, because he is – without a doubt – one of the best villains to have ever been created. The way that Iago is able to completely turn everyone against General Othello (The Moor) is both chilling – and genius.
Take this quote from Act Two, Scene One:
“The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest…..
and will as tenderly be led by th’ nose… as asses are.”
This clearly illustrates that Iago knew from the very beginning what Othello’s weakness was, and how to use it against him.
His use of the word, ‘ass’ is not only a metaphor, but a perfect insult. The way that he plants the notion that Desdemona is cheating on him with his best friend is so cunning. Ironically, it’s actually Othello who spots Cassio with Desdemona, but when he asks if that is the case, Iago’s response is really clever….
Act Three, Scene Three
“Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming….”
This is yet another great example of how Iago is able to sneak Desdemona’s alleged ‘betrayal’ into Othello’s head, and – at the same time – he makes sure not to insult Cassio. After all, he has to keep him on his side, entirely, and this is what he does so well… whilst at the same time, inadvertently making the Moor believe that Cassio has something to hide.
It is a tactic that only the most scheming of villains could pull off; and Iago does it with flair. Throughout the play, he spots character’s weak spots and weaves his plans inside them, so that he always comes out looking like the ‘golden’ hero. This is a common theme for the machovellian villain, as their primary goal is to ensure that nobody knows what’s really going on behind closed doors – and it is seen so often in literature.
Iago doesn’t just manipulate his enemies, however. He also spins intricate webs around Rodrigo – his right hand man, not his friend, who he simply sees as a tool.
Another character who I must mention is young Steerpike, (Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake)
Born an orphan in the poorest, grimiest kitchens of Gormenghast castle, this sullen-faced boy, (who nobody suspects will amount to anything in life,) uses manipulation and charm to reach terrifying heights of power.
He comes across as vulnerable. He befriends the most niave; accessing their weaknesses and orchestrating convuluted plots which result in their ‘unfortunate’ demises. At one point, he even paints himself as the hero who ‘rescues’ the baby Titus Groan when the library burns down – and at the same time, gets a bonus – for Lord Sepulchrave slowly turns mad from despair.
There is one pivotal moment in Titus Groan, (the sequel to Gormenghast) where he manages to convince two hopeless and stupid women, Cora and Clarice, (the sisters of Titus) that they will get riches beyond their wildest dreams if they aid him. It is a frightening position for the reader to be in, as we know that everything is going to explode and there is nothing that we can do about it.
This quote perfectly highlights the type of man that Steerpike is:
“Steerpike was, of course, alive with ideas and projects. These two half-witted women were a gift….they would prove an advance on the Prunesquallors….. the lower the mentality of his employers the more scope for his own projects.”
It appears that; like Iago, his brain works at an incredible speed; and he is always at least five steps ahead.
He is even gifted in using charm to seduce The Lady Fuschia Groan. Interestingly enough, it is only when we see Steerpike with her that we hear him talk about the topics that frustrate and anger him – abandonment, jealousy, equality. This is real. Even though he is manipulating her, there is still an outlet for him which he can only access in her company.
“Equality,’ said Steerpike,’ is the thing. It is the only true and central premise from which constructive ideas can radiate freely and be operated without prejudice. Absolute equality of status. Equality of wealth. Equality of power.”
A Question of Power
The first character who comes to mind is of course Lord Voldemort, (Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling) who rose to power through committing a series of unspeakable murders, and who later became the most powerful dark wizard; rivalling even the great Albus Dumbledore. With a similar upbringing to kitchen boy Steerpike, the young Tom Riddle resided at Wools Orphanage.
Later, he was offered a position to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he abused his talent and was soon able to manipulate Professor Slughorn, (by bringing him his favourite, crystallised pineapple) into telling him all about Horcruxes. It is a devious move, especially from someone only in their adolescence, and is the first step towards his power.
Here is the point where Tom Riddle manages to get Slughorn to divulge about Horcruxes:
“Well, you split your soul, you see, and hide part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged. But of course, existence in such a form… few would want it, Tom, very few. Death would be preferable.”
It is a steady, but calculated rise to power and what is more unnerving is Lord Voldemort’s hatred of Muggleborns, and Mudbloods, and how this was inspired, as J.K. Rowling states here in an interview:
“I wanted Harry to leave our world, and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world….. people like to think themselves superior, but it crops up all over the world…. if they can pride themselves on perceived purity, so yeah, that follows a parallel to Nazism.”
The book where Lord Voldemort really returns to the height of his power is definitely Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.
When Peter Pettigrew lowers Lord Voldemort’s shrivelled body into the cauldron at the Riddle graveyard, adding ‘bone of the father, flesh of the servant, and blood of the enemy,’ everything that the books have been building towards explodes. As Lord Voldemort steps from the cauldron, feeling his face and walking for the first time in years, we know that he has never been more powerful as he is in that moment….
During the previous books, Voldemort has almost been in the shadows, even as Tom Riddle in the diary, not quite human enough to be considered a ‘real’ threat (just my opinion, but when he rose from the cauldron that was the night when I thought Harry was in imminent danger) and so when he returns to almost human form, the power shift changes; and everything crashes down on Harry.
Another character I would like to mention is Nathaniel Flowerdew (Itch series, Simon Mayo) If you haven’t read this three-book series (upper middle grade) I would highly recommend that you do.
A reluctant science teacher at Itch’s school, this man is as ruthless as they come. He is greedy. He is arrogant, and he hates being in the company of school children, as is clearly demonstrated near the beginning of the book:
“Shut up, Nine W, and listen…. You will have one period with Miss Glen Acre…. when you come out, you will not have fainted, you will have listened, and you will know what a Neomarica Caerulea is…..”
In the past, Nathaniel Flowerdew was an established scientist who worked in the mining industry, but since then, he has been inside a classroom.
It is obviously embarrassing for him, a gut-wrench, compared to the work that he used to do, and his ravenous need for regaining the power that he lost is chillingly evident. This yearning hunger is what makes him ominous. You know that there’s something evil lurking, waiting for a chance to ignite again, but you can’t quite determine what that thing is, and this is why he is in this essay.
Unlike Iago, or Steerpike, Flowerdew does not have a good temper. When events don’t go his way, he isn’t one to elasticise a smile across his face and calm down. This is the main reason why I don’t class him as a Machiavellian villain, and also, despite his bravado, he can be a real coward.
However, there are a couple of moments in the book where his vicious and unforgiving nature really has its time, and with vengeance. Itch steals back the rock, grabbing it from inside Flowerdew’s house, and the next day, the science teacher is raging. At first, he manages to be measured in his manner, but it doesn’t last. Itch is soon thrown against the wall, where his throat is mercilessly squeezed…. It is this chapter which sets up the animosity between him and Itch for the remainder of the books.
I think what makes Flowerdew such an intimidating figure of power is his absolute lack of compassion where it concerns others. He isn’t afraid to hurt anyone who stands in his way – regardless of their age. When Itch is in his car, he kicks him over and over, declaring in some form or another….’Do you know how long I’ve wanted to do that, Lofte?’ His malicious sadism is shocking, and you can feel his power dripping like venom from the page….
In the second book, he delivers a derivative of this line, too, which again shows just how power hungry and sadistic he is…. ‘I doubt your death will be painful, which is a shame……’
Similar in nature is Ledroptha Curtain (The Mysterious Benedict Society series, Trenton Lee Stewart) This man doesn’t allow his temper to get the better of him, though, because every time he becomes a victim to anger, he falls asleep…. a somewhat troublesome thing for a mastermind villain!
He doesn’t let this stop him, though. Spurred on by his intellectual levels of genius, he builds a horrifying machine called ‘The Whisperer’; a brain sweeping device that will control the whole world. Driven by a thirst for power, Curtain won’t let anything stop him, and this makes for a terrifying plot throughout the four books as he fights against The Mysterious Benedict Society, and his brother who possesses an equally intellectual genius. It is the chilling interactions between Curtain and the kids which really makes you sit up and listen to his diabolical schemes.
That is no better highlighted than in this excerpt near the end of book one:
“I would have taken care of you long ago, had it not been for……”
He gave a sudden start, whipping off his glasses to reveal bright-green, horribly bloodshot eyes, eyes flaming with angry realization…..
“Had it not been,” he repeated, turning those eyes now on Reynie, “for you…..”
In a similar vein of evil, Count Olaf (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket) wants the children’s huge fortunes and will stop at nothing to get them. He is vicious and murders people without even blinking. His disguises are a powerful ruse. They never trick The Baudelaires, but always the ‘grownups’ around them.
Time after time he……[Count Olaf] had come very close to succeeding, and time after time the Baudelaire orphans had revealed his plan, and time after time he had escaped-and all Mr. Poe had ever done was cough.”
The Antagonistic Bully
The first character who comes to mind under this heading is Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling)
Our introduction with him paints a picture of a boy who gets anything he wants – and if he doesn’t think he will – he will instantly use other means to achieve his ‘ends’ – just as The Sorting Hat later explains when he describes Slytherin house. Draco’s meeting with Harry in the chapter ‘Diagon Alley’ sums up his spoilt upbringing:
“…. father’s next door buying my books, and mother’s up the street looking for wands….. then I’m going to drag them off to look at racing brooms…. I think I’ll bully father into getting me one and I’ll smuggle it in somehow…..”
It is also quickly discovered that Draco Malfoy is prejudiced, too; as his explanation of Hagrid demonstrates when he sneeringly says, “I heard he’s a sort of savage – lives in a hut in the school grounds and every now and then he gets drunk, tries to do magic, and ends up setting fire to his bed….”
It’s true that Draco Malfoy has been raised in a toxic environment, but even though this is the case, I still don’t like calling him a ‘victim’ of his surroundings. His father didn’t force him to steal Neville’s Remembrall. His mother never ordered him to behave like a complete prat – and they certainly didn’t instruct Draco to stamp on Harry’s poor nose in sixth year. I agree that yes, he is (in some ways) a product of his home – but I am not going to state in any way, that he was a poor, misunderstood soul. He knew what he was doing. Even if he was ‘parroting’ his father, it is still no excuse.
Related to this, Jack (Lord of The Flies, William Golding) is another example of a boy who is a bully. Stranded on an island with his class, he wastes no time in picking on ‘Piggy,’ and the other ‘weaker’ kids; presenting himself in a dictator light. He lays down some rules. Ralph on the other hand, (essentially the Harry to his Draco) stands against him, laying down a series of foundations and other ‘rules’ which Jack does not agree with. His darker side is further brought out when an incident on the island plays with his imagination, twisting his plans into evil games with hideous consequences.
In chapter four, he chants, “Kill the pig, cut her throat, spill her blood!”
When Draco becomes too caught up in the cobwebs of his actions in the sixth year, he breaks down. He becomes upset, scared, lost, alone. The same is true for Jack but in a different sense. When the officer arrives on the island, it is as though all his past illusions are shattered. The ‘monster’ that he turned into whilst there now disappears, and he is once more, just a scared little boy, looking into the eyes of an adult. This gives the reader a window past the arrogant and spiteful attitudes, offering a not so much redemption for the characters, but that shade of grey which some of the best villains have.
Vengeance From Rejection
If there is one character who completely ticks this box it’s Steve Leopard (Darren Shan, The Cirque De Freak series) The first rejection comes from Mr. Crepsley when he rejects Steve’s wish to become a vampire. “You have bad blood….” Instantly, the boy is marked as someone dangerous, who can’t be trusted to be a vampire as he is ‘evil.’ Steve is already hell bent on avenging this injustice, and as payback, Steve steals Crepsley’s poisonous spider, Madam Octa – and is bitten by her.
Darren returns to Mr. Crepsley, begging for his help, and reluctantly the vampire agrees to save Steve’s life, but only if Darren now becomes his assistant – a half vampire.
When Steve finds out, the betrayal is made crueller because it was from his only and best friend. From there, the battle lines are drawn between them, further emphasised when it becomes clear they share a prophecy, written by Mr. Desmond Tiny. (Des. Tiny)
In so many words, Steve vows in the ultimate chapter showdown that he will ‘hunt Darren down for the rest of his life,’ and learn all about how to become a vampire hunter. You can’t help but feel a little sorry for this mixed-up boy, who just wanted to be a vampire but who was born with ‘bad tasting’ blood – and was destined to be a villain. However, like Draco, (who is rejected by Harry and co,) he is cunning, sarcastic, manipulative, and cruel.
Yes, I don’t shed tears for long….
In book eight, ‘Allies of The Night,’ Steve Leonard appears in Darren’s life once more, but says that he has ‘stopped trying to kill him….’
I won’t ruin the plot, but what follows is a captivating, shocking turn of events that all stem from their complicated history, demonstrating just how deep, long-lasting, and personal a rejection can feel; and the ramifications of what betrayal can do…. If you want one more example who is similar, you might look at Captain Hook from Peter Pan, although his vengeance from rejection stems from other emotions. He views Peter with jealousy, spite, and bitterness; as the boy represents the youth that has been ‘robbed’ from him – as well as wanting vengeance for Peter removing his hand….
In conclusion, I have learnt that some of the best villains in literature share several horrible traits, which bleed into their personalities. I haven’t mentioned other books, because this essay would be more than ten pages long, but I hope that it encourages you to pick up a book you haven’t read from my list here, because every title I have mentioned here deserves a mention.
Hope you enjoyed!
Where would literature be without the villains?
See you next time, when I’ll be writing a little bit about my villain in the pineapple series……