…Sam didn’t take the Ring from a supposedly dead Frodo after Shelob’s attack, thereby making it quite likely it, along with ye olde mithril shirt, was delivered via express orcmail to a certain Dark Lord shortly thereafter? Methinks that little conversation with the Mouth of Sauron would likely have had a rather different flavour.
…at the end of the seventh book, the one numerous people maintain should’ve been more appropriately titled Harry Potter and the Enormous Royalty Cheque, Harry decided to take that train ‘onward’ rather than heading back to our own mortal, rather drab world, thereby handing Voldemort game, set and match? (‘Onward,’ Jo? Really? Onward? My gosh, the painful contortions a thoroughly secular writer undergoes trying to discuss the afterlife without really discussing the afterlife. Sheesh.)
…those severe burns Katniss suffers at the climax of Mockingjay turn out to be a little more severe than thought, and she dies? President Coriolanus Snow (Coriolanus, Suzanne? Really? Yeah, I got the reference… though I bet most of her readers didn’t) winds up defeating the rebellion, setting us up for continued jolly rule by the Capitol and the eventual centenary of the Hunger Games… hosted by an elderly Caesar Flickerman whose now-white hair remains dyed a determined cerulean blue.
I could go on --- political/military/social/literary what-ifs are always entertaining to generate, kind of like erudite versions of It’s a Wonderful Life --- but you get the point, which was brought up in a Tweet I recently saw. (Yes, Virginia, I’m still on Twitter, along with several others --- and not all of us are whackjobs, either, BTW. Just a goodly chunk, it seems. But that’s a discussion for another day.) The Tweeter asked about the concept of the literary villain ultimately triumphant, yea or nay? Now, like many Tweets, this is a discussion virtually impossible to condense to 280 characters --- at least, not while generating any kind of thoughtful analysis --- and I have a distinct loathing of threads, which I’ve likened previously to trying to read War and Peace on the backs of multiple cereal boxes. (Ever noticed how social media comments tend to fall into one of two categories? Either they’re hopelessly banal, or hopelessly complex. Oy.) However, the good news is it provides grist for a longer forum i.e. today’s post. Ta da! You’re welcome.
My answer to the question is, actually, quite simple: Nay. Firmly. And, you know, I think most readers fall into that camp, too. Check out that Poe quote above, for example. Never mind its uncomfortable relevance in this, our third-going-on-seemingly-hundredth year of the-pandemic-which-the-aforementioned-whackjobs-have-decided-isn’t-a-pandemic, it’s just such a major downer. Most of us don’t want our stories ending that way. (There are times it seems, if we want gritty and depressing, all we have to do is step out our front doors.) Bittersweet is about as far as most are prepared to go… I mean, if you don’t have a heart of stone, just try staying dry-eyed at the finale of The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo and the elves skip town. Go on, try. I dare you. So in this broken world of ours, most of us seek at least a little redemption in the literature we read, and that definitely doesn’t include villains ultimately triumphant. It may not include the tired old cliché ‘and they lived happily ever after,’ because most of us learned --- probably somewhere between elementary and high school --- such drivel belongs on the ashpit of literature, but that’s not to say the vast majority grooves on the success of evil ascendant.
Off the top of my head, about the only time I can recall the villain-triumphant trope actually working was, unsurprisingly, a riveting Stephen King teleplay entitled Storm of the Century. It follows the travails of a small-town sheriff in coastal Maine. When his village is cut off from civilization by a monster blizzard (pun intended), strange and horrific things begin occurring, as they are wont to do in Mr. K’s stories. Gruesome murders and disappearances and cryptic scrawlings in blood on walls, oh my! Eventually, we learn (plot spoiler) all the nastiness is caused by an ancient --- hmm, well… evil sorcerer, I suppose we’d call him --- who seeks an heir. He proposes to obtain a kid by having the townsfolk gift him one of theirs. ‘Give me what I want, and I’ll go away,’ is his ominous tagline, and it leads to a pretty agonized climactic discussion among the townsfolk, as you might imagine. Sheriff Mike, our intrepid protagonist, is against giving in to this monstrous evil… but he’s the only one --- even his wife, Molly, is against him --- and he’s forcibly subdued by the terrified townspeople, who cave to the demands of the sorcerer, Linoge. (It’s an anagram, folks, and not especially rocket science… work it out.) So, yeah, villain triumphant. And in a dreadful bit of dramatic irony, guess whose kid winds up being given to Linoge? Yep. Talk about twisting the knife once it’s in. Sheriff Mike’s final monologue, which comes years later when he gets a momentary, heartrending glimpse of Linoge and his/their son, is a masterpiece of hopeless raillery at the prevalent evils of our existence: “It’s a cash and carry world. Sometimes you pay a little. Mostly, it’s a lot. Once in a while, its everything you have.”
It is, as I said, a riveting tale. But is it the sort of heartwarming narrative making you want to burst into song alongside Julie Andrews, climbing sun-soaked meadows with flowers blooming all around, proclaiming the hills are alive with the sound of mucus/music? Umm… nope. Not even remotely. It’s much more in keeping with Ed’s gloomy pronouncement about death and decay and assorted yucky stuff holding infinite dominion. Yay, Ed.
I guess we could conclude, then, that even when the villain-ultimately-triumphant trope works… well, it doesn’t, not really. At least for me. Now, I’m not looking for a treacly Hallmark-Christmas-movie ending liable to cause type 2 diabetes from all the surging sweetness (ack!), but I do want a story that’ll encourage me to go forth and meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with a little stamina and courage, not nihilistic feelings of impending doom.
So stuff it, Ed… or go listen to Julie.