Good vs Evil = Life vs Death

  1. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    Something that's been brewing in my mind for some time ....

    Stories of "good vs evil" are common and accessible. Simple storytelling with black and white morality makes it easy for people to know who to root for and who to jeer.

    And yet, it occurs to me that there may be a deeper meaning here: that the evil to be fought is some form of symbol for death itself.

    This the "hero" does not simply symbolize life, but the conquest of death - and is ultimately a messianic figure.

    I know this isn't always literally the case - but I wonder if there's a real archetype at play here.

    Of course, we're in Joseph Campbell territory here, with his Hero's Journey.

    But while certain aspects of that, such as trials and tribulations, allies, etc, make for entertaining story telling, they are ultimately unnecessary - so long as there remains a focus on the life vs death archetype.

    I don't know - maybe Campbell really did state this obviously. After all, a superb example of this concept at play comes from his former student, George Lucas, and the original Star Wars film.

    Darth Vader is visually made into a futuristic figure of death, with his helmet clearly depicting a skull, while Luke Skywalker dresses in white and seeks to bring back the lost spiritual knowledge of the Force.

    Visually and symbolically it all comes together to underline that archetype.

    In which case, if this argument is true, then all that's required to write a populist story is to focus on this archetype as the foundation for it.

    We already see the basic "good vs evil" used ordinarily - but I'm wondering if the addition of some spiritual element, no matter how minor, could really ramp up the degree of popularity.

    Simply an observation, and not something I'm consciously aiming for myself - but wondered if it might be an interesting discussion, or whether I'm covering well-trodden ground in the first place. :)
     
  2. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    I think it's a bit more complex. Quite often "good" is not only the side of life, but the side of natural life, which includes an acceptance of eventual death. The motivation for the "evil" side is often the pursuit of immortality.

    The conquest by the side of good is not that of death itself, but fear of death (which amounts to the same thing, as death has lost its power).
     
  3. Stuart Suffel

    Stuart Suffel Well-Known Member

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    "We already see the basic "good vs evil" used ordinarily - but I'm wondering if the addition of some spiritual element, no matter how minor, could really ramp up the degree of popularity."


    Well if you feel the underlying premise is Death v Life, then the 'popularity' element would be anything that gives validity/ meaning or justification to this dichotomy - often religion, but not always.

    But, for me, the Great Work, doesn't tend to offer any validation, meaning or justification.
    It simply states the truth.
    ie, 'we are born astride the grave'.
     
  4. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    That's a great point to make. It's effectively what happens at the end of LoTR, when death is still metaphorically embraced by the act of sailing into the west.
     
  5. Stuart Suffel

    Stuart Suffel Well-Known Member

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    +1
     
  6. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    Since evil in most fantasy tends toward repression, the battle might often be framed as free will versus slavery (slavery not simply in the chattel sense, but enslavement of mind, will, conscience, etc.).
     
  7. Foxbat

    Foxbat None The Wiser

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    There are often many instances of self-sacrifice in these types of stories so I think the point about free-will is a strong one. Choosing when and how to die often gives the good guy a power that the baddie never seems to expect - Obi Wan?:)
     
  8. Venusian Broon

    Venusian Broon Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity

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    I'd agree with @Teresa Edgerton & @HareBrain here, if we are going for broadbrush sweeps of what 'good vs evil' really means.

    Also surely the messianic figure transcends death because he/she's purpose or nature is so lofty they can 'beat' even death. But importantly, death in itself is not evil, it is after all a natural part of the universe (I mean would you really want someone like Genghis Khan to be immortal?)

    Those that cause death for immoral/wicked reasons I would suggest are applying such actions as the ultimate form of repression. (Taking the example of the messianic figure - those opposing will kill to stop the messianic figure's message or future actions interfering with their own philosophies and plans.)

    I suppose one might argue that an untimely death could be seen as evil. If, say, a mother died in an accident before being able to raise her child. But is that just terrible, sad and regretful, and not evil? I think the latter myself personally. Otherwise we are in danger of attaching agency and action from afar to things that are really just chance & random or were just unknowable & unstoppable to everyone at the time.

    For example, to take a slightly different tack, looking at the era of witch-hunting in 16th and 17th Century Europe, when bad things happened - a farmer's livestock died, their fields of crops were ruined by hail or members of their family fell ill, then many at the time assumed that these bad events must have been caused by an evil witch cursing them. But we know today that these events were largely just the way the natural world working.
     
  9. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    Re the immortality thing, I think this might have changed a bit since, say, Lord of the Rings was written.

    To someone who believes in an afterlife, the acceptance of bodily death isn't the same as to someone who doesn't. In that sense, immortality is open to everyone, and a magician (or whoever) who seeks earthly immortality is only after a shadow variant of what the heroes are due anyway.

    This changes when there is no assumption of an afterlife. Acceptance of death might then be a lot more difficult, and the desire for immortality is then against nature, rather than just being a shadow version of it. Also, as we become aware of limited planetary resources, those who seek immortality are not just benefiting themselves, but disadvantaging others who might have used the same resources within their natural lifespan.

    For those reasons -- the decline of religion and growing awareness of shrinking resources -- I wonder if the denial of death by seeking immortality might become a growing theme in SFF, especially SFF which has a social or environmental angle.
     
  10. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    But in Middle Earth the faithful have not been promised an afterlife. There are vague hints that there may be an afterlife for humanity but it is not written anywhere, it has not been proclaimed by prophets, or revealed by the Valar and Maiar (who may not know themselves). Some take it on faith, but where they get the idea from is unclear.

    For instance, Aragorn believes it with all his heart. Arwen, having given up her immortality to become human, has no such conviction. She is shocked when he chooses to lie down and die, leaving her behind to wonder and to doubt. (And I have to say that it is at that point in their story that I stop liking him. He's such a prig about the whole thing. Why should he think he knows more about it than she does? She is over a thousand years old and has living family members who have been personally acquainted with the Valar.)

    Tolkien, of course, being Catholic, and placing the story in a mythical age of our own world, believes that there will be an afterlife for them, and so there must be. But they are not to know that. They are not aware that they are characters in a story by a man who holds this as an article of faith. Yet he often writes as though they ought to know.
     
  11. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    I always took the sailing west at the end was effectively a metaphor for dying?
     
  12. Lumens

    Lumens Lesser Known Member

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    As you probably know, you are talking about Jung more than Campbell here. Central to Jung's theories are the life- and death drive, or Anima/Animus vs Thanatos. Or something like that - it's a while since I read any of his rather heavy books.

    I really don't know... To me, naming (or renaming) things does not define them. They seem to remain undefinable. We have forces within us, they don't stay the same in all situations and at all times. It is a huge shadowy land of murk, which does not become any clearer after reading clever books from extremely intelligent people. Not that it's not interesting - rather the opposite. It is fascinating!
     
  13. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    It's a one-way trip to the Blessed Realm, which is both earthly/physical and removed from Earth. Elves get to go there as of right; Frodo and Bilbo are granted special leave to live out the rest of their lives there. It's never stated that this prevents them dying, and my understanding is that after some time they would die and then go on to wherever it is in Tolkien's universe that humans and hobbits go after death (which the elves don't know).
     
  14. Venusian Broon

    Venusian Broon Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity

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    Isn't there a Numerian King that disobeyed the edict to never set foot in the Blessed Realm, but did. His fleet and army were wiped out but he was kept in a cave, bound but alive for all time...until I think he will be released with final battle with the return of the big 'Satan' baddie? (I forget his name, starts with a 'M') Which might suggest that any living creature who is in the Blessed Realm does not die.

    Also Gimli is the only dwarf to reach the blessed realm too.

    I'm been listening to loads of Tolkien podcasts on lore recently. :p
     
  15. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    According to the Silmarillion, "it is said that" he and his men are imprisoned for all time, but I don't know if Tolkien expects us to take this as fact. Even if it is, then it's as part of Illuvatar's special intervention, so it might be a one-off punishment of Him withdrawing his "gift of men" (as death is called). I don't think it means that Frodo and Bilbo would be immortal. Also ...

    No, it's stated that the immortality of the elves and Valar in Valinor isn't down to any quality of the land itself, but the beings themselves.
     
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  16. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    You need to stop reading Harry Potter so much.

    But yes, that is a common thing. And its there in Tolkien too at least.
     
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  17. Stuart Suffel

    Stuart Suffel Well-Known Member

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    Em, ok, so back to the possible issues raised in the OP.
    From what I can discern from the OP and some of the response, we are here, trope wise.

    Evil = Denial of Death. Desire of Immortality /Old school. Fear of no afterlife. Or New school, Immortality as selfish use of finite resources, Unnatural process.

    Good = Acceptance of Death. Old school Affirmation of an afterlife. Or New school, Non affirmation of an afterlife but, Acceptance of natural process. Recognition of finite resources.


    New new. Immortality as evolution, as a natural process, albeit using technology.

    That about right?
     
  18. Charles Gull

    Charles Gull Auk Word

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    Well, just to throw my handful of grit into this finely constructed machinery:-

    I find the suggested equivalence of 'Good is to Evil as Life is to Death' to be completely misguided and misleading. These are absolutely independent degrees of freedom.

    For me the equivalence is 'Good is to Evil as Rational is to Animalistic'. I firmly believe that the capacity for evil is resident in everyone of us. This doesn't mean we each have a little demon living inside us possessing our soul, or whatever. It means that we are hard wired to behave in a particular manner. This is the outcome of our irrational evolution. Deep down we are all still beasts, hence I refer to this as 'Animalistic'. The suppression of this beast within us requires conscious effort. This is undertaken by the logical pre-frontal cortex. We must consciously decide to not follow our base animal urges. Upbringing, training and conditioning only serve to inform us what we must suppress and when, they don't MAKE us good. We don't do it if we don't know and understand the expectation, hence I refer to this as 'Rational'.

    Acts of good are things the individual does for the benefit of others. Evil acts are purely self motivated. Here is a little table to illustrate my point.
    upload_2017-6-18_17-23-15.png
     
  19. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Going beyond Tolkien, I think there’s a strong point here. Arthurian mythology reflects both pagan and Christian ideas of rebirth and the like. The John Boorman film Excalibur literally has flowers opening as Arthur rides past and the land comes back to life (“You and the land are one”). So in that way, the hero does bring life. Perhaps making him a “chosen one” demigod type becomes less tired as a device if he is chosen to bring life to the world rather than to use his powers to let him do whatever he likes. This is much easier to do in fantasy than SF, where a messianic figure is just as likely to be a dictator.

    In a dystopian novel, the regime inevitably stunts the lives of the people it controls. So overthrowing the regime, or avoiding it as per the countryside bits of 1984, could be seen as creating life. In fact, the Ingsoc regime literally seeks to control and warp the sex drives of the citizens (likewise, obviously, The Handmaid's Tale*), and so going at it in the countryside – creating life – becomes an act of challenge to the regime. Orwell stresses the fecundity of the proles compared to the neurotic, anti-natural-life outlook of the Party (I think this is something of an under-noticed theme in his writing). IIRC, the Sword of Truth books attempted a similar point (somewhat less successfully) but with a right-wing political slant and a messianic figure.

    In the course of writing the new novel, I was interested to see that all the “evil” planets in Space Captain Smith’s world are worn-out, dead worlds, usually drained by evil corporations, theocrats, dictators and the like. (The “neutral” planets are exciting wildernesses full of monsters, and the “good” planets all look like Kent). It just seemed the natural thing at the time.

    (A random thought: I would class the Alien and many SFF insect-type creatures under "perversions of life", even though they do reproduce a lot. Like rats, their fecundity is seen as disgusting rather than wholesome, like a disease spreading. And of course, in order to reproduce, the Alien has to kill).


    *Perhaps Gilead is an exception, because it is desperate to create (male?) life owing to widespread sterility. However, the lies the regime tells about the process (such as that men cannot become infertile), the attempts to make procreation miserable and the predictable grubby obsession with homosexuality still make it firmly anti-life to my mind. Offred's attempts to have a normal life (with Scrabble!) seem far more life-affirming than the various breeding rituals. But, fairly or unfairly, this blurs "life" with "freedom".
     
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2017
  20. Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

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    I've long thought this was one of the most extraordinary revelations in LOTR (it's in one of the appendices).
    Aragorn does it because he's of Numenorean extraction, and they are allowed to do that.
    But with Tolkien's assertion that "all fiction is about one thing - death" I wonder what was going through the author's mind...
     
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