The Lord of the Rings has Sauron. Thomas Covenant has Lord Foul. Taran has Arawn. Every fantasy has a particular villain; even the more muddled “realistic” fantasies (which are, in fact, merely a different kind of fantasy – one in which suffering is more common, and joy less common, than in regular life) of Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, or David Gemmell tend to have bad guys who somehow – despite the flaws and grit and unseemliness of the respective “hero” – are nevertheless unabashedly evil – at least from the reader’s perspective, enough so that you at a bare minimum, marginally hope for the hero’s success over the villain.
The best books tend to have villains who are not cartoons – the cackling “evil for the sake of evil” sort. But they do need to inspire conflict, righteous indignation and not just a little wrath in your mind to be effective. Sauron, as black as he may be, is in truth a nuanced satanic figure: malevolent and covetous, but his evil is in service to a global dream. Jon Snow does not delight in breaking oaths, though he accepts he is a breaker of them.
One of the fascinating things about history’s most notorious villains is how popular and beloved they were among many. Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for the horrific Count Dracula, is (and rightly so) a national hero in Romania/Transylvania. Even Lucifer is so named from the tradition that he was originally God’s light-bearer.
A fascinating character for villainy, therefore, can be found in Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester, a French warlord made famous in the 4th Crusade.
The Cathars of France were a sect of Gnostics whose notion that there were two Gods: one of light (from the New Testament) and one of evil (the Creator in the Old Testament) probably has some influence in the modern day, as when non-Christians attempt to discriminate – erroneously – between the “God of the New Testament vs. the God of the Old Testament.” In any case, in 13th Century Europe, this was a dangerous heresy that threatened to degenerate the social order into licentiousness and decline, at least in the eyes of the Pope. For a long while, the Catholic Church attempted to send missionaries and diplomats to the Cathars in hopes of a peaceful conversion, but when the Cathars assassinated an emissary, a line had been crossed. It was time to excise the cancer of the Cathars.
The Pope made a surgical choice: Count Simon de Montfort was a devout and orthodox Catholic who was known for his military mettle and his thorough zeal in eradicating heresy. His enemies would know him for his cruelty, his advocates his piety. He is a striking figure:
The noble Count was told that his enemies had taken up their arms and were positioned inside their fortified lines near their defensive ditch. The report reached him as he was attending Matins. He ordered his armour to be got ready, put it on and, true Christian that he was, hurried to the chapel to hear Mass. The Mass had already started and the Count was devoutly at prayer when a huge Toulousian force left their trenches by concealed pathways, raised their standards, and with a great clamour ferociously attacked our men guarding the siege engines near the ditch….
The account of the monk Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, in his Historia Albigensis
According to other sources, he is also a ruthless figure. On reflecting on his death, another author presents this cutting obituary:
The epitaph says, for those who can read it, that he is a saint and martyr who shall breathe again and shall in wondrous joy inherit and flourish, shall wear a crown and be seated in the kingdom. And I have heard it said that this must be so – if by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths, by trusting evil counsels, by setting fires, destroying men, dishonouring paratage, seizing lands and encouraging pride, by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above.
The account of a Cathar, in the anonymously written The Song of the Cathar Wars
The key to understanding the conflicting histories is to find the agreed upon events: both accounts agree that Montfort was late to his final battle to remain faithful to Mass, although the Cathar account indicates that this was due to his pride in making a show of his piety, and not genuine faith. Both accounts agree that he was successful as a military leader and in fact brave in battle, if occasionally tardy on account of Church duties. Both accounts agree that he was slain by a stone launched by enemy siege defenses, and that the Church acknowledged him as blessed.
Once these points of shared history can be found, you can peel back some layers of speculation, and see why one side had an almost unblemished hero, and the other had a villain of renown. After all, the man who helped prevent the Cathar heresy from spreading – or in fact continuing into the future, for the most part – was the same man who oversaw the mass burning of nearly 200 Cathars on a single terrible day. The same man who presided over the first parliament in European history (400 years before Cromwell) also marked the birth of democracy’s mixed blessing, and the downfall of the divine right of kings. The same man who prayed so fervently he almost missed battle, personally put dozens of defenseless Cathar sympathizers to the blade.
One of my favorite villains in literature is from the Medieval-era mystery novel, The Name of the Rose. The
venerable Jorge is a blind monk who despises laughter and enforces censorship of ideas. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only did the author (Umberto Eco) name the fellow loosely after one of his very strong influences (Jorge Luis Borges), but that Eco did not acknowledge the venerable Jorge as a villain!
Do you think William of Baskerville has no ideas? Jorge is not the villain, he is one of the heroes … He is expressing certain attitudes of his time, but I don’t consider him a villain. It is a confrontation between two worldviews, and a worldview is a system of ideas. – Umberto Eco
I’m not suggesting that Villainy is so nuanced that it is impossible to identify; merely that history indicates that, quite often, Villainy is deeply informed by the hero’s frame of reference.