Lit Kid: how bad is your baddie?

It’s school holiday week, and I’ve done a certain amount of pre-writing. So you’re getting all the goodies three days in a row – next week it’s back to normal service.

(Writing about children’s literature is the sweet spot for now; so if I want two posts in the same week, I can. It’s my holiday too.)

Back to the books now.

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Last time, I tried to draw a distinction between anti-heroes and villains.

While anti-heroes may awaken some sympathy, or cause us to laugh, villains do not win our favour in the same way.

Whether they are ‘bad through and through’, or the sheer amount of their treachery goes against our opinion of them, we choose to hate them – instead of admiring them (at least in part).

Let’s try this out with some examples. I’ve tried to find some villains who are named in the book titles; others loom large, even if they don’t get top billing.

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‘Bad through and through’

You don’t have to go too far to find these characters. In The Twits, Roald Dahl spends quite a chunk of time making clear that the title characters are thoroughly bad.

Whether it’s their weekly Bird Pie arrangements, or their cruelty to the Monkey family, or their ongoing nasty tricks played on each other: we are clear by the end of the opening section that we are to offer them no mercy.

All of this sets the scene for a pretty spectacular and intricate comeuppance.

(And we have to add a further shout out here for Simon Callow’s audio book version of the story. You can hear an excerpt of it here.)

Hot on the heels of The Twits are many of the other Roald Dahl villains. Grandma, in George’s Marvellous Medicine. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, in James and the Giant Peach.

But there are many more in children’s literature to choose from. The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids was one that scared me a lot – he was particularly nasty in his determination to eat up every single one of the little kids (baby goats, lest you worry about the Kid part of Lit Kid).

You can see the pictures from the Ladybird version of it here – but only if you are feeling very brave.

Of course, there are plenty more that are bad through and through. Most of them we’ve known as long as we can remember.

The troll in The Billy Goats Gruff. The evil Queen in Snow White (the Disney pictures stick in my mind for this one).

We know they are bad – and there are worse besides in the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, if we dare to look.

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‘Quality of badness tips the scales’

High up on the list, for me, would be Count Olaf, the dastardly villain in the Lemony Snicket books A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Olaf is not named in the titles of the series – but he is the key person responsible for creating many of the unfortunate events.

Olaf does seem to manage to turn on the charm at points – whether to reassure other adults that he is a suitable guardian for the children, or even, turning the head of Aunt Josephine.

Interestingly, the true judges of his forms of evil are the Baudelaire children, who always see through him: his disguises, his schemes.

Another contender would be Jadis, Queen of Charn, who is woken (rightly or wrongly) from centuries of sleep in The Magician’s Nephew.

The book is a favourite of mine, and I like the way in which C. S. Lewis gradually builds the picture of her as we go through the book. We see also how this picture is formed through the different perspectives of the main characters.

Diggory, the boy hero, is initially impressed by her – but soon sees how little she cares for the damage she inflicted when using the Deplorable Word against her own people.

Uncle Andrew, a fairly shady character himself, is impressed by her powerfulness. He sees an ally in her determination that she is right, and that others are inferior – but receives little kindness from her when she realises he is weaker than she.

A particularly striking scene is where she has stolen a hansom cab. We are partly impressed by her ability to control the cab and horse, driving at breakneck speed – but repelled by her treatment of the horse.

By the time we see her in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the die is cast. She is fully in villain mode – and receives all the consequences that go with attempting to kill Aslan.

I suspect Cruella de Vil, villainess of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, falls into this category. There is something of her style and dash that appeals – she does start out being named as a friend of Mrs Radcliffe (at least in the film version).

But as soon as we understand her real reasons for liking the Dalmatians’ coats, and her plans for the puppies, it’s clear how we are to feel about her.

(I should confess that I have not yet read the original story – but I do have a copy, and the intentions to remedy that.)

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There is not much that is noble about sticking a glass eye in your husband’s tankard of beer. The ‘bad through and through’ villains are mean; they are persistent; and they do not adapt themselves to others.

But perhaps these elements are to bring out the hero’s qualities all the more. Many of the Roald Dahl villains are relentless in their pursuit of others; the heroes emerge as able to change and innovate.

Their own plight does not blind them to the difficulties of others – and as a result, they find allies who help them fight back. (Think about the other animals who help dig, in Fantastic Mr Fox – and who share the triumphal banquet.)

For the more slippery villains, the heroes are by contrast dependable. While others may choose to charm or flatter, they remain themselves. They dig deep in hard times – and they also find unlikely helpers along the way.

Whichever mode of villainy, or sheer badness, we find ourselves presented with in life, we are not unprepared.

We have both characters to compare them with – and suggestions of how to respond without being caught up in the dreadful deeds ourselves.

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