vengeance

How much of fantasy, I wonder, is revenge fantasy? I’m asking this question, of course, because there’s a new Tarantino movie, and revenge fantasy is His Thing. But this does seem to be one of the primary functions of the fantastic: to create fictional worlds in which moral dramas can play out in ways that the authors like — and especially in which enemies are exposed and punished.

In Tarantino’s case this tends to involve simple rewriting of history, but this mode, or perhaps mood, of storytelling can take several forms.

The future fantasy, as in The Handmaid’s Tale: My enemies don’t have absolute power right now, but if they ever got it here’s the kind of thing they would do.

The alternate worlds fantasy, as in Pullman’s His Dark Materials: In our world the Catholic Church did not rule all of Europe with an iron anti-science fist, and John Calvin did not order the execution of children, but they very easily could have and might have, and see, in this universe right next door to ours we find the cold ugly logic of their position carried to its natural conclusion.

The feigned history fantasy with allegorical overtones: In The Lord of the Rings Saruman is a modern industrialist avant le lettre, and through him Tolkien gets to demonstrate how “a mind of gears and wheels” works and the kind of damage it does if its power is unconstrained. But we also get to see how that mind undoes its own plans, and how the natural world acts to restore a proper equilibrium. There’s a palpable longing in that strand of the tale: If only something like that could happen here and now.

The satirical fantasy, as in the this-world frame-story of The Silver Chair, where Lewis develops his idea that self-consciously “modern” education produces people “without chests,” without a moral foundation, and thereby unleashes the natural human propensity to nastiness. But a visit to Narnia gives Jill and Eustace the moral clarity to see and act (rather violently!) against the absurdities of Experiment House: “For, with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords on the boys so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running like mad, crying out, ‘Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair.’”

So, again: fantasy as a means of exposing and/or punishing the author’s enemies. You could put a positive spin on this and say that fantasy is preoccupied with justice; and sometimes that would be right; Tolkien’s treatment of Saruman seems the least vengeful, largely, I think, because Saruman is so often and so explicitly given the opportunity to choose a different path than the one he settles on — an opportunity Tolkien doesn’t give to Orcs, as Auden was I think the first to note. It’s when enemies are portrayed as unreformable, as incapable of repenting or in any significant way changing, that the love of justice tends to be transformed into a crowing over their wickedness, or a delight in vengeance taken upon them.


(I got an email in response to the above from my friend Adam Roberts, and realized that I needed to be more clear. Here’s my response to Adam. I hope to develop these thoughts in more detail later.)

First of all, I think dreams of revenge are always moral — but of course are dreams of power too. We dream of revenge when we believe that some injustice has been done and we want to make it right, or at least redress it in some way, but can’t. Surely — to put it in Augustinian terms — the root of every dream of vengeance is a love of justice, even if the flowers thereof are fleurs du mal. I love that moment in Lord of the Rings when Sam tells Galadriel that if she had the Ring some nasty people would be paid out, and put in their place, to which she replies, “Yes. That is how it would begin.”

I’m thinking that one form of vengeance is exposure: I may not be able to stop you, but I can expose you. I see that in various ways in all the examples I give, but it seems to me especially clear in Atwood and Pullman. Atwood isn’t taking vengeance on reality, she’s taking vengeance on fundamentalist Christians who have done so much damage to women over the centuries. She is saying, “I will create a world which will give you the power you crave and in that way I will enable all my readers to see you for what you truly are, and to condemn you.”

We do learn at the end of the book that the Gilead Period eventually comes to an end, to be replaced by something not quite as bad perhaps, but there’s no real punishment for the wicked characters. That’s where Pullman goes a step further. Mrs Coulter and Father Gomez and Metatron are all killed, and Metatron’s afterlife Gulag is dismantled. So there is exposure — Pullman has said in interviews quite explicitly that Christians haven’t done the things that they do in his book only because they haven’t had the chance — but also punishment. We get to exult in the destruction of the wicked. (Lewis is playing the same song in a sillier arrangement when Eustace and Jill put the bullies to rout.)