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Understanding good - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Understanding good
I was just over at the conservative site townhall.com--it's a little conservative even for me sometimes, but occasionally you get a pretty interesting opinion article--and Dennis Prager has a good article about Pat Tillman's life and death. It's very pro-war, very conservative in its outlook, so I'm not going to link to it directly, as that's not the point I want to discuss. I want to talk about something he said at the end--in essence, with the politics removed, he said that people are pre-occupied with trying to understand evil. Look at the proportion of books trying to understand evil compared to the proportion of books trying to undrestand good. He suggested that it would be a good idea for us to sit down and try to understand good.

I think he's right, but I think he makes a typical columnist's mistake--he's only looking at nonfiction. If you look at something like Harry Potter or Star Wars--hugely popular fiction, both--what you have is an extended look at the nature of goodness against great odds. Harry Potter is quite explicit about this, and it's obvious that JKR isn't particularly interested in exploring Why Lucius Malfoy Is A Git. That he's a git is just part of the world, something to be expected. Instead, she's interested in questions like how Harry develops into a complex hero, what temptations lie in his path, what drives him to act in an often self-sacrificial way (the shadow of Lily's sacrifice lying heavily on him) for the sake of others. Dumbledore's observation that he "cares so much that he feels like he'll bleed to death from the pain of it" is a real character statement about goodness, as "doing what is right rather than what is easy" is a real philosophical statement about it.

Personally, I was glad to see this comment in the article simply because it's a feeling I get fairly often. I wrote earlier about my predilection for liking the good guys and disliking the villains, and I think that it is because I'm more interested in understanding good than understanding evil. I accept that there are evil things in the world--what is it that makes us stand up to them against all odds? That, to me, is a fascinating question, and one I keep coming back to fictionally.

I'm sure I can see a few people narrowing their eyes. Isn't this the same person who gave us hundreds of pages of sympathetic fic about a Sith Lord? Who was part of the whole Evil!Amidala trio?

Well, yes. I'm also interested in what might make good people do evil things, but largely because I'm interested in how to bring them back... or, barring that, in the tragedy of losing them.

Harry Potter-wise, I've done a full POV piece from young Tom Riddle, and I can feel sorry for the boy who felt so alone, but I'm really not interested in following his descent, because he has no real motive to change his ways. He considers himself superior, and that's all there is to it. He's not conflicted about what he's doing. Peter Pettigrew, on the other hand, does interest me. He is conflicted, and I want to know if it's the voice of his conscience trying to speak.

I also sort of enjoy writing young Bellatrix--as a force of nature that the other characters respond to in various ways. She makes an excellent embodiment of evil, and I have no desire whatsoever to try and explain her away. Andromeda and Sirius interest me more in that generation, simply because they reject Bella and everything she represents. Narcissa has a choice and chooses Bella, which is the easy choice for her, because it means that her life will go exactly as she anticipates, and she will always have everything she wants. In some ways, this makes her more evil, since she's actively making a choice for it. But I'm not interested in following Narcissa around.

But my fictional interest keeps coming back to the fundamentally good--if weak--Remus Lupin, or the kind-hearted Nymphadora and Ted Tonks, and even to Cedric Diggory, who has been accused of being a cardboard character, too good to be true, etc. I look at Cedric, and I'm actually interested by his very goodness. His father is a blowhard and he has no special connection to anything, but he's generous with Harry, honest, dedicated, and kind. I'm interested in Harry also, though perfectly satisfied to let JKR run with that one; she's done a delightful job so far. :)

What is it that makes someone like Tonks, freshly accepted into an elite Ministry department, cheerfully commit what could be construed as treason, just because it's the right thing to do? Why would a Pureblood like Sirius reject his entire family to fight against someone who reveres Purebloodedness? (After all, it wouldn't have hurt Sirius if Voldemort had won.) Same deal for James. As to Remus, while I don't see much motivation for him to join Voldemort, after the way the wizarding world has treated him as a werewolf, why does he care enough to fight for the sake of people who will just continue to hate him, no matter which side wins?

The same holds true in Lord of the Rings--I'm a whole lot more interested in why a comfortable hobbit would make the journey to Mt. Doom than in what made the Witch King decide to follow Sauron. There are plenty of Witch Kings out there, but not a whole lot of Frodos, and even fewer Sams, who go along without even the thought of glory, only of helping someone for the sake of love.

I was also interested in Spike (Buffy) fighting tooth and nail to get back a soul that he must have known would torment him. (And yes, I do believe that's why he went, even if he didn't consciously admit it to himself.) What was it about the ultimate symbol of goodness in this universe--Buffy--that called his conscience back? After all, she's certainly not the first woman he's loved, and she's not the only pretty girl he's been around, so I'm not going to accept that it's just some kind of hormonal fixation. And so on.

I don't know. Would a "good" challenge be any fun for anyone? I can make one up, probably. Rules basically dealing with the choice to be good instead of evil, or some such.

14 comments or Leave a comment
ashtur From: ashtur Date: April 27th, 2004 09:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd certainly be interested in a "good" challenge :)

What fascinates me about the issue is a bit different than what you have (though that is very interesting as well.)

What I've noticed over the years in fic (both published original as well as fanfic) is the idea that there is no good at all. I'm not sure where I first saw it in fic, but the one I remember it the most strongly was the short time I was reading Weis/Hickman's Dragonlance books. Basically, it's this idea that a "good" society is actually cold, cruel, judgemental, and above all else, self-righteous. So, suddenly that which was "good" is now something we don't want. We don't want to live in a judgemental, self-righteous society.

What you rarely see is a fic that takes the next step and makes the point that the problem is not with the "good" society, but that the society in question isn't good at all, but that it's characteristic flaws are that very harshness, and self righteousness.

Because of my theology, I'm very much of the opinion that true "good" is absent in this world, if by that you mean good that is utterly unmixed with evil. You might almost say that it's Platonic, that the reflection of good in this world is always just a pale shadow of what we see (his whole cave metaphor).

That's one mark of the quality of JKR's writing. Her heros are heroic, and ultimately on the side of good, but they have their flaws and issues, and OoTP brought them to the forefront. Bravo! It makes them all the more human.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 27th, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Because of my theology, I'm very much of the opinion that true "good" is absent in this world, if by that you mean good that is utterly unmixed with evil. You might almost say that it's Platonic, that the reflection of good in this world is always just a pale shadow of what we see (his whole cave metaphor).

I think that, symbolically, a character like Cedric Diggory really paints this picture--this bit of goodness inside a world that's morally gray, a kind of light that's pure when very little else is. "Remember Cedric Diggory" in a sense is "Hear your conscience."
From: anatomiste Date: April 27th, 2004 09:50 am (UTC) (Link)
I've met so many people recently who are most interested by the bad guys. Look at the Draco fans... It's refreshing to find someone intruiged by goodness.

I would definitely be interested in that challenge.

(Also: You might like Charles Williams' 1937 novel "Descent into Hell" -- it's probably the best development of good (and bad) character I've ever read.)
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: April 27th, 2004 10:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Go for it! I've loved your Vader characterization, because it's so much more complex than others'. (And I confess to having a soft spot for antiheroes.)

Talking about fiction, and its exploration of good and evil, makes me glad for all the emphasis schools place on literacy. Yes, read to learn from nonfiction--but fiction can absolutely teach just as much.
From: alouette Date: April 27th, 2004 11:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yes. I, too, am fascinated by what makes people be good and do the right thing - it's not often an easy, simple choice. The easy, simple choice is to be neutral, to follow each whim and what seems to serve your own interest the best; sometimes doing good things, sometimes bad. But truly good people (I'm not talking about absolutely good people who do no evil whatsoever, that's impossible in an imperfect world with imperfect people; but people whose motivation is to be good and do the right thing, and who generally choose good over evil) are much rarer gems. That's what I love fiction for: exploring what it means to do the right thing and how you can be good. I'm rarely interested in the descent of a good/neutral character into evil, or about the thoughts and motivations of evil people. I'm interested in heroes and good guys, and I'm fascinated by how a neutral or even evil person can become good.

I'd love a "good" challence, too. Could use something fascinating to prompt me to write an actual story...
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: April 27th, 2004 11:24 am (UTC) (Link)
*fangirls you*

I've often thought stuff like that, but I'm not so coherent :-D

A 'good' challenge would be a cool thing. My darling Luke would certainly qualify ;-)
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: April 27th, 2004 12:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
What wonderful observations! I too could never figure out what people saw in evil characters. I mean, I am interested on what on earth it was that drove them so far from what is good and right, but it is equally--if not more--fascinating to find out why people who have every reason to go bad DON'T.

There are plenty of Witch Kings out there, but not a whole lot of Frodos, and even fewer Sams, who go along without even the thought of glory, only of helping someone for the sake of love.

::applauds:: We know so much about the strength of hatred, of resentment, of pride, but what of the strength of love? It's like Gandalf said about the flaw in Sauron's design. His standard is greed and power, he knows nothing of people who would destroy the Ring.

Redemption is always the best story.

Bring on the "good" challenge! Though I might take awhile, I've got school to finish.
manicwriter1271 From: manicwriter1271 Date: April 27th, 2004 01:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Dumbledore's observation that he "cares so much that he feels like he'll bleed to death from the pain of it" is a real character statement about goodness, as "doing what is right rather than what is easy" is a real philosophical statement about it.

That quote about how Harry "cares so much that he feels like he'll bleed to death from the pain of it" is one of my favorites, and is very telling, along with his quote about how "It's not our abilities that define who and what we are--it is our choices." That's one that could also apply to Anakin, I think.

I definitely agree with you about Harry constantly having Lily's sacrifice weighing on him. Another thing, along with Harry's goodness, that I think the "bleeding to death from the pain of it" quote testifies to is his great sensitivity--Dumbledore tells him that in his office while Harry is screaming out of guilt over not being able to save Sirius, over feeling like he had caused his death because Sirius had been trying to save him. Harry's sensitive nature and his desire to do the right thing cause him to feel this pain more strongly than others might have--he is hurting so badly that he can't stand it.

I hope that made sense--I just got home from work. :p
hughroe From: hughroe Date: April 27th, 2004 02:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
You always seem to see to the core of things, you know that.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: April 27th, 2004 06:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sorry to be replying to my own post like this, but your entry has been percolating through my mind since I read it.

I guess that in this post-post-modern, deconstuctionist world that we live in "good" is considered the pervue of the simple and the unenlightened.

But your comment about Samwise was really what I was going to comment about. For even though the story tends to focus on Frodo, he did fall to the evil of the ring's temptation there at the end at The Cracks of Doom as did every Ringbearer with the exception of the "simple" Samwise.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: April 27th, 2004 03:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Snape vs. Vader

Yes, the concept of a "good" (let's equate the word "moral" with that) character challenge is an excellent one.

See, when it comes down to it, the really really interesting stories are redemptive. Snape, for example. We still have NO idea why he's saved Harry (time and again) when what we do know gives us every reason to think that he wouldn't/shouldn't bother. Vader turned because of Luke's love - that's the end of the redemption story - how long did we think that the real story of SW was Luke (and by extension, Leia)? Nope, the story is really about Vader. Will HP ever fully tell us the story of Snape? I hope so.

Running a child off to flute, otherwise, I'd stop and proofread this entry but I'm outa ti....
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 27th, 2004 06:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
So we seem to talk a lot about justice in Judaism, but not so much about "goodness." And I'm not sure how to have goodness without justice.

Hmm. It never would have occurred to me to draw a distinction. To pull in another Jewish quote, The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied--the death of justice is also the death of goodness and the death of kindness.
From: anatomiste Date: April 28th, 2004 08:51 am (UTC) (Link)
The only distinction between goodness and justice that I can think of is: Goodness includes mercy and forgiveness. Harry spared Peter Pettigrew's life even though justice may have called for Peter's death. And we all knew, when Harry was raging after Bellatrix to kill her, that this justice had slipped, by means of vengeance, very far from goodness.

In my own faith, Christianity, we say that God is of perfect goodness. And we also say that he is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. Although he as God is a better judge of everyone and has a perfect right to condemn us all, he instead offers us forgiveness.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 28th, 2004 10:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Goodness includes mercy and forgiveness.

Well, yes, but so does justice. Mercy and forgiveness are inherent to real justice.
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