The villain in the James Bond novel and film Goldfinger is pretty easy to understand. Mr. Goldfinger loves gold, and all of his schemes are to inflate the value of his personal collection. There is no higher, twisted purpose that he serves, he just wants to be rich, plain and simple.
Of course, James Bond’s motivations aren’t much more complex. He is a secret agent tasked with stopping the world’s most dangerous villains and that’s exactly what he does. These two characters represent the most basic of philosophies in antagonists and protagonists, namely, to pursue selfish gain and to prevent harm to others.
And there is no shortage of stories that have these exact motivations at the heart of their conflict. The villain’s side might take different forms, such as lust for power or love of wealth, but at the core it all about selfish gain, and advancing oneself to the detriment of others. And the hero’s drive might go under different names as well, such as to protect those who cannot protect themselves, or to avenge a loved one, but once again it all boils down to opposing the villain’s harm to others.
A Little More Thought)
But not every hero-villain pair is so one-dimensional. There are some stories that give their villains more understandable reasons for the things that they do, and the heroes more nuanced reasons for opposing them.
Consider the example of Messala and Judah Ben-Hur in the novel and film Ben-Hur, who start the story as the best of friends. Though Messala is a Roman, whose people have subjugated the Jewish people, and Judah is one of those subjugated Jews, the two grew up as equals and brothers. Eventually they parted ways, though, when Messala left to fight for the empire and to see the wonders of Roman architecture and thought.
The story’s opening scenes are about the moment that Messala returns from his travels and rekindles his friendship with Judah. Messala is not just here for a little visit, though, he is to be second-in-command to the Roman governor overseeing this province, and he is hoping to use Judah’s considerable influence to deter any Jewish uprisings. Judah is wary of how Messala intends to use him, but Messala scoffs it off and we have the following dialogue:
"You are like a Roman," Messala tells Judah. "What have you in common with the rabble that makes trouble here?"
"Rabble?" Judah asks in shock. "They're my people. I'm one of them."
"Be wise, Judah. It's a Roman world. If you want to live in it, you must become part of it."
A moment later Messala recounts his love for that “Roman world” with a fire in his eyes.
"It was fate that chose us to civilize the world. And we have! Our roads and our ships connect every corner of the earth. Roman law, architecture, literature, are the glory of the human race!"
Judah meekly replies, "I believe in the future of my people."
And here we have the crux of all the conflict that will follow. It is a question of love of country, and loyalty to one’s people. There seems to be nothing inherently wrong with Messala’s adoration of Rome and Judah’s quiet devotion to Israel, but there are deep tensions between the two nations, and so there begin to be deep tensions between the two friends.
Soon Judah is forced to make a choice. Either turn over Jews who might incite rebellion in the future so that they may be executed as an example to others, or else make himself an enemy of Messala forever. He chooses the latter, and this becomes another key component of the two men’s competing philosophies. Throughout the rest of the story Judah will continue to protect those who are in need, even if they are not his own allies, and Messala will continue to afflict Judah at every possible turn.
Which, in the end, may not be that much more complex than the pure good and evil motivations in a typical James Bond novel, but this story is more nuanced in that its characters come to those extremes by differing in their “best intentions.”
Auric Goldfinger does evil because he can, Messala because he feels justified in it for the sake of Rome. In each case they feel entitled, whether by might or right, to advance their cause at the expense of all others.
Is This a Dagger?)
And notice Messala’s use of the word “fate.” Fate dictated that Rome should conquer the world, so Rome is therefore guiltless for having done so. And it is this exact same line of thinking that drives another classic villain: Macbeth.
At first glance Macbeth might appear as purely evil and simplistic as Mr. Goldfinger. The man takes the throne by murdering the king and then, in a paranoia, also kills anyone that he thinks might oppose him. Clearly there could be nothing nuanced about this character.
And yet there is. For while Macbeth’s actions are clearly evil, the path that leads him to it is even more intricate and complex than that of Messala. But like Messala, the heart of his journey is around this central question of fate and moral choice.
In the beginning of the play Macbeth meets three witches who foretell that he is soon to become Thane of Cawdor and then the King of Scotland! Macbeth is a kinsman to the current ruler, King Duncan, but he is several steps away from being next in line, so for him to inherit the throne would require some disaster to strike the royal family.
But before Macbeth can contemplate this turn of events, he suddenly receives word of his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, fulfilling the first of the prophecies and now making him give serious thought to the second. It would seem that powers beyond his own are pushing him to the throne and that his forceful taking of it is merely the hand of fate. Then, when he hears that King Duncan is coming to lodge at his own home, opportunity compels him to walk with a violent hand.
Just before Macbeth commits his murder of the king, we have his famous “dagger” soliloquy, which further reinforces this notion of being driven by forces outside his control.
Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.... Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going, and such an instrument I was to use.
Phantoms and emblems continue to appear all around Macbeth, affirming his treachery, driving him forward…even as his own conscience protests within.
Thus, Macbeth is a play that grapples with that question of fate versus decency. Are we in any way guiltless for immoral actions when they are in the service of higher powers? Even though all mind and nature were compelling Macbeth to his wicked deeds, did he not still choose to do them? And is he actually driven by fate…or just a perverse sense of entitlement, the same as Mr. Goldfinger?
And how does this relate to the more common matters of life? If we see an opportunity to pursue what we consider to be our fate, but taking that opportunity requires us to be rude, or grasping, or elevating ourselves to the detriment of others, is it at all excusable?
My Own Take)
These questions on morality and fate are also at the heart of my current short story, The Salt Worms. Nathan Prewitt sees himself burdened with a great duty, one prescribed to him by fate, and he has used this as a justification to do some terrible things. Is he excused in that or not? And if his theories are ultimately correct, will the ends be justified by the means?
It is a philosophical question worth grappling with and writing this story has been my way to turn the matter over, to find out my own feelings on it. And I think it an excellent use of story to wrestle with such compelling arguments.
Indeed, my favorite stories are always the ones that grapple with philosophical questions intelligently, weaving them seamlessly into their narrative. Stories like these are as educational to the mind as they are entertaining to the senses, a credit to every thoughtful reader.