My mother fell asleep during the first hour of The Fellowship of the Ring. When the movie finished, I asked her did she really find it that boring. She didn’t like the orcs. ‘Why do they need to be so ugly?’

‘You can’t save the world from fluffy bunny rabbits,’ I replied.

Lord of the Rings orcs
On reflection, I think the villains in high fantasy are not nearly as ugly as those found in other fiction. People often think fantasy is escapism and to some degree it is. The good guys nearly always win and the bad guys get their just desserts and that satisfies some inner need for justice or fairness that most of us seem to have.

But most of all, it’s not real. No matter how terrifying, how depraved, how hideous the villain, I’m never going to lose sleep over him. Because I know it’s fiction. Someone made him up. He can’t possibly come knocking on my door. None of these things are really happening to real people in the real world. If they were, I might cry. But they’re not.

Not so true for other kinds of fiction which often sprinkle in facts – I mean, actual facts from our actual real world, something those of us in the high fantasy genre only have a passing acquaintance with.

I am currently reading ‘Grave Secrets’ by Kathy Reichs (yes, not my usual genre) and I just watched the movie Fair Game. So I’ve been bombarded with various hideous real things like:
  • governments destroying the career of someone just to keep a secret;
  • people who make death threats against the small children of a person they hate (even though they have no good reasons for that hatred);
  • people attack someone publicly on the basis of mixed media reports without firsthand knowledge of that person;
  • genocide and murder, rape and torture, in less fortunate countries than ours, where such things may all be in the ordinary course of a day, never investigated, condoned or authorised by the government, and conveniently forgotten. 
It’s enough to depress a person. While fiction is, by definition, not real, it usually has some basis in fact, whether it is based on a true story or just inspired by some fact, snippet or tidbit. So while the particulars of the stories I have read and watched may not be accurate, it’s a pretty safe bet all of the above have happened and will happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, I know about the bad things that happen in life. I donate to charities and do what I can to help. I have a friend who is currently in Nairobi as a volunteer aid worker, so I know. I see people being nasty and cruel and spiteful to each other, judgemental and intolerant. I know it’s happening. But there’s a difference between knowing and wallowing in it.

When you wallow in it you get a very jaded view of humanity. Start to think maybe our species is a waste of space, maybe it wouldn’t be such a great loss if we were all wiped out. When you look at what we do to one another you wonder what kind of monsters we are.

Why do the bad guys need to be so ugly? Life is ugly. 

When I read high fantasy, sure the villains are all ugly monsters. They are just as ugly as those in the real world.

But high fantasy also has heroes. The genre becomes inspirational rather than mere escapism. 

Because the heroes in high fantasy remind me of everything that is good and beautiful in us.

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