There are quite a few surprising comparisons that can be drawn between the serious, obscure, adult literary works of Charles Williams and the delightful Harry Potter series. First, there is the matter of the Grail Hallows and the Deathly Hallows (which I wrote about in my post entitled Happy Birthday, J. K. Rowling!). Then there is the conflated medievalism: the way they squash items from the Medieval and Modern periods into their works (I’ve written about that in CW’s poetry in an article called “Double Affirmation: Medievalism as Christian Apologetic in the Arthurian Poetry of Charles Williams”). Then there’s magic, and quest stories, and spiritual truths embedded in their works…. There are probably others, too, and I’ll keep my mind open for them.
But today, as we grieve the death of beloved actor Alan Rickman, I want to write about ambiguous villains. Before I do, let me recommend to you this post, “On the Passing of Alan Rickman and the Adaptation of Books to Film,” by David Russell Mosley, that examines Rickman’s works from the important perspective of adaptation theory (which I’ve written about here and here). Let me also issue a SPOILER ALERT for Harry Potter and for CW’s two novels War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps.
So, now then: ambiguous villains. I think that one of the aspects of Prof. Snape that we all love deeply, and that Rickman portrayed with masterful skill, is how confusing he is. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he a good guy gone bad, or a bad guy turned good? Is he mixed or conflicted? He’s really none of these, which makes him hard to categorize, hard to understand, and hard to resist. This is one of Rowling’s many achievements: to write a character who transcends stereotypes and defies expectations. He commits terrible atrocities against others; he makes heartbreaking sacrifices on behalf of others–often against the same others. We hate him; we love him. And in the end, we are led to believe that he finds redemption and peace.
Gregory Persimmons, the antagonist of War in Heaven, is a bit like this. He is an out-and-out villain, killing a poor fool who was no longer useful to him, stealing the Holy Grail, performing a Black Mass, torturing a woman’s soul, murdering a brave young man, attempting to bind a dead spirit to a living one, and planning to sacrifice a child to the devil. That’s about as bad as one can get, wouldn’t you think? And yet, in the end, confronted with Prester John revealed in glory, he gives himself up to the police for murder–and the narrator ponders that “not by such passions was hell finally peopled and the last rejection found.” It seems that we are supposed to consider Persimmons saved in the end because he at least sought to worship something greater than himself and because he gave himself up in the end.
The Greater Trumps is an even better comparison, perhaps, because there is no clear villain, and the are several highly ambiguous characters whom we love and hate, admire and fear, and all find some kind of redemption in the end.
There is Henry Lee, a young man of Gypsy heritage, who greatly desires to own the original pack of Tarot cards. They are owned by his fiancee’s father, and Henry tries to kill Mr. Conningsby to get the cards (by summoning up a magical snowstorm, which strikes me as a rather Snape-y thing to do). Yet at the crisis-point of the story, he joins his fiancee in attempting to restore balance to the universe and is himself restored by love.
There is Henry’s grandfather, Aaron Lee, who plots along with Henry to kill the owner of the powerful cards so that he can unite them with his set of magical golden figures and thus control the world. He, too, is overcome by love and is at peace in the end, rescued from disasters of his own making.
And finally, there is Joanna Lee. She is Aaron’s sister, Henry’s aunt, and she is crazy. She believes that her dead baby is Osiris, torn to pieces but destined to come to life again-and that if she can get at the golden figures and the Tarot cards, she will bring him back. She tries to sacrifice Nancy (Henry’s fiancee) to get her own son back again. At the conclusion, however, Nancy’s love wins her over, and she fills the empty place in her heart, left by her child’s death, with Nancy’s saving love.
There we have three characters, all of whom do terrible, murderous, vile deeds, but all of whom ultimately make sacrifices for and are saved by Love. This is very like Severus Snape indeed. And I honor Alan Rickman’s subtle, sophisticated, skillful, powerful performance. It is too bad he didn’t live to play the part of Gregory Persimmons or Aaron Lee in a (possible? imaginary?) future film adaptation of War in Heaven or The Greater Trumps. He would have been magnificent. He was magnificent. I miss him already.