“Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?”

The good guy/bad guy myth: Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?” is one of the most interesting essays on narrative and fiction I’ve ever read, and while I, like most of you, am familiar with the tendency of good guys and bad guys in fiction, I wasn’t cognizant of the way pure good and pure evil as fundamental characterizations only really proliferated around 1700.

In other words, I didn’t notice the narrative water in which I swim. Yet now I can’t stop thinking about a lot of narrative in the terms described.

A while ago, I read most of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and found it boring, perhaps in part because the characters didn’t seem to stand for anything beyond themselves, and they didn’t seem to want anything greater than themselves in any given moment. Yet for most of human civilization, that kind of story may have been more common than many modern stories.

Still, I wonder if we should be even more skeptical of good versus evil stories than I would’ve thought we should be prior to reading this essay.


One response

  1. She’s right about the simplistic good-versus-evil plots of modern pop culture and their prevalence in our diverse, global, shades-of-gray age, but I think the pre-1700 picture is much more complicated than she suggests. Medieval epics do often embody a national consciousness, if not in the sense of a modern nation-state per se, and I could easily find medieval romances (and allegories, and theological treatises, and some particularly unkind literary treatments of Muslims and Jews) to counter her claim that “the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values” wasn’t born until the 18th century.

    What’s probably relevant, though, is that the cartoonish good/evil dichotomy of the Star Wars universe—Manicheanism, specifically, the idea that the two forces weren’t just opposite but were also equal—was declared a heresy early in the history of Christianity, by the late 300s, and medieval European culture was permeated with the understanding that indeed there was a battle between good and evil and the good were always subject to evil’s lure, but evil was weaker and inherently inferior: no light side and dark side ideally in a yin-yang balance.

    My hunch is that these simplistic good-versus-evil stories have been pop-culture hits for several generations now in part because the 20th century saw evil on a scale that was both unimaginable and undocumentable before, and average folks want to assert basic goodness. She makes a great point, though, about how claiming to be on the side of good can become justification for doing the worst to those we call evil. As popular culture increasingly feels more real to many people than reality, and as demonizing one’s enemies becomes a profitable and invigorating sport, we do need to keep a close eye on whether our cartoonish entertainment encourage awful ideas. Plenty of folk tales, romances, legends, and myths, innocent in themselves, have been put to wicked and violent use.

    (And although I can’t blame her, since it’s everywhere, she repeats the notion that George Lucas was inspired by Joseph Campbell, a claim I’ve never believed. Lucas said nothing about Campbell until years later, and little about the original “Star Wars” is all that Campbellian, even though the movie is blatantly drenched in its obvious influences: space opera, pulp SF, martial-arts flicks, and war movies such as “The Dam Busters,” from which Lucas directly lifted lines of dialogue.)


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