Catherine Nichols recently wrote an excellent piece on folktales & myths, pop culture, and how modern tales represent good & evil. An excerpt:
Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.
Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.
Karl Marlantes’ transcendent novel about the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, utilizes the monomyth narrative structure Joseph Campbell wrote about in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, yet Marlantes presses his protagonists & antagonists beyond the simplistic, contrived dichotomy Nichols outlines. Marlantes renders these young American men in all their (frustrating, objectionable, vulnerable) complexity, and by doing so, Marlantes raises the stakes for both his characters & his readers in a way that simplistic or celebratory accounts cannot.
Thinking about the kind or work we publish in The Deadly Writers Patrol, rarely is a submission successful if it does not press hard for complication of this good/evil framing. I may well include a link to this article in editorial responses to authors in the future.