Tag Archives: Mervyn Peake

My Top Ten Literary Villains

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Being a fan of lists and having recently covered my favourite heroines here and my favourite heroes here, I thought it was about time I produced a list of my favourite villains. There is a caveat to this list – I avoided wandering into Spoiler Territory by divulging a villain that isn’t immediately apparent at the start of the book or series, so there are one or two omissions that I would have otherwise included. To make this list, the character in question has to be opposed, at least part of the time, to the aspirations of the protagonist(s). In no particular order, here they are:-

1. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Yep. I know everyone cites Voldermort, or He Who Must Not Be Named. And I’ll agree that he is dislikeable and Harrypotterclearly opposed to Harry. But he is also utterly unredeemable and behaves so outrageously obnoxiously, I keep waiting for him to twirl a moustache and cackle evilly. Rowling packs her books with plenty of antagonists, ranging from Draco Malfoy through to Gilderoy Lockhart. But Severus Snape, the horrible Potions Master is outstanding, both in his blatantly unfair behaviour and the heartbreaking backstory that explains his feelings towards Harry.

2. The Vogons from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams hitchhikersguideThe Vogons certainly tick all the boxes regarding sheer unpleasantness. These nasty aliens decide that Earth needs to be destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace by-pass – and are completely unmoved by the fact that the humans inhabiting our planet were unaware of their intention. In addition to vaporising the planet as per their planning regulations, they then compound their hatefulness by inflicting their atrocious poetry on everyone. They are truly memorably horrible villains.

3. Saruman from the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkeinreturnoftheking I regularly read that Sauron is the Big Bad in the Lord of the Rings. But as a villain, his threat is very diffuse and while he makes Sam and Frodo’s life hellish while they are carrying the ring, it is The White Wizard who causes a lot of the actual chaos they have to deal with. Initially he is working alongside Gandulf to keep the forces of Mordor at bay – until he is bribed with the promise of greater power to turn to the dark side. So he is not only a villain, he is a traitorous villain, who is also responsible for the scouring of the Shire – and don’t we love to spit on those rascals?

4. Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte WutheringheightsYes, I know – his reputation is as the starcrossed lover who is claimed by the ghostly Kathy, mostly thanks to the fey song by Kate Bush and the 1939 film adaptation starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliffe. But if you go back to the book, Heathcliffe comes across as a boorish, embittered bully who makes his ward and his child’s life hell. Ellen, the servant telling the story, deeply dislikes him and as she recounts the story, the prickly boy who is picked up on the streets has a dire impact on the family who take him in. Catherine may have run wild on the moors with him and she may have even loved him, but she knew he would make a really bad husband, which is why – I think – she latched onto any excuse not to marry him…

5. President Snow from The Hunger Games series by Suzanne CollinsHungergames_poster And isn’t he a really nasty piece of work? While there has to be a very large organisation at his beck and call to run this autocratic, unfair system of government, President Snow is the public face of this system. And the private despot who arranges killings for those who fail to carry out his wishes. It is President Snow’s dislike of Katniss that influences what happens to her after her initial win, with ultimately catastrophic consequences…

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6. Steerpike in The Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake This gothic series, set in Castle Gormenghast, is something of an oddity in that although it is often described as a fantasy novel, there are no magic or paranormal elements. It’s an examination of what happens when those in power get complacent and far too steeped in tradition, allowing a villain like Steerpike to worm his way in and wreck far too many lives.

7. Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip PulmanNorthern-Lights The beautiful, accomplished and very charming Mrs Coulter is a deadly villain who only spares Lyra because she is her daughter. It doesn’t stop her imprisoning other children and torturing them in the name of science, though. Time and again, throughout the various adventures that befall Lyra, Mrs Coulter pops up to try and thwart the scientific investigations into Dust by any foul means she can.

8. Mr Teatime from Hogfather by Terry Pratchett hogfatherJonathan Teatime is the assassin hired by The Auditors to kill the Hogfather – Discworld’s version of Santa Claus. He seems a quietly spoken, mild mannered young man who insists his name is pronounced “Te-ah-tim-eh,” and gets very bothered when they don’t. And you really don’t want to upset him, because he is very, very casual about killing people, even when the Assassin’s Guild recommends they should be left alive… Terry Pratchett’s villains often have a redeeming feature or a thread of humanity about them – there are a select few that are beyond redemption and Mr Teatime is one of those few.

9. Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verneverne-20000 I read this book more years ago than I care to recall – but it has always stayed with me. Mostly because of Captain Nemo, whose wonderful submarine took his captors to parts of the planet they had never seen. But this depressed visionary is also an early template for all those mad geniuses who kept cropping up in James Bond films, building empires of incredible beauty and vision that would advance their own craving for power so that Bond was able to destroy them in a welter of death and fiery destruction with impunity.

10. Queen Jadis/The White Queen from The Chronicles of Nania by C.S. Lewis themagiciannephewQueen Jadis initially appears in The Magician’s Nephew and very nearly conquers Earth when she follows Digory and Polly back to their own time. And when she reappears in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe she has managed to become ruler of Nania, condemning the land to everlasting winter and being the cruel, capricious ruler that had depopulated her first conquered state of Charn, whose inhabitants all were killed by Jadis, rather than be ruled by anyone else. Truly, a very, very villainous character – and don’t let’s start on what she did to Aslan…

The near misses include Madam Mumblechook from The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, whose casual cruelty towards the animals she tortures and deforms is truly shocking; the Grand High Witch from The Witches by Roal Dahl who takes a lot of beating for plain sheer nastiness and would definitely have made the list, but for the fact that I’d already mentioned her in my article about who I’d snog, marry or kill here; Alec D’Urberville from Tess of the D’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy, whose initial rape of poor Tess causes such havoc in her life; and Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost – the depiction of the beautifully patterned, upright serpent who manages to charm Eve into disobeying God is mesmerising and chilling. So there you have it, my top ten choices for the bad’uns that crop up in books. Do you agree with me? Who are the villains you love to hate?

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