Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What is the Difference Between a Hero and a Villian?

From the everything-depends-on-who-you-ask files...

Cleaning my library today, I came across a few children's history books that had been given to me. One of them inspired me to look at it really funny. "Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History." An adventure with a genocidal dictator who honestly appears to have believed God guided his every action, including that one time he forcibly overthrew Parliament and the numerous times he ordered large groups of people slain for being to the wrong religion? I had to open it.

"Here is the story of an important figure in English history, a brave and deeply religious man who was a friend to all honest men -- and who fought for many years against what he believed to by tyranny and injustice."

Without the title of the book, I would never have known who they were talking about because other than describing him as religious, that's not at all how I would have written about him. Fought against tyranny? Maybe. By installing his own tyranny...

I particularly love the end of the book, which says, "Cromwell was a good man. He was deeply religious, and neither greedy nor -- except in Ireland -- cruel. He was a good father and the friend of all honest men."

Well, I honestly don't recall much about what kind of dad he was, but it is beyond question that he was cruel in Ireland. Which would be why the Pogues (and many other people) recorded this song about the book's honest, brave, and friendly man...



I first learned of Cromwell in Scotland, where he's not fondly remembered either. So I fully admit my opinions are biased. But even acknowledging that the Parliament he removed was corrupt and the King he helped execute wasn't a Good Guy, I have a hard time seeing him as in any way heroic. I think Monty Python does a decent job of giving us the summary of his deeds and while they don't say he was a monster, they don't seem terribly impressed with him either...



But apparently there are people in England who consider him a national treasure. In 2002 a BBC poll listed him as the tenth greatest Brit in history, placing him between Admiral Nelson and Sir Ernest Shackleton, who hung out in Antarctic a lot. (Though not as much as Scott, who was ranked more than forty places lower, perhaps because the beeb hadn't just aired a popular documentary about him.) Of course, the survey probably isn't of much value. Princess Diana made it in at number three, and while she was lovely, I don't really see people talking much about her in upcoming centuries. Or about most of the celebrities on the list. David Beckham is a greater figure than Boudica? It would take a very impressive argument to convince me of that.

All of this is a long-winded way of a.) avoiding cleaning and b.) showing that the difference between a hero and villain is purely one of perception. It's a concept that has been dealt with in fiction before, Wicked being the first example to spring into my mind, but I haven't done it before. I don't think... And I think that maybe I should.

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