‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’ Joan Aiken wrote. Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions was to show a glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One she describes as an example is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici – first dropping an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then descending thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…
One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit – having her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgive him time after time. It is only when he leaves younger sister Is and her mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, so that she may become Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:
Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.
Curiously many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:
By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:
Should children be presented with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed they should, that being scared was a useful and even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that it might even help to enhance their powers of discernment should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…
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