It’s an easy, common observation to note that you can learn about a culture by observing the heroes it creates. The culture that creates a hero like John Keating of Dead Poet’s Society is different than the one that creates a hero like Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings. The former lionizes individualism, self-actualization, and absolute freedom of expression. The latter upholds a more communitarian, self-sacrificial ethic as heroic. Your choice in heroes suggests a great deal about your vision of the good life.
It might be a bit more interesting to attempt a similar study by looking at the villains of distinct cultures–and more interesting still to note how different cultures deal with the same villain. Which brings me to Netflix’s new original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as power-hungry congressman Francis Underwood. The series opens with a scene in which Spacey monologues to the camera about the two types of pain, the pain that makes you strong and the pain that makes you useless. “I have no patience for useless things,” Spacey explains as he puts a dog just run over by a car out of its misery by wringing its neck. Later in the series another Underwood monologue offers an obvious but still useful Rosetta Stone for the character: Describing the failure of his former staffer and current lobbyist Remy Denton, Underwood says, “He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mcmansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.” And yet that quote, important as it is for understanding Underwood’s mind, may be even more important in understanding the show’s greatest shortcoming. To Underwood, power is a strong fortress. To deploy a biblical image, we might say it’s the house built on the rock that stands firm when the house built on the sand-like foundation of money passes into decay. The trouble with that thought, of course, is that it isn’t true.
House of Cards is not unique in creating an impregnable individualistic villain who will do anything to seize power. It was only a few years ago that Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, a character every bit as merciless and driven as Underwood. Going back further, Tolkien’s Saruman is another villain driven almost exclusively by power and going back still further one can say the same thing about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, an especially apropos comparison given House of Cards’ many Shakespearean overtones and, especially, the eerie similarities between Underwood’s wife Claire and Lady Macbeth, a point that Spacey himself has raised in interviews.
So contemporary story-tellers like Cards writer Beau Willimon and There Will Be Blood director PT Anderson are not breaking new ground in creating characters like Underwood and Plainview.
Their innovation isn’t in character, but in plotting. As we leave Underwood at the end of season one, he is ascendant as the new Vice President, he’s gotten away with every shady deal he’s pulled, and he’s reunited with his wife. His one vulnerability is an equally ambitious, amoral character–DC journalist Zoe Barnes. Likewise, in There Will Be Blood Plainview’s lone source of vulnerability is his religious mirror image, the Pentecostal preacher Eli Sunday. The story ends when Plainview beats Sunday to death and intones “I’m finished.” (Which is itself an interesting twist on the final words spoken by the hero of the Christian story.)
Such villains did not always meet such ends. Consider the fate of Macbeth. He is not overthrown by a second Macbeth, but a group of people out to avenge their dead loved ones. And perhaps more significantly, the harbinger of Macbeth’s doom is not a powerful individual, but creation itself rising against him. Birnham Wood comes against the castle and Macbeth is undone. The same thing happens with Tolkien’s villain Saruman–and in fact you can tell a great deal about Saruman and Tolkien by how that story plays out. Saruman is after power, which means he’s after the ring, that he must contain Gandalf, and must protect himself against Sauron. The only threat Saruman seems to feel is that of Mordor–he’s blinded to the danger of all other foes because he seems them as being beneath him. And if The Lord of the Rings was governed by the same story-telling norms and principles as House of Cards, Saruman would be right. Sauron would be his only enemy–and the characters like Frodo or Merry could be twisted as easily as Pete Russo. But that’s just the point–the guiding principles behind The Lord of the Rings story is fundamentally different. And so Saruman isn’t undone by Sauron, but by creation itself. Fangorn Forest rises and Saruman–like Macbeth–is vanquished.
Here we need to be careful. The point of this is not to simply draw a line from the autonomy and lust for power of modern man to ecological disaster, as if to say “you better behave or the planet will get you.” That’s an easy narrative to advance right now as our nation is battered by super storm after super storm, but it’s a badly incomplete narrative. To understand it more completely, we need to understand Tolkien’s broader social vision.
For Tolkien, the children of Iluvatar–the great god of Tolkien’s mythical world–are entrusted with stewarding Iluvatar’s created world. In a lovely creation account, Tolkien tells the story of Iluvatar beginning a song through which he calls the lesser gods–the Valar–into being. The Valar then begin adding their own contributions to the music which complements and completes the song being sung by Iluvatar. Discord is introduced when Melkor, the future Dark Lord–comes upon the idea of creating his own music. Rather than joining in the shared work of the Valar and Iluvatar, Melkor seeks to assert his own power and individualism in his own song. The discord this creates leads to confusion. Some of the other created beings become confused and begin inadvertently playing with Melkor’s music. Others willfully choose to follow Melkor, as did one of the angel-like beings (or Maiar) named Sauron.
So from the beginning Tolkien’s legendarium is premised on a lord and creator creating a pattern or rhythm in which his created beings are expected to participate. They are given freedom, but a purposeful freedom that tends toward the mutual flourishing of Iluvatar’s creation under Iluvatar’s authority. Melkor the individualist rebels against that and so Tolkien’s world begins a descent into darkness. But, vitally, creation itself never quite forgets Iluvatar’s original intent–and that memory will continue to influence Tolkien’s world on down to the days of Saruman and the War of the Ring. And when Saruman rises in power, Middle Earth itself rebels against his rule. Saruman’s failure to realize his calling as one of the children of Iluvatar leads to the rest of Iluvatar’s creation undermining and destroying him. In the world of Tolkien, the world itself is bent against the unquenchable lust of characters like Saruman.
And, of course, Christians will recognize the same marks of Tolkien’s world in the world as its described in our Scriptures. In Genesis, God entrusts the continued work of creation and the stewarding of creation as it was given to us to human beings. But that stewarding is expected to lead to the flourishing of creation and human beings alongside it. We live within the benevolent limits given in Scripture by God and all of creation benefits.
And here we’re ready to return to Spacey’s notion of a house of stone–if Christianity be true, then power is not a house of stone while money is a McMansion that will be gone in 10 years. As means that men use to exalt themselves and establish their own autonomy, both money and power turn out to be modern day Towers of Babel, and in our attempt to build such an edifice unto the heavens, we may end up pulling the wrath of the heavens onto our heads. These words from the book of Revelation may be the best commentary I know on the future of Francis Underwood–regardless of what happens when he picks up his phone to find a call from Stamper warning him of Zoe Barnes’ betrayal.
“And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?”
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).