‘Freedom,’ Albert Camus wrote, is ‘“that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm.”’ I immediately wrote that down after I read it for the first time. It immediately brought to mind the story of Phaethon from Ovid’s Metamorpheses. Phaethon, a mortal, was the son of Phoebus (the sun god), a deity that rode the chariot of the sun across the sky during the day. Offered anything by his father, Phaethon asked to be put in charge of the chariot. It didn’t end well, and Jupiter had to strike Phaethon from the sky with a bolt of lightning. The young boy’s epitaph sums it up (translated by A.S. Kline):
Here Phaethon lies who the sun's journey made
Dared all though by weakness was betrayed.
Another translation (Hamilton) has it as:
Here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god's chariot fared.
And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.
I like the second one better. It’s the daring that appeals to me. Ovid’s tale of Phaethon is one of those cautionary tales, warning us to be aware of our own hubris. That’s good advice for mortals.
“Let them know men did this,” Draco says to Perseus. And Perseus, with a slash of his sword, decapitates Medusa and takes her head before flying to Argos on a Pegasus to defeat the Kraken, sending Hades back to the Underworld.
“Let them know men did this.”
I suspect there’s a common desire to be one of those men, to fight beside Achilles, to journey with Odysseus, to steal a kiss from Aphrodite, to cross the Styx and return. It’s a world of gods and heroes, monsters and villains.
It’s not our world, though. We have responsibilities: bills, exercise, eating right, turning up on time, smiling politely and shaking hands, and biting our tongue when we know it’s inappropriate to voice our true feelings.
Luckily, we have storytellers who can take us to these other places and allow us to walk alongside gods, monsters, heroes, and villains.
Some authors will write about superheroes, or gifted teenagers. Others will write about super-spies and exotic locations. Still, some write about adventures or zombie killers.
I write about villains.
I love villains. They transcend all of those inane formalities and obligations. They deliberately withdraw from the social contract and create their own morality. Plus, writing villains is lots of fun.
I was taught about the finest villains that literature had to offer while at university. Consider Dracula by Bram Stoker. The villain is an aristocratic man of noble birth and a history that stretches back to legendary battlefields, where he indulged his brutality against his enemies. Libidinous and violent indulgences are confined to the local area, which is why the locals avoid getting lost in the dark.
How about Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? Truly a case of hubris, though the line between villain and hero is blurred. And when the creature turns, what obligation does he have to play by the doctor’s rules? It’s not like he asked to be made in the first place.
Finally, The Strange Tale of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. A potion of some potency liberates the darkest urges of Jekyll through the proxy of Hyde. They are one and the same, and perhaps go some way to make my point.
The important thing to know is that I've written a novel full of villains. You could say I set the chariot free and let the storm rage. So, if you’re tired of smiling politely at the in-laws, come spend your time with some outlaws instead.
C'mon! It'll be fun!