"If only the moaning minnies who claim that no-one knows nor cares about anything had had the chance to read these essays! The villains came in all manner of disguises - scheming, sociopathic, adulterous, paedophiliac, malicious and wounded from all races and both genders. Choosing a winning essay was terribly hard.
In the end, the central conundrum of villainy seems to me to be how and why we like those who in other circumstances make our blood run cold. The spirit of the times is compassionate and empathetic - the first question asked is less ‘how could a human behave so evilly?’ than ‘how did they come to be like that?’ It is only at the pantomime that we boo and hiss. The rest of the time, we’re too busy trying to understand.
It is the capacity for constant reinterpretation of villainry (and heroism) which makes characters great. Lucinda Menaul’s enjoyable essay on Richard III caught the tension between affection and loathing perfectly.
How did they become like this? Alfie Fletcher’s analysis of Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness talks of his expressing ‘the immoral worm wiggling into our souls’, which is good, as far as it goes. But where has the worm come from? Do we all carry it inside us. Conrad used Kurtz's withdrawal to live in the African jungle, surrounded by the heads of those he had murdered, as a metaphor for interior travel.
But the essay I enjoyed most was Arthur James’ assessment of Satan. “Perhaps [he is ] more to be pitied than censured’. Soon he abandons the weasel word ‘perhaps’ and becomes so involved in the conundrum of our fascination with evil, suggesting Satan is, in fact ‘on our side’. John MIlton’s ability to see Satan as something more than the Big Daddy of Bad is skilful. So is Arthur’s essay."