August 24, 2015

Do Justice, Love Mercy

In the last few days before my classes start, my family and I have been 'catching up' on some movie-viewing time courtesy of Netflix.  (During the school year we get a disc in the mail and then it sits on our counter, unwatched, for the next four weeks or so until we either have an evening to spare or simply say "eh" and mail it back for the next impatient viewer.  We're feckless subscribers.)  Last night we finally settled down for the last installment of the Hobbit trilogy, after having seen the first two in theaters and been too severely underwhelmed by both to go watch "The Battle of the Five Armies" when it came out.  It was, I felt, somewhat better; they made a hash of Bard, but Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage were excellent as Bilbo and Thorin, and that covers some sins at least.  After having watched a few others movies in the past few weeks, though, notably Von Ryan's Express, I tended to fixate on the very minor, added, unnecessary plot point of the coward Alfrid.

Or, rather, the fact that none of the main characters seemed willing to give Alfrid the fate he deserved.

Alfrid doesn't have a whole lot of purpose in the story, except as an object for the viewer's disgust.  He isn't the horrible, 'fantastic' evil of the orcs and goblins and so forth; he is the normal, everyday evil of greed and selfishness taken to a ludicrous degree.  In the early scenes, after Alfrid (who, I might add, is basically the same character as Wormtongue with a little more screen time) has attempted to escape with the Master of Laketown and been abandoned, the townsfolk quite reasonably attempt to lynch him.  However, Bard - like Aragorn with Wormtongue in the film version of The Two Towers - stops them, insisting that enough people have died already.  Thereafter, the good characters show a curious insistence on entrusting Alfrid with important responsibilities (which, of course, he fails to perform) and refuse to make him answer for his misdeeds; Bard even allows him to go on his merry, gold-laden way when Alfrid deserts the makeshift army of Laketown.

Much the same scenario plays out in the 1965 Von Ryan's Express, in which the two protagonists, one British and one American officer, take very different views on mercy and the demands of war.  When the soldiers get out of the POW camp, the Brit, Major Fincham, insists they kill the officer in command of the camp; Von Ryan overrules him, arguing that the officer cannot simply be killed in cold blood.  The decision comes back to bite him, costing quite a few of the soldiers their lives, and yet when the protagonists encounter a similar situation later on Von Ryan again errs on the side of mercy (and it once again backfires).

Why the emphasis - perhaps the over-emphasis - on mercy?  Why can't we just hang Alfrid or shoot the evil Italian or German?  From the writer's perspective, the choice seems to have far less to do with the antagonist (we don't really care what happens to Alfrid: he's a despicable character anyway) than it does with the protagonist: viewers are uncomfortable with a 'good' character taking a life into his hands, particularly in the role of executioner, and writers don't want to wrestle with the moral ambiguities through their protagonist.  The evils the antagonist has committed aren't worth the protagonist getting his hands dirty.  Hence this pattern of having a Bard or a Von Ryan choose not to kill a (human) antagonist - or, better yet, having the protagonist stop other characters from killing the antagonist - is such a recurring element that it now seems taken for granted. "Mercy isn't a weakness" is a mantra in fiction.

common explanations
  • "too many people have died already"
  • "he's not worth the powder"
  • "he's suffered enough"
  • "if I kill him I'll be just as bad as he is"
Don't get me wrong: mercy is huge and powerful and absolutely crucial.  I think the contemporary focus on it - in literature, but also in such debates as whether or not the death penalty is acceptable - is an outgrowth of Christianity; I'm glad we have such things as the Geneva Conventions that recognize the worth of human life in a manner unheard of centuries ago.  On the other hand, I think we need to wrestle with the dynamics of "doing justice and loving mercy."  What does it mean to "do justice," anyway?  Are there times when mercy isn't ours to give?  What do we do when our protagonist is in a position of authority, holding the fates of others in his or her hands, and has to decide how to act?  Of course the answer differs from character to character, but it seems to me that we shouldn't be too flippant in having the character withhold judgment for the sake of illustrating their goodness through their clemency.  Maybe sometimes we need to let the characters (and the readers or viewers) deal with the consequences of moral decisions and the weight of responsibility, as Von Ryan eventually does. 

Mercy is huge, and because it is huge it should be illustrated thoughtfully, intentionally - not brought in carelessly because that is what the consumer 'expects,' or because justice is too messy to handle.

You tell me!  Do you think Bard should have killed Alfrid?  How have your characters wrestled with these issues?


  1. I love this post!!!

    A friend once pointed out to me that killing in a certain version of the secular humanist worldview is particularly unforgivable since it is believed that there is no life, and certainly no justice, after death. One's life is all one has and the worst thing you can do is deprive someone of it. In a Christian worldview, we have a much higher view of the inherent worth of human life, we have a horror of hands that shed innocent blood, but beyond a certain point we do believe in justice after death which obliterates the errors of human justice. We also, of course, have divine revelation to draw the line for us between justifiable and unjustifiable shedding of blood.

    As for what should have happened in the movie (which of course gave me the irrits, though Martin Freeman's facial expressions cover a multitude of sins) I don't remember the thing well enough, but execution should never be carried out apart from due legal process. Sphere sovereignty and all that :D

  2. This reminds me of the scene in Henry V when King Harry must decide between letting Bardolph hang for breaking into a church or calling off the execution on the basis of their former friendship. That scene is tough to get through sometimes (especially when it's superiorly acted in Kenneth Branagh's adaption), but I've always admired Shakespeare's choice to have Bardolph face full punishment. As king, Harry could have shown mercy; as a friend, he faces the emotional struggle of witnessing his own friend's death. But still, he does his kingly duty and complies with the law because true mercy must be tempered with justice in order to retain its strength. From a purely literary standpoint, that scene packs a far greater punch than if Harry had simply let Bardolph off with a warning. Justice is the king's unbiased obedience to the law; mercy is the tears that stand in his eyes even as he affirms the command.

    1. Great example Chloe. I love that movie by the way. There is in fact a preceeding scene, in which Pistol tries to persaude Llewellyn to persuade the King in turn to let him off. Llewellen refused.

      As the Medieval notion of law, justice and Kingship had it, it was not right for any King to allow a criminal act to go unpunished because the perpetrator was his friend. To do so would be seen as favouritism and at worst corruption. People relied on the King as the impartial arbiter of justice, and that would have done nothing to uphold his reputation.

  3. I definitely have struggled with this in contemporary fiction: there seems to be a concensus that Not Killing is better than destroying evil (which we know is the mindset of the world today, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating). I think what is often forgotten is that evil does not (in almost every case, though there are exceptions) stop and curtsey when you've given it a free pass. Evil will run rampant, because that is its nature, and those who have the chance to, yet do not stop it are actually endangering more lives than the one they refuse to kill.

    Well-written post. I enjoyed it and it resonated with me. ^_^

  4. Glad you're back to posting, Abigail!

    I've had similar thoughts on this subject myself. To be quite honest, I only vaguely recall Alfrid's side story in the Hobbit trilogy. Since I was pretty disenchanted with those movies on the whole, I've not bothered to remember much about them. However, like you, I do generally take issue with that particular type of story element. There are, in my opinion, better ways to convey the honor and principle of a heroic character than by forcing him to spare the life of an unworthy antagonist. While in its proper capacity an act of mercy can be a moving plot device, in cases like those you mentioned, when not coupled with repentance on the part of the villain, mercy is at best naive and at worst negligent. What flabbergasts me the most is that in the example of Wormtongue in The Two Towers film, Aragorn didn't even bother to substitute death with imprisonment. If (well-deserved) execution seemed too inhumane, one would think he could have attempted to prevent further damage from Wormtongue by recommending that the man be restrained!

    This is a pretty case-specific topic, so I will say for clarification that I don't believe every literary instance of the villain being placed at the mercy of the hero should be handled in favor of punishment rather than clemency. But exactly as you said, mercy should "not [be] brought in carelessly because that is what the consumer 'expects,' or because justice is too messy to handle." (Great way of expressing it, by the way.) There are times that warrant mercy and times that don't. Certainly when an antagonist has proven his willingness to bring harm to others for his own entertainment or advancement, it is generally best to be rid of him. His wickedness will not cease simply because the protagonist finds an opportunity to display his own inherent goodness.

    Interesting post!

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post--as I do all of yours. I haven't seen the film since December (waiting for the extended edition) but I do remember being annoyed with how they dealt with Alfrid. To answer your question I think he perhaps should have been brought to justice by a council or something of the like.

    While Mercy is good and shows the character's true person, I believe it can be "too much" in books where the one who messed lots up and in every normal court system would be prosecuted. So perhaps it is a trait which should be considered closely in writing. It's almost as if there's this thought by many authors, particularly of the Christian novel genre, that if a character doesn't let a person walk away or 'fall by his own hand' that main character isn't good. It's definitely something that should be thought of more.


  6. Like Chloe I could use an example from history- specifically the punishment of those involved in the so called 'Southampton Plot' before the Agincourt campaign of 1415. These were three nobles who ended up executed for treason for a plot to depose Henry V, raise up armed rebellion in several parts of the country, and depose the King and replace him with cousin.
    However, the plot was discovered before it was carried out by one of the leading figures informing the King.

    Some have tried to present these events as an act of vindictiveness by a harsh ruler against people who had merely 'spoken against' him and his plans- but I don't hold to that. Shakespeare's play gives a good explanation- it was not revenge, but necessary to protect the Kingdom from those who would destabalize it by causing rebellion and civil conflict. The possble consequences of the plot are spelled out- frankly, chaos.

    After the events of his father's reign its no wonder that the King wanted to nip rebellion in the bud before it became more serious. Incidentally, a similar act on the part of Richard III against one Lord Hastings has, I think, been justified as a pre-emptive strike against parties planning to assasinate him. So for one its protection but for the other vindictiveness? People can be guity of double standanrds in thier view of the past, as much as in fiction.

  7. Another example from a book I read, which had a Sachharin sweet heroine. At one point she was warned by her advistors against to take food to a village infected with the Black Plague- and after seemingly accepting thier advice went ahead and did it anyway. Running the risk not only of exposing herself to infection, but also spreading it to everyone at her castle where her parents had already died.

    In book in question, the character's charity to the poor is used an to demonstrate her goodness, but I felt it was taken to extremes- to the point that the poor characters seemed utterly incapable of doing anything except languish and starve, and were utterly dependent on the goodwill of the heroine. They were basically just props there to make her look good.

    In that case, I think it was not so much compassion as reckless foolhardiness.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
find me elsewhere
take my button


Follow by Email

published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

Bookmarks In...

Search This Blog