Character Profiles: Rotten to the Core

And all that sat by the fire were sad,
Save Ogier, who was stern,
And his eyes hardened, even to stones,
As he took the harp in turn;

Earl Ogier of the Stone and Sling
Was odd to ear and sight,
Old he was, but his locks were red,
And jests were all the words he said
Yet he was sad at board and bed
And savage in the fight.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

That night, among the campfires of the Danes, five men sang by the fire in turn – the rhymester without a home, King Guthrum, and his three earls. Harold sang of the prizes of war, Elf sang of Balder beautiful, and Ogier sang about hate.

The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man’s heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then—

While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

Ogier was Rotten to the Core.

Some villains are sympathetic; you can’t help feeling sorry for them, or you like them in spite of themselves. Some are even redeemed. Other villains are unchangeably evil, yet in some way admirable. Their courage, or persistence, or intelligence just rates it.

And some villains are Rotten to the Core. There’s nothing in them to excite admiration, or liking, or pity. They are not redeemed, nor is anybody rooting for them to be. When such villains get their comeuppance, it’s wonderfully satisfying.

Villains who are Rotten to the Core are among the dullest to ever stalk the annals of villainy. They are also among the best, generally when combined with other archetypes, such as the Scary Evil Villain. There was never anything remotely sympathetic about Sauron. He was evil! evil!, and we were all very happy to see him go. But while he lasted, he was an excellent villain – powerful, malevolent, and impersonal.

Ogier, too, was a fine villain in his own right. There was little to him besides nastiness, but it was nastiness with meaning.

In The Ballad of the White Horse, the struggle between the Danes and British is part of, and symbolic for, the long war between Christianity and paganism. The Danes are pagans; they are almost paganism. Harold – the youth “the new wine of war sent wild” – exulted in the lawless strength of the Danes and boasted they would “enjoy the world, the whole huge world a toy”. Elf, the minstrel, sang beautifully the sadness of his pagan world. Guthrum, the conqueror who “read lines in Latin books when all the north was dark”, was intellectual, and atheistic, and despaired.

And Ogier, with his vision of the last eclipse and the gods behind the gods, was nihilistic, full of rage and hatred – rotten to the core.