Redemption or Death? The End of the Antihero's Story
What is the final, ultimate fate of the antihero? Without fail it is redemption or death. In many cases, the redemption itself is death. This relates to the sphere of influence that exists not just between hero and antihero, but between antihero and villain. The goal of the antihero character is redemption, even if the antihero was not evil. The antihero must redeem himself by the end of the story, and can only do so with help from the hero.
The Hero-Antihero Relationship
To really understand the role of the antihero in a traditional sense (i.e., with a hero and villain both present in the narrative), it is important to take a deeper look at the relationship between the hero and the antihero. In this sense, the role of the villain has relatively little to do within the scope of the antihero's redemption.
As we all know, the hero's job is to win. It is the hero who ultimately defeats the evil, saves the people, and just generally makes the world a better place, or at least that's what he's supposed to do in a traditional sense. So where does that leave our beloved antihero? He's not a villain, so he doesn't deserve to be defeated, does he? The answer, quite simply, is yes, he does. The antihero needs to be completely and utterly devastated by the hero, for two primary reasons: 1) the hero needs to prove that he is worthy and powerful enough to defeat the villain. If he is unable to defeat, in some manner, the antihero who occupies the same level of power and ability, then how will he ever defeat the greatest evil? 2) the only way to change is through adversity; for the antihero, the hero is his adversity and so he must overcome it in order to change. The antihero must face all the positive qualities that he does not possess, come to terms with who he is, and realize above all else that he can change and become better. The only way for him to do this is by being defeated at the hands of the hero, who exemplifies all the positive traits that the antihero does not yet possess.
What does this mean? It means that the hero is destined for great things, but the antihero is destined for even greater things. The antihero is the character who gets a second chance, something to which most characters are not privileged. So, we'll take a look at a few characters to see how redemption or death affect not only the story, but the hero and villain themselves.
Murtagh Morzansson and Raven: Redemption of the Antihero, Defeat of the Villain
Without a doubt, my favorite part of almost any story or work is when the "bad guy" suddenly becomes the "good guy" and teams up with the hero to bring down an even badder guy. I won't hide my bias in this; I think it is one of the most awesome changes during plot. What's even better is when that "bad guy" has to literally go through hell to achieve that redemption he so longs for (even if he doesn't know it yet).
I want to start off this section by saying that Murtagh and Raven have one very important difference, despite their paths being virtually the same: Raven is more than willing to be who he is, regardless of who is pulling the strings; Murtagh was not. Raven valued freedom, even if it was false freedom. Murtagh was controlled completely, and there was little he could do about it. One other important difference, related to this, is that Murtagh never seemed to take pleasure in what he did, whereas Raven thoroughly enjoyed it.
Murtagh did not initially appear in the story as Eragon's antihero. Quite the contrary, he was Eragon's friend and ally. As a result, Murtagh's redemption at the end of the cycle is expected and anticipated, but not after he does some very horrible things. Before it is revealed who the red dragon's rider is (though I'd argue that it's not necessarily difficult to figure), the dwarf king Hrothgar is killed by him. He then goes on to fight Eragon for the first time, establishing his role as antihero, and defeats him miserably. In subsequent battles, he landed several nearly-fatal blows on his rival, and when he fought Oromis and Glaedr, he would likely have killed them out of his own hatred and rage had Galbatorix not interfered and done the deed for him.
The fact that Murtagh was not technically the one to kill Oromis is important, because without that blood on his hands, Murtagh is still redeemable. Presumably, his killing of Hrothgar was done under sworn oath orders by Galbatorix. Ironically, Galbatorix kept him from killing a fellow dragonrider, thus essentially saving Murtagh's character in this way. Eragon's role in Murtagh's redemption is equally important, as it is with all heroes and antiheroes. It was Eragon who first gave Murtagh the knowledge he needed, so it was Eragon who proved to Murtagh that it would never be too late for him to be saved, especially when Eragon realizes that Murtagh is not a willing rival. This is a classic hero-antihero trope. In the end, Murtagh is able to redeem himself because he has changed, and because of this change, no longer under Galbatorix's control. Murtagh and Eragon then are able to work together to defeat Galbatorix.
Raven's introduction was much more direct. Once introduced, it took very little time for his role as Van's rival and antihero to be established, and within moments it was revealed that he was the one responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Zoids and, presumably, the deaths of the Zoid pilots. Raven is introduced as a cold, almost heartless youth with no regards to the life of other beings, especially those he feels inferior to himself. Considering he holds himself on a fairly high pedestal, not many can live up to his standards. Raven not only presents a challenge to the hero, he presents the first true obstacle in Van's path. Unlike many antiheroes, who fight at the same level as the hero, Raven is superior in every way. In fact, Van was unable to fight Raven to a draw until much later in the series, and of the dozens of encounters the two had, only defeated him twice. Yet his presence is needed in order for Van to grow and become who he needs to be as a hero.
Raven, like most antiheroes, goes through a series of changes as the series progresses. His final defeat causes him to disappear into obscurity during the time jump between Zoids: Chaotic Century and Zoids: Guardian Force; the time in which Van trains as a member of the Republican Army. When the two finally meet once more, Raven still possesses superior skills. Raven's role as antihero is frightening because he truly has no remorse when it comes to destroying whoever, or whatever, is in his way. His drive is to defeat Van once and for all, and along the way he nearly kills two of Van's allies and comrades. It is quite clear that the only reason they survive is out of sheer luck, not because Raven went easy on them or pitied them in any way. Raven was a force to be reckoned with and very nearly crossed the threshold to villain status.
In fact, Raven shows almost no kind of emotion except for pleasure derived from causing pain; until he is betrayed by Hiltz and his organoid, Shadow, is killed. This moment causes Raven to realize the kind of life he's lived by being forced to deal with emotions he had suppressed since childhood, and this is the event which sets Raven on his path to redemption. Once again, it is the influence of the hero on the antihero which helps shapes Raven's evolution as a character. Although they've spent years fighting each other, it is the bond which Raven forged with Van that allowed him to change. The deep, mutual respect they had for each other (that Raven often denied to himself) was the pinprick needed to force Raven into accepting others into his life. First, with Shadow, then with Reese. Van's link to Raven helped him come back and not only fight against the villain, but truly fight alongside the hero as an ally, and so it is that Van fulfills the hero's role in helping to redeem the antihero.
One interesting aspect about both Murtagh and Raven I feel is important to point out- each antihero helped the hero defeat the villain in much the same way. Murtagh, once he shook free of Galbatorix's control, was able to destroy the magical wards which protected the king, allowing Eragon to kill him. Raven's role in defeating the Death Saurer was primarily to penetrate and destroy its shield, thus creating an opening for Van to destroy the Zoid. Murtagh leaves Eragon to travel, separating himself for a time, presumably to come to peace with his past actions, while Raven is shown standing with Van and the others, as if he finally found a place to belong. Two very different endings yet still amazingly similar.
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Severus Snape and Javert: Death of the Antihero, Path Towards Victory
Snape and Javert are two of my most favorite antiheroes in literature, because in the end, they both are trying to do what they feel like is the right thing to do, and do so by giving the heroes absolute hell every chance they get. This part of the antihero's story is different, because while they do not live to see the hero ultimately win, their deaths somehow help the hero's journey, as sad as it may be. Both Snape and Javert prove this, though in completely different manners.
Snape is definitely a unique antihero in the literary world. He makes Harry's life a living nightmare every chance he gets. He seems to always be there to stop Harry from doing something stupid- or heroic- and even saves his life multiple times (though he would never admit it, and even Harry isn't convinced). He is an antihero because he knows he has to be in order to protect the hero. It is the most fabulous of conundrums.
The death of the antihero does not necessarily aid directly in the death of the villain. We know that Harry will defeat Voldemort, and nothing that happens between Harry's acceptance to Hogwarts and the inevitable end of his seventh year will change that. Therefore, it seems likely that Snape's death was almost unnecessary. Almost. Snape's personality and character would never have allowed him and Harry to become friends. They were destined to be rivals at every twist and turn, destined to despise each other for reasons outside of either of their control. Snape's own death came at the hands of Voldemort, who was the ultimate villain of the series. Although Snape served, more or less, as Voldemort's most loyal Death Eater throughout his history, Voldemort believed Snape to be one last step to achieving complete and unstoppable power, and so he had no remorse in killing the former Death Eater.
Ironically, Snape was hailed as a hero after his death, a fact which I believe would have been utterly detested by Severus himself. His was the perfect antihero type; he really was not a nice person, possessed almost no heroic qualities, yet he fought for the side of good despite what others thought of him. Snape is an antihero who desired redemption, sought it actively and worked hard to achieve it, and he succeeded, even though the hero didn't realize it until after his death.
Javert is a completely different kind of antihero when you think about it, but that is mostly because his rival, our hero, is a completely different kind of hero than you normally see. It comes down to the actual book itself. Hugo, the author of Les Miserables, made it clear in no uncertain terms that the true villain in life is often life itself, with the government being a very close second. Jean Valjean is a criminal, a felon, in the eyes of the law, making Javert the saint. Hugo's blatant role reversal here is what makes Les Mis so fascinating. Valjean, the criminal with a good, heroic soul, and Javert, the lawful policeman with a corrupt, almost evil soul.
Javert is, like any and all antiheroes, a servant or slave to the villain, here being the government and regime of France and Javert its most loyal subject. Unlike most antiheroes, however, who simply happen to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time, Javert is constantly pursuing the hero in order to bring him to justice. The hero manages to evade him most every time. In essence, the hero manages to defeat the antihero time and time again, and during their many encounters, it is Valjean who unwittingly leads Javert on the road to redemption, just as it is with any hero-antihero relationship. Javert catches the hero more than once, and each time, the hero escapes. It is the final encounter between the two that changes Javert for good, when the roles are reversed and through the kindness of the hero's deeds is the antihero essentially destroyed.
By the time Javert comes back around to his old self in an attempt to ambush Valjean and capture him once and for all, Valjean convinces him somehow to let him go, with the promise of returning. Javert pauses, not because he is rethinking his path, but because he suddenly realizes that he is the antihero, and that even though it would cost his life, Jean Valjean would keep his word and return to Javert.
This information, this epiphany, is something that Javert simply cannot handle. Everything he has always stood for was destroyed in a moment. Javert's suicide was also his redemption. He could not have allowed Valjean to go on living in peace, because it would continue to torment him every day, knowing that he served the law and the law said to bring Valjean to justice. Javert did the only possible thing he could do- as unfortunate as the decision was. His pride, his honor, and his devotion to the French regime could expect nothing less from him. So, he redeemed himself by choosing to defeat the villain that held him, and allowing Valjean to win as the hero should.
The Rare Gem: Vergil Sparda and Dustfinger
Occasionally, rarely, in fact downright hardly ever, does an antihero achieve redemption yet still face death afterwards. Typically, when an antihero crosses the threshold and redeems himself, he becomes one of the heroes. But sometimes an antihero has that one shining moment of perfect redemption...only to fall back down to the level of antihero and resume their previous course.
What is wonderfully unique about Vergil in Devil May Cry 3 is that he is the villain that Dante is fighting against; his own twin brother who is trying to open the portal to the demon world, and ultimately succeeds, though not in the way he originally planned. What is revealed later falls in line with the standard antiheroic trope: Vergil is being more or less controlled by the real villain, Arkham, and forces Dante to fight against Vergil multiple times in order to stop them.
Vergil is cold and we would believe him to be evil, until their backstory is revealed. Like any hero and antihero, Dante and Vergil each have a past, and like many hero-antihero duos, they share a past. The uniqueness of Vergil comes from the fact that, being twins, the same exact events that happened to Dante and made him a hero were the events that made Vergil an antihero. Like other antiheroes, Vergil is a result of situations that made his heart become dark, but unlike other heroes, Dante's past shows us that no matter the circumstances, anyone is capable of good..
The eventual betrayal, as discussed, is typical of antihero-villain pairs, in which the antihero is sacrificed or thrown aside by the villain in order for the villain to achieve his own goals. This is the final push Vergil needs, all the other pieces are in alignment: bond with the hero, betrayal by the villain, realization of misdeeds. Vergil can now stand beside his twin and fight against the higher evil. They even share guns- it is an adorable moment in the game- and Vergil almost becomes a hero.
But wait- it doesn't quite end there. Vergil's story doesn't end, and he certainly is not a hero. He fights Dante one last time for control of the key to the portal, but what Vergil is really fighting against here is himself. I think he realized while they were fighting Arkham that he could be one of the good guys and fight alongside Dante. Whether that frightened him or disgusted him, it's hard to say, but whichever it may be, the scenes where they fought together, and the scene afterwards they fought each other one last time show that Vergil didn't want to be redeemed. Dante is fighting hard to save him, but Vergil is fighting to make him leave; multiple times Vergil warns Dante that the portal was closing, and if he didn't leave, then they would both be trapped there. Finally, we see Vergil slip off the ledge into the Demon World, and when Dante reaches out to grab hold, Vergil slices his brother's hand, forcing him to stop and watch as Vergil falls into the abyss.
We learn later (if you play the games chronologically) that Vergil was not killed, but enslaved by Mundus, who was the villain from the first Devil May Cry game (which comes second chronologically in the series) and so resumes his slave antihero role, but this time is killed by Dante, who knows that he is no longer his brother.
Like most antiheroes, Dustfinger slinks into the narrative and pulls the plot along with him. His introduction is shady and wickedly forshadowing, and you just know that he's trouble. Despite this, Dustfinger is the kind of character that you're hoping is good, and you want to help because it's difficult not to like him. He seems genuinely afraid of this evil villain named Capricorn, a man whom Mo himself fears more than anything else. So Meggie and Mo, the heroes of the narrative, bring Dustfinger along, not quite trusting him but unable to explain any reasons why.
Readers do not have to wait very long to find out just what it is Dustfinger is willing to do in order to get what he wants. The classic antihero, driven by a need that he cannot achieve himself, and truly feels as if the villain and not the hero can help him. You pity Dustfinger; he was literally plucked out of his story by magic and is afraid of our modern world. He cannot go back, but Capricorn has promised him just that, and the tiny shimmer of such a promise is enough for Dustfinger to lure Meggie and Mo straight to the heart of Capricorn's lair. Even though the heroes begin to distrust and even hate Dustfinger, he feels as if there is no other option left to him. He is controlled by Capricorn's lies and threats, believing there is nothing else to do but work for the villain in the hopes of being sent back into his story. Shortly after Dustfinger's initial betrayal, he turns around and acts against Capricorn. Capricorn wasted no time in throwing Dustfinger aside, and Dustfinger repaid in kind. Meggie and Mo, captured and locked in cages until Capricorn needed them again, were unable to escape on their own but did so with Dustfinger's help. So, we see Dustfinger's first act of redemption as an antihero, the kind of antihero who actually saves the heroes and spites the villain. Dustfinger is only ever on his own side, and still has not given up the search for a way back home.
The sequel, Inkspell, picks up after some time has passed. Dustfinger and his more-or-less adopted apprentice Farid continue traveling in our world and showing off their fire-juggling skills, but unfortunately for Dustfinger and the heroes, a new reader has come into the picture. Orpheus, a new villain of sorts, possesses the same powers as Mo, but can do what the hero could not, and read Dustfinger back into his book, leaving Farid in ours. The journey here eventually leads Mo and Meggie and the others into the Inkworld due to Orpheus' own wickedness. Dustfinger, who was destined to die in his story because of Gwin, his horned marten, somehow manages to evade his fate, and Farid dies in his place. Dustfinger is heartbroken, but now that he is back in his own world filled with magic, makes a deal with Death. He takes Farid's place. The boy comes back to life in exchange for Dustfinger's death, who was the one intended to die in the first place. Readers still have their happy ending, however, since Dustfinger is also then brought back in order to accomplish one final task- helping the heroes take down the final villain. Mo has become the Bluejay, the ultimate hero, and Dustfinger becomes his "shadow," protecting him from behind the scenes.
Artemis Fowl and Light Yagami: Hero, Villain, or Other?
Occasionally we read a story where the protagonist is the antihero. It's not all that uncommon, truly, but how does the argument I make fit into this scheme? Artemis Fowl and Light Yagami follow two completely different paths and each of their paths leads them to one of the two primary outcomes for antiheroes. I'll try to cover them only briefly, in order to see how those developments create their endings.
Artemis Fowl II is the title character who is also a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind with a fortune at his disposal. He begins his story by kidnapping the fairy Holly Short and essentially exploiting her people for money, technology, what have you, simply because he can and wants to. Artemis is a nasty little character, and so he fights against the heroes of the series, essentially waging war against the entire Fairy World, with Holly being the heroine who stops him at every turn. In book two, the Arctic Incident, not only is Artemis still at odds with the fairies, we are introduced to a brilliant villain, Opal Koboi, for our young antihero to fight against as well. Book two marks the first of a series of co-ops between young Artemis and Holly, and the two quickly begin to respect and trust each other, despite still being on more or less opposing sides. It's important to understand this relationship in respect to Artemis' role as antihero. Like the classic antihero, he is not allies with the heroes, but still helps them fight against the villain, and Artemis and Holly make one of the best hero-antihero tag teams in literature. Opal, the villain, continues to make life hard for Artemis and the fairies.
Book six is a major turning point for Artemis. Still having issues with Opal, Artemis now must face a villain of an entirely different caliber: himself. Or, to say, a younger version of himself. In Time Paradox, Artemis realizes how much he's changed just as readers realize the same thing. By the time the events of book six take place, Artemis' status as antihero can start to be questioned in earnest, but we are given a refreshing last look into the criminal antihero we've grown to love in the penultimate book of the series, which as Artemis suffering from Atlantis Complex, reverting him sometimes to his old self, and at other times to his new. His final redemption comes about in the final book, where Artemis destroys Opal once and for all, killing himself in the process. Foaly, the scientist centaur of the Fairy World, manages to clone Artemis, and despite some memory loss, Artemis has returned to life as a hero.
We've seen how an antihero becomes a hero. So how does an antihero become a villain? Two crucial ingredients factored in Artemis' transformation: his close, developing relationship with the hero, and the introduction of a villain more evil than he. Circumstances have to be right in order for an antihero's fate to be determined. For Light Yagami, neither of these things occur. For him, it is that deprivation that makes him, ultimately, so twisted.
Death Note is one of those moral, psychological stories that brings up many real issues that the world faces, particularly when we're faced with a problem, and we have the power to do something- what do we do? Most antiheroes are forced into this situation, where they have to weigh the good and the bad of their actions and decide if what they want is more important than what needs to be done. Sometimes, antiheroes choose the darker side, and as a result often die before they become the villain. Light is faced with such a choice, but he has plenty of time to become the villain before he faces any consequences for his actions.
Light's goal was a noble one. That much cannot be denied. He truly wanted to make the world a better place, and felt that since he had the power to change the world, he should. Unfortunately, this methods were not only questionable, but probably immoral and considered pure evil and the world decides it needs a hero to fight against the evil villain that has suddenly plagued it. Introduce a villain, the antihero will naturally oppose them, because they are a threat. Introduce a hero and the opposite is true. So, enter the mysterious genius L, who vows to find Kira (Light) and bring him to justice.
From there, the game begins, with Light almost always one step ahead of the quickly gaining detective. When the pressure begins really mounting against Light, he will use any method at his disposal to win, and that's when he starts changing. No longer does he truly care about saving or changing the world; it has become for him a scapegoat that he hides behind, even if he himself never realizes it. He changes, and now the Death Note is nothing but a tool in the hands of a child who wants to win a game, determined to do so by any means necessary. Eventually, he uses a young woman named Misa who is devoted to his cause and she becomes a sort of antihero herself, taking on the role of the traditional antihero who is controlled by the villain. Misa's appearance becomes one more step towards Light's transformation, because like most villains, he does not truly care for her but only uses her. Although L suspects Light of being Kira, Light manages to thwart him at every turn, and they spend quite some time chained together after Light loses his memories of the Death Note. In its own twisted way, even Death Note is not excluded from the typical "antihero helps hero defeat the villain," because it is Light who, when he knows he has won, helped L discover Kira's identity, though L dies at the moment the discovery is made, and Kira seems to have won.
This role reversal is intriguing because it follows the typical narrative flow- protagonist (Light) defeats antagonist (L) with help from the antihero (Misa). It's simply through the perspective of the story that our protagonist happens to be the villain and the antagonist is the hero. Light goes on to continue ruling the world as Kira; eventually leads his father to his death, his sister loses her sanity, and more people die, all the while Light is using the Japanese Task Force as a cover to hide as Kira. Fortunately, fate cannot allow a villain to live for long. A new hero will always appear, and oddly enough this new hero who is named Near and is L's successor, comes with his own antihero, Mello! Death Note is a plethora of antiheroes! Mello is the antihero who fights for himself, but fights for the good guys despite his methods being almost evil. He and Near confront each other at times, and through this they are able work off of each other to bring down Light once and for all. In this way, we again see the classic antihero appear in Mello, for by this time Light is fully villain. In the end, the teamwork of Mello and Near reveal Kira, and thanks to some quick thinking by another member of Light's Task Force, Kira is brought down and the world is at peace. Relatively speaking, of course.
Each antihero is different, just as each hero, villain, and story is different. They come at the discretion of not only the writers, but the audience as well. The characters are what we make of them, but no matter what, there is almost always a hero, an antihero, and a villain, and when they are all together, they always will follow the same basic path. More often than not, one cannot exist without the other, and it does not matter which one appears first, the others will inevitably follow and their stories will fall into place in the same manner. It is an incredibly complex relationship, yet at the same moment, surprisingly simple.