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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

The “Tyrant Complex”

The “Tyrant Complex”

Stories involve change. Lots of people say: “A good character is one who experiences a change from beginning to end”—some sort of personal growth. In my last post I mentioned Luke in Star Wars who goes from discontent farm boy to self-fulfilled Jedi. A hero not only undergoes personal change, they effect a change in their world, like overthrowing the domineering Galactic Empire.

Why is such change in character and their world important? Because the change signifies a renewal, reawakening or rebirth. Our world always changes: all living things grow and die and are replaced by new generations. Even the inorganic mountains, plains and oceans around us change—rising, falling and giving way to new landscapes. The stars themselves have life cycles. To resist change is to resist the very rhythm of the universe. Through the change presented in stories, we can celebrate and realign ourselves with that rhythm.

Death and rebirth are the most drastic, yet most common changes in our world and we see them used symbolically in stories all the time. Think of how many times you’ve watched a film or read a book when, probably just after the climax, the hero seems dead, only to reawaken.

Some examples: this summer’s blockbuster Pacific Rim. The hero, Raleigh, passes through an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the ocean, blows up the alien dinosaur bad guys and rises in his escape pod back up to the ocean surface where he’s found by the heroine, Mako—except when she opens his escape pod, he’s dead. Oh, dear. Don’t worry—it’s just symbolism—Mako clutches him tightly and he comes sputtering back to consciousness. A few weeks earlier there was Star Trek Into Darkness. Captain Kirk dies from radiation poisoning saving the starship Enterprise, only to be resurrected by a transfusion of blood from the genetically enhanced villain Khan. That Trek film was based on the original Wrath of Khan, in which it was Spock temporarily kicking the bucket only to be ingeniously reborn in the following movie, The Search for Spock. From a few summers ago: Drive, with Ryan Reynolds, The Dark Knight Rises (how did he manage to survive that?) Go back further: The Bourne Ultimatum. The Matrix. Go back forty years to a classic like The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The protagonists are shot dead, the bad guys clear out, and Redford and Newman pop back up having pulled their craftiest con ever. All these heroes are symbolically (and in some cases literally) reborn and through their actions the old, flawed world they had lived in is also reborn as a healthier, safer, better place.

But I want to consider the other side of this: the relationship between villains and change. Sometimes a villain can change, Darth Vader-style. He embraces the new world order Luke brings forth instead of clinging to the crumbling old world order of the Emperor. Villains like Vader are fairly rare, though. Usually they stay tyrants to the bitter end—they have a tyrant complex. This means they are absolutely unwilling or unable to embrace the change effected by the hero.

Harry Potter gives us a wonderful example of this because Voldemort has a big-time tyrant complex. He absolutely refuses change and particularly, the rhythm of death and renewal. There is a wonderful documentary by James Runcie called JK Rowling, A Year in the Life where Rowling drops a quote that perfectly illustrates Voldemort’s tyrant complex mindset.

She says: “Harry was always going to lose his parents and it was always going to be a quest, really, to avenge them—and to avenge everyone against this creature, this being who believes that he can make himself immortal by killing other people.”

What a dark but efficient way of putting it. Voldemort tears his soul apart by committing murders and conceals the splintered soul fragments in artefacts called horcruxes. That way, if his body is destroyed, the other parts of his soul live on, so his consciousness can endure and search for a new body.

But immortality isn’t embracing change, it’s rejecting it. On the other hand, the good guys in Harry Potter consistently embrace change and mortality, sacrificing themselves for their friends and family. When Harry’s mom died to save him as a baby, her love (and acceptance of change/mortality/renewal) casts a protective charm over Harry. As a result, whenever Voldemort tries to touch Harry up to the end of the fourth book, it causes Voldemort terrible pain. Then, near the end of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry himself goes into the forbidden forest and sacrifices himself so Voldemort will stop his attack on Hogwarts. Voldemort “kills” him and is pretty stoked about it:

“Harry Potter is dead… He was nothing, ever, but a boy who relied on others to sacrifice themselves for him!” (pg. 730 in the American edition)

Now, it turns out that Harry will reawaken like the heroes of all the stories mentioned earlier, but while he’s still pretending to be dead, something really fantastic happens: it’s overlooked in the film, but in the book, Harry’s self-sacrifice casts a protective charm on his friends just like his mother’s had protected him during childhood. After Harry “dies” none of the spells Voldemort casts on Ron, Hermione and Co. work properly; they last only a few seconds before wearing off. By embracing change and mortality, Harry causes Voldemort to lose all power over those he is trying to oppress. Through Harry, the world is born anew and Voldemort becomes a thing of the past. His power no longer applies. It’s like Voldemort is winning at poker, but on Harry’s cue everyone secretly switches to blackjack—the rules have changed and since Voldemort is unable to change, he keeps thinking it’s poker, can’t keep up and loses all his previous dominance.

Harry spells it out for Voldemort on page 738:

“You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people—”

“But you did not!”

“—I meant to, and that’s what did it. I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them. You don’t learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?” (p. 738)

Indeed, he doesn’t learn. Tyrants rarely do. After all, learning is a form of change. Our ignorant past self “dies” and our mind is “reborn” with new knowledge.

Unlike so many heroes who are reborn, tyrants are not—the legends spurred by their oppression, propaganda and cult of personality may persist for a while, but are eventually forgotten. Their monuments crumble away like the statue in Shelley’s old sonnet Ozymandias. Any lingering traces they leave are just that—leftovers from some past time—not vital, renewed versions of themselves. In this world, the only immortal thing is change itself; that rhythm of death and renewal. It is the heroes who become immortal—not because their stories survive after they are gone—but because through their death and rebirth, through their embodying of change, they come into harmony with the eternal and ever-changing universe.

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