On Vengeance and Fantasy Fiction

Over the past year I’ve read numerous passages in fantasy fiction that deal with vengeance. The parallels across them are striking, and, I think, relevant to just about anyone living in America today. A lot of people who support Biden and hated Trump are going to have trouble forgiving those who supported Trump, and vice versa. (Of course, this sort of conflict exists in every other sphere of life—it is hardly confined to politics.) We have lost our ability to forgive, and given the ubiquity of the Internet and social media apps, where demands for retribution against “sinners” go viral on a regular basis, it is only inevitable that interactions in the online realm (and, I would argue, in person) will get worse before they get better.

The questions on my mind are: How does this “vengeance sickness” affect us? How does it shape the way we think and act? I find that fiction, with its portrayal of human nature through storytelling, can provide such interesting, non-sermonic answers to those questions. (Emphasis on can. Fiction doesn’t always do this in a convincing way.)

1. From Words of Radiance, Book 2 of the Stormlight Archive Series by Brandon Sanderson

This first passage centers on two characters, Shallan and Kaladin. Shallan is a “lighteyes” — the equivalent of an aristocrat in the story’s fictional world. She is witty, young, and upbeat. By contrast, Kaladin is a hardened former slave (hence the brand on his forehead in the image below) and brooding veteran of war who despises the lighteyes for how they have treated him. Their personalities clash as they walk through a dark chasm together. (Shallan is the first to speak.)

“You seem to know a lot about these chasms.”

“I do.”

“Because the gloomy atmosphere matches your disposition, I assume.”

He kept his eyes forward, walking without comment.

“Storms,” she said, hurrying to catch up. “That was supposed to be lighthearted. What would it take to make you relax, bridgeboy?”

“I guess I’m just a . . . what was it again? A ‘hateful man’?”

“I haven’t seen any proof to the contrary.”

“That’s because you don’t care to look, lighteyes. Everyone beneath you is just a plaything.”

“What?” she said, taking it like a slap to the face. “Where would you get that idea?”

“It’s obvious.”

“To whom? To you only? When have you seen me treat someone of a lesser station like a plaything? Give me one example.”

“When I was imprisoned,” he said immediately, “for doing what any lighteyes would have been applauded for doing.”

“And that was my fault?” she demanded.

“It’s the fault of your entire class. Each time one of us is defrauded, enslaved, beaten, or broken, the blame rests upon all of you who support it. Even indirectly.”

It’s the fault of your entire class. I can hardly think of a better illustration of how unchecked vengeance distorts one’s perception of whole groups of people. Examples abound. “I was physically harmed by a police officer for no good reason, therefore all police officers out there are abusing their power and using excessive force.” “I had a horrible falling out over politics with my Republican (or Democrat) friends, therefore all Republicans (or Democrats) are irrational and cruel.” “I was judged by my church for not conforming to their expectations, therefore all Christians are self-righteous and bigoted.”

Throughout the story, Kaladin wrestles repeatedly with such thinking. The more he indulges in it, the more he flattens his enemies into monsters towards whom it becomes easier and easier to justify retaliation and violence. And so the cycle of conflict between the classes continues.

Kaladin and his slave brand. Image Credit: Stormlight Archive Fandom

2. From Red Seas Under Red Skies, Book 2 of the Gentleman Bastard Series by Scott Lynch

The next passage is from a story about a pair of highly educated thieves who find themselves on a pirate ship fighting other pirates (long story—and well worth reading!). It centers on a character named Jean, who gets vengeance on another character named Utgar for some horrible deed committed by the latter. This is not a passage about vengeance forsaken or denied, but about the emptiness one feels when it is realized.

[Utgar’s] movements were faint, and his eyes were going glassy. Jean knelt beside him, stared at him, and then brought the dagger down overhand into his back. Utgar took a shocked breath; Jean brought the knife down again and again while Locke watched; until Utgar was most certainly dead, until his back was covered in wounds, until Locke finally reached over and grabbed him by the wrist.


“It doesn’t help,” said Jean, in a disbelieving voice. “Gods, it doesn’t help.”

“I know,” said Locke. “I know.”

3. From Before They Are Hanged, Book 2 of The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

This last one is about an inquisitor, of all people (inquisitor = fancy name for torturer). He is getting a chance to inflict pain on a representative of a group of people who brutally tortured him in the past, and he wonders if it will bring him any satisfaction. (We all know the answer—as does he.)

In a baking cell just like this, over the course of long months, the Emperor’s servants turned me into this revolting, twisted mockery of a man. One might have hoped that the chance at doing the same to one of them, the chance at cutting out vengeance, pound for pound, would provide some dull flicker of pleasure.

And yet he felt nothing.

Nothing but my own pain.

The truth is that for our own sake and the sake of our neighbors, we need forgiveness in order to heal. Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig puts it this way:

Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. The face of forgiveness is bruised because it bears its own injuries with grace. So doing permits the cycle of retribution to go no further. It is a hard thing, but necessary, if huge numbers of strangers are going to live peacefully together.

It is a hard thing, but necessary. The strength it takes to forgive an offense rises with the seriousness of the offense. There is nothing simple or clean about it. Easier to retaliate and brood and turn inward—temptations which the characters above face, with varying degrees of success and failure. Maybe that’s one reason they resonate with me so much: it is easy to see myself in their struggle.