Hero, meet your villain; or, never mind

It’s a common trope in fiction: a final confrontation between the central hero of a story and its central villain. It’s an important trope in Westerns, both on the page and screen — Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” is just one famous example. And we see it in works of fiction that are too many to count: epics such as The Iliad, Beowulf, the Ramayana, etc. 

But such a meeting is lacking in some works in which it would have been expected. Sticking to books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen, a few come easily to mind:

  • Lonesome Dove”:  Blue Duck is eventually hanged, and the hanging is witnessed by Call, but apart from that, neither Gus nor Call meet him during the course of the novel
  • Dead Man’s Walk”:  Buffalo Hump, Kicking Wolf, Gomez all are still free at book’s end, and no one has been able even to get a close look at them, much less confront them
  • “Last of the Mohicans” 1992 film:  Magua is confronted and killed by Chingachgook rather than Hawkeye
  • “Lord of the Rings”:  Sauron never meets any of the heroes and we never even see him explicitly. 
  • “The Hobbit”:  if the central villain is Smaug, there is a meeting with our hero, Bilbo, though it’s an interrogation and not a confrontation.  Smaug is ultimately killed by a secondary character, Bard of Laketown.

In “Streets of Laredo”, Joey Garza and Woodrow Call do meet, but the twist is that Garza wins and nearly kills Call, even sparing him from execution.  Garza is later wounded mortally by Pea Eye, the last man anyone would have thought capable of beating him, but even this is not allowed to be a conventional win, because the bullet that actually kills Joey comes from a very minor character, and not a sympathetic one. 

In “Dances With Wolves” (the movie), is there a central villain?  Wes Studi plays a murderous Pawnee who is finally killed by a ring of Sioux braves.  A few US Army officers are bad to the core, and they are killed, though not by Dunbar.  Dunbar does get to strangle Spivey, the one man that had tormented him the most.

In “Little House On the Prairie,” the bad guy is Nellie Oleson.  But in the novels, she never gets any kind of comeuppance.  These books are just not set up for anything like that.  However, in the TV series there is plenty of confrontation and comeuppance, not just for Nellie and her mother Harriet on a routine basis but for a host of bad guys guest-starring on the show – and this often features conventional fist-fights, which is one of the reasons that the TV series can classify loosely as a Western.  The series does often feature moral conversion, rather than punishment or comeuppance.  We see another kind of twist in the episode in which Jesse and Frank James temporarily hide out in Walnut Grove: the infamous outlaws are tracked down by bounty hunters who intend to execute them in cold blood, but the townspeople refuse to go along with this; in the end the James brothers are even allowed to go free, in exchange for a hostage they have taken.  But their escape is not the last word.  The episode concludes with a short report noting that years later, Robert Ford – presented here as a student in the Walnut Grove school, and as a young man already consumed by hate – did fatally shoot Jesse James, on April 3, 1882.

In “The Iliad,” Achilles kills Hector in a final showdown, but the twist is that modern readers sympathize more with Hector, who dies defending his city from invasion, than with the superhuman Greek hero. The “good guy” loses.

In “Beowulf,” the titular character confronts in succession three monsters:  Grendel, the mother of Grendel, and a fire-breathing dragon.  Said dragon gets the final word.

In the “Ramayana,” there is a final confrontation between Rama and and the demon Ravana.

In “The Princess Bride”, Wesley confronts Prince Humperdinck but does not kill him.  Inigo Montoya does meet and kill Count Rugen, the six-fingered man.  (All this refers to the movie; I haven’t read the novel.)

“Star Wars” is filled with central heroes meeting villains, though with some important twists.  Luke confronts Vader twice but, after learning that the villain is his own father, he resists the temptation to fight Vader and refuses to kill him at their second meeting.  An older Luke confronts Kylo Ren in a confrontation in “The Last Jedi” that is unconventional because their lightsabers never clash, though Kylo is trying to have a conventional fight with Luke, who is actually light-years away, meditating on a rock. This may be the best twist in all of “Star Wars,” because the hero and villain do-and-do-not meet.

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, in both book and movie, has a meeting between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch.  King Roquat plays the villain in a few of the other Oz novels by L. Frank Baum, and there are confrontations with him, though in the end he loses his memories and is not killed.

Harry Potter meets Voldemort, more than once. 

In “Moby-Dick,” of course, the whole point is a final meeting between Ahab and the whale.  And quite conventionally, the “good guy” wins.

Tolstoy has Pierre wanting to kill Napoleon, but this is presented as foolishness, and I don’t know that Napoleon is the central villain of “War and Peace,” or that there even is a central “villain.”

“Don Quixote” can be considered an epic filled with old-fashioned jousting between heroes and villains, but none of these villains are real.  Even the heroes are not heroes, not in the conventional sense.

“The Godfather”:  all the bad guys win.

“Jaws”: you know what happens.

“Rocky”:  the good guy always wins.

In Jane Austen’s novels, there may be no final shoot-outs, but there are confrontations, some of them “offscreen”: we know that Darcy finds and eventually confronts Wickham, but the meeting is reported rather than described; Colonel Brandon actually challenges Willoughby to a duel, but this too is merely reported, and only briefly.  Jane Austen famously never depicts a scene between men alone, so we don’t see these.  The main “heroes” of these novels are women, of course, and some of their most memorable confrontations include Elinor’s late meeting with Willoughby and Lizzie Bennet’s heavyweight faceoff with Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

It’s an inexhaustible trope/theme, and a fun way to think about countless works.

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