4 Classic Villains Everybody Gets Wrong
There are some classic villains in the annals of literature that we can easily understand. These characters don't need deep analysis and investigation, because what is there to know? Well, now that you mention it, we could probably do with revisiting some of those classics and looking a little harder ...
Sherlock Holmes' "Arch-Rival" Professor Moriarty Is Just Some Dude
Right after Tumblr slash fiction, the mad genius Professor James Moriarty stands as the definitive thorn in Sherlock Holmes' side. Their rivalry is a lifelong battle of wits immortalized in Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, and of course, the Academy-Award-winning Sherlock Gnomes. It's a feud that's been shown in Holmes stories in pretty much every medium ... except, you know, the actual stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
By virtue of being regarded by pop culture as the Joker to Holmes' Batman, it's assumed that Moriarty appears in numerous Holmes stories, but he's only in two. The first was The Final Problem, also known as The One Where He Fucking Dies, and the other was The Valley Of Fear, a prequel to TFP wherein he's trying to assassinate someone. (Spoilers for a novel published in 1915: He succeeds despite Holmes' best efforts to stop him.)
Isn't he notable because he appears twice? Well, not really. He's not the only Holmes villain to make a repeat appearance. And even then, he never has a relationship with Holmes per se. Sure, he wants Holmes dead, but that's because Holmes is all up in his shit, not because he's playing a vendetta-driven cat-and-mouse game. He's just a normal crime lord with a normal crime lord aversion to detectives sniffing around his operation. His motivation isn't shenanigans; it's cold hard cash.
That's also why when the time comes to have Holmes killed, he doesn't use bombs, an electric chair, or poisoned shoes. He simply tells his men to beat Holmes to death in the street or to run his brainiac ass over with a horse-drawn carriage. As for face-to-face encounters, they only meet once ... and that meeting ends with them plunging over a waterfall, not exchanging witty banter.
If you want a villain who Holmes legitimately hates, it's hard to beat Charles Augustus Milverton, a blackmailer so evil that Holmes is not only willing to break the law to bring him to justice, but also (spoilers for a novel published in 1904) looks the other way when he witnesses Milverton getting gunned down by one of his victims. ("That it was no affair of ours; that justice had overtaken a villain.") Moriarty, though? *Pffffttt*
Frankenstein's Monster Wasn't A Grunting Dumbass
Hey, quick, describe Frankenstein's Monster. You're probably thinking of a dark, tall, shuffling goon, covered in stitches, who talks like a drunken Sylvester Stallone reading dialogue written by illiterate hobos, right?
Fun fact: That's wrong! Or at least, the last part is.
Immediately after his creation, Frank (look, we're not typing "Frankenstein's Monster" every single time, deal with it) is just like any other baby. He can't talk, so he communicates in grunts. However, after he flees Victor Frankenstein's castle and heads out into the world, he undergoes a self-improvement transformation straight out of the most tear-jerking of Queer Eye episodes.
In the later part of the novel, Victor and Frank meet up after their, umm, awkward break-up, and Frank describes his adventures. He taught himself to cook food! He learned that if he didn't want to scare people, he had to hide until the coast was clear! And after shacking up in an abandoned cottage, he learns to talk, read, and holy shit, understand math, history, and politics by spying on the family next door:
"By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it."
That's Frank narrating his adventures to Vic. By the time that they reunite, he's so eloquent that he not only claps back at Victor calling him a demon by quoting Paradise Lost ("Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel."), but he then embarks on a 40-page rant about the nature of revenge. He's basically undead Will Hunting.
The Sirens From The Odyssey Weren't Sexy Murder Mermaids
Of all the monsters to exist in myth, one of the deadliest (and sexiest) were the sirens. These ancient mermaids loved nothing more than singing songs so seductive that passing sailors would happily smash their boats on rocks, killing themselves for an up-close rendition and a chance at cranking it over their eggs, as is the fish way.
Except a new translation of the Odyssey, the book in which the legend of the sirens originates, suggests that we've been getting it wrong all these years. According to Emily Wilson, who recently became the first woman to translate The Odyssey to English (because historical academia still contains more sausage meat than the Erymanthian Boar), the sirens' power over the hearts of men didn't lay in their ability to belt out a solid ballad. It was because they had the gift of prophecy. This is why Odysseus has to be restrained while sailing past their island -- so he isn't tempted to risk killing himself for a shot at finding out what his future holds.
So what about their hot bods? Well, the sirens are indeed hot ... if you like birds. As Wilson notes, the Odyssey don't go into much detail about how bangable the sirens are -- which makes sense, considering that they only feature in the book for a single paragraph. Depictions of sirens in ancient artwork not only show them as hybrids of birds and humans, but also reveal that some are male.
So yeah, we can probably stop describing beautiful people as being "sirens." Unless you're really into Big Bird, in which case, go for it.
Uncle Tom Was Anything But
Today, the term "Uncle Tom" is used to decry black people who undermine both the black community and the concept of black people having equal rights in return for enormous personal gain. You might've seen it recently used by Snoop Dogg against Kanye West after Ye came out in support of the abolishment of the 13th Amendment, which, uhhhhh ... no?
In reality, though, it's hard to think of a character who's been misaligned worse than the titular character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Uncle Tom was a slave who, in the novel's third act, is sold to a evil even by plantation owner standards dickhead named Legree, who kicks off the
worker slave/boss relationship by ordering Tom to whip another slave. If "Uncle Tom" meant what everyone thinks it does, this would be the part of the story where he sells out his fellow slaves in order to get into his master's graces -- but he doesn't. He straight up refuses, despite knowing that he'll be beaten too.
Eventually, Tom encourages two of his friends, Cassy and Emmeline, to escape the plantation, which they do. This leads to Legree interrogating Tom in order to find out where they're hiding. Tom once again refuses to sell out, and the novel ends with him getting beaten to death by Legree's men.
So what happened to Uncle Tom? *Sigh* White people. After the novel was published, it went old-timey viral across the country. And because intellectual property wasn't a thing, stage show operators started putting on productions of Cabin. In order to make the material more palatable to white sensibilities, however, they reworked Tom to be a more feeble, subservient character. Whereas the Uncle Tom of the novel was a young and muscular man, the Uncle Tom of the stage adaptations was balding, decrepit, and old. Yes, just like Stephen from Django Unchained.
Like the book, these stage shows proved to be popular hits. But it's this degradation of the main character that sticks out in modern minds, rather than the badass who sacrifices himself to protect his slave brothers and sisters. A bastardization which only exists because of goddamn frail white people.
Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter dedicated to depressing history facts. It's not as heartbreakingly sad as it sounds, promise!
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