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The Hand in the Dark: Why We Have Come to Love Assassins

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 31, 2012 | Comments ()


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Having just finished reading nine straight fantasy novels (and that number was inevitably going to be divisible by three, because that's just how fantasy rolls), each featuring an assassin as the protagonist, my brain started churning about that particular little archetype of ours. It says something about the stories we tell when the monsters of previous eras become the heroes of our own. And in fantasy novels at least, the assassin-as-protagonist has become such standard fare as to dominate a goodly chunk of the genre.

At face value it is supremely screwed up. Assassins are murderers. End stop. For most of history there has been not the slightest sympathy for such characters as protagonists. They are easy cut and dry antagonists, faceless death swirling in the night. It takes a special kind of rationalization to even begin making assassins into heroes. There must be some requisite code that is followed, the notion that this assassin (or group thereof) is different somehow, that he for whatever dramatic reason, rejects the actuality of his own training.

It has always been easier with other conflicted archetypes. The warrior can equally be argued to be the personification of death, but he can always be said to face a concrete enemy. There are always armies of evil to be routed, unequivocal monsters to be stared down with steel. The acceptance of the existence of monsters can transform a warrior into a pure force of good, a teflon saint whose use of violence never sticks to his character. Evil gripping a sword can only be confronted by the sword.

But assassins aren't trained to kill monsters, they are trained to kill people. Assassins rarely do their work upon those who would use swords in the light. They cut down the vicious and spiteful who kill with pens. It requires greater moral acrobatics to invent an ethical assassin. Even if the end result is the same bucket of blood, it seems so much easier to find a measure of justice in what is done openly in the light of day. Throats slit in the dark may be a lesser evil at times, but they are never mistaken for a good.

The waxing of assassins in our literature as protagonist rather than foe maps loosely onto the slow turning of genre fiction to the "dark and gritty" mold, and also loosely correlates with the shifting of vampires from their role as monster to romantic heroes. It comes from the same root logic. In another time and genre the myth becomes Batman, in another it is that of the master thief, in the future it is the uber hacker who parts the veils of a technological world. In horror it is the vampire, that malice in the dark. The perfect thief leaves no trace. His perfect crime is one that no one else even knows happened. All these archetypes, once our villains and now our heroes, are unified by being effects without causes. They are hands in the dark that affect change without leaving trace.

It is interesting that there is no assassin in The Lord of the Rings. The closest thing to it is Bilbo himself, brought aboard the group of dwarves as their nominal thief. But even Bilbo proves the rule in his exception. The Lord of the Rings is the last great pre-modern epic, a story that decries the encroachment of the modern and sings the nostalgia of the vanishing age. Bilbo is the bridge to the modern assassin figure. He is at once successful at being a creature of the darkness while being fundamentally afraid of it.

This shift is a democratic one, a claiming of the dark as our domain. Assassins do not fight fair, they are a weapon of the weak, of those who do not have the strength to stand in broad daylight and go toe to toe with power. And yet, they are also a statement of power in and of themselves, of the power to walk in the darkness without fear. They are a protagonist of a very particular class of individual: those who lack raw power but are not intimidated by the unknown. Those who feel security in anonymity rather than vulnerability. This hero is very much the product of the secular age, of those who know that the real monsters are people, and that the demons in the dark are us.

In a way, the ethical assassin is the ultimate savior of the masses. He is the one who can lay low the powerful with the whisper of a blade rather than the screams of battle. Wars are universally lost by the common, for they are inevitably the ones who fill the swelling graves. But an unseen hand that stops a battle before it can be fought, that can be the hand of a hero.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • NotJustPopCulture

    I have a friend who is a sniper in a special branch of the military. His job is to hide for days or more and wait for an order. When it comes, he executes it and goes back to get another assignment. He hates his job and is very good at it. His justification is that he believes one kill can take the place of hundreds. He also believes that in most cases the foot soldier is following orders, while the real threat is making the orders. He believes that through his terrible craft he is saving innocent lives. I don't know if his mindset is common to all or most in his field, and I don't know how, if at all, popular culture shaped his view, but I know it's the only way he can do what he does. He is a religious man and constantly wonders if he is doing God's work or if he is perpetuating evil. He believes he's doing the former but fears he's doing the latter. Here is a man willing to risk, in his belief, his soul in order that others might live a little safer. If that isn't Christ-like I don't know what is.

  • Purplejebus

    You don't know what is. Christ suffered and died rather than raise up an army to overthrow the Roman Empire, according to the story.
    Your friend may be doing some good for this empire, but taking life is not at all Christ-like, no matter the justification.

  • Katylalala

    I have absolutely nothing of value to add, but wanted to thank you for another fantastic piece, Steven! Your pieces are hands-down my favorite part of Pajiba. Thanks!

  • Clancys_Daddy

    I blame video games.

  • I've been waiting years for this piece without even knowing it. Thanks, Steve, love it.

  • You're missing out on some of the most interesting history in the Middle East. The term "assassin" is from the Persian word حشاشين or Ḥashshāshīn.

    Now some of you should notice that Hash is in that name. So what is the deal? Well back around 1090, there were a group of Muslims, Nizari Ismailis, who were fucking crazy. Basically they used hash extensively in their rituals and the term "Hashshashin" was used as a derogatory term, sort of like crackhead.

    Basically in Northern Iran, a man by the name of Hassan-i Sabbah had a castle. He created an order of assassins. Up in his mountain, his followers would take recruits and get them stone out of their minds. They would basically be shown a paradise on earth; girls, food, drugs, and some trippy ass magic tricks to make them believe that the head of the order had literally taken them to heaven. They were told the only way back was to follow the order to kill...any target...at any time. Until that point, they were to integrate themselves back into society and never breath a word of what they saw.

    But these were just loser suicide nuts. Hell no...The Lasiqis ("Adherents") were some of the most heavily trained assassins in history. They learned everything from close combat, to fucking chemistry...all to get the job done. And these were not just random kids off the street. The Lasiqis were expected to speak multiple languages and be able to be dropped into any city and disappear. These dudes had to be not just heavily motivated, but highly intelligent and highly trained. Pretty much the Seal Team Six of the Middle Ages.

    You pissed off the "Old Man in the Mountain" and your days were fucking numbered. For two centuries, targets could get killed in their sleep, or if orderd, get their asses cowboyed in public, terrifying whole governments. These fuckers kept both the Crusaders and Saracen terrified. Sir Conrad of Montferrat was snuffed out, surrounded by armored knights, by two assassins dressed as monks, in the courtyard of his own fucking castle. And these fuckers, while never taken alive, didn't just kill themselves. You wanted to take one out, you better have a fucking army and a decent medical plan cause a shitload of others were coming with him.

    Massive fucking body count with these dudes. And more interesting, they never targeted civilians. That was a huge no-no. Pretty much if it wasn't for the Mongols (and lets be fair...no one stood up well against the Mongols), these fuckers would have been taking scalps for centuries more.

    GOD WHY HASN'T THIS BEEN MADE INTO A FUCKING MOVIE?!?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Assassin's Creed?

    Granted, it creates a whole new and wacky backstory, but the assassins in the game are able of all the feats you describe.

  • Fredo

    Nothing is true; Everything is permitted.

    Recquiescat en pace

  • John G.

    Ezio?

  • Alamut by Bartol. Fucking kickass book.

  • I must check that out immediately! Thanks.

  • googergieger

    So basically conversation is more Forgotten Realms and less Way of the Warrior?

  • lowercase_ryan

    Great piece and always thanks for the titles to read. Downloading The Way of Shadows now.

  • Tinkerville

    Having just started rereading a few books of the Discworld series where Pratchett has way too much fun with the Assassin's Guild (Mr. Teatime, anyone?) this was certainly an interesting read, especially since I'm looking at it from more of a humor perspective right now.

    I think the second to last paragraph gets it right. A lot of the appeal has to do with the mysterious nature of the assassin. There's an allure to the silent yet deadly/lurking in the night combination that simple soldiers or mercenaries just don't have.

  • Souprcrackers

    (Possible Spoiler Alert)

    I would also add that they are modern heroes, instead of post-modern heroes. This is important, because in many cases (assassin's creed being the exception) assassins are presented as christ-like figures who take on the sins of others in their acts. When an assassin kills a general, they are taking the sins of the peasants fighting onto themselves and absolving them of said future battles or political scheming. In these cases, morality stills plays a part, but the assassin chooses to take on such sin for the benefit of the people. The Assassin's Apprentice would be a good example of this, as well as every James Bond and Batman, at least Nolan's Batman.

    Post-modernity would require no such morality to factor. The only example in literature I can think of that would fit into this is Arya and the House of Black and White in AFFC and ADWD. In Arya's case, death is neither bad nor good, universal. Can anybody think of other post-modern assassin's in literature or other artforms that seem to be protagonists, but morality is rendered neutral in their heroic arc?

  • Dragonchild

    "Meet The Sniper", Team Fortress 2.

  • That's a fantastic distinction. I don't have specific characters in mind, but I would think someone could be found in China Mieville or Joe Abercrombie who would fit.

  • troublesometots

    What series are you referring to? I've recently re-engaged with fantasy to such an extent that even 13 year old boys are embarrassed for me. And frankly after tearing through a pile that contained the tired old elements as orphan farm boy becomes hero, bastard farm boy becomes powerful mage, bad guys are just pointlessly trying to cover the land with dark/demons/etc., and women are handy when you need to copulate or a bandage.

    So the darker assassin stuff has been more fun and less cliche-ridden. I enjoyed the Brent Weeks series, however, I can't get over this farting ninja cover art. Seriously, who approved this?

    http://www.orbitbooks.net/wp-c...

  • The three I just finished were Weeks' Night Angel trilogy, Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, and Hobbs' Assassin's Apprentice trilogy.

  • Huh. That's a timely coincidence. I'm reading through Hobb's Farseer trilogy right now. I keep finding myself pissed off at Fitz for being a whiny little douchebag....who knows poisons.

  • RudeMorgue

    Liked the Sanderson pretty well, and loved Hobbs. How is Weeks?

  • Excellent. Very dark, but with a spark of humor throughout. If anything he tried to cram too much into the three novels, and yet you were left at the end feeling that you had only scratched the surface of the world he created.

  • troublesometots

    I liked Weeks/Night Angel too but his Black Prism books are even better. Magic/fantasy books where certain people can break light into colors making solid items (it's called luxin) which has various characteristics based on which color you can draft. Original world building, colorful cast of characters, good pacing, hints of Joss Whedon.

  • jennp421

    My dad has been trying to get me to read those.

  • Guest

    It boils down to people wanting to experience something completely different than what they are. Assassins kill for money and get away with it. Most of us can't and won't. It is a job. Can't really judge the person cause of the job.

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