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.