Being the third and probably last installment of this meta series.
So the fun—or aggravating, take your pick—thing about writing meta for an unfinished canon is the myriad ways one can misjudge an arc. I’ve wound up with egg on my face before (Mary Russell is having a marital crisis! Snape/Lily is too bathetic to ever happen!) so I’ve learned not to overcommit to any theories I form about characters and their arcs.
Fortunately one doesn’t have to overcommit to talk about the Faceless Man.
I think what makes him effective as a villain is that he is a tabula rasa—Nightingale reiterates several times that the FM doesn’t represent anything but garden variety cruelty and domination, and the smooth surface of that mask can be the projector screen for whatever we think that really is, aided by the evidence of what he’s already done.
This makes him more narratively useful than Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. Don’t get me wrong, I was up to my elbows in HP fandom and enjoy the books still. But I think with Voldemort you get metaphors carrying the meaning in crossing directions. The more murders Voldemort commits, the more erasure occurs to his face, as he takes bits of his soul and hides them hither and yon. Yet what’s unique about him, other than that he has a sinister pedigree and an extra helping of magical talent? It’s as if the magical community is just too small to have more than one powerful serial killer per generation (I notice Lucius Malfoy’s face hasn’t undergone any elisions), against which the mundane world has to set not only Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Jim Jones but also Manson, Gacy, Dahmer, and any other malcontent who has charismatic cruelty and/or access to weapons of mass destruction. With Voldemort the meaning is carried from the type to the individual, while the rest of the HP universe tends to carry the meaning from the particular to the archetype, like most modern stories do. In other words, Voldemort is the one character in the parable who is almost wholly allegorical—the Founders at least have the grace of being legends from the mists of time. And that means there’s extra burden on him to be interesting, and that in turn means JKR is almost forced to heap on the grotesque.
The FM as a character narrative can carry metaphorical meaning from the particular to the archetype without being interesting; all he has to do is be veiled. As I said before, other people function as mirrors, but bi-directionally: whatever else the FM’s mask is for, it breaks that connection—you can’t see him or retain an impression of him, and therefore you are at an immediate disadvantage trying to deal with him as a human being. “I am much, much more than a man,” Voldemort claims, to which Harry’s (and our) response is, “Yeah, right. Look at you.” The Luchador of Evil doesn’t even have to make such a claim. All he has to do is suggest that he is a particularly clever and evolved person, eminently reasonable and deadly dangerous.
So I’m not committed to a particular theory about what’s behind the mask, other than to agree with Nightingale’s assertions that 1) it’s a magical device as well as a disguise and 2) the FM obviously wears the mask because his identity would be known, and therefore disadvantaged, without it. My general impression is that the FM must be quite ordinary without the mask, as AWG evidently is, some mild-mannered big noise in the City, an MP, or (my pet idea) a dramaturge with an Oxbridge education who has some causal or correlational connection with the Punch plot’s origin. But he could also need the mask to hide something grotesque—or, say, to hold his face on.
Either way, I’m pretty sure Lesley knows what’s under the mask. If his face is normal, he could have met her without it, and engaged in the two-way human interaction he’s denied to all the other characters so far. If his face isn’t normal, I can perfectly well imagine Lesley demanding he unmask as the (or at least a) price of her having continued dealings with him. In either case, it’s not just Lesley taking a risk, though clearly the FM feels comfortable with his calculations. And evidently Lesley feels a certain confidence in hers, partly because she has increasingly little to lose.
None of that is allegorical, though it’s certainly parabolic. Peter picks up on this when he observes of Ryan Carroll’s made-to-order art that it reminds him of both Lesley’s and the FM’s masks—a fused blankness that can’t be redeemed by interaction with living people, something that’s not true of Lesley’s damaged face, no matter how horrible it is. Peter is fond of types and emblems (“a pickaxe handle, that’s us”), but by heritage and personality is resistant to fusing them with people. It’s more a measure of his frustration than anything that makes him say that the FM is doing “a bloody good impression” of Moriarty, and even “Moriarty” can project surprise and anger against his will, when the Stadtkrone is revealed.
The demi-monde itself is not allegorical either: even the Fairy Queen’s soldiers, when in their own country, show acne scars. (That actually made me grin.) In a way, that makes Peter’s continual musings on the scientific structure and classification of magical people and phenomena a sort of fantasia on the question, “What is this when it’s at home?” (And who are you when you can’t go home again? That applies to more than one person in this series.) (That’s why parable works better than allegory as social commentary: not only do you have plausible deniability if you want to criticize—for example—the British ruling class, you also don’t have to start from scratch every time you want to tackle another theme.)
I had a whole rabbit trail going for a minute there—FM as Moriarty—the Napoleon of Crime—the Six Napoleons—smashed faces under streetlights—&c. &c. This is the sort of thing that derailed my interest in a career in academia. I have a lot of sympathy for Peter.
And I could write a whole other series on Lesley’s arc as compared to other betrayal narratives—Snape in his double-minded subtlety, Edmund in his defensive temporizing, Faith in her spare-apprentice snatching of opportunities—but I think I won’t because you could fan all those panels out and still be able to remove them at will, because type is still secondary in this ‘verse, and the pathos is in the particularity.
For that matter, I can build up the profile I’ve made using my own experiences only to knock it all down with a breath. I don’t want to be fused to type, either, or to dwell on old scars unless it be useful for insight into a reality outside myself. And I’m highly reflective, introspective to a fault. Lesley isn’t. Whatever of these reactions, needs, and dynamics I’ve described might be operative in her character, she’s not going to parse them out; she’s more liable to take the whole lot, file it under “shit that’s not important,” and get on with her mission, whatever it ultimately is. And who’s going to blame her for that? Not me.
I suppose this is a long way of saying that if I do have any commitments meta-wise about Lesley and her arc, it’s that I don’t think she was seduced by enticement—though she might be content if the FM thinks she was. “I know what I’m doing,” she says, and, “I crossed a line,” she says, and, “I did it with my eyes open.” People abandoned to evil don’t say things like that—they talk about their community abandoning them, about the trajectory of unbroken justification they expect, about their total sufficiency and lack of need. They get sucked into their own propaganda and the propaganda fades to inanity. That’s the real erasure, and it seems to me that Lesley is both uniquely vulnerable to it, and the one person most likely to fight like hell against it. It’s a downright catalytic arc for the whole ‘verse, and that’s why I have hope for her.
That’s what great myths and parables are for, after all—to show there really is something there when you wrap the bandages around it. Otherwise hope’s pretty damned elusive.
And thus endeth my tale.