The Monsters of 'Castlevania' Are All Too Human

He who fights with persons should look to it that he himself does not become a person. Or something.
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John Maher
May 29 2021
7 min read
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The Devil's Tears Are Our Own


If you are the sort of person who knows only one thing about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, it is probably this particular translation from the two original German lines from Beyond Good and Evil: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."


It's a pretty weird translation. I'm no scholar of Nietzsche or German, but those who are tend to have some feelings about it. As someone who places and rearranges such words on pages and screens for a living, I do too. Why does this sentence have both "ye" and "you" in it? So inconsistent! That's not the experts' problem with it, though. Theirs is that it doesn't preserve the original meaning. I didn't find their translations particularly elegant either, so I went (horror of horrors!) to an AI translation service, which gave me, shockingly, a version I like better than any of the others I've found: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."


After finishing Netflix's Castlevania series earlier this month, I found myself mulling over this strange little warning. Specifically, I thought about how well it applied to the show's wrongdoers, even in reverse. The real tragedy of Castlevania's villains, whether they be vampire or night creature or human themselves, is that their evils are all too human—even when they pride themselves on their distance from humanity.


Vampire stories, for what it's worth, love doing this. (Pick a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vampire love interest and you can probably write this same essay.) The bloodsuckers are, after all, humans made monsters. And in some cases in Castlevania, their monstrousness is simply left over from their own onetime humanity.


Take the viking vampire Godbrand, a sort of fanged id.


Godbrand: Why would he want to talk to you rather than me? Perhaps he wants to meet with his own kind.


Hector: Godbrand, you've never met anything you didn't immediately kill, fuck, or make a boat out of.


Or the vampire queen of Styria, Carmilla, all vengeance and greed and (not unjustified) misandry.


Carmilla: I take things away from stupid, evil old men. It's what I do. I've always done it. They deserve to lose everything. And I deserve to have all their stuff.


Or another villain, the demon FlysEyes, a reincarnated Athenian philosopher executed by Christians as a sinner for daring to question the existence of God.


FlysEyes: I woke up in Hell... because the world is insane. And... I learned something about sin.


Isaac: What did you learn?


FlysEyes: I learned... to like it.


All very human stuff here, and seemingly tied to these characters' original humanity. Then there is the great villain of the series, Vlad Dracula Ţepeş.


Dracula—voiced by a stellar Graham McTavish—is portrayed, throughout Castlevania, as the ür-Vampire, more some devilishly powerful demigod from hell than a human once turned into a creature of the night. This is done even as the series grounds him in humanity more than any of its other vampires. When we first meet Dracula, in the blighted Eastern European countryside in 1455, it is after his wife-to-be has found him brooding in his castle after she has walked through miles of impaled skeletal remains to learn from him. And within ten minutes, we see a new side to this monster: he's a man of science, a teacher, a loving husband and father who is willing to unlearn centuries of hatred for his wife's people in order to understand her better. It's remarkable character work.


Then the Church burns his wife at the stake for witchcraft, and Dracula's hatred for humanity returns, underwritten this time not just by rage, or disdain, but despair.


Dracula: You took that which I love, so I will take from you everything you have and everything you have ever been.


Dracula spends the next twelve episodes sending his armies out to raze human civilization in Wallachia to the ground, but he's only bloodthirsty about it for about a quarter of that time. For the rest of it, he is simply despondent. His wife, his world, is gone. Why should anything else exist?


There's something intensely relatable here, and deeply human. It is tempting, when we are overwhelmed by loss, to want to see the joy in the world around us snuffed out, removed so as to keep it from reminding us of the joys we've lost. The impulse to fight absence with absence is natural. It's not a successful strategy, nor a kind one. But it is very human.


Dracula's love for a human and her loss at the hands of other humans—themselves monstrous in their ignorance—made this monster into that for which he professed such hatred. It is torture for him, that he is capable of human love. It is also his only chance at something resembling redemption. In the final scene of the show's second season, Dracula is confronted by his dhampir son Adrian Ţepeş, known as Alucard.


Alucard: It ends in the name of my mother.


Dracula: It endures in the name of your mother.


Father and son then attempt to kill each other. But before Dracula, who is clearly more powerful than his son, can add filicide to his list of crimes, the two find themselves in Alucard's childhood bedroom, where Dracula breaks down. "My boy—I'm killing my boy," he says to himself in a wavering voice. He moves toward a family portrait on the wall and speaks to his dead wife: "Lisa, I'm killing our boy. We painted this room, we made these toys. It's our boy, Lisa. Your greatest gift to me, and I'm killing him." That is when he acknowledges it: "I must already be dead."


Dracula's not mad. Dracula is sad. But like so many before him, he decides at his lowest point that it's easier to rage through despair than to accept the loss that brought him to it. He simply cannot stop gazing into that abyss. (To be fair to the vampire lord, Nietzsche wouldn't come along for another 400 or so years, so how would he know?) Dracula may have fangs and claws and a horde of hellspawn at his back. But when it comes to feelings, he's about as human as they come.


Poor Dracula. Poor us.


Tips for the Tooned In

What I'm loving right now and other sundries.


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I returned to a lot of poetry I love this week on a whim that I would like to transform into a habit. Specifically, I returned to a lot of poetry in translation: The Galloping Hour, a collection of the poems Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik first wrote in French while living in Paris; a selected collection of the greatest poems by Polish poet Ryszard Krynicki, Magnetic Point; and Czech poet Miroslav Holub's The Rampage, a book I bought in a small used bookstore in Prague that is clearly not in print anymore, which is a shame, because it's marvelous. (Pizarnik's parents were Jewish emigrants from what is now Western Ukraine, so it's fairly safe to say I was firmly in an Eastern European literary mindset this week, which is not at all a rarity for me. It is also worth noting that two of these three books are published by New Directions Publishing, which is also not surprising, because I am an avowed fanboy. Happy 75th, you lot!)


I've also been revisiting records that have meant a lot to me over the years, like the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, and albums I fear I didn't love enough upon first listen but now seem like old friends who proved more steadfast than expected, like the Field Mice's Coastal compilation. As far as new music, while seemingly everyone else I know is fawning over Olivia Rodrigo, I'm personally losing it over Valerie June's gorgeous new album The Moon and Stars, which I can't believe I missed upon its release a couple of months back.



Cartoon GIF of the Week

Like a newspaper cartoon, but animated.


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