Villains throughout literature and cinema have had their share of lackeys and henchmen. While it is understandable that even villains need to delegate lesser evil deeds on to others, some of the relationships between these individuals are not as clear.
Of all of the villain/henchman relationships, the one that I find rather interesting and slightly unnerving has to deal with the henchman who places his or her master/mistress on a pedestal, but at the same time lives in utter fear of his or her master/mistress. Why is this relationship so important that authors over the centuries have reiterated it time and time again?
I can perceive a few possible explanations, but I would like to leave the discussion open for anyone who would like to interject.
First of all, perhaps the author is trying to create a sense of sympathy for the villain through the eyes of the henchman. Here we have a dastardly character, committing and ordering heinous deeds to be carried out, and yet we almost always have a faithful lackey who glorifies his/her horrific master/mistress. Are we meant to believe that in advanced literature there is no character that is completely good or evil, and that every character has some likable qualities? Or is it meant to emphasize how that even the most wicked of characters can be charming and seduce any individual into a form of servitude and hero-worship? If the latter is true, however, it doesn’t quite explain why the villain can be so physically and verbally abusive to the lackey, or why the lackey tolerates the abuse.
A possible explanation to this, and my next point, brings me to the allegorical parallelism between the relationships of villain/lackey and Deity/humanity. Humanity, like the lackey, places our celestial master/mistress on a pedestal where everything they do, no matter how horrific, is wondrous. As the villain lashes out on the lackey, so does the Deity lash out on humanity. Both the lackey and humanity are in the subservient position, and will greatly receive whatever blessings or suffering the villain and Deity deem necessary, as the villain and Deity are both in the domineering position.
Another option to explore that also has some religious backing to it would include how the author is trying to show the representation of the common person through the character of the henchman. Many people are not on either end of the personality spectrum, and in fact most are nothing more than average. Henchmen and sidekicks, each initially an average individual, allow themselves to be drawn between the extremes of good and evil. We as the reader are meant to relate to these average characters and witness how they have come to be in their position of servitude to the forces of righteousness or wickedness. After which time, we can dwell on their actions and relate them to our own lives and determine where our position in the moral world may be.
While I would not be surprised if the religious roots are not too far from the actuality of the matter, other perspectives should not be ignored. The social psychology of the situation is worth exploration. We as a society acknowledge that there are morally good and wicked people in the world. To allow such a villain to exist in terms of a human, we as a society have to see his/her sense of humanity otherwise we will turn the villainous character into a monstrous being as a societal coping mechanism. Therefore, an author who wishes to display that his/her villain is still human would be better off to have a subservient but faithful lackey constantly at the villain’s side. Although we as the reader will feel contempt for the lackey’s misguided hero-worship, our contempt will reflect off of the lackey and then moderately project onto the villain. Thus such sympathy for the lackey saves the villain from having his/her humanity ripped away by a judgmental society. In some instances, the lackey can become a villain’s last strand of humanity, and therefore if the villain kills or allows the henchman to be killed, he/she will risk becoming instantly dehumanized.
These are some observations that can help to explain the relationship between a henchman and his/her master/mistress. In all simplicity, however, it does allow the writer to more easily produce plot devices through dialogue if there are two or more characters to utilize in any situation. Although this may be the simplest of solutions, these inner character relationships solely for the purpose of plot, I still believe that it works time and time again because there is something deeper that we as an audience can relate to on multiple levels.