For centuries, audiences have contemplated the difference between light and darkness, good and evil, and the eternal quest for heroism. Legends were one means in which stirring tales of selflessness and romance might inspire a new generation, but in all of them was needed one essential element: a villain to disrupt the lives of the heroes and provide a threat to humanity. From sorcerers to ill-meaning knights, evil kings and immortal curses, villains have dominated stories since the beginning of time.

During the Middle Ages a new threat surfaced, one that represented a towering form of corruption, lust, and greed: the Roman Catholic Church. For the peasants before and during the Reformation, their vision of the Church was not one of love and truth but horrific abuses of power. The symbolic difference between a true, pure, and lasting love and the corrupting influence of absolute authority is nowhere better depicted than in LadyHawke, a dark but ultimately triumphant fairy tale that pits ordinary individuals against overwhelming odds.

Our unlikely hero is Mouse, a young man who has recently escaped from a French prison. Mouse has no desire to be heroic. He is more interested in liberating soldiers of their purses and taunting them on the way out (not one of his brighter ideas). He also has a humorous but personal relationship with God, whom he talks to on a regular basis, confessing his weaknesses and ambitions. “I know I promised [not to steal], Lord,” he says while swimming away with a soldier’s money belt, “but I also know that you know what a weak-willed person I am.”

Trotting off into the sunset, Mouse makes the mistake of boasting a little too loudly of his escape and is rescued from death by the mysterious Captain Navarre. Owing the captain his life, Mouse must stay with him until his moral debt is repaid, but soon comes to realize that “dark forces are at work” in the captain’s presence. That night, Mouse is attacked and almost killed by an ill-meaning peasant and a great black wolf comes to his rescue. In the beast’s presence is a woman of immense beauty and great sadness.

Eventually, as he encounters both the Captain and Isabeau a number of times, Mouse discovers that they are former lovers separated by a terrible curse. The Captain is human by day, while Isabeau is trapped in the form of a hawk, and at night, Navarre becomes a wolf and Isabeau is human. The only time in which they are both human at once is at dawn and dusk, long enough to look upon one another but never to touch.

The man responsible for their misery is the cold-hearted Bishop of Aquila. Having lusted after Isabeau, once he discovered their forbidden love, he sold his soul to the devil for the power to curse them for all eternity. His unwitting assistant in this terrible deed is Isabeau’s former confessor, Father Imperious. Wracked with guilt over his own sin in revealing their secret to the Bishop in a drunken stupor, Imperious has ever since prayed for a means of breaking the curse and absolving himself. His hope sustains Isabeau but is thought of as foolish by Captain Navarre, who has decided to at long last extract revenge. He believes the escape of Mouse from the impenetrable fortress is a sign from God that he will succeed, and demands that the boy assist him in entering Aquila and murdering the Bishop.

“Sir,” Mouse says warily, “the truth is, I talk to God all the time and no offense but He never mentioned you.”

God does have a purpose in Mouse’s escape and meeting Navarre, and does intend for him to assist the Captain in reaching the Bishop, but the outcome is not what anyone expects. God’s purpose is not the same one as Navarre or even Imperious. He has a solution in mind and one that requires the participation of each of them in order to become victorious.

LadyHawke’s themes seem unusual since it blends faith and magic in the same tale, but it does so with sensitivity and respect. The basic morals are evident but underneath are more interesting uses of symbolism open to interpretation. Each of the characters could arguably represent different aspects of religious faith. There is of course the symbolism that is common to such fairy tales in establishing a villain that might easily represent a corrupt power within society (such as the decadent Church during the Middle Ages) but other theories are just as impacting. The Bishop could merely be a man who has allowed lustful ambitions and power to corrupt him, or he could be a literary depiction of a certain angel who allowed ambition to be his downfall. The Bishop becomes so infatuated with Isabeau that he gives his life over completely to Evil, which brings about his fall from grace. When confronted not with brutality or violence but the simple scorn of the woman he has wronged, the Bishop is terrified of her because she is pure and good, everything he has come to fear and hate.

His interest in her is formed out of lust rather than love, a corrupting and selfish emotion that encourages him to torment her through the presence of a hateful curse. The Bishop might have had them simply killed but instead wants to hurt them, to make them suffer for all eternity. To remind them day and night of what they have lost. It is hardly an act of love, but one of lust. Love is never selfish or hurtful, but lust is another story. Lust is driven through a dark and terrible obsession to possess rather than protect.

By contrast, Captain Navarre truly does love Isabeau, but is also an angry and bitter man who believes God has either abandoned or forgotten them. His initial purpose is revenge, but when he sees Isabeau all such thoughts flee from his mind. His happiness at her restoration removes his desire to make the Bishop pay for his sins. He instead wants the Bishop to live with the knowledge that he has lost and that they are victorious. Navarre does wind up killing his enemy, not in an act of vengeance but one of preservation when the Bishop attempts to murder Isabeau. Thus, Navarre is redeemed. He embraces redemption whereas the Bishop chooses to reject it.

Much in the same way, Imperious falls from favor through his terrible sin and is restored through a divine revelation in which he discovers a means of breaking the curse. The implication is not that there is no God but that He arranges specific events and individuals to come together in His own time that will liberate them from darkness. If Captain Navarre had slain the Bishop, the curse would never have been broken. His plan was the wrong one, but God put other people there to make certain good would come from it.