Fixing Dark Lords
My on-going series of posts about fantasy tropes I really don’t like isn’t dead. It’s just sleeping and will awaken when the stars are right. But today I thought I would take a different tack: rather than poking holes in clichés (or at least ranting about pet peeves), I will seek to rehabilitate one. How can a much-maligned and oft-dismissed character-type can be rendered road-worthy in the modern era?
I refer, of course, to Dark Lords.
What is a Dark Lord? Rather than attempting to pot the concept in a sentence or two, it is easier to describe it in terms of listing features. A Dark Lord:
- Generally (but not always) functions as a villainous antagonist: the obstacle our protagonist(s) must battle with.
- Is incredibly powerful, often magical (this *is* fantasy).
- If not the cosmic personification of Evil is at least malign (ergo, “Dark”).
- Has servants, willing or otherwise, under their control (ergo, “Lord”)
That is really the core of the matter: other attributes, such as plotting to take over the world, wearing black robes, and inhabiting terrifying locales, are more optional.
Why do these characters cop so much flack these days? Three reasons, I think.
(1) Overuse. J.R.R. Tolkien did not invent the fantasy Dark Lord with The Lord of the Rings (indeed, Sauron was not even the first Dark Lord Tolkien created!). Tolkien did, however, popularise a particular mode of fantasy where this character type played a key role, and as the years have gone on, the concept of the Dark Lord has become stale. Readers want something different.
(2) Perceived formulaic nature/lack of depth. Take a world-conquering madman, shave off the moustache, give him some minions, spiky armour, and magical powers. Done. A Dark Lord is easy to write, but hard to write well.
(3) Villains always pose a dilemma for writers. How to make them threatening yet beatable? Dark Lords are particularly vulnerable to this, since by definition, they are incredibly powerful villains: raw strength is rarely enough to beat them. Short of having the Dark Lord win – a possibility we’ll get to later – there is the danger of undermining your character by making them look like an idiot.
All three criticisms have some validity. Our job is figuring out how to beat them.
Let’s tackle the overuse accusation first. Courtesy of post-1977 Tolkien imitation (I won’t name names), the generic fantasy Dark Lord resembles Sauron. This Dark Lord:
- Is male (contrary to Peter Jackson, Tolkien’s Sauron has a bodily form and is not a Giant Eye).
- Is staging a long-term comeback after earlier defeat.
- Plans to conquer the world.
- Lives in an impenetrable fortress in the middle of an uninhabitable wasteland.
- Is strongly associated with the colours red and black
- Has an elite team of underlings tied to him, who do all the hard work.
- Has his fate tied to a magical artefact.
- Is defeated by our plucky protagonist exploiting his one weakness.
There is no particular reason why any given Dark Lord has to fit that sort of pre-packaged framework. Tolkien’s other great Dark Lord, Morgoth, does not really fit it – yes, he’s male, associated with black, and lives in an impenetrable fortress (admittedly underground, and not a tower). On the other hand, Morgoth’s “comeback” differs markedly from Sauron’s (he returns to Middle-earth with his power-base intact), and his elite underlings (Balrogs and Dragons) are decidedly different from the Ringwraiths. Nor is Morgoth tied to a magical artefact; his defeat comes from literal divine intervention, not from a First Age Frodo Baggins. Even on the point about world conquest, Morgoth’s aspirations are to (short-term) hold onto the Silmarils, (medium-term) corrupt Men, and (long-term) destroy the world: a more unique spin than mere conquer-and-rule. Morgoth, in short, feels much less overused than Sauron, even though he obviously came first.
An even fresher approach is Jadis the White Witch, from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. Jadis is clearly a Dark Lord figure, if not quite Satan incarnate (that distinction belongs to Tash, of course), yet she too does not fit the paint-by-numbers model. Unusual for a Dark Lord, she is (obviously) female, and far from being on the comeback trail is at the pinnacle of her power in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She seems to have no particular ambitions for conquering the world outside, preferring to keep Narnia under her thumb. Her castle, while scary for Edmund, is hardly Sauron’s Dark Tower, and even deep-frozen Narnia is hardly Mordor. And, as with Morgoth, Jadis is not brought low by our human protagonists, but is rather defeated via the Divine.
These “old-school” examples should show that the genre need not be beholden to the same rehashed Dark Lord over and over again. Even allowing for the existence of core attributes, there is still plenty of scope for differentiation out there; if anything, it is noteworthy how recent (1977 onwards) the cliché really is.
If the solution to the overuse problem is steering clear of the Sauron-clone production line, the solution to the lack of depth problem is to think about what, exactly, this character is. Is the Dark Lord a personification of Evil? If yes – what does Evil mean? It’s not simply wearing black armour and leading hordes of Orcs, but something much more metaphysical. If your character is not a personification of Evil per se, but simply a very powerful magic user who happens to be a Bad Guy, think about their psychology and motivations – why are they doing what they are doing, and what led them to it?
On the personification of Evil front, consider these Dark Lord characters – Tolkien’s Morgoth (already covered above), Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost, and Lord Foul from Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. All three are representatives of a metaphysical force, rather than conventional characters: yet they hardly lack depth. Morgoth is a bullying coward and control-freak turned nihilist: if he can’t make the world, no-one can have it! Milton’s Satan spouts the rhetoric of freedom – genuinely alluring in a way that other Dark Lords aren’t, but alluring or not, he’s still an idiot. Lord Foul is the smartest of the three, and his modus operandi is to get his opponents to do his work for him, by driving them into despair (when Thomas Covenant first meets him, incidentally, he also resembles the smiting, vengeful God of the Old Testament). Different authors have different ideas on what Evil is, and how it manifests itself (a subject for another essay); so long as you put thought into it, there is no reason your Dark Lord/Cosmic Evil need be formulaic.
Then there are the Dark Lords that are simply Bad, without actually being a bona fide Satan figure or abandoning their personhood. These are still villains, of course, but not the source of all pain and suffering in the world. Unfortunately, one temptation here is to make them mindless sociopaths – not very interesting to read about (switching genres and mediums for a moment, I’ll take a Hannibal Lecter over a Michael Myers any day). Alternatively, if you go too far in the other direction – trying to tone down their Evilness, you run the risk of turning them into Grey Lords, rather than Dark Lords. Too many people have the idea that a Grey character is inherently superior to a Black one, when in reality it is perfectly possible to have Flat Greys and Rounded Blacks. Being genuinely Bad can be complex and interesting in its own right – if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this essay.
Let’s take a look at three Dark Lords of this second type: Lewis’ Jadis (again, covered above), Ineluki, from Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and the most famous of twenty-first century Dark Lords, J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. First off, note that while all three are evil, they are not literally Evil (Jadis comes close, but is trumped by Tash). Secondly, none of them are mindless moustache-twirlers (though Voldemort comes close in Rowling’s weaker patches). These are intelligent individuals with clear motivations. And thirdly, and very importantly, none have their Darkness watered down, because notwithstanding the modern fantasy fetish for making Good and Evil matters of perception, understanding where the villain is coming from does not make them less of a villain.
What to make of Jadis’ characterisation? For starters, she is incredibly petty – being willing to destroy a world in order to get one over her sister. She has a short temper, and little patience for failure. She is highly practical, and runs an efficient spy network and secret police. She is genuinely charismatic, with a hint of the sexual (not a positive in Lewis’ eyes, but still worthy of note). She knows how to tempt (with confectionery or otherwise) and manipulate. She is an incredibly powerful enchantress. In short, we have a Dark Lord as a truly interesting character in her own right.
Williams’ Ineluki, on the other hand, is perhaps less interesting as a person than as what he represents: the Dark Lord as a tragedy in general, and a study of ends and means in particular. Desiring the destruction of humans for what they have done to his people, Ineluki is fiery, passionate, and intelligent – very much a Fëanor figure. But he goes too far, dabbles in things best left alone… rendering him the nightmarish, borderline-Lovecraftian horror we know and love. In contrast to Jadis, Ineluki stays primarily off-screen as per the Sauronian tradition, but he is also notable for being an early example of the genre-savvy Dark Lord (c.f. Xykon from The Order of the Stick), in that he manipulates via the rules of the narrative. What contrasts Ineluki with Xykon is that the former is most certainly not played for laughs.
Last (and perhaps least) is Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. Voldemort is arguably most interesting in his capacity as a self-loathing bully (someone who is obsessed with blood purity while being a half-blood wizard himself), and in his narrative role as Harry Potter’s dark shadow – the link between him and the protagonist is truly personal. Between that and his naked megalomania, he is certainly not a bland Dark Lord, and his intelligence is never in question – though his competence in the latter half of the series might well be. Speaking of the later books, I also think Rowling undermines her own point: she wants to make Voldemort into a threat that evokes real-life, yet by tying the Death-Eaters to the paraphernalia of the Third Reich (black costumes, salutes, et cetera), she reduces it a matter of surface cosmetics – the very charge levelled at fantasy Dark Lords to start with. Hitler was evil because he started a war that killed fifty million people, not because his followers pranced around in black, and saluted at each other, and if I wanted to read about a scary, psychopathic mass-murdering dictator, history is littered with them. No need for a watered-down version with a wand and no nose.
This concludes our look at Dark Lord portrayals on the second point – illustrating that when sufficient thought goes in, there is no particular reason for this character type to lack depth. We now turn to the final problem with Dark Lords – the extension of dealing with any powerful villain – how to beat the bastards in a way that (1) is narratively satisfying, and (2) does not undermine their earlier threat. Obviously Spoilers abound past this point, so beware.
Now, it is perfectly possible to write a story where the Dark Lord is not beaten. Either they emerge victorious, or the point of the story was not to actually fight him/her. A victorious Dark Lord is obviously easiest to pull-off in an Evil vs Evil setting, but in that scenario, you only engage the reader at the intellectual level, not the emotional level – fine in a short story (I’m thinking Clark Ashton Smith here), but not good for a longer work, where the reader will want a character they can latch onto and cheer for. A victorious Dark Lord in a Good vs Evil setting, again, might have better prospects as a short story (Evil winning is the basis of many horror stories, after all); a full-length novel or a trilogy will prompt the reader to feel cheated of catharsis, and may draw accusations of trolling. A perspective flip (having a Good vs Evil story from the point of view of the Dark Lord) is generally associated either with comedy, or an attempt to make the Dark Lord “not really Dark”; otherwise you are left with the story of an apparently powerful character mopping up minor opposition – not very satisfying.
The other type of story – where the Dark Lord is more a backdrop than antagonist – is perfectly viable, so long as the author makes it clear at the outset. If Beren is tasked with fetching a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown, that’s fine. We aren’t conned into actually expecting Beren to defeat Morgoth all by himself (and he doesn’t – our Dark Lord suffers humiliation, but that’s it). Of course, it still rather suggests that the Dark Lord will be attended to at some point, because otherwise what is the point of the character? We want him/her to engage with the story, not be mere scenery in someone else’s story. Same with the “inconclusive draw” sort of result – the reader wants this Dark Lord problem resolved, not sitting around for the rest of time.
That leaves the more common scenario of the Dark Lord losing. You have a malign character who poses an awesome threat to your protagonists (or indeed the world), and you would like to think that this character is fairly intelligent. He/She will at least be aware of the general principles of the Evil Overlord List. How can they lose, especially considering that “the Dark Lord makes a mistake” actually undercuts their supposed threat?
One pattern to note, which I think is interesting: in better works of fantasy, it is rare for the Dark Lord to actually be defeated by the protagonists directly – they might have made the result possible, but at the end of the day, something else tips the balance. Morgoth, for example, is not defeated by the Noldor and the Edain, but rather the intervention of the Valar (whom Eärendil had to plead with, thereby avoiding raw deus ex machina). Sauron is not defeated by the hobbits or Men or Elves, or even Gandalf, but rather the mercy granted to Gollum and the resulting eucatastrophe. The Emperor in Star Wars (it’s fantasy, damn it) is not defeated by Luke, but is defeated by his own underling surprisingly turning against him in a fit of fatherly feelings. Lord Foul (in the second trilogy anyway) and Jadis the White Witch are defeated by getting what they want. Even Rowling’s Lord Voldemort (as seen above, a bit problematic) defeats himself, even if it is a case of rules-lawyering.
The alternative is the all-too dull and silly scenario of “plucky little protagonist (with or without special heritage) gains magical artefact. Uses artefact to defeat Dark Lord by Believing In Themselves (or whatever). The End.” Or “plucky little protagonist exploits the Dark Lord’s one weakness” – and lest you think Sauron falls into this category, I’d point out that not only could Sauron not comprehend anyone being able to destroy the Ring, but that he was right. The story with Frodo or Sam throwing the Ring into the volcano would be a very different, and weaker, book. Ineluki’s defeat is borderline here: it might not feel emotionally satisfying after wading through literally thousands of pages, but the idea of defeating a foe by forgiveness, rather than violence, I think is enough to avoid the hackery tag. The way Williams portrays the defeat of Utuk’ku on the other hand….
So, yes, the third objection can be overcome, like the Dark Lord himself/herself, with sufficient creativity. It is possible to combine the three attributes of “grave threat”, “intelligent antagonist,” and “antagonist defeated”. In fact, there is no need to even resort to the convenient magical artefact trope, though if you do, for heaven’s sake, try to avoid the clichés.
Thus concludes my somewhat lengthy consideration of Dark Lord viability in modern fantasy. The message to take away is that, yes, they can be misused or turned into cliché-figures worthy of parody – but then so can anything else about the genre. As with all aspects of writing, it really comes down to thought and execution: despite what some may say, there is no reason to write this particular character type off entirely.