Why serve the Dark Lord?

A while ago, I wrote a reasonably lengthy article on rehabilitating the Dark Lord trope within the genre. The conclusion? I think it is possible to construct an effective and interesting Dark Lord, so long as the writer avoids Sauron-derived clichés, and gives sufficient thought to motivation and underlying metaphysics (what is Evil?).

One aspect of a Dark Lord that is inescapable, however, is that they must have followers. Otherwise they would merely be like Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike – a lonely figure of malign intent. And those followers must have motivation or reason to serve the Dark Lord, else why are they not going home or joining the other side? Furthermore, there are additional questions of agency: are they being forced into service, or are they following of their own free will? Or a combination thereof?


I started this essay intending to look at how various genre authors have answered these questions. I have subsequently realised that so long as one sticks to actual Dark Lords (rather than inter-human relationships, like why Gregor Clegane serves Tywin Lannister), it is easier to divide the discussion into two parts: Tolkien and everyone else.

I. Tolkien

The populariser of the Dark Lord trope has often been bashed for presenting us with hordes of ugly “evil for the sake of evil” creatures. This criticism is misplaced – as we shall see, Tolkien’s answer to the question of “why serve the Dark Lord?” remains perhaps the most elaborate and sophisticated in the genre.

(1). A reaction to imperialism

In addition to his more famous Orcs and Ringwraiths, Tolkien presents us with something that remains a genre rarity: human beings who gladly take the side of the Dark Lord against their fellow humans. It is easy to shrug, and say that they were the victims of propaganda – and, yes, they are, but the situation is also more complex than that. These aren’t Orcs, but rather ordinary people, who presumably have the same personal needs, likes, and dislikes, as you and I. Why would we take up arms and fight alongside Orcs?!

One answer lies buried in the past: these people are the victims of centuries (or millennia) of oppression from our supposed good guys and their ancestors. Take the Dunlendings, for instance, who were driven from their homes when Gondor gifted Calenardhon to the Rohirrim, and who have remained marginalised and forgotten ever since. Saruman, however insincere, actually recognises this ancient grudge – and if a powerful wizard turns up and offers revenge against your long-standing enemies, chances are that you are going to jump at the chance. So what if some of your village women go missing in the night and are never seen again – those blasted strawheads are finally going to pay!

The grudges of the Easterlings and the Haradrim lie further back in history. The civilisation that birthed Arnor and Gondor – Númenor – derived its wealth and power from a brutal slave Empire, and what the Men of Middle-earth faced, especially in the late Second Age, was an especially rapacious colonialism. Tolkien even started (but regrettably never finished) a story from the “native” point of view, where the coming of the Númenorean ships is viewed with justified terror. The Dúnadan realms of Arnor and Gondor are the surviving colonies of this Empire; small wonder that Angmar found the native Hill-men malleable to its interests, while Gondor – with a succession of Kings enjoying such titles as “South-Conqueror” and “East-Conqueror” – was never going to endear itself to its neighbours. Put yourself in the shoes of the Easterlings and Haradrim: why wouldn’t you help drive out the people who have been beating on you for thousands of years?

It is noteworthy that one of Aragorn’s signature achievements isn’t the conquest of Harad, but rather peace with Harad. This is a departure from traditional Númenorean imperialism – Isildur claiming the Ring isn’t the only ancestral mistake in his family tree. Similarly, only by recognising the wrongs done to Ghân-buri-Ghân and his people can the Rohirrim rescue Minas Tirith (Aragorn also recognises this later, when he gifts Drúedain Forest to the Woses). By contrast, Tolkien’s letter hypothesises that had Denethor remained in power, Gondor’s victory terms over Sauron’s former allies would be “cruel and vengeful”. Denethor (as I have discussed elsewhere) is an old-school Númenorean, with all that entails.

(2). Giving people what they want.

Expanding on the previous point – Sauron (and Saruman) manipulate their human followers by (insincerely) offering them restitution for genuine grievances. But Sauron does more than that. His more general modus operandi is that he manipulates people into following him by giving them what they want (or at least promising such).

Consider Ar-Pharazôn and the Númenoreans. What to offer the people who have it all? Simple – a refuge from the haunting fear of Death. Sauron (even with the Ring) cannot conquer the Númenorean Empire from without, so he ingeniously turns them into his own spiritual followers (strictly, Melkor’s spiritual followers, with himself as High Priest). Having established that Ar-Pharazôn will do anything for immortal life, Sauron tells him to attain it via invasion of Aman. The promise is completely insincere – Sauron the Great and Petty is doing this as revenge – but the point remains that people do the Dark Lord’s bidding because they think they will get something out of it.

Nor is it just Men. Sauron entices Saruman by offering that which the White Wizard values the most – Knowledge, Order, and the power to rule others. Sauron’s own motivation is, at its heart, a desire to bring Order to Middle-earth; he believes he himself is the only being able to achieve this. In that sense, offering an alliance to Saruman is only natural (though again, insincere – as Gandalf points out, there can be only one Lord of the Ring). For his part, Saruman knows full well that Sauron is not to be trusted and is actually planning his own counter-betrayal  (Unfinished Tales reveals Saruman’s doubts about his predicament). Considering the genre’s obsession with Tolkien-imitation, this sort of uneasy marriage of convenience is an interesting rarity.

(3).  Propaganda and cults

A handy thing about being an immortal angel is that you not only impress lowly mortals with your power – but also your longevity. Being a tyrant is one thing, but being a tyrant who lives forever is another. Whole civilisations can come and go, knowing only the rule of the God-like creature upon his dark throne. And people being people, with propaganda so intertwined with their culture, they will accept the word of this “God” as being unquestionably true.

In Sauron’s case, we know he really resorted to this. Tolkien explores the issue in his letters and essays:

Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world.  (Letter 183)

Sauron was not a ‘sincere’ atheist, but he preached atheism, because it weakened resistance to himself (and he had ceased to fear God’s action in Arda). […] To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it. Sauron, apparently a defeated rival for world-power, now a mere hostage, can hardly propound himself; but as the former servant and disciple of Melkor, the worship of Melkor will raise him from hostage to high priest. (Morgoth’s Ring – Myths Transformed, Notes on Motives in The Silmarillion).

Sauron realises the Númenoreans won’t worship someone they have just defeated. Setting up a cult of Melkor works better, since he gets to act as Melkor’s representative on Earth, with all the power that entails. These dark cults survive the Downfall – c.f. the Black Númenoreans in Umbar – so Sauron continues to enjoy their support. A footnote to Letter 183 even suggests that by the time of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron was cutting out the middle-man, and actually telling his cult followers that he was Morgoth returned.

In short, for a significant number of Sauron’s servants, to question his authority was not merely treason, but outright blasphemy.

(4). Fear and torture

As seen earlier, Sauron is more than willing to offer his followers carrots to ensure compliance. Problem is, he’s also willing to use sticks too.

Time and again, Sauron likes to make examples of those who stand in his way. He famously tortures Celebrimbor son of Curufin to death, and hangs his body on a pole as a battle-standard. He catapaults the heads of fallen Men into Minas Tirith. If he has no further use for a prisoner, he feeds them to a giant spider for fun (apparently he likes to hear of the sport Shelob has made afterwards).

Given all of this, and especially considering Sauron’s previous role as the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, with all the creepy magic that entails – one does not cross Sauron of Mordor.

(5). Magical control

In addition to more mundane methods of persuasion, Sauron seeks to bind others by magical means. The Ringwraiths, for example, are enslaved by the Nine Rings, to the point where Sauron perverts one of the cornerstones of Tolkienian cosmology – the passage of the human spirit. This is also yet another example of Sauron promising people what they want (in this case power and immortality); the other Rings similarly take advantage of Elvish desire for an unchanging world, and Dwarven desire for riches. Those latter examples obviously did not work out so well.

The Orcs are a less clear-cut example. Sauron seems to be operating at least some level of mind control over them, given their behaviour when the Ring is destroyed. The point is a debatable one though, since Gorbag and Shagrat earlier talk of Sauron’s mistakes, and about slipping away to somewhere quiet – the control clearly isn’t total either. This in turn really ties into the wider question of what, exactly, the Orcs are, and their level of sentience.

(6). Innate evil

The last and easily most controversial reason for following Sauron is being “naturally bad”. Sauron inherited most of the surviving followers of Morgoth (except, possibly, the Balrog of Moria, which might well have been a free agent), and the Orcs at least fall into this category.

The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, the Orcs belonging to Dark Lords en masse smacks of Calvinist predestination in a world where Free Will holds sway (“nothing was Evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so”). Tolkien was fully aware of the awkward moral implications of a species doomed to be evil, and toyed with multiple solutions (hypothesising the Orcs as corrupted Elves, Men, animals, minor Maiar…), but never resolved the problem to his satisfaction. It accordingly remains one of the more contentious points in the Tolkienian universe.

The other problem is that it has allowed lazy criticism: people who ought to know better (like George R.R. Martin) latch onto The Lord of the Rings as a struggle between good people and Orcs – a black and white, clear-cut, externalised conflict. By doing so, by reducing Sauron’s followers to being evil “just because”, this has overshadowed the other ways Sauron attracts and keeps his servants. Which is a depressing state of affairs – if Tolkien had intended it to be so clear-cut, why have Sam muse about the motives of the fallen Haradrim? Never mind the page space devoted to analysing Gollum’s redemption.


II. Non-Tolkien

Having discussed Tolkien at some length, let us now consider how other fantasy authors have sought to present Dark Lord servants. Beware spoilers past this point, at least for R. Scott Bakker and Joe Abercrombie.

(1) Revenge of the non-humans.

One approach is to present non-humans as hostile to our human protagonists (and audience) because they have been hurt by anthropogenic activity in the past. A good example of this are the Norns in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series – they co-operate with the Dark Lord Ineluki because they want to exterminate these nasty mortal upstarts, and return things to the way they were. Judging by the TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it seems that series will be using a similar framework – the Others are likely a non-human response to the destruction caused by human activity. And then there is Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology, where the “evil” non-humans are not even the aggressors, but simply want to be left alone.

Despite the sense that this approach is intended to deconstruct Tolkien’s Orcs, it ironically ends up echoing the situation of Tolkien’s Dunlendings, Easterlings, and Haradrim, all of whom fought against their fellow humans on the side of Saruman and Sauron. The difference, I think, is in the level of sincerity – Saruman and Sauron are opportunistic outsiders, looking to take advantage of resentment for their own malign purposes (and I will resist the temptation to draw real-life parallels). A victory for Sauron would be great for the God-King, less good for the people who put him there. With Williams and Martin’s series on the other hand, the Dark Lord figure comes from within the victimised group, and the motivation to promote their people’s well-being is much more genuine. If exterminating humanity is the price they need to pay for restoring Osten Ard or Westeros to the way it was, then so be it.

A curious inversion of this is found in C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian. If King Miraz is to be treated as a Dark Lord figure (debatable, given his lack of fantastical attributes, but let’s run with it), then the rebellion of the non-humans is a positive thing – the humans are clearly in the wrong for what they have done to Narnia, and those wrongs need to be righted. Within reason – Nikabrik and those more staunchly hostile to humans actually seek to revive their own Dark Lord figure (Jadis, the White Witch), which would have set up an Evil vs Evil framework, with two Dark Lords (one supernatural and one mundane) facing off against each other.

(2) Fear and threats

Considering the practices of real-world tyrants, and the precedent of Sauron, this actually seems to come up less often than you would think – perhaps because our protagonists are generally not Dark Lord followers and thus often not privy to how the opposing side is kept in line. An interesting exception is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (not fantasy, but at least speculative fiction), where Winston Smith and the reader learn in intimate detail how the Big Brother apparatus deals with thoughtcrime.

In-genre, good examples would be Rowling’s Lord Voldemort – an awful lot of his followers are clearly terrified at what he will do to their families if they oppose him – and Lewis’ Jadis. Jadis operates that most rare of fantasy organisations – a genuinely competent secret police – with a clear and memorable punishment for anyone who displeases her. It is easy to see how she keeps her people in line.

Martin’s Tywin Lannister throws an interesting curveball. He certainly utilises fear and threats to keep order, to the point where the Rains of Castermere becomes a trademark. The question is whether he actually qualifies as a Dark Lord. On balance, I would think not – he is a powerful villain, certainly, but even ignoring his lack of magical ability, I feel he is both too limited in terms of temporal power and too humanised for our purposes, a Grey Lord but not a Dark one.

(3). Innate evil

Recall what I said earlier about Tolkien’s Orcs inadvertently popularising the idea of an irredeemably evil sentient species, overshadowing Sauron’s more complex methods of control? Well, lazy criticism is one offshoot – and fantasy authors who really do have card-carrying evil races in their books is another.

Starting with the writers who play this absolutely straight, Terry Brooks’ gnomes are convenient Dark Lord cannon-fodder in The Sword of Shannara (though their evil there appears to be more misguidedness than malevolence if you squint), while the lesser demons play the same role in The Elfstones of Shannara with much more genocidal intent. The demons’ motivation is identical to their leaders – they literally want to destroy everything, because it is there.  Another straight example is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, where the Svart Alfar seem to follow Dark Lord Rakoth Maugrim without question.

C.S. Lewis has this too, with certain creatures following Jadis, not out of fear (though many do), but because they are naturally bad: hags, et al, which has interesting consequences for Prince Caspian’s non-human rebellion. Our human protagonist – supporting the struggle against his own uncle – runs into these innately evil species, and realises that some very nasty non-humans are on the same side as him.

Then there are the authors who play around with the trope a bit more – Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series features races generally aligned with the Dark Lord, the brutish cavewights and the mysterious ur-viles. However, the latter’s motivations eventually turn out to be a good deal more complex than straight “we’re evil so we’re backing that guy”. Meanwhile, the cannon-fodder role is often played by other beings, courtesy of the Illearth Stone (see below).

Who, exactly, fills the Dark Lord role in R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse books is still debatable (I consider Kellhus to be it myself), but the violent, bestial Sranc are the obvious Orc-analogy. Bakker gives them the spin that they were created explicitly to be a “weapons race” in a war between non-humans, which short-circuits Tolkien’s moral difficulties. There is also the added complication of Kellhus trying to exterminate the Sranc – rather than an evil species following an evil leader, Bakker puts the Dark Lord and the innately evil race on opposing sides. Unless you count Miraz from Prince Caspian as a Dark Lord, I am struggling to think of other precedents.

(4). Giving people what they want

As seen above, Sauron – even more than Morgoth – has an ability to entrap by offering people what they want the most (power, immortality, an unchanging world). This side of him takes a backseat once he loses his fair form: it is one thing to be seduced by an angelic-looking Annatar, and quite another to be seduced by someone as dark and terrible as Third Age Sauron. It is still there, though, and is embodied by the temptation of the One Ring.

By extension, the non-Tolkien Dark Lords who seek to use this approach tend to be the ones who are not only the most open to encouraging people to switch sides, but the ones with the capacity to be genuinely charming and charismatic. They are tempting people, in a Satanic manner – a temptation to be differentiated from the sincere desire to provide restitution (a la Ineluki), since the point of the exercise is trickery.

A classic example is Lewis’ Jadis. She lures in Edmund with Turkish Delight, and then the promise of power – for his part, Edmund sees this pact as a way of getting one-up on his siblings, since he is really just a petty little boy. Another likely case is Bakker’s Kellhus (as mentioned earlier, this depends on him actually turning out to be a Dark Lord). Kellhus offers the salvation of the world from the alien horror of the No-God, and (even better) claims to have re-written the metaphysical laws of the universe so that sorcerers are no longer automatically damned. Save the world, and save your soul – if only you follow Bakker’s Anti-Christ…

Rowling’s Lord Voldemort keeps temptation in his toolbox, despite losing his charming exterior some time ago, and his excessive fondness for revelling in his sociopathy. What Voldemort offers is basically the chance for racists (Malfoy) and bullies (Umbridge) to enact their every dark desire. Follow him, and he will make you feel powerful (Quirrell) and part of the in-group (Pettigrew). He appeals to the dark side of our natures, but the temptation is real, because that dark side exists.

(5). Magical control

The opposite of the tempting Dark Lord is the one who enslaves you by sheer malign power. Sauron does both, of course, but then he really is the Dark Lord’s Dark Lord.

Donaldson’s Lord Foul does not offer you what you want (unless you are a Raver and just hate creation). The only temptation he offers is that of Despair: the idea that whatever you do will only be for his benefit, and that you might as well give up now. But if he does not offer anything (except to the self-loathing) what sense does it make, even for an innately evil race, to actually follow him? Simple – he has the power to warp and corrupt life via the Illearth Stone, which (rather than cavewights and ur-viles) is how he finds his cannon-fodder. Lord Foul has no need to tempt when he can, in a sense, manufacture followers.

George R.R. Martin’s Others also utilise magical chains – though in their case, their choice of control is necromancy. The fallen literally become their unthinking slaves, which also neatly gets around the moral quandary of evil cannon-fodder. The Wights are, after all, dead to start with, so hacking them to pieces and burning them is an entirely guilt-free experience.

(6) Miscellaneous modes of manipulation

The non-Tolkien Dark Lord who, I think, makes the most extensive use of propaganda is Kellhus (provisos noted above). He not only promises salvation, both temporal and spiritual, but he has taken on the trappings of a Messiah figure, right down to crucifixion (or in his case, circumfixion). He uses his knowledge of the contributing factors of events to read and manipulate people. By the second trilogy, this has essentially rendered him into a God-King as far as the peoples of the Three Seas are concerned.

In contrast to Kellhus, who has yet to let the mask really slip, Joe Abercrombie’s Bayaz not only tears it off, but at the end of The First Law trilogy, veritably dances all over it. Bayaz does use a degree of magical control to keep people where he wants them (he is First of the Magi for a reason), but the true point of the books is that he utilises lies, propaganda, and narrative expectations to portray an Evil vs Evil setting as a Good vs Evil one. Once the rug has been pulled, he is quite content to fall back on magical bullying and threats.

Last, but not least, we encounter the relationship between Dark Lord Xykon and his goblin underling Redcloak in The Order of the Stick. Xykon himself uses a combination of magical control, random acts of sociopathic oppression, and innately evil races to get the job done – but what makes the situation interesting is that this is a case of the underlings manipulating the Dark Lord, rather than vice versa. Redcloak’s interest is furthering the cause of the goblin people and the deity he worships; following Xykon is merely the means to an end.

That concludes our lengthy look at how fantasy Dark Lords fulfil one of their key criteria for existence – gaining and keeping followers. Tolkien’s Sauron provides the most thorough case-study, presenting us with a combination of sticks, carrots, and lies, together with the unanswered metaphysical role of the Orc. Subsequent authors have clearly leaned heavily on different features of this Sauronian framework for their own Dark Lords: even the deconstructive ones owe something to the way Sauron reeled in his human followers. The better authors, however, pointedly steer clear of simply providing their Force of Darkness with an innately evil race of slaves. If one must go down that route, it is advisable to put one’s own spin on it.


One thought on “Why serve the Dark Lord?

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XIII | A Phuulish Fellow

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