Monday, August 6, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The Dark Lord

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for an entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be treading under the cold, oppressive shadow of the dark lord.

Perhaps most prevalent in works of fantasy, the dark lord (or lady) is exactly what it sounds like: an evil overlord bent on dominating the world (and/or galaxy) who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He rules his forces with an iron fist of terror and his reign means oppression and misery for the freedom-loving denizens of the realm.

Often the protagonist of a story will be tasked with preventing this rise to power, or toppling the cruel regime if he's already secured the throne. This task usually proves beyond daunting due to the seemingly infinite power and military might at the dark lord's command.

It's not hard to see where this trope likely comes from. Our history books are filled to the brim with the names of conquerorskings, emperors, and dictators that made their marks on the world via brutal, tyrannical means--marching armies across the countryside in bloody campaigns of conquest, stifling the liberty of the very citizens they swore to serve, and plunging the world into war. It's only logical to conclude that these larger-than-life figures have influenced the stories we've been telling each other over the years, from the fables and folklore of centuries past to modern bestsellers.

The dark lord is such an obvious metaphor for real world despotism that some authors have actually had to go out of their way to deny seemingly overt symbolism in their work, including fantasy titan J.R.R. Tolkien, whose use of the trope has undeniably influenced countless works that followed.

In Tolkien's seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, a humble halfling must prevent the return of the titular character, the dark lord Sauron, who had previously brought war to Middle-earth in his quest for dominance.

The story seems (by some) to be a metaphor for the Second World War, with Sauron standing in for Hitler, and other characters or groups in the book symbolizing various players in the war depending on who you ask (my personal favorite has the Ents playing the role of America). Tolkien firmly denied this theory in the foreword to the second edition, leaving history aficionados wanting.

The primary universe that my own fantasy stories have taken place in thus far (one of which will be seeing publication soon--stay tuned) definitely has its own share of tyrant kings and crooked emperors. My two biggest influences when it comes to fantasy are probably Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. However, the power struggles and political machinations in my "forged realm" are definitely more akin to Martin's War of the Roses-inspired Game of Thrones than to Tolkien's mold, so I don't think I have any genuine dark lords to my name just yet.

That isn't to say that I don't enjoy a good old fashioned evil overlord. I've never been one to balk at the use of tropes like this one (as this series has no doubt shown by now), in fact, I quite enjoy them when handled well. And there's nothing quite so compelling for a sympathetic hero as a nigh unstoppable foe bent on world domination. So keep the dark lords coming, I say.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind

Recommended Viewing:
Star Wars
Legend
Harry Potter

Recommended Gaming:
Overlord
Final Fantasy VI
The Legend of Zelda

17 comments:

  1. Nothing like an Evil Overlord to level the storyworld into the ground!

    I love this trope too, though I don't use it in my fiction. The fascination with it, at least in my case, comes from the fact that such an apparently insurmountable opposition as an Overlord offers demands an enormous effort and sacrifice from the protagonist -- which will bring inevitable change to the characters & the world. And I love irreversible change in stories like nothing else!

    Great trope post, as always. *bows head*

    And damn you, why do you torture me? What story's to be published? Where? Aaargh!!

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    1. Thanks, Vero! Couldn't agree more. The most compelling antagonists are those that orchestrate dramatic change in the protagonist, either intentionally or to their own doom. And I think you hit the nail on the head with this being key in how attractive these dark lord characters are.

      And don't worry, there will be an official announcement about that publication coming soon. ;)

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  2. Darkness from Legend - now that was a cool dark lord.
    Haven't used a dark lord in my writing but I do enjoy reading stories that feature one.

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    1. Much agreed. Tim Curry makes for one hell of a villain!

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  3. I love hearing other people confess that they enjoy well-done tropes - I do too, but it's always hard to admit! My favorite version of the dark lord/lady has to be the type used in Firefly (among others, but Firefly is the first example that comes to mind) - where the all-powerful overlord is not all bad, actually does bring peace and stability to the universe/kingdom/whatever, but has some definitely evil methods for keeping that peace and stability, and is completely ruthless in his/her treatment of those who would challenge the rule.

    Somehow that even seems more compelling to me than an outright evil ruler!

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    1. I agree, Louise! I love getting looks into the motivations of the dark lord, especially if it turns out that he's got some damn good reasons for doing the things he does. FOr instance, as tough as it was to get through certain parts of The Silmarillion, I loved reading Sauron's backstory and finding out just how he became the Big Bad of Tolkien's universe.

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. Love this post! And oh how I love a juicy "dark lord" character. (Yes, I might look all sweet and rosy, but I would so play the evil villian. Muahahaha!) ;)

    Did you ever catch the TV series American Gothic? On a smaller scale, would you say Lucas Buck was a "dark lord"? In case you're not fam with the show: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Gothic_%28TV_series%29

    Vid: http://youtu.be/KRtdNoCI-Bg

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    1. Thanks, Tracy!

      I never really watched that show, but it definitely sounds like Lucas Buck has all the makings of a modern dark lord. Sounds like a fascinating show; I might try to give it a watch at some point. Too bad it's only one season!

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  5. I have fond memories of dark lords in like Tolkien's Sauron, Lloyd Alexander's Sauron, and Robert Jordan's Shaitan. In my own writing I've yet to use that particular trope. It feels a bit outdated, although I'm sure someone out there can do justice to that particular type of character.

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    1. That's the danger with tropes, isn't it? Most of them, even the good ones, are dangerously close to cliche territory. Some of the best authors are those who can add a unique flavor to well worn archetypes and make them feel new again.

      Thanks for stopping by, Bard.

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  6. I've always been a fan of Hank Scorpio from 'The Simpsons'. Now there's a villain who read the memo to evil overlords. Loves his people so they're loyal in return. He's ruthlessly practical, too.

    M.C. Hana

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    1. Hank Scorpio is awesome. That's one of my all-time favorite episodes. In fact, I'm going to have to go hunt it down now that you've reminded me!

      Thanks for reading, M.C.!

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  7. A friend lamented to me years ago about how much he wished that the real world had clear 'good' and clear 'bad'. The real world is always somewhere in between, when you're really honest about it, and the dark lord is such a *relief* from the no-right-answers kind of conflict in real life. There may be insurmountable odds, and sacrifice, and pain, and all manner of conflict, but *dawgonnit* the hero is *right*.

    The dark lord: the guy you can punch in the face and not feel bad about it.

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    1. Absolutely! Excellent observation, Chloe. There are usually no moral quandaries when there's a dark lord involved. One thing they didn't debate about in Lord of the Rings is how the orcs would survive after their economy collapsed along with Sauron's tower. Eff 'em! They're orcs!

      Then again, I also enjoy works where a sympathetic light is cast in the direction of the dark lord (or the orcs, for that matter).

      Thanks for stopping by, Chloe.

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  8. I'll never forget Tim Curry in "Legend." He was awesome, and the make-up was scary! O.o

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    1. Definitely agreed! Excellent performance by Curry, and that movie is one of the best examples of "old school" special effects from that era.

      Thanks for the comment, Lexa.

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  9. Great list and Curry was great. Too bad he was under all that make-up.

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Thanks for reading!