Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Roose Boltons Pet Leech

Evil and Dark Lords in fantasy

41 posts in this topic

I recently ran across this quote from George R.R. Martin:

"Much as I admire Tolkien, and I do admire Tolkien — he’s been a huge influence on me, and his Lord of the Rings is the mountain that leans over every other fantasy written since and shaped all of modern fantasy — there are things about it, the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, Good versus Evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon. We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.

It is certainly a genuine, legitimate topic as the core of fantasy, but I think the battle between Good and Evil is waged within the individual human hearts. We all have good in us and we all have evil in us, and we may do a wonderful good act on Tuesday and a horrible, selfish, bad act on Wednesday, and to me, that’s the great human drama of fiction. I believe in gray characters, as I’ve said before. We all have good and evil in us and there are very few pure paragons and there are very few orcs. A villain is a hero of the other side, as someone said once, and I think there’s a great deal of truth to that, and that’s the interesting thing. In the case of war, that kind of situation, so I think some of that is definitely what I’m aiming at."

(Underlined, because the board won't let met put it the quote in italics).

This has prompted me to write a couple of pieces, that I thought I'd share:

http://www.nyareads.com/2016/11/19/portrayals-evil-fantasy-daniel-stride/

This was a guest post and was intended as a comment on Martin's criticism. I have also written a longer (as in 2700-word) essay on the viability of the Dark Lord concept within the genre: 

https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/fixing-dark-lords/

Suffice to say, I think Martin's criticism is misplaced here.

Edited by Roose Boltons Pet Leech

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I actually disagree with Martin here and clearly you should trust me over the 3rd most successful fantasy author of all time.

One thing I've really enjoyed in the fiction I read is the question of why people MAKE Dark Lords. The concept of good and evil exists entirely in the human heart (as well as in any divine beings you may believe in) but it is one which is people apply to make themselves feel better about themselves or more justified. Joe Abcerombie played with the concept a lot as the idea of the Prophet being a "Dark Lord" is something which served Bayaz's political ambitions well. However, it was also a persona which dictators have put upon themselves even as they want their populace to both love and fear them. Cults of personality are certainly things which work fine in RL and are a thing which exist to elevate a monster above each other.

What is Big Brother in 1984 but a Dark Lord? The irony that he doesn't actually exist being one which helps rather than hurts, IMHO.

I love both your articles, though! Thanks for sharing them.

Edited by C.T. Phipps

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I tend to agree with that one Gene Wolfe essay where he notes that Tolkien knock-offs have their place.  I'm fine with dark lords and farmboy saviors and all that.  Just another type of fantasy that's there to appreciate when I'm in the mood for such a style. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think it really depends on what you want from the work.

Great recommendations with Gormenghast, Thomas Covenant, and other works.

In The Rules of Supervillainy, I actually did the book from the would-be Dark Lord's perspective. Gary has been kicked around his entire life and wants the respect and worship of the world around him. He starts off small but the more people gravitate him, the bigger his dreams become and the larger the hole in his spirit becomes.

In Cthulhu Armageddon, the enemy is a Dark Lord despite being a Cthulhu Mythos book but it's entirely because the protagonist continues to view him as such no matter what. The depiction of such is one which exists entirely in the view of the protagonist who refuses to see anything but the monster.

Stephen King also plays around with the concept of the Dark Lord. The Crimson King is the person who horrifies and terrifies and drives Roland along with the Man in Black but this is something which exists primarily in Roland's mind. He wants to be the only person who can defeat either of them but there's a very real question as to whether he's needed at all to defeat either.

I loved Rhianna Pratchett's Overlord because the whole question of "who is good and who is evil" is reduced down to the fact it depends on who the peasants are angry at right now. The Lady of the Black Company is certainly Female Sauron but the protagonists are mercenaries and whether she does an objectively worse job than the heroes is entirely up in the air.

Warhammer 40K is all about the fact the Dark Lord is a corpse now and one worshiped as "The Good Guy." Indeed, the more the Horus Heresy continues, the more it's evident that as BAD AS WARHAMMER 40K IS, it's actually BETTER than if the God Emperor of Mankind had been awake and alive.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@Roose Boltons Pet Leech Strangely enough, Martin speaks highly of many of the authors you mentioned and he sites Tolkien as his greatest influence and inspiration. In truth the way he disparages the trope is both simplistic and dismissive making his argument almost a strawman and to be honest I have not come across it that often, though it is part of some of the less reputable yet still popular examples of the genre.

I also think that he both sells his own work short with the bit about the grayness of characters. The way I see it there is more of morality in theory and in practice. For one there are all sorts of evil with different motivations and reasons. Joffrey is an example of a villain generated by complete lack of checks and balances. The Mountain is a tool for others and Ramsay has slipped through the cracks. I consider your namesake to be much closer to the machiavelian ruler than Tywin whose primary motivation I think is personal vindication, much like his children. And there are characters doing bad things for motives readers can empathize with. I'm hesitant to comment on the Others as we don't know how they will play out, but so far they seem more like a looming natural disaster. In every case the blacker characters do not exist in a vacuum, are not the source of all evil and are not the focus of the story. More over we have plenty of actions with both good and bad consequences, intentions measured against means, consequences and feasibility, unethical actions for benevolent reasons (this category includes both Ned and Dany) and compromises dictated by necessity. Morality does not play on one level and yes, whether success should be a criterion is addressed, or at the very least arises.

I'm not opposed to the trope in principal; there are certainly examples from real life who embody it with such audacity most self-respecting fantasists would hesitate to employ. And a personalized threat to the protagonist is a great hook. (It should be noted though that Sauron never make a personal appearance). But then again I believe in whatever works. It all depends on how it is handled and what the writer is trying to achieve.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

And then you have Koontz, who although not a fantasy author as such, certainly blends fantastical elements into his stories, along with mystery, drama, sci-fi and a dash of horror.

And in Koontz's books you find very much a re-affirmation of the concept of Good vs Evil, and yes, although it plays off within the heart of each human being, Koontz very much makes it clear that there is a Side to pick, and a Cause to champion. His villains are complex and psychologically deep, but they are villains nevertheless. And the good guys, tortured souls that they may be, are undoubtedly clearly Good.

His tales don't leave you feeling empty, purposeless and filled with a sense of meaninglessness and despair, as King and others in the genre tend to do. Instead, they leave you feeling inspired, invigorated by the triumph of the human spirit, reassured in the goodness that the human heart is capable of, and reminded that Good and Evil are most certainly two distinct, opposite Forces that exist in this world.

Which is in part what makes him my favorite author of the last decade or so.

Edited by Free Northman Reborn

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm a big believer in the "tropes used well" axiom. Dark Lords by themselves are only boring without new twists from the author. I agree with Stonebender that sometimes that's just the kind of book you want to read. 

RBPL, great essay. I like your mention of "flat greys" and "rounded blacks" in terms of villains/antagonists. Ultimately, a well-written character will stand out. Greyness does not automatically equal interesting. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, Lord Sidious said:

Got to say, feeling kind of unloved :(, I may need a hug.

Kids these days, right?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 hours ago, Darth Richard II said:

Kids these days, right?

I know, Millenials just have no idea of the amount of time,effort and dedication it takes to be a Dark Lord.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
22 hours ago, The Sleeper said:
On ‎11‎/‎20‎/‎2016 at 1:08 PM, C.T. Phipps said:

I actually disagree with Martin here and clearly you should trust me over the 3rd most successful fantasy author of all time.

One thing I've really enjoyed in the fiction I read is the question of why people MAKE Dark Lords. The concept of good and evil exists entirely in the human heart (as well as in any divine beings you may believe in) but it is one which is people apply to make themselves feel better about themselves or more justified. Joe Abcerombie played with the concept a lot as the idea of the Prophet being a "Dark Lord" is something which served Bayaz's political ambitions well. However, it was also a persona which dictators have put upon themselves even as they want their populace to both love and fear them. Cults of personality are certainly things which work fine in RL and are a thing which exist to elevate a monster above each other.

What is Big Brother in 1984 but a Dark Lord? The irony that he doesn't actually exist being one which helps rather than hurts, IMHO.

I love both your articles, though! Thanks for sharing them.

 

I agree that this is another good article.

I like your point about some modern dictators being Dark Lords.  Most of them are Sarumans, but a few of them are Saurons (say, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao).  Some of them indeed, like Kim Il Sung, see themselves as gods, and demand worship from their subjects.  I don't think most people think of George Orwell as a SFF author, but he was one of the most successful.

On ‎11‎/‎20‎/‎2016 at 3:25 PM, C.T. Phipps said:

I think it really depends on what you want from the work.

Great recommendations with Gormenghast, Thomas Covenant, and other works.

In The Rules of Supervillainy, I actually did the book from the would-be Dark Lord's perspective. Gary has been kicked around his entire life and wants the respect and worship of the world around him. He starts off small but the more people gravitate him, the bigger his dreams become and the larger the hole in his spirit becomes.

In Cthulhu Armageddon, the enemy is a Dark Lord despite being a Cthulhu Mythos book but it's entirely because the protagonist continues to view him as such no matter what. The depiction of such is one which exists entirely in the view of the protagonist who refuses to see anything but the monster.

Stephen King also plays around with the concept of the Dark Lord. The Crimson King is the person who horrifies and terrifies and drives Roland along with the Man in Black but this is something which exists primarily in Roland's mind. He wants to be the only person who can defeat either of them but there's a very real question as to whether he's needed at all to defeat either.

I loved Rhianna Pratchett's Overlord because the whole question of "who is good and who is evil" is reduced down to the fact it depends on who the peasants are angry at right now. The Lady of the Black Company is certainly Female Sauron but the protagonists are mercenaries and whether she does an objectively worse job than the heroes is entirely up in the air.

Warhammer 40K is all about the fact the Dark Lord is a corpse now and one worshiped as "The Good Guy." Indeed, the more the Horus Heresy continues, the more it's evident that as BAD AS WARHAMMER 40K IS, it's actually BETTER than if the God Emperor of Mankind had been awake and alive.

Following on from our discussions on Tolkien,  I see the Lady as being what Galadriel would have been like had she accepted the Ring, or perhaps Sauron at the stage when he still had some benevolent impulses.  She is very ruthless, but her empire is not Mordor, nor does she rule purely by terror;  she has a considerable amount of support among the general population, and at various points, Croaker acknowledges the high standard of her justice.  She was prepared to put her life on the line do protect humanity, albeit, out of pride rather than a true desire to do good. By the end of the series, I actually felt rather sorry for her.  For all of her brilliance, she'd lost everything - her political power, her husband, her daughter, her looks and (worst of all for her) her magic - albeit, she does recover that right at the end.

Crucially, the people she's fighting against are no better, and in all likelihood worse, than she is. And, for all of his moralising, Croaker and his comrades are up to their necks in bloodshed.

Edited by SeanF

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Done.

Out of interest, would Terry Goodkind's evil chicken qualify as a Dark Lord?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, SeanF said:

Done.

Out of interest, would Terry Goodkind's evil chicken qualify as a Dark Lord?

I think the protagonist qualifies as a Dark Lord.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, SeanF said:

Done.

Out of interest, would Terry Goodkind's evil chicken qualify as a Dark Lord?

The Darkest.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Doctor Doom
Darth Vader
Palpatine
Sauron
Saruman
Voldemort
Bayaz/The Prophet
Darkseid (oddly, not Thanos who is more of a loner)
Black Adam (only recently, though)
Lord Foul
The Lady
King Koopa
Doctor Robotnik
Ganondorf
The Wicked Witch of the West
The White Witch of Narnia
Dracula (Castlevania and many other incarnations)
Satan (incarnations where he's free and active)
The Kingpin
Lex Luthor (owner of Metropolis version)
Ming the Merciless (one of the originals!)
The Master (Fallout--oddly not Doctor Who's Master who never actually has any followers)
The Dalek Emperor
The God Emperor of Mankind (whose greatest trick is that he convinced people he was the Good Guy)
Horus of the Horus Heresy
The Red Skull
Magneto
Black Adam
Professor Moriarty (his empire being dealt with offscreen)

I'm iffy about Kingpin and Lex honestly but I think they're shown to "own" New York and Metropolis almost completely sometimes.

Others are Dark Lords at some points in their careers and not others,

Edited by C.T. Phipps

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Darth Richard II said:

Eh, I dunno about Magneto, thats iffy.

Well, he's ruled a couple of nations in the past but mostly is a figure I'd classify as Neutral as often as not Lawful Evil. The moment the US government made Sentinels and Weapon X built a death camp, Magneto's war on humanity looked less and less like terrorism than really justified paranoia.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
20 hours ago, C.T. Phipps said:

I think the protagonist qualifies as a Dark Lord.

An unusual case of the author unintentionally making his protagonist the Dark Lord.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0