Tough Travelling: Dark Lords and Ladies
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re recalling our favourite DARK LORDS and LADIES in Fantasy. Here’s what DWJ had to say on the matter…
Dark Lady. There is never one of these – so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.
Dark Lord. There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS (forces of Terror, bound to his will), of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see COLOUR CODING) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your COMPANIONS, without too much effort. However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by MAGIC. So be careful.
A big thank you to Theo, Graeme, Asha, Nils, and Beth for their recommendations…
Ok let’s start with the obvious one – Gorthaur. Once an angelic Maia he was the most loyal and powerful servant of Morgoth (the original Dark Lord and one-time ainur) in his fortress of Thangorodrim. Gorthaur slew Finrod Felagund, brother of Galadriel, and escaped the ruin of Morgoth and the wreck of Beleriland to reinvent himself (in a rebranding exercise to rival Windscale becoming Sellafield) as Sauron. Then he did all the traditional great Dark Lord things (piloted by Morgoth) of cycling through tyrannical empire building, humiliating defeats and ruinous returns until a couple of hobbits decided enough of that shit.
Nils: Haha!! Thank fuck for the Hobbits!
Bayaz from the First Law books is a great example of a post-modern Dark Lord; sitting in plain sight throughout the whole story while pulling all the strings in the background. Maybe his counterpart The Prophet on the other side of the conflict is just as bad? Maybe not. We don’t have our nose rubbed in his evil quite so much.
Jadis from Narnia is a Dark Lady with a frosty theme who wasn’t content with just conquering and ruining one world. Plus, she was mean to talking animals, so of course we have to hate her.
Theo: – Good call there, while Tolkein was busy inventing Dark Lords, his friend and contemporary C.S.Lewis was inventing a truly magnificent Dark Lady!
Graeme: Dracula probably also qualifies, less in his original incarnation where he was just a single dude who sometimes turned into rats, but more in later interpretations that positioned him as the King of all Vampires.
My personal favourite Dark Lord from recent books has to be Darvezian from Spiderlight. Perfectly fulfilling his role as the Big Bad while also providing just enough of a twist to make the story stand out as something new and unique.
I’m also going to toss in Regal from the Farseer books, what he lacks in power, he more than makes up for in being the most odious little bastard to ever walk the Duchies.
It seems remiss not to mention Diana Wynne Jones’s own Dark Lord of Derkholm! Derk, a rather mild-mannered wizard, is rather forced into the role (someone has to be the Dark Lord to satisfy the tourists, and he’s got the short straw) but he undertakes the role with gusto, as do his family – his wife, Mara, particularly enjoys her role as glamorous Dark Lady. As you would expect from DWJ, it’s a clever subversion of the tropes!
I’ll also throw in Annev from Justin Call’s The Silence of the Gods series – as this is an origin story and an unfinished series, we haven’t quite got to his full Dark-Lordiness yet, but the events of Master Artificer make it pretty clear he’s going to be one of the Darkest of them all. He might think he’s acting in the name of necessity, but his progression into evil is quite chilling.
Dark Lords/Ladies are definitely one of my most loved tropes in fantasy, and my favourite has always been Sauron, who Theo has already mentioned. What I find fascinating about Sauron is that throughout the trilogy he is unseen, the Eye is his symbol but he is a presence that is felt, a threat which spreads through the lands of Middle-Earth, a foe you can never physically face. And this fear of the unknown makes Sauron the ultimate terrifying Dark Lord.
Theo: while I totally agree that Sauron’s unseen nature is one of his most distinctive (?!) features, it is the one of three things that frustrated me most about Lord of The Rings – which is what first motivated me to write my own high fantasy. (The full list being (a) a Dark Lord who was a threat rather than a presence or a personality (b) a great weapon that nobody knew/understood/could say how it worked and (c) too few leading female characters)
Nils: So we all know Dark Lords tend to dominate the fantasy genre, but I’d like to give a shoutout to three Dark Ladies.
Firstly I’ve chosen Morgana, Arthur Pendragon’s half sister. She’s been portrayed in many different ways but almost always as a villain. She briefly appears in Giles Kristian’s Lancelot and Camelot and we see that she is not an innately evil sorceress, but a life of being an illegitimate child has forced her hand to become powerful.
My second choice is The White Queen from E.J. Beaton’s upcoming debut The Councillor. In some ways like Sauron, she is an unseen threatening force throughout this first book, as most believe she died in battle. Yet her malicious legacy spreads, and we hear grand tales of how her sorcery could control a person’s will and how she fought in battle on the back of a Chimera. If rumours are to be believed and she has returned, she’ll be one terrifying Dark Lady to face in book two.
Lastly, I have to mention Snow White. I hear you grumbling at me that she’s not a dark lady, she’s the innocent young lady wronged by a tyrant step-mother/queen. Nope, not when Neil Gaiman writes Snow White. In Snow, Glass, Apples, Gaiman turns the fairytale completely on its head and presents to us a character who has a much more sinister side and is the true Dark Lady. This retelling was originally a short story and then adapted to a graphic novel which is the version I have read. Be warned though, it’s not for kids!
I love that fantasy has evolved since DWJ’s Tours through Fantasyland, and women are now celebrated as just as villainous as their male counter-parts (although saying that, Morgana and Jadis were both around long before DWJ…)
My favourite Dark Lady is of course the Dark Lady, the Red God of Anna Stephen’s Godblind trilogy. Although a god and trapped beyond the Veil, she has a much bigger presence than some previous villains named. Her depravity and affect on particular characters was what made her truly terrifying to me. That utterly crazed, cult-like devotion of her followers – part fear but equal part love – and herself completely devoid of any scrap of humanity or compassion. She epitomises that deific distain of anything mortal.
Your traditional Dark Lords, such as Sauron or Eddings’ similarly absent Torak, are all well and good, but I have enjoyed those stories which portray a Dark Lord’s (or Lady’s) gradual descent into villainy (or rise into power, if that’s your perspective). Anna Smith Spark’s Empire of Dust trilogy follows Marith Altrersyr’s inexorable journey from prince, to mercenary, to king and we witness the darkness within him grow and twist him as the story continues. There is a complexity to his character that is a wonderful representation of the ways in which the Fantasy genre has evolved from villains who are Evil for Evil’s sake.
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