Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Dark Lord

In Genre Fantasies – particularly those modelled on J R R Tolkien's work – the role of principal antagonist is often taken by a DL. DLs are, or aspire to be, the Prince of this world, and as such are a malignant Parody of the Gods. Alberich in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle (1850-1876) is a crucial prototype.

The DL may not be explicitly a Devil or an Antichrist, though names like Sauron, Ba'alzamon and Lord Foul indicate that he most usually is. Perimal Darkling, in P C Hodgell's Chronicles of the Kencyrath (from 1982), is only marginally even a personality; he is, or has become, an almost abstract force of Thinning, Debasement and entropy. Tad Williams's Storm King in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, by contrast, has fairly good reason for his machinations – the wrongs done by earlier generations of humans to him and his people.

The DL is usually male, save in Parody. He operates under constraints or Prohibitions, and is thus often vulnerable to Quibbles; he often is, or has been, a Malign Sleeper who has been woken by the investigations of the unwary curious, as in Glen Cook's Black Company sequence (exceptional in possessing not one but at least two DLs, one of them female and, in later books, semi-retired and reformed). He is often, or has been, the former servant of some even greater DL, and has often been already defeated but not destroyed eons before.

DLs are frequently rooted in whatever political or religious figures happened to be worrying readers at the time. Tolkien's Sauron, for example, combines features of the dictators of the 1930s, while Terry Goodkind's Darken Rahl in The Sword of Truth sequence (1994 onwards) combines totalitarian rule, the self-righteous superficial reasonableness of cult leaders like Jim Jones, and the seduction and physical torture of children. Darken Rahl is closer than most DLs to an Antichrist. In The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) the wounding of the land specifically parallels the effect of the Industrial Revolution – slagheaps, polluted air and water – and of World War I. Much genre fantasy simply copies this. Tad Williams manages some interesting variations in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, many of them paralleling the sense of bad faith coming home to roost that permeates the trilogy. The wounding of the Land is something of a specialty of Stephen R Donaldson's Lord Foul, the variety of whose operations interestingly parallels those of Jehovah against Egypt in Exodus.

The DL's wounding of the land is usually only part of a broader Ritual of Desecration. Lord Foul wishes to escape the world of flesh and return to the pure eternity from which he has been expelled; the Storm King wishes to overturn the natural order to facilitate turning back time to when he was alive and not undead; Darken Rahl proves to be the agent of a deathgod who wishes to break into the world of the living. In all these cases, the Wrongness originally experienced by the protagonists is only a mundane extension of a far greater spiritual malaise or blasphemy to come.

DLs are often surprisingly stupid; the plots of fantasies which contain them tend to be based on the assumption that Evil understands good less well than good understands evil. Thus Sauron is supposedly incapable of guessing that the Alliance will try to destroy the Ring rather than use it against him. Darken Rahl, admittedly in a book which takes its title, Wizard's First Rule (1994), from the perception that people are stupid, allows himself to believe he has trapped his enemy into a position where he cannot possibly lie about the workings of a dangerous ritual (see Magic). Donaldson's Lord Foul, returned from a first defeat by Covenant, tries to trick, corrupt and gloat over him yet again, with inevitable results. [RK]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.