As an English major a Catholic liberal arts school, I was required to take a semester-long class on John Milton, in which we read the entirety of Paradise Lost as well as its less well known sequel, Paradise Regained. Everyone knows the plot of Paradise Lost: Satan rebels in Heaven! He tempts Adam and Eve and thrusts humanity into sin! Drama! Fireworks! Fallen angels! Fewer people could tell you the plot of Paradise Regained, which is about Jesus being tempted in the desert. Unlike his more bombastic Infernal counterpart, the Miltonian Jesus is a prototypical modern hero: reserved, inwardly-focused, full of doubt. There’s something to be appreciated there, of course, but when it comes to Milton, people gravitate toward Satan for a reason. Which is that he’s cool as hell (pun intended).
I noticed a similar pattern with Dante’s Divine Comedy, another epic poem I studied extensively in undergrad. Everyone knows Inferno, in which sinners are punished relentlessly under the frozen eye of a massive, imprisoned Satan. They do not so much remember Paradiso, or, God help us, Purgatorio, which is the poetry equivalent of sitting in the DMV.
My point is that people like dark stuff. They like capital-e Evil (which should be noted is not the not the same as the far more destructive everyday evil we encounter in our own world). They like jagged, towering castles carved of black stone guarded by swooping, poison-clawed dragons. They like Darth Vader. They like Sauron. They like Hela in Thor: Ragnorak. The reason being that these characters all kick ass.
I too have a soft spot for a dark lord (or lady). But I find that they’re at their most interesting when they’re allowed to be the main character of their own narrative—when it turns out that they are not so dark, after all. Milton was arguably the first to do it, thus creating a long history of sympathizing with the devil. And so I am proud to present to you five books that feature not-so-dark lords—and the stories that make them interesting.
Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones
This one’s a classic in the field of not-so-dark-lord literature. Set in a high fantasy world, it features a group that leads tourists through a typical fantasy storyline, with wizard guides, various quests, and so on. Of course there has to be a dark lord, who is chosen more or less at random every year. The Wizard Derk has been given the dubious task of playing the Dark Lord in this go-around, and things start going badly from the start, after a dragon mistakes him for a real Dark Lord. It only gets worse from there, although his exploits do give us a delightful parody of the extruded fantasy product of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The Sundering Duology by Jacqueline Carey
Jacqueline Carey is more well-known for her Kushiel’s Dart books, and while I do enjoy them, I always liked the Sundering a bit more. It takes the Lord of the Rings, files off the serial numbers, and then tells the story from the “dark” side’s perspective: after a war between the gods, Satoris (the not-so-dark lord in question, who, like other misunderstood dark lords we could name, offers a gift to humankind the other gods don’t approve of) flees to the mortal realms, where his key advisor has to deal with stopping a prophecy concerning Satoris’ downfall. It’s a twist on an old favorite, although of course the classifications of “dark” and “light” don’t mean quite as much as they do in the source material, and the familiar story becomes a beautifully-written tragedy, a meditation on the true evil of dividing the world into light and dark, good and not-so-good.
The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov
This book does the same thing that the Sundering duology does, except it doesn’t even bother to file off the serial numbers. It will not surprise you to learn that the book hasn’t been officially published in the US (but it has been translated into English). Like the Sundering, it flips the script on Mordor, with Sauron being presented as a benevolent king keen on ushering in a technological revolution and Gondor being presented as… problematic. It’s all a surprising twist on a narrative we think we know, asking us to consider the concept of (fantasy) history being written by the victors. In this book, the Nazgul are scientists, the One Ring is jewelry, and the elves are racist. While I think the Sundering explores these themes with more eloquence, I could hardly write a list about not-so-dark lords and fail to include the Last Ringbearer.
To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust
In the first of our Paradise Lost-inspired books on the list, Steven Brust imagines the war between God and Satan as an epic fantasy, with not one but four not-so-dark lords, as he recasts the rulers of Hell from the Ars Goetia (Satan, Lucifer, Belial, and Leviathian) as rulers of the four principalities in Heaven. When Yahweh, who rules over them all, decides to rebuild Heaven, a process that will kill thousands of angels, Satan pushes back, raising ethical concerns,. And thus, a war ensues. Much like the fifth book on our list, To Reign in Hell flips our cultural expectations about who the “good guy” is supposed to be, giving us a dark lord we expect to be good—and a noble hero we expect to be evil.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Another Milton-inspired project, His Dark Materials offers a unique twist on this dark lord business. The dark lord in question is in fact a classic dark lord. He’s a cruel, petty tyrant. But here’s the twist—he’s God. The joy of subverting the dark lord trope is that it forces us to reckon with our own understanding of “good” and “evil.” All of the other books on this list do so by presenting the dark lord as a protagonist, and usually as a good guy to some degree. But His Dark Materials does this by taking the ultimate symbol of goodness—Western civilization’s Gandalf, if you will—and thrusts him into the role of the ultimate villain: the Dark Lord.
Originally published March 2022
Cassandra Rose Clarke is the author of Star’s End, Our Lady of the Ice, and The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, as well as several novels for young adults. She holds an M.A. in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin, and attended Clarion West in 2010. Her work has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. You can check out Cassandra’s newest novel, The Beholden, here.