The Everlasting Trope: The Dark Lord

Merry, merry February! This year is already in a hurry.
(Note: I still have to sound out February every single time I spell it. Also, Wednesday and beautiful.)
So I wanted to talk about another major trope, although this one isn’t necessarily one of my favorites: The Evil Dark Lord.
So as with previous entries, I am going to talk about both the issues with the trope, and why it resonates nevertheless:
Here’s one basic problem with this trope: it usually feels so generic, even lazy. The Dark Lord’s motivations are not examined, he’s just pure evil because reasons. He’s the wall that the heroes need to scale, and just as static. And when we ask for a motivation, it’s usually a too-broad answer, like “Power” or “That’s just his nature.”
Whether the Dark Lord is so vague as to never even really be present:
Or an explicit metaphor for certain social ills:
(I mean the actual Voldemort, not the silly one, but this is the image I went with)
Or just a evil Lord with super a commanding voice, awesome cape, and intimidating background music.
The fact that three out of the four images I’ve used are completely comedic (they’re so easy to find!) is perhaps evidence of the fact that we don’t take this dark lord thing very seriously.
Now that’s not to say that this trope hasn’t been reversed, inverted, converted, and desconstructed a zillion times, because it has. Anti-hero dark Lords, redeemed dark Lords [again, Vader, later on], bureaucratic evil (this, I find, is most true-to-life: see Zygmunt Bauman’s terrifying garden metaphor), evil guy who wears white instead of black (le gasp!), evil that confuses you by having some good mixed in, and more thoroughly examined dark Lords and Ladies etc.
All that to say, the Dark Lord trope in its most traditional form is likely to get an eye-roll from most people. Here’s why: the types of conflict experienced (particularly in the Western world) are often more subtle. People wage verbal war to achieve or defeat a legislative vote, or a candidate, or a foreign policy proposal. Bureaucratic red-tape may harm quite as many people as those intentionally trying to harm others. Neglect can do damage as well as active cruelty, and some things that happen aren’t always easy to attach to a specific perpetrator (that being said, we almost always try to find someone or something simple to blame…even when the answer is far more complex. It makes us feel better). Evils seem to be either small and personal (that way someone treated you that one time, or that one thing your friend heard about) or so broad and global, we just can’t wrap our minds around them.
Also, *ahem*, we don’t always perfectly agree about what is worth fighting against, or how, or why. Clarity or unity on the subject is not a given.
The evils we try to portray in literature are naturally going to be a reflection of our own experiences. And if we have not lived under a true tyrant then that isn’t going to resonate with us. (I know, I know, everyone thinks the candidates/politicians/leaders they don’t like are the most evil tyrants that ever walked the earth, but let’s step back from the hyperbole for a second, and think about the real world, where there are real tyrants).
Recently I have seen fantasy books criticized for making their evil empires too evil to be believed. “Cartoonishly evil” is the phrase…and, yeah, I get that. You can always tell when an author just kept adding on vice after extraneous vice just to make sure you got the picture. VERY EVIL CHARACTER. WORTHY OF ALL YOUR RAGE.
I was thinking about this the other day while reading a book by Zainab Salbi. The book is called Between Two Worlds, Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of SaddamAt each turn of the page in this woman’s biography I was astonished at how surreal it all was. So violent, so cruel, so manipulative, so deadly, so awful, and all done with a smile and parties.
The phrase ‘cartoonishly evil’ did come to mind, except this was absolutely real and terrifying.
And then, of course, no need to explicate on Hitler in WWII.
People wrote/write about “Dark Lords” because they experienced them. They wrote about the War to end all Wars (WWI, in that case), because they thought there had been one. They wrote about darkness descending over the land and impending doom (WWII), because that’s what everything looked like there for a minute.
And there are many people still living that reality today, and the examples I just gave are not even that far in the past. Not at all.
So maybe the Dark Lord trope seems overly-simplistic at first glance. But it would show incredible ignorance of history for me to scoff at the tale of the evil king who rises to power and nearly destroys the whole world, breeding to achieve a certain type of race, slaughtering by the millions, luring many into concession…because that actually happened and people you know saw it happen.
Back to Vader for a second. So he was eventually rounded out as a character (although, was he really? Episodes I and II were pretty painful to watch, and I didn’t make it through III) and eventually redeemed as well. (Note, that it’s his broad-scale evil Empire, undeveloped self of New Hope that is the most iconic.)
Now we have Kylo Ren (we also have Emo Kylo Ren!) who is made complex, conflicted, erratic, and unstable from the get-go. He is not the voice of evil authority, but seems kind of stupidly fooled into it. It would seem this is meant to be a deconstruction of sorts (perhaps) but we still have the Sauron-like, vague, unexplained background evil in the form of Snoke. Why? We don’t know. How? Not sure.
But when you watched the film, were you wondering over and over WHY Snoke was snatching up a young, foolish Jedi while fashioning a new evil Empire, or were you cheering on Rey and Finn and the others for standing against something we could all agree was bad?
Complex and confusing moral situations can make for great stories. But so can that rebels-vs-evil Empire clarity. Just a thought.

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