A spoof with serious intent

Diana Wynne Jones The Dark Lord Of Derkholm Gollancz 2000 (1998)

comic fantasy
makes valid point: don’t despoil
the lands you visit

griffinAnyone who is part of a large organisation will recognise the quandaries that Wizard Derk finds himself in when he is appointed Dark Lord in a real-life role-playing game. Despite his living in a world where magic is as natural as breathing, his attempts to cope with the vagaries that are thrown at him by an uncaring Senior Management, and which are deliberately sabotaged by Middle Managers with their own agenda, are familiar to those foot-soldiers in this our own world who are forced to cope with one emergency after another caused either by conspiracy or cock-up. And although crisis management is by its nature very stressful, there comes a point where you feel you have neither the energy nor the inclination to carry on with your goodwill sapped and your moral compass thrashed.

Roland Chesney has found a way to access a parallel world, a world of real fantasy and magic. For four decades he has sent Pilgrim Parties on tourist package holidays to these lands, forcing one hapless individual after another to become the Dark Lord for the duration while the tourists attempt defeat his forces. The question is, will this be the last year that this exploitation of an innocent population happens, the year when the worm turns?

The Dark Lord of Derkholm is a natural successor to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Jones’ earlier spoof directory of all things fantastical: in fact the map in the first edition of the earlier title is a fair (if vague) rendering of the geography of Derkholm’s world, with the Dark Lord’s Citadel and the settlement of Gna’ash even appearing (though the latter is spelt Gan’ash, and presumably pronounced like the baking term ‘ganache’). Reading Dark Lord with The Tough Guide open beside you underlines how well Jones plunders and subverts the conventions of this genre while simultaneously revealing both her affection for it and her sympathy for its implicit moral foundations. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, for example, was grounded in just such a balance between good and evil, with fair play bringing its just rewards; and so the fantastic fiction that followed in its footsteps nearly always kept faith with this philosophy. Dark Lord takes this philosophy as a given, even when the ‘real’ world inhabited by the evil Roland Chesney impacts on Derk’s magical world.

Diana Wynne Jones’ serious themes of exploitation and inhumanity are nicely counterpointed by the many humorous touches, only a few of which can be alluded to here. As well as the expected elves, dwarfs, wizards, enchantresses, dragons and demons we have the genetically-engineered friendly cows, humanised griffins and flying pigs of Derk’s household to stretch the imagination. Characters’ names frequently undermine their natures: for example, Derk’s son Blade is nowhere near as bloodthirsty as his name implies, and one of the (male) dwarfs is given the (female) Tolkienesque name of Galadriel. I even suspect the names of some of the humans (and horses) mentioned may be based on Jones’ own acquaintances (certainly Tom Holt is a well-known comic fantasy writer who lived not too distant from Jones’ home town of Bristol), and, though only appearing as a place name on The Tough Guide’s map, an anagram of the port of Bristol shows how prepared Jones was to include sly references to her own situation.

Dark Lord is a rich and satisfying narrative, even if at times (particularly in the middle) it has a tendency to sag. The ending, with its deus ex machina conclusion, is one of Jones’ best, lacking the cryptic nature of many of her plot resolutions, and nicely leaves the way open for the comedic sword-and-sorcery sequel. There is a good mix of male and female characters, many very memorable (even including the griffins, whose quirks and strengths soon manifest themselves). Year of the Griffin must surely beckon enticingly, though sadly there will be no more Diana Wynne Jones sequels to follow.

Revised May 2014

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15 thoughts on “A spoof with serious intent

  1. Out of print I think, but widely available online. Diana Wynne Jones is one of those authors who writes novels for (as publishers might put it) children ‘of all ages’, so I do hope you enjoy it!

  2. =Tamar

    I think I’ve made the schedule in Dark Lord of Derkholm work, but I had to resort to Tough Guide to Fantasyland to do it. She did say that she expected her readers to be intelligent and willing to work. This has taken me almost two months so far.

      1. =Tamar

        It works. Whew. Now I’m having fun mapping it onto the standard Western calendar. There are a couple of ways it can work that play with dates.

          1. =Tamar

            It’s complete, I just wanted to shift it around to see whether any one set of dates made it work better. The one I favor begins on DWJ’s birthday, August 16, and ends on Guy Fawkes Day. The Tough Guide definition of “Mentor” was necessary.

            1. Thanks for the tips, Tamar, I’ll definitely have to reread this sooner than expected.

              Another author who included significant birthdays in her novels, which I suspected but which her daughter confirmed to me, was Joan Aiken.

  3. Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:

    Roland Chesney — the villain of this spoof by Diana Wynne Jones — may well have been modelled on media moguls such as Richard Murdoch or Robert Maxwell, the press barons we loved to hate at the end of the last century. After all, James Bond had such an adversary in Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), as played by Jonathan Pryce. As such an ogre Roland Chesney is a typical monster of the type discussed in my previous post.

      1. I used past tense, Tamar, because Maxwell is no longer with us, but I take your point: both magnates remain hateful to us because of their absolute contempt of decency and for everyone not in their immediate magic circle. Let’s hope that their minions currently going through the justice system get what they deserve for that contempt.

  4. =Tamar

    Hi, Calmgrove, it’s me again. Reread Dark Lord of Derkholm even more closely, found five Dark Lords and two possibles.

    1. Wha-?!? Tamar, you’re intriguing me — and here I am with so much else to read without re-reading about Fantasyland! Will you be publishing your conclusions anywhere? 🙂

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