Who is the Dark Lord?

The citadel of Derkholm?

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 to 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?

There are Dark Lords aplenty in modern fantasy: take your pick from Sauron, Darth Vader, Voldemort or any one of a multitude of evil megalomaniacs. Yet Diana Wynne Jones’ comic fantasy The Dark Lord of Derkholm is different, and an intriguing tale, full of mysteries — some of which get solved by the end of the novel, others seemingly insoluble. =Tamar Lindsay very kindly agreed to pen this guest post attempting to answer the question, “Who is the Dark Lord?”


Calmgrove has kindly offered me space to set out some ideas I have about Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is one of my favorite books. This discussion involves major spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book already, go read it.

To begin with, there’s the title. I don’t know which version Diana Wynne Jones preferred. The American edition was released in October 1998, one month before the UK edition in November 1998. I’m American, and I think of the book by the American edition’s title, Dark Lord of Derkholm instead of the UK edition’s title, which (to my way of thinking) adds the unnecessary word “the”, making it The Dark Lord of Derkholm. It may seem like a tiny difference, but it does make a difference. If the book is about “the” dark lord, then there’s only one. If it’s about a generic role title, like “Hero of the Resistance”, then there might be quite a few. I think I have identified several possibilities.

The obvious one, of course, is Derk, who is actually “of Derkholm”, but you don’t have to own a place to be “of” it.

What are the requirements for someone to be a Dark Lord? They have to be picked for the job, and they have to be a wizard. (Officially, they have to be male, because Chesney won’t let women do the Dark Lord, but I don’t see evidence of his checking up.) It’s a job that nobody wants to do twice. In the course of forty years, while there may have been some repetition, there could have been as many as thirty-nine other wizards who have been Dark Lord. That doesn’t reduce the field much. There were fewer Chief Minions — we know this because Barnabas does the replication of maps and booklets with a weary, much-practiced gesture, and the job is considered a good one with benefits such as not having to lead a pilgrim party.

Chesney set out a list of requirements

The Dark Lord must have an army of vicious soldiers clad in black – those are provided by the management. He must also have grim servitors, and some emaciated prisoners. There must be squalor, poverty, and miserable people visible. The Dark Lord himself must appear to be a dark shadow about nine feet tall, at least when the tourists see him. The Citadel must be a black castle with a labyrinthine interior lit by baleful fires. There must be a gloomy forecourt, and a demon guard. There should also be a pack of hounds, iron-fanged horses, and leathery-winged avians. This year, there’s a new element: the Dark Lord has a weakness.

Some of these elements can be faked, either with illusion or just by keeping them far enough away so the tourists can’t check details. Unless someone is actually bitten, I doubt that anyone gets close enough to check whether the horses have iron fangs, the dogs look dark enough at night so they don’t have to be black or red-eyed, and almost anything will do for threatening flying flapping things.

Who fits the requirements?

There’s the obvious candidate: Derk. He has the job and the job title. He arranges to have emaciated people hanging around the torn-down village and in his citadel. The citadel is largely illusion, though the gloomy forecourt is real enough. He has a genuine demon guard, real hounds, real horses, and passable avians. He hires the dwarves and turns them darker to make them fit the requirement for grim servitors who “have to be swart”. He has a weakness: he is easier for a demon to set aside than almost any other fully-qualified wizard.

There’s the equally obvious “real” dark lord: Chesney. He has claimed the title of dark lord of the world, according to the dwarves who bring tribute, and that includes Derkholm. The people who come to the business meeting with him are dressed in dark clothing and carry all the paperwork. They also carry weapons – they were reaching for them when Kit pulled his stunt at the gate. Chesney uses a magical horseless carriage made of iron, which I think does duty for an iron-fanged horse. He even has a demon guard at his gate, because he controls all the gates between the worlds by commanding the demon he has imprisoned. His starvelings include the demon, which barely has enough magic to eat to stay functional, and the dragons, which don’t have enough gold to keep them healthy enough to reproduce. The elven prince he kidnapped was starved of magic until he lost not only his abilities but his memory. Chesney has a weakness: his daughter.

Who else qualifies?

There’s Wizard Barnabas. Yes, he’s Chief Minion for Derk, but he’s also Chief Minion for Chesney, and has been for years. He went to school with Derk, so he, like Derk, grew up under the rule of Chesney, but he went for the money. He has an underground lair in the mine, which also qualifies as a pit, and a group of black-clad servitors recruited from among the prisoners sent in. His grim servitors oversee the emaciated slaves he uses to mine the magic-containing soil, which he is paid for mining but he claimed wasn’t being sold. He betrays his world, his old friend and the son of his old friend, and possibly even his own servitors, who think they are going to go back to their original world as soon as their replacements arrive. (But what’s to stop him from sending them, one by one, down to the arena in Costamaret? Much safer that way, with no tales to be told, no blackmail possible.) He has horses for his servitors until the Horselady calls them all; afterward he has a horseless carriage (iron-fanged equivalent). He even has a demon at one of his gates, though he doesn’t know it. Barnabas has a weakness: he’s an alcoholic.

Anyone else? Yes!

Consider a character who began light and turned dark. He is huge, as high as a house, and uses illusion to make himself seem even larger and darker, with a shadowy figure associated. He commands an army, enjoys planning and fighting battles, loves giving orders. He is bad-tempered and capable of cruelty. He has set fires that may never be extinguished. And he’s “of Derkholm.” Yes, it’s Kit. Like a proper Dark Lord, he is shot down by his own soldiers, who are then defeated in battle by the Forces of Good. His drowning was prophesied (but not understood) in a dream by the Ragged Bard, Shona, and only the direct intervention of a god and some winged minions saved him for the arena. He was put into the situation his soldiers had been in — forced to fight whether he wanted to or not on pain of being burned, albeit by mechanical means rather than dragon fire. Rescued, scolded, and further humiliated (carried like a kitten), he was healed and had to learn to regrow his ability to fly. Then he had to endure what he hated, being ridden, in order to return to Derkholm, which was under siege. Kit has a weakness: Hubris, and he’s also bad at simple mathematics (he multiplied twenty-one by three and got sixty-two).

That’s four. Is there another?

In a way, yes. Chesney won’t allow women to do the Dark Lord. But consider Querida. She speaks the first line of the story. She has already laid her plans, but doesn’t tell the Council all of them. She doesn’t have to turn into a giant snake (it never helps), because she is already snakelike. She is old, old enough to remember what it was like Before Chesney. She phrased the question to the Oracles in the way no one else apparently ever had. It is her question that got one of the gods off his … got him to do something, because unlike Derk and everyone else who had desperately prayed for help and received nothing, Querida asked “What do WE do.” Not what will the gods do, but what must we do for ourselves. Her lair is guarded by a single werewolf instead of a pack of demonic hounds, her minions are the female wizards, researchers and healers, her army is all the women of the tour-haunted world, her chief minion Mara is using illusions to spread information instead of lies — but isn’t she a grand Dark Lady? Not only that, she wins. When Chesney is disarmed, she receives the Orb and is perfectly confident that she will be able to keep it in the face of combined powers of the Demon King, The Dragon King, The Elven Prince, Derk and Mara and all the other wizards present, and whatever power Chesney might have on his own (though I doubt he has any). The gods give her the world, and Derk and Kit et al to serve her. She literally rules the world!

Five Dark Lords so far

There are two other possibilities. Gods and demons are both commonly called “lord” by their worshipers.

First is the goose-god Anscher (anserine means goose), who passive-aggressively sat on his hands for forty years waiting for somebody to ask the right question in the words he wanted, without giving a hint to anyone. His pack of minions are the other gods, who did even less; at least once the right question was asked, Anscher manifested to Blade and to Kit, and eventually showed up to glory-hog at the end after Querida and the rest had disarmed Chesney.

Second is the Demon King, Tripos. He, too, has been planning, in his case for forty years, ever since the Demon Queen was trapped and enslaved. His food, the magic, was literally being stolen from him. He chose Derk because Derk had a Weakness (this year the Dark Lord has a Weakness), being more easily set aside than other wizards. He tried when Derk was in college, 20 or so years ago, and was waiting when Derk was forced by circumstances to try again. Most of the gates to his world were guarded by the Demon Queen, whom he could not rescue by himself. Tripos also gets what he wanted and is free to leave without being banished.


There you have it. Four, five, or possibly seven Dark Lords of Derkholm.

My choice for the real Dark Lord of Derkholm is Kit. His character arc shows us his development from an angry, frustrated teenager planning a murder into a full-bore Dark Lord, with triumph, hubris, fall, learning experiences, and new growth into a better person now that he has found his mentor.

=Tamar Lindsay
2017-04-06
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Many, many thanks to =Tamar for contributing this guest post. Of course if you haven’t read Dark Lord of Derkholm (or The Dark Lord of Derkholm if you still prefer) much of it won’t make much sense. Do take a look at the novel — there are newer editions than mine available — and/or read my review if you need further persuasion!

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2 thoughts on “Who is the Dark Lord?

    1. I’m actually rereading this at the moment and Tamar’s hypothesis is not only very plausible but persuasive. So much so that it’s hard to believe any other explanation (not that I’ve seen any)! Your own Dark Lord will be safe and secure, I’m sure …

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