Dark Lord of Derkholm: parody and performance

If you haven’t read Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland, my advise is to get thee to a bookstore and read it

as in now

why are you still reading this post when you could be reading The Tough Guide?

Dark Lord of Derkholm (and sequel, Year of the Griffin) are, technically, sequels to The Tough Guide. They also stand up as novels perfectly well irrespective of whether you have read, or even heard of, the Guide. (But I do recommend that you read it.)

Synopsis? Why, certainly. Derk is a middle-aged wizard cum geneticist whose world is annually tromped through by hundreds, or more probably thousands, of Pilgrims, who are essentially tourists or human beings from our world embarking on a typical fantasy novel adventure. The Pilgrim Tours were set up by Mr. Chesney, a nastie businessman from our world, whose demon forced the rulers and other leaders (High Chancellor of the University, Mercenary Captains, Heads of Guild, for example) into a binding contract forty years ago. The Tours have come through ever since, and they are destroying Derk’s world.

Derk, whose magical interests are so divergent from the mainstream that he is widely considered incompetent by other wizards, has had no real role in the Tours, until he is appointed this year’s Dark Lord: the Ultimate Villain whom the Pilgrims defeat as the climax of their Tour. (The Pilgrims have no idea that the whole thing is staged, poor lambs, particularly not the Expendable Tourists, whose relatives have paid Mr. Chesney a large sum to have them offed – witnessed by other Pilgrims so that their murder appears a noble death, naturally.) Derk is horrified.

Blade, Derk’s fourteen year old son, is also horrified, mainly because he can’t find a magic teacher. He and his siblings, both human and griffin, have to help their father (this year’s Dark Lord) and their mother, Mara (this year’s Glamorous Enchantress), stage-manage the whole thing. For Blade’s eldest sister, this means putting off going to Bardic College; for Blade, it means he has to act as a Wizard Guide to the last Tour.

The first Rule for Wizard Guides states that

Wizards are to grow beards, wear their hair below shoulder length, and carry a staff at all times. (p. 232)

Blade hasn’t hit puberty yet.

Jones - Dark Lord of Derkholm (normal font)

Oh. And Derk is this year’s Dark Lord and Blade a Wizard Guide because Wizard Querida, the High Chancellor, is secretly working to break the contract with Mr. Chesney, demon or no demon, and regain autonomy for her world. Querida and her allies (women wizards, mainly) are working to make sure things go wrong with this year’s Tours.

Even Querida, who is possibly the most powerful magic user in the world, doesn’t anticipate how terribly wrong things will go.

So! If you’re at all interested in fantasy, or parody of fantasy, or world-building, or keeping things practical and, y’know, FUNCTIONAL while writing fantasy, or, heck, even looking at what economic colonization in a fantasy setting (or for a miniature, comical example of how colonization destroys a colonized people’s economy and completely rewrites their systems of education – a very miniature and comical example to be sure but it doesn’t take much imagination to see the comparison), Dark Lord of Derkholm is a book for you.

BUT. Or, AND how this story fits into this month’s theme of the performing arts, SINCE the Tours and, bluntly, every impression the Pilgrims get of the world they visit, is stage-managed, the whole book is ALSO about performance.

Consider the performances and stage-setting involved: ***SPOILERS AHEAD***

  • Derk has to illusion his house to appear as the Dark Lord’s citadel
  • Derk is responsible for planting clues for the Pilgrims to follow, to discover the Dark Lord’s weakness and enable them to destroy him and save the world
  • and for creating 126 objects (one for each Tour) with which the Pilgrims will defeat the Dark Lord
  • he also has to co-ordinate night “attacks” from leathery-winged avians
  • and a sighting, at the very least, of the Wild Hunt
  • and arrange the weekly final battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil, in which the Forces of Good are badly outnumbered yet somehow win, so that each Pilgrim Party goes home unaware of the other Pilgrim Parties
  • and (although this is not in the contract, as Mr. Chesney does not care) manage the battles for maximum effect and minimum casualties
  • and also die at the hands of every Pilgrim Party so that the Pilgrims can save the world from his menace
  • Mara has to arrange for the Pilgrims to believe that they’ve all been seduced by her wicked wiles
  • (i.e. she bespells them all)
  • again, this is an exercise in strategy and tactics: Mara and her helpers have a grueling schedule to follow, and since there are inevitably mix-ups, Mara must co-ordinate with the Wizard Guides so that no group sees another
  • (Mara has a lot more to do than that but that would be getting entirely too spoilery)
  • The various armies, mercenaries, Wizard Guides, and people at stops on the Tours have to communicate constantly
  • Horses. Lots of horses needed, which means all the equipment for riding and grooming horses, not to mention food and water (both of which horses require in large amounts at regular and frequent intervals).
  • Healers, since Pilgrims are largely incompetent.
  • Healers, because all the armies involved suffer injuries.
  • Normal people, who periodically have to leave their homes (which may be decorated to look like long-abandoned ruins) to either set the stage for a Pilgrim Party, or to avoid being killed by idiot questing Pilgrim Parties.
  • The Emir, who refuses to allow his mind to be enslaved to an object (magical objects are unreliable and look at what happened to Sheik Detroy) and therefore acts the part of a magically-enslaved puppet ruler.

… And that’s only the beginning.

The sheer volume of planning, co-ordinating, and stage-setting that the Tours demand even before the performances begin gives this reader new respect for stage plays, mass meetings, and indeed, every event that involves large numbers of people and many groups doing different activities requiring detailed schedules on tight timelines that intersect at crucial moments.

*takes a deep breath*

So. Interested in theatre? In acting? In working as a stage-hand or a gaffer? In leading others? In leading friends, or people older/more experienced than you, or enemies who will thwart (and maybe kill) you if they can? In organizing events, large-scale or small? In organizing revolutions?

This is the book for you.

9 responses to “Dark Lord of Derkholm: parody and performance

    • They’re sequels but also totally different – DWJ took the Tour set-up of the Guide and figured out a way to make it (and all the tropes) work for real, as a narrative. <3 DWJ

      Year of the Griffin is set eight years after Dark Lord of Derkholm, and is actually my favourite of the three. Several of the characters from Dark Lord make appearances (some very brief, some more extended) in Year, which is always fun.

  1. Dark Lord was the first book I read by Diana, and got me hooked on her immediately. She’s funny and smart, and it shows in the massive complications this relatively short book deals with.

    • Yes! And you don’t always realize immediately how deep and pointed it is, because the characters and the narrative are so absorbing.

  2. Love this book. And Year of the Griffins, too. So, so brilliant on so many levels, plus the characters are all wonderful!

    That was an impressive list of requirements. :)

  3. I’ve been meaning to read DWJ for months now, starting when I picked up “Howl’s Moving Castle” in a bookstore and then promptly lost it before I could even consider buying it. This post gave me all the motivation I needed to find her works on my next library trip, so thank you!

    • Howl’s Moving Castle is wonderful!
      You’re most welcome – I hope your library has all her books.

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