Wordy Wednesday: The Dark Lord and His Role in Fantasy

Last Semester of College, Part 4: Julia Continues to Be Exhausted.

Things wouldn’t be too hectic right now, except that I need to be on a plane tomorrow and I need all of my work for the next week done before then. And I haven’t started yet. And it’s almost 8:00 PM already. (Also, one is supposed to pack before traveling, right? Packing is a thing?)

I haven’t been up to much this past week. Mainly doing homework and doing my best to keep my head above water. (You know, except for that little, very exciting thing known as THE CH1CON YULE BALL.) (The Ch1Con Yule Ball was a live-streamed video panel of young authors the Chapter One Young Writers Conference hosted on Saturday.) (You can watch it here.) (Also you can enter the VERY COOL GIVEAWAYS we mention throughout it here.)

Oh, and I finished the first draft of my first full-length play on Friday! That was also a thing that happened. I’d been working on the play since November, 2014, so it feels really weird that it’s actually done now. (I mean, I still need to do many, many revisions on it, but the first draft! is no longer just in my head! So weird.)

(Okay, I take it back about not having much happen over the past week.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. Specifically: a paper I wrote for my fantasy literature course this time last year, about “dark lord” characters. (Warning that major spoilers follow for the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series. Read at your own risk.)

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In all of fiction, the most pervasive and iconic antagonists come from works of fantasy. These characters invade popular culture and transcend the stories from which they came; not everyone has read George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but they probably have made jokes about how “Big Brother is watching you” (Orwell 2) in reference to the growing vigilance of the government in relation to technology. Likewise, even those who have never watched a Star Wars film can quote—or at least misquote—the line in which Darth Vader reveals his identity to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. But what makes so many fantasy villains so memorable, especially in relation to their counterparts from other genres? In large part, it’s due to the Dark Lord character type, in which the antagonist is a figure of absolute evil: Characters who possess no chance of redemption, no trace of goodness. Characters who wipe the concept of moral relativity off the map. This type of character doesn’t work well outside of works of fantasy for the same reason it makes the antagonists who inhabit it so memorable: it isn’t realistic. Villains of such pure, unadulterated wickedness could not exist in real life—but are of course plausible in fantastical realities. Because these works bring the battle between good and evil to such extremes, they become striking. The relationship between characters of absolute evil and fantasy is reciprocal, as fantasy provides grounds for their existence and their existence makes fantasy one of the most consistently popular genres in literature, film, and beyond. By allowing authors to transcend the realistic in their portrayal of antagonists, fantasy offers the opportunity for the rise of absolute evil in the figure of the Dark Lord—found most memorably in such characters as The Lord of the Rings’s Sauron (J. R. R. Tolkien) and Harry Potter’s Voldemort (J. K. Rowling). This provides a safe space from which to approach the concept of evil, grounds for easier development of secondary characters, and a more readily apparent opposition between the dark side and light, all of which come together to allow fantasy to remain an iconic presence in fiction.

The Dark Lord paradigm is partly so effective due to the fact that the majority of fantastical works are produced for children. Because it brings evil outside its naturally realistic context, the concept becomes less frightening for children. It no longer directly affects them, but simply characters about whom they care; it’s the difference between empathy and sympathy—the latter of which allows children to keep their distance while still learning about the malevolent. Likewise, because the paradigm pushes evil to extremes, it makes it easier to recognize, examine, and understand. Young children are not yet able to comprehend the shades of grey that contribute to the battles waged in real society, so a black and white fight between good and evil puts these concepts into a context they are able to wrap their minds around, then disseminate upon real conflicts to the best of their abilities. In essence, the existence of the Dark Lord allows children to approach the concept of evil from a safe space. This is more obviously evidenced in works such as Harry Potter, as it is a children’s series, but also was part of Tolkien’s decision-making process when writing the Lord of the Rings series. While he wrote the trilogy for adults, it is sequel to his earlier children’s fantasy The Hobbit. So, although The Lord of the Rings is much darker and more complex than The Hobbit, the original world-building that went into Middle-Earth was designed for children. Traces of this are evident throughout The Lord of the Rings. For example, in the very first pages of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes hobbits as “a merry folk” (The Fellowship of the Ring 2), “smaller than Dwarves … [height] ranging between two and four feet” (The Fellowship of the Ring 1) with faces “as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking” (The Fellowship of the Ring 2). Because Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for children, he needed a protagonist with whom the reader could connect while still being old enough to reasonably take on the plot of the novel. So, he developed a fantastical species in his hobbits that can most easily be equated to children. Hobbits even “dress … in bright colours … but seldom … [wear] shoes” (The Fellowship of the Ring 2), like the majority of children do, or at least wish they could. The child, or child-like, hero is important in stories featuring a Dark Lord antagonist due to the underdog status it gives its protagonists. The Dark Lord is not only physically larger, but generally older, more experienced, and surer of himself. Often it seems as if the character that should go head to head with the Dark Lord is the guiding figure that mentors the young protagonist, such as Gandalf or Dumbledore, not the protagonist themselves. It is the difficulties the protagonist must endure and the occasions to which they must rise, however, which define the story and make the eventual victory over the Dark Lord so worthwhile. Interestingly, a similar “growing up” as that of The Lord of the Rings from The Hobbit takes place throughout the Harry Potter series, as Rowling’s conflicts likewise become darker and more complex on par with Harry and his friends as they age. Despite this, the final showdown is between The-Boy-Who-Lived and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: a classic battle between good and evil. While the rest of the Wizarding world has descended into shades of grey by the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Ron abandons Harry and Hermione out of jealousy; Snape reveals he is a double agent; the Malfoys want nothing more than to keep their family intact—the series, in the end, is still centered on the black and white.

The existence of a Dark Lord character also opens the door for these shades of grey in secondary conflicts. The Dark Lord generally has some sort of minions who are equally as evil, albeit less powerful, as themselves, from Sauron’s Orcs to the most dedicated of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. However, other antagonistic characters show more complexity, and generally this complexity grows in relation to how well these characters reflect the goals and/or personality of the Dark Lord. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Rowling introduces Peter Pettigrew as a manipulative, sniveling man who has “always liked big friends who’d look after [him]” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 369). However, due to Harry choosing to spare his life, Pettigrew later feels that he owes Harry, and ends up dying in the process of saving Harry from the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Thus, Pettigrew represents a lesser evil than Voldemort’s absolute that develops over time due to how he views Voldemort and Voldemort’s directives in relation to his own moral code. The absolute evil of the Dark Lord creates a space wherein characters of lesser degrees of evil can exist, giving the reader the opportunity to further examine the nature of evil, witness varying forms of evil, and ultimately decide where they believe the dividing line between good and evil to be. It also lends a more realistic touch to a conflict otherwise defined by its fantastical elements, because while a Dark Lord character could not exist in the real world, these secondary antagonists likely could.

Another reason for the lasting presence of Dark Lord characters takes shape due to the form through which these antagonists oppose their protagonists. More than simply presenting a cut and dry, black and white divide between good and evil, the existence of an absolute evil draws attention to the other differences between the protagonist and antagonist as well. While in real life, the leaders of two sides of a conflict will often have similar personality traits but differing views that make them butt heads, when dealing with a Dark Lord character a distinct opposition arises in personality in addition to views. Due to the lack of moral relativism imposed by the concept of an irredeemably bad character—thus eliminating the more realistic antagonist who believes what they are doing is for the best, albeit in opposition to the protagonist’s views—the conflict is no longer about which side the protagonist believes to be right, but which side inherently is right. In order to intensify this divide, the Dark Lord character commonly represents not just views, but personality traits with which the hero diverges. For example, both Voldemort and Sauron crave power, while both Harry and Frodo shy away from it and prefer peace and tranquility. As Dumbledore says, “perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 718). These are stories not simply about what is right and wrong, as far as what characters stand for, but stories about what is right and wrong as far as what characters are. This comes across even further in the climaxes of these stories, as the Dark Lord loses power and the hero unwittingly gains it—only to choose to give it up in the conclusion in order to live a quiet, peaceful life; it’s the opposition between selfishness versus selflessness, cowardliness versus courage, and isolation versus—to borrow a term from The Lord of the Rings—fellowship. The Dark Lord presents himself in these morality tales that in many ways less ask the reader to decide what they believe to be right or wrong, but rather show what they should believe to be right or wrong.

Every element of these stories is colored by the Dark Lord’s existence. Harry Potter is not Harry Potter without Voldemort; The Lord of the Rings is not The Lord of the Rings without said Lord of the Rings. It’s interesting that when given the opportunity to create antagonists of absolute evil, many authors choose it, and their stories become some of the most popular not just of their genre, but of fiction altogether. In a way, believing a character to be irredeemably evil makes it easier to oppose them. In The Lord of the Rings, several members of the Fellowship have a friendly competition in which they compare how many members of Sauron’s army they’ve killed; this is fun, cheeky in the context of the work, because no matter what, the Orcs will never become good. Likewise, it’s easier to stomach Harry and his friends—children—killing their opponents throughout the Harry Potter series due to the fact that, not only are they fighting for their lives, but the men and women against whom they are fighting generally fit Voldemort’s vision of absolute evil. Still, it says something about humanity, that in these tales of great battles, in which the heroes slaughter countless bad guys, authors choose to write antagonists who are not human—at least not realistically so. In this way, authors such as Tolkien and Rowling go one step further in their morality tales, sharing a vision of goodness that does not condone violence except as the last resort. As the prophecy in Harry Potter states, “neither can live while the other survives” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 841). Characters throughout Rowling’s series try to help Voldemort, but he resists goodness, choosing instead to cement his Dark Lord status and, inadvertently with it, his imminent doom. Thus, while fantasy allows a figure of absolute evil to exist, in the end the Dark Lord must die, and more than anything else, it is this—the fact that good can and will defeat evil, no matter how strong—which makes these stories so popular. By allowing authors to transcend the realistic in their portrayal of antagonists, fantasy offers the opportunity for the rise of absolute evil in the figure of the Dark Lord—found most memorably in such characters as The Lord of the Rings’s Sauron (Tolkien) and Harry Potter’s Voldemort (Rowling). However, the general traits of the genre also assure the fall of such a character, and this provides a safe space from which to approach the concept of evil, grounds for easier development of secondary characters, and a more readily apparent opposition between the dark side and light—all of which come together to allow fantasy to remain an iconic presence in fiction, and Dark Lord characters as equally of iconic characters.

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Bibliography

  • Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four, a Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1999. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2007. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2005. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2003. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1999. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: A.A. Levine, 1998. Print.
  • The Empire Strikes Back. 1980. Film.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Print.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Print.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers. London: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

 

Wordy Wednesday: Every Story Is a Mystery

Hello! Disclaimer from the future (July 5, 2020): I’m leaving this post up, because I think it has some useful information throughout, but I also want to note that I do not in any way support or endorse JK Rowling anymore, due to her quite frankly dangerous racism and transphobia.

This past week has been busy. I spent the weekend skiing up north with my family, then Monday afternoon one of my film classes had a Skyped-in guest lecture by one of the head guys from New Line Cinema, which was super cool. Monday evening I was honored and grateful to get to read a short story at the university undergraduate library as part of an annual event in which the creative writing professors nominate students to share their work. It was my second year in a row doing it and I still can’t get over how talented the other writers here are. I’m so lucky to have gotten to share the stage with them.

I read “All She Hears,” a short story that appeared in the collection that won a Hopwood Underclassmen Fiction Award and the Arthur Miller Award last year. SUCH A COOL EXPERIENCE.

I would have loved to have stayed to listen to all the students reading that night, but my family and I left a few after I read because Conrad Pope (Hollywood orchestrator and composer) was giving a guest lecture across campus and who knows when my next chance to hear someone speak on their involvement in Harry Potter and Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean and a billion other amazing things would be, right? (And dude, he was awesome.)

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I feel like I’ve probably talked about this before and just forgotten, but in case I haven’t: a big epiphany moment for me in writing was realizing that every story is a mystery.

For some reason this didn’t hit me until I was reading Harry Potter for the first time in tenth grade, but I can totally see why that’s what finally got that through to me. Harry Potter is marketed as fantasy, not mystery, but while fantasy plays a big part in setting and character development and all that, what truly drives the plot forward (and keeps the reader reading) are the mysteries at the center of each book. (Fun fact: JK Rowling has hardly read any fantasy books, but is super into reading crime novels. So of course her fantasy unfolds the same way as crime.)

But it’s not just the Harry Potter series (MG-YA fantasy) that does this. It’s all books. Anna and the French Kiss (YA contemporary romance)? You spend the entire book chasing the mystery of whether or not Anna and St Clair will get together. The Hunger Games (YA dystopian)? You try to figure out what’s truly going on in the Games and Panem. And all stories rely on the resolution of the mystery in order to leave the reader satisfied at the end.

Basically: stories rely on leaving the reader guessing what will happen next. Whether you’re writing a thriller or realistic fiction, to write an interesting story you have to establish questions to keep the reader invested, lay clues for what your resolution will be so that it doesn’t seem out of nowhere, keep the reader in the dark for as long as possible so that the story feels smart and interesting all the way to the end, etc.

While your story may not rely on a crime as the central element to the plot, you can treat pretty much anything like a crime in the way you unfold the story from there: Have your character act as a detective, going out and interacting with the world, being an active agent in their plot. (A solid protagonist relies on action over reaction.) Make your protagonist learn things slowly but constantly, with the pace of learning speeding up exponentially as you move towards the climax, like how the pace of a crime investigation speeds up as the police get closer to figuring out who the murderer is and making the arrest.

Foreshadow. Lay red herrings. And most importantly: treat your reader as an intelligent and active part of the story. Someone who it is your job to trick and mislead–but also charm–until the very end.

So, if you’re having trouble with keeping your plot moving or don’t know where to go next, think about how you think Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would do it. Or even JK Rowling. (Sorry. Robert Galbraith.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

England Trip Recap (Part 3)

Hello! Disclaimer from the future (July 5, 2020): I’m leaving this post up, because I think it has some interesting information throughout, but I also want to note that I do not in any way support or endorse JK Rowling anymore, due to her quite frankly dangerous racism and transphobia.

If you’re wondering where Parts 1 & 2 of this series are, you can find them here and here, respectively.

You’ll notice that both those posts are from over a year ago. That’s because back last July, after returning from my first trip to England, I recapped everything we did while over here up until the very last part of our last day: the Leavesden Studios Tour. At which point I got too insanely busy doing Things-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (I swear someday I’ll give details of how I spent the end of summer 2013), and by the time I wasn’t insanely busy anymore, it felt like it was too awkwardly late to put up the recap.

But now I’m in England again and I was in London over the weekend again and GUESS WHERE I SPENT SUNDAY NIGHT. THAT’S RIGHT. THE LEAVESDEN STUDIOS TOUR AGAIN.

So, who’s ready for an extremely belated (but once again relevant) recap post?

[Pictures are from both my 2013 and 2014 visits.] [In case you were wondering how my hair magically changes length and color throughout this post.]

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For those not in the know, Leavesden Studios is where the Harry Potter movies were primarily filmed. Now that the movies are done, they’ve opened the studios for all the devotees to be able to make pilgrimages to see the sets and props and costumes and models and concept art and blueprints and BASICALLY EVERYTHING AMAZING THAT WENT INTO MAKING THE AMAZING MOVIES.

Harry Potter Studio Tour 2013

My visit last year was with members of my high school theatre company and our families (they’d invited alumni and relatives back for the trip to England). This year I went with seven girls from my program. (Coincidentally after stopping by Platform 9 3/4 both the night before and that morning, so various members of the group could get their pictures taken.)

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It was fun going through the tour a second time, because:

a) I hadn’t budgeted my time well my first time through, so I’d missed a lot of stuff in the second half.

b) I now knew how to budget my time going through the tour.

and c) I now knew when to expect the shock and glee and grateful and crying moments (and therefore got to watch my friends have those reactions).

IMG_5442Blurry Great Hall. Fun fact: They had to use actual flagstone for the floor in order to accommodate the furniture, actors, and equipment. Fake stone wouldn’t have been able to stand the weight or use. 

IMG_5454Mirror of Erised.

IMG_5459Harry, Hermione, and Ron costumes from Half-Blood Prince. Check out that cool green screen magic going on with the Invisibility Cloak.

IMG_5477Wall of portraits. The green screen ones are the ones that would move in shots. And if I’m remembering right, the others all have faces of people important to the films, like the producers and all that.

A highlight for me was definitely getting to learn so much about the behind-the-scenes stuff for the movies. As much as I love seeing things like the Goblet of Fire and Dumbledore’s office in person, I can’t get over getting to see all the green screens and lights and wires. It must have been so incredible to take part in putting all the pieces of these movies together.

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Another really cool thing about visiting the studio tour right now is that they’ve got a special promotion going on in which they have special displays up. My favorites were the broom-making exhibit (in which the actual broom-makers from the series talked to us and, you know, MADE BROOMS), a board game from a deleted scene (that apparently is so complex no one remembers how to play it anymore), and part of a chess board set up so you could interact with the giant pieces as they whizzed across the spaces.

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IMG_5500The girl working the board game display was super nice and complimented my Hogwarts Alumni tank–at which point I had to sheepishly explain that no, it was not some cool new official merchandise, but something I’d gotten off a street vendor at Oxford for like three quid. (Harry Potter merch designers: You need to get on making Hogwarts Alumni stuff.)

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We took a break at the courtyard that is the halfway point for Butterbeer and general fangirling.

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The second half of the tour focuses even more on the behind-the-scenes elements of Leavesden, with entire rooms dedicated to the prosthetics used to turn human actors into all the various, crazy creatures; blueprints; concept art; and the teeny tiny models used in the design process for later constructing the monstrous sets.

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But also, of course, Diagon Alley.

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The tour ends with what are arguably the two best rooms (but only arguably, because the entire thing is fantastic).

The first is the model of Hogwarts that they actually used in filming for the earlier movies. I cannot enter this room without crying. (Yes. Even my second time through, I got misty-eyed.)

IMG_5630It’s just… that IS Hogwarts. That is the Hogwarts, right there, that we grew up with and saw a thousand times on screen and dreamed about.

The final room is “Ollivander’s.” Floor to ceiling, shelves full of wand boxes inscribed with names coat the walls. Each person to work on the movies has a box. It’s beautiful.

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Last year, a worker used a laser pointer to show us where all the Big Name People’s boxes are. No one was there to do that this year, but I still remembered a couple.

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After that, all that was left to do was spend my (parents’) life savings in the gift shop and make plans for our next Harry Potter movie marathon. (Because Harry Potter = true love.)

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~Julia

Big News Post, Take Two

I’ve been promising another Big News post for a couple weeks now, and I FINALLY CAN SHARE THINGS WITH YOU!

Drum roll please…

This is a Book Too is back!

Yup, after our unplanned hiatus (school has this annoying habit of getting in the way of projects like this, yes?), Mel and I are finally back in action with This is a Book Too. Check out new chapters on the official This is a Book Trilogy blog at: www.thisisabookthebook.wordpress.com.

I’m attending BookCon (AKA “Power Reader Day” of Book Expo America)!

I’m so excited to finally get to check out this event! (By which I mean “fangirl all over my favorite authors, likely scaring them so badly they’ll never come near me ever again.”) Plus, I’m attending with my super talented writing friends Ariel and Joan, and a couple of our parents, so that automatically makes it 110% awesomer. (Also: I love New York. Like a lot.) (Also, also: BROADWAY.)

I won the Arthur Miller Award!!!

The Arthur Miller Award is a prize here at U of M for writers. The winner receives a scholarship, an autographed copy of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (because Arthur Miller), and, you know, the right to stare in disbelief at the email and jump around a lot and maybe even cry, just a little bit. (Not that I did any of those things.)

I’m so incredibly honored to have been selected to be this year’s recipient. U of M’s got a kind of crazy number of talented writers, so the fact that they chose my entry blows my mind. A lot.

… Aaand, last but not-at-all least:

I’m studying abroad at Oxford this summer!!!!!

THAT’S RIGHT. I GOT IN TO MY DREAM STUDY ABROAD PROGRAM. AND I’M GOING. OH MY GOSH, OH MY GOSH, OH MY GOSH.

I’m studying British literature in the place it was written, and some of my friends are going to be there at the same time, and it’s basically going to be beautiful.

On top of that: While in the UK, Hannah (who’s in the same program as me!) and I are attending–wait for it–JK Rowling’s session at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival! (If you happen to feel a flutter in your chest at this news, that’s probably the heart attack I had while scrambling to purchase the tickets rubbing off on you. I apologize.)

The plan is to keep the blog up and running while I’m over there, so prepare yourself for a deluge of posts about how wonderful Europe is.

I’m off to daydream about summer (so close, yet so far away). Love you!

~Julia