There are times that the inspiration of a story can be traced to a single point in time. Stephanie Meyer has revealed that her Twilight series was born from a dream in which she saw a person in a meadow who was “fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire.” Frankenstein is said to have resulted from a ghost story challenge among friends that itself arose from the boredom brought on by the extended winter of 1816. Most famously, Tolkien’s entire pantheon apparently sprung from a single sentence that popped into his head one day while grading English papers: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Unfortunately, I have no pithy way of explaining the germinating idea for my forthcoming fantasy novel The Dark Lord, because the novel itself is a kind of aggregation of a lifetime of influences.
I was born into the world of the late-1960’s, and came of age as fantasy fiction (heralded by Tolkien’s works) emerged from the shadows and went mainstream. In my youth I marveled every time I read the slogan “Frodo lives” on the wall of a bathroom stall, and wondered why someone wouldn’t know that, but also how mean it was to give the ending away. From my earliest reading memories I can recall coveting my father’s beautiful green and red leather-bound Houghton Mifflin editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and though I know there are those that think it is sacrilege to actually read these volumes, from age 9 or 10 onward (as soon as my parents thought me responsible enough not to destroy them) my summer ritual involved reading both volumes cover to cover before school began again in the fall. And, Tolkien was just a gateway to an amazing run of fantasy literature authors like Le Guin, Pratchett, Eddings, Donaldson, Moorcock, McCaffery, Brooks, Jordan, Anthony, and so on that spanned my formative years.
An obsession with fantasy literature led me, as it did many children in the late 70’s and early 80’s, into the world of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying. These games opened up another layer of fantasy culture to me. I would rush to the hobby shops each month (when I had a little money to spend) to find new supplements and adventures to buy (or at least covet). I thumbed through every issue of Dragon Magazine I could get my hands on trying to learn about the latest spells and the newest (and sometimes silliest) monsters until they literally disintegrated from over use. I went through reams of graph paper and graphite pencils designing my own nefarious dungeons and adventures, most of which never went off exactly the way I’d planned. And my friends and I spent late nights surrounded by well-worn dice simultaneously laughing over the preposterous situation presented by the module we were being run through, and simultaneously terrified that we wouldn’t survive it.
All of these influences over all those years went into writing The Dark Lord. The novel is my ode to the genre that has given me so much joy over the years, and springs from all those observations and questions any avid consumer of fantasy culture from the past forty years is bound to ask:
“Why does every world seem to have elves, and why are they always so much cooler than everyone else?”
“Why do dwarfs tend to drink so much? Is it an inherited trait, and if so should we try and get them some help?”
“Why don’t they print book covers like this anymore?”
“Why are there so many underground tunnel systems of such immense complexity, and why are they so often filled with vicious monsters or diabolical traps or both?”
“Why must our heroes always have to venture through those aforementioned vast underground complexes to get whatever it is they are looking for, and why don’t the aforementioned monsters, being as greedy and seemingly amoral as they are, never seem to grab whatever it is the heroes are trying to get first?”
“Whatever you want to call him, her or it, whether that be Sauron or Torak or the Dark One or Lord Foul or Voldemort, who are these villains? What are their motives? Why do they so often like to live in tall dark towers and breed orcs or goblins or the like?”
And, of course the ultimate question, “Do they think they’re evil?”
With respect to this last question, I turn back to my earliest roots. Most people would consider Sauron to be a being of pure evil, but Tolkien himself did not. In his letters to his son the author wrote:
In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil. Satan fell. In my myth Morgoth fell before Creation of the physical world. In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.
In The Dark Lord I try to ask and answer as many of these questions as I can. And, I also ask a new question: What if Tolkien is right and all of it, all the bizarre magical rules and weird creatures, all the strange quests and legendary weapons with funny names, what if all the evil and strife suffered by all the inhabitants of all those imaginary worlds was less the result of a sociopathic mastermind, and more the product of someone trying to do the right thing very badly. Oh, and what if his name was Avery, and when he wasn’t terrorizing worlds he lived in a dorm with his best friend Eldrin (who is an elf, and really cool and beautiful… of course).