If only you knew the power of the dark side — or at least, entertained, the possibility that there’s more complexity to it than frequently advertised. Cassandra Rose Clarke delves into the deep darkness in this Big Idea for The Beholden, and comes back with something not often expected.
CASSANDRA ROSE CLARKE:
The story of The Beholden is one that starts over a decade ago, when I picked up a copy of Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker in a Half-Priced Books. The book recasts Lord of the Rings as a tragedy, telling it from the perspective of the “dark” side. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen such a story—I was an English major, so I’d read Paradise Lost in its entirety—but it was the first time I’d actually seen someone question the default fantasy narrative, codified by Tolkien and baked into so many of the fantasy novels I encountered through the ‘90s and early 2000s, of light vs dark, good vs evil. I liked the book precisely because it wasn’t the standard grimdark that was becoming popular at the time, which greywashes everything with moral ambiguity, but that it explicitly questioned the binary.
In hindsight, reading Banewreaker was the seed that eventually grew into The Beholden. That isn’t to say I hadn’t always been fascinated by the Dark Lord archetype, because I had (in fact, the very first convention panel I ever sat on covered the topic of dark lords). I mean, on the surface, it’s such an absurd concept: a ruler whose entire deal is just… being evil? For no real rhyme or reason? Just eviling evilly all over the place?
Except the most compelling dark lords, as evidenced by Banewreaker and a whole host of literature and popular culture, from Paradise Lost to Grendel to The LEGO Movie, are the ones who are run through a sympathetic prism. So when I decided that I wanted to write an adventure fantasy, I knew I wanted to include a sympathetic dark lord.
But as I worked through the manuscript that would become The Beholden, I found myself diving deeper into the trope of the dark lord, into his place in a story and his role as a character. In classic fantasy, the dark lord exists because the good guys need someone to fight and the audience needs someone they are allowed to hate. But what if the dark lord has to exist for more crucial reasons? What if he’s the bindings that hold the world together?
And that, ultimately is The Beholden’s big idea: what if the dark lord, instead of trying to take over everything, just stopped dark lording?
Defeating a dark lord is always supposed to be a metaphorical defeat of darkness—but the world needs darkness. Ever tried to sleep in the middle of the day? It kind of sucks. I grew up in Texas, and I can assure you there is nothing pleasant about high summer there, when the days are bright, hot, and painfully unending. The “darkness” in so many fantasy books purports to represent EEEEEvil, but really it just represents those things that scare us: sometimes it’s the Other. Sometimes it’s death. Sometimes it’s modernity and technological change. But these are all things that are inarguably a part of the world, and a part of what makes the world run.
Kjari, the dark lord at the heart of The Beholden, is tied to death and decay. He represents one of my deepest, most primal fears: the idea that someday, I will cease to exist, and there is a chance that all that will become of me is rot. But rot turns to soil, and soil turns to growth—as frightening as death is, it is part of an ecological balance. And when Kjari decides he no longer wants to serve as a scapegoat for the world’s ills, the characters in the world of The Beholden learn exactly what happens when that balance is disrupted.