Light and Dark

It’s something you read about a lot in fantasy.  The armies/forces/powers of light/dark are arrayed against each other in an epic and endless battle which will only end when the world is brought into divine light and peace/cast into utter perdition.  It’s a good, old fashioned, Biblical theme, not least since the very nature of light and dark tend to imply a higher power, and further more, imply a heaven and hell.  And that’s cool.  It means that suddenly your battle isn’t just about who’s going to own the Rhineland during difficult economic times, it’s about the future of mankind, the very nature of man’s immortal soul, and whether the entire species is going to have to wear dark colours and eat lava for the rest of eternity.  There’s nothing quite like having a pitched battle between light/dark to heighten the stakes.

Except… the very thing which makes a battle between these two forces so powerful is, arguably, the very thing that undermines it, because the conflict is by definition, so absolute.  Your nice, fluffy, pastel-colour wearing, pleasant-toothed light mages are bound, by their very nature, to go around rescuing kittens and puppies while your evil, black-wearing, mascara-sporting dark mages will take great pleasure in committing kinky sexual deeds and garotting people with piano wire.  This is the distinction, at least, which ‘light’ and ‘dark’ implies and if nothing else, it lacks complexity.  Are we to believe that your ordinary light mage, when faced with yet another cat stuck up a tree, on a rain-swept, toe-curling night, while being harangued by their foul-mouthed next door neighbour to save Tiddles, isn’t just a little bit tempted to turn round with a cry of ‘screw you and your feline, I choose tea!’  Are we to believe that every blackguard minion of the ebon night, when commanded to go blackmail that seven year old, isn’t just a little tempted to go ‘really, you don’t think that’s a touch extreme, what?’  When it’s heaven vs. hell – which is what this scenario basically is – the complexity of humanity and all the morally dubious things it does, really goes up in smoke, and this is a rather sad and limiting thing.


The battle is also often rather one-sided.  The forces of light, by definition, can’t go around beheading their enemies willy-nilly, whereas the forces of dark are perfectly content to butcher anyone who stands in their way and, well, you can’t shake the feeling this is a bit of a strategic problem.  Equally, I have never fully understood why anyone would want to spread endless night across the globe, or would willingly drink the blood of a man who has declared, ‘now you shall become my slave in darkness and despair’.  You may have a few issues of your own, but I just feel this is taking things a bit far.  Also, if we accept for a moment that the forces of dark don’t have a recruiting problem, they must have really tense office meetings.  Even if you don’t believe in ‘being nice’ for its own sake, it is a useful societal reflex, and if it’s something which your nature as a minion of darkness has removed from the toolbox, then arguably the internal politics of evil are going to get very sticky, very fast.

Finally you have a narrative problem to overcome, which is this – being good, all the time, just isn’t very interesting.  Let’s face it, when you watch Star Wars, and you see the Jedi being sagely, noble and wise, don’t you just wish someone would strut in there, wearing black and some really wacky make-up, and invite them all for a trip to the local nightclub and twenty rounds of vodka?  Don’t you just want to bang your head against the wall any time someone nice dressed all in white says, ‘no, we cannot unleash the dragon, for it is forbidden in our sacred code….’  All the time the villain of the piece, whatever that piece may be, is strutting around in scary armour, hitting irritating subordinates, committing morally questionable but politically savvy deeds, and generally having a really good, well-fed time.  Someone once said that the devil gets all the best tunes – he certainly gets all the best lines.  Every now and then, the situation is jazzed up by the presence of your ‘cheeky chappy’ on the side of Light, to try and relieve the boredom of always being pleasant.  In Star Wars, it’s Han Solo; in Lord of the Rings, it’s a mixture of dwarves and hobbits; in most mainstream fantasy, it’s usually the addition of a sometime-thief or a fiesty princess who’s decided to use their dubious skills in the name of good.  As you can see from that list, the technique works better for some, than for others.

All this said, there are a few new twists on this traditional light/dark conflict which give me a bit of hope.  If anyone here has read the Night Watch books, you’ll be mildly relieved to find that even though it’s a story of Light versus Dark, the deeds which Light have to commit in order to muddle by, are often so morally questionable in and of themselves that the distinction becomes not much more than a lifestyle choice, and the books are as much a study of uneasy truces and dodgy diplomacy, as of any epic conflict. There is also a strong theme of temptation, again in a slightly Biblical way.  Frodo is tempted by the One Ring throughout his journey; servants of light are tempted to do evil deeds in order to make a greater good, and so on.  Even bloody vampires – traditionally as Dark as Dark Could Be – have become rather more complicated and, though no one has yet satisfactorily answered the question of why someone might want to unleash the nether forces of evil across the world, people are at least making a braver attempt to provide a solution better than the traditional, ‘cos they’re evil, innit’.


  1. I loved the Night Watch books, especially the way that the Day Watch thought that all the Light Ones were a bunch of hypocritical wankers. The bit where Anton goes to Kazakhstan and finds Day Watch and Night Watch cheerfully sharing the same building and trading off bureaucratic duties with each other was hilarious. I also appreciated the way the vampire in question was shown as being a well-intentioned, benevolent and socially progressive Dark Lord, whose necessary death was a genuine tragedy, and felt as such by both Light and Dark. But the author is Russian. I suspect his non-ideological viewpoint would be difficult for, say, an American fantasy writer to sell in the present climate. Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palace series had a somewhat similar spirit and was discontinued because of poor sales.

  2. From what I remember, I think that the non-difference between the Light and the Dark in the Night Watch books is pretty much acknowledged by Gesar in Twilight Watch. Although it really is one of the main themes (and a bit of a plot point) in the first book.

    For complete non-difference between Light and Dark the main suspect is Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law trilogy”. If only because both sides appear to be as big a pack of b*****ds as each other. Not so much Light and Dark, as Dark and A-Bit-Darker-Than-That and I wouldn’t like to say which side was which…..

    Richard Morgan’s “Land fit for Heroes” series is heading along those lines, also.

    There seems to be a move in fantasy for factions more like the real world but with shorter tempers and swords. I can’t say that’s a bad thing but then I am a bit of a cynic!

    All, in my opinion, your mileage may vary etc 🙂

  3. “Also, if we accept for a moment that the forces of dark don’t have a recruiting problem, they must have really tense office meetings.”

    As an example of what happens to the oldest/most cliched of plots/storylines when a bit of extended logic is applied – this sentence is a brilliant summary, Kate!

    I fully understand and agree with what you’re saying – a good old battle between light and dark can be brilliant when done well – but is often lazy. If the author includes the grey areas – the ambiguity that is much more realistic, the story and the reading experience is often all the richer for it.

    One good example is Celia Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy – good and bad becomes blurred for the characters, as well as the audience.

    “Realistic” fantasy does seem to be becoming more common, which is exciting!

  4. Great piece, Kate, and a point-of-view I’ve held for ages. It’s always far more interesting, and fun, when the opposing sides are morally ambiguous. Tim S beat me to it in mentioning Joe Abercrombie, who’s books I enjoyed immensely. Even the most sympathetic characters were, when all’s said-and-done, pretty vile human beings.
    Ian M Banks Culture books are also pretty vague when it comes to the North point of the main characters moral compasses. Especially the Minds, and many of the Drones, and many of the humans as well.

  5. Night Watch was my favorite book, until I read Madness of Angels.

    Humans are neutral creatures, whose only inclination to be good is the lingering fear of punishment. Without threat of imprisonment, I would indulge in some of my darker urges. And you will find many who would gladly fight for evil. Darkness has no recruitment problems. Darkness is more fun. Blackmailing a child is a little funny, I’d do it just to amuse myself. The world is grey with specks of black and white. Pick a colour and decide how much fun you can have.

    P.S. Grey has the most fun.

  6. MattH –
    Humans are more complicated than that.

    Many many humans will do something good merely for the reward of a smile on someones face.

    Many many humans will do something good for some promise of some kind of reward in general, rather than from fear of punishment.

    Many many humans will do something good merely because it allows them to lie to themselves about being a good person.

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  8. MattH – I’m not sure if it is a lingering fear of punishment, or a more general fear of consequences. If [i]everyone[/i] is acting as they want with nothing to hold back their darker urges then the consequences are going to pile up fast.

    For example – it might be a little funny to watch you blackmail a child, but it’s not half as funny as watching a child blackmail you…..

  9. I think absolutely evil characters can be just as boring as absolutely good ones, especially over the course of a series of stories. If the motivation is no better thought out than ‘they’re evil, innit’, there’s no real differentiation between one Dark Lord and the next.

    If the villains have proper motives (i.e. not ‘and then you will all tremble before my power!’), limits, even redeeming features, they become more believable which I think makes them more frightening, and certainly more interesting.

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