Teaching Dark Lord

jackie e stallcup jstallcup at juno.com
Mon May 13 19:07:22 EDT 2002

Well, we started Dark Lord of Derkholm in my Adolescent Literature course
today.  Boy, what an experience.  To give you some background, this is a
senior level English course at California State University, Northridge,
designed for English majors who intend to teach at the high school level.
 We're near the end of the course, and so far, we've had a really fun
semester for the most part, with most of the students being very open to
the texts and seeming to enjoy the books and the discussions.  To prepare
for these last couple of weeks of class, we read another fantasy novel,
Mr. Was, and a chapter explaining fantasy and science fiction in our

How else to say it? Almost to a person, they hated Dark Lord.  I was so
disappointed!  Although I assured them that after we have finished
discussing it, they should at least appreciate it, I'm not so sure. 
Several said that they had trouble getting into it (this was true both of
die-hard fantasy fans and readers who don't like fantasy).  One of my
fantasy fans who didn't like it also says that she doesn't like Lord of
the Rings and feels really badly about not liking either this book or
LotR.  Another didn't like Derk and his habit of tuning out instead of
communicating with his wife.  Some said they felt like they couldn't join
the world of the novel (which seemed odd to me, since the characters are
so real; well, perhaps that's the problem--they wanted fantasy characters
to go play with rather than real characters that are facing icky real
life issues).  I sensed a lot of frustration in general.  One student was
very disdainful and said that she could see, maybe a nine year old
enjoying it, but not a teenager (and by implication, certainly not
adults).  She said it was far too simple (perhaps not the most tactful
thing to say in her small group, as one of the other small group members
had just said she found it too complex).  That struck me as odd, frankly.
 What do you all think?  I wonder if that is a general sort of knee-jerk
reaction to fantasy.  This particular student has been a staunch defender
of "the classics" from day one and has been very dismissive of every
adolescent text we've read, so I suppose a disdainful reaction to fantasy
is not so unexpected from her.

I know that the book is, well... odd, like so much of dwj's work.  One of
the things that she is doing is playing with our expectations of fantasy,
and that's what I really liked about it and thought that they would
appreciate.  So that's where I started our discussion:  we put on the
board all kinds of things that one expects from the genre of fantasy.  In
the next class, we're going to start there and look at how jones is using
but also playing with these expectations and I hope that that will clear
up their confusion.  Some of these expectations include 1. issues of
gender roles, 2. adult/child relationships (what were those parents
thinking???) 3.  symbolism (it's hard to tell what side querida is on,
partly because jones makes use of negative symbols, such as snakes, to
describe her) 4. particular themes 5.  language issues... etc.
A final thought:  no one seemed to find it funny at all, but I think it's
hilarious in places.  Maybe I should point out the humor?  Ah, but if you
have to explain the joke... sigh.

Any comments?


Jackie Stallcup

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