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I am asking when, where, and above all why, did the fashion to depict dark lords in fantasy stories wearing spiked crowns start? Why do some artists think that is a good idea?

Most high fantasy stories are set in a fantasy version of medieval western European culture. So crowns in high fantasy stories should look like medieval western European crowns. And we all know what medieval western European crowns look like.

Well, maybe I should illustrate some, just in case.

Early medieval crowns in western Europe were more or less plain circlets that went around the head horizontally, made of gold and studded with jewels.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy looked like this, for example. It was called the Iron Crown because the metal band on the inner side was believed to be iron, an iron nail from the crucifixion according to legend. The Iron Crown is currently supposed to have been first made sometime in the 4th-5th centuries and remade in the 9th century.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy, a wide cylindrical composed of 6 gem-studded curved plates with raised and embossed designs joined into a circle.

Later things began to be added to the top of the circlets, which eventually became what are called fleurons. Fleurons would have the shape of fleur-di-lis, or of crosses, or of three lobed leaves, or of clubs in a deck of cards, or of other usually three lobed objects.

The number of fleurons varied, but the typical number was four at 90 degree angles around the circlet, so that as seen from the front three would be visible.

The medieval French coronation crown was called the Crown of Charlemagne (not to be confused with the Holy Roman Empire's Crown of Charlemagne or Napoleon's crown of Charlemagne) and probably gained its final form in 1180.

Sketch of the Crown of Charlemagne, a circular gemmed band with four fleurs-de-lis mounted forward, backward and to the sides

Here is the Crown of Saint Wenceslaus made by King Charles of Bohemia (Emperor Charles IV) in 1347.

Crown of St. Wenceslaus, similar to the Crown of Charlemagne except that the fleurons are club-shaped instead of fleurs-de-lis.  This crown adds bands across the crown (front to back and side to side) with a cross in the middle where they meet.  It has a red velvet liner.

Here is another medieval crown:

A crown similar in form to the Crown of Charlemagne, except the fleurons are smaller and it is much more thickly embossed with gems and bordered by rows of pearls

The Polish crown of Boleslaw I the Brave (reigned 992-1025) was actually made centuries later by Wladyslaw the Elbow High (reigned 1320-1333). This is a modern reproduction:

The Koronoa Boleslawa is very similar to the Crown of Saint Wenceslaus but has 8 fleurons instead of 4.

Medieval artists usually depicted kings wearing that type of crown and medieval coats of arms displayed stylized versions of that time of crown whenever crowns were used as charges.

Here is King Arthur from the Nine Worthies tapestry:

King Arthur is depicted in this tapestry wearing a crown with 4 large club-shaped fleurons alternating with 4 small leaf-shaped ones.  His surcoat and banner each depict the same crown 3 times on a blue field.

Here are the three crowns in the coat of arms of Sweden:

The lesser coat of arms of Sweden depicts 3 crowns similar to Arthur's on a field of blue with a more ornate modern crown above.

So everyone who knew anything about the middle ages would naturally assume that that if a high fantasy was set in a society more or less based on medieval Europe any crowns would more or less look like medieval European crowns. If a crown was mentioned, they would think that it looked like a medieval European Crown.

So when people who knew anything about medieval Europe read in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter 11, "A Knife in the Dark", the description of the Witch King:

The third was taller than the others, his hair was long and gleaming and on his helm was a crown.

They would picture him with a crown consisting of a circlet with fleurons worn around or on top of his helmet.

In The Return of the King Book V Chapter "the Siege of Gondor" the Witch King rides through the gates of Minas Tirith.

The Black Rider threw back his hood and behold! he had a kingly crown; yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shown between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark.

And again most readers would assume that his kingly crown looked like a medieval king's crown.

In chapter 6, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields" the Witch King is described:

A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: The Lord of the Nazgul.

If the crown was made of steel, like a helmet, instead of being made of gold, it would be confused for a helmet unless it was shaped like a crown instead.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter 11, "A Knife in the Dark" Aragon tells a short version of the story of Beren and Luthien:

...Tinuviel rescued Beren from the dungeons of Sauron, and together they passed through great dangers, and cast down even the Great Enemy from his throne, and took from his iron crown one of the tree Silmarils, brightest of all jewels, to be the bride-piece of Luthien to Thingol her father...

In The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter VIII, "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol" the Hobbits rest for a while and talk about old stories:

Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours.

Since the Iron Crown of Morgoth was made out of iron instead of gold, it must have been shaped like a crown to be called the Iron Crown instead of the Great Helmet, or the Iron Hat, or the Iron Headpiece, or the Iron Bonnet, or the Iron Cap, or the Iron whatever.

Most readers would naturally assume that the Iron Crown looked like a normal medieval European crown, only made out of iron, and presumably having only three jewels, the Silmarils.

But most depictions of Morgoth make the Iron Crown of Morgoth look more like the Iron Weird Spiky Thing on Morgoth's Head.

Morgoth wears an angular helmet concealing all but his eyes.  The three Simarils are set in his forehead above which rises a ring of sharp spikes. Another image very much like the previous Another portrayal of Morgoth in a spiked helmet, but with the Silmarils mounted in a vertical column

And dark lords in general seem to be depicted with spiked helmets, crowns, or head gear.

If you search for images of dark lords you will see many of Morgoth, Sauron, Darth Vader, and Voldemort, and many others described simply as dark lords. And many of those dark lords seem to have spikes coming out of their headgear or possibly their heads. The artists of those images succeed in making their dark lords look dark, but not so much in depicting them look like lords, especially not like lords who want to be emperors of everywhere.

So when did that fashion start?

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    What fashion are you talking about? I don't recall any such trend and you haven't offered us a single example to justify your question or explain what you're talking about.
    – J Doe
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 22:33
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    Are you referring to Spikes of Villainy?
    – Yasskier
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 23:20
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    Edna Mode
    – Paul
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 23:34
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    Look, your question is super long-winded. Are you able to cut down some of the elements and perhaps focus on the main point?
    – Möoz
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 5:29
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    @Yasskier See also: Horns of Villainy, Crown of Horns. :) Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 12:23

3 Answers 3

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I'm having trouble tracking down an earliest occurrence, but the depiction of spiked crowns for figures of menace dates back at least as far as 1513, in Albrecht Dürer's masterwork "Knight, Death and the Devil."

Detail of Death from "Knight, Death and the Devil;" Death wears a crown with 8 spikes, entwined with serpents.

Full engraving of "Knight, Death and the Devil" with the crowned head of Death indicated.

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  • See my answer. This goes back to the Roman emperors.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 14:54
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Crowns and tiaras with sharply pointed crests have been visually associated with queens rather than kings for at least several centuries. While the vertical decorations on kingly diadems were conventionally in the shapes of crosses (for overt Christian imagery) or fleur-de-lis, the corresponding queenly crowns were often depicted as having a simpler design with a jagged upper edge. Perhaps the best known example of how these styles are used in contrast today is in the designs of the standard Staunton chess pieces, developed and first sold in the 1840s.

King and Queen

A very influential image involving such a crown was the villainess in Walt Disney's first animated feature-length film, Snow White.

Evil Queen

Disney's skillfully executed design for the evil queen has a distinctly pointed crown. The jagged edges give her a menacing appearance while maintaining a definitely feminine styling.

This may not mark the first use of a sharply spiked crown on a Dark Lord/Lady character. (The menacing symbolism of such spikes is pretty straightforward.) However, it was surely influential, as the evil queen in Snow White was one of the first fantasy villains in visual mass media.

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    +1 Am also thinking of the illustrations of Jadis the "White Witch" in the Narnia books, which also featured tall pointy bits.
    – Lexible
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 4:16
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    @Lexible I was just thinking of that too, the illustration was by Pauline Baynes and people can see one here and another here.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 4:19
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This fashion almost certainly originates from the radiate crown used by Roman emperors and other important rulers in ancient Europe and Eastern Asia. According to Wikipedia, this crown is also known as the tyrant's crown, which is a good indication of what people thought of it at certain points in history.

In the image on this coin, the emperor Aurelian is wearing a distinctively spiked crown:

Coin with image of the emperor Aurelian wearing a spiked crown on both the head and tail sides.The spikes lean close to his head.

Similarly, the crown of Bahram of the Sassanid Empire was portrayed as even more spiky:

Coin, probably silver,, with image of the Sassanid emperor Bahram wearing a spiked crown. Five spikes are visible and pointed away from the head. Bahram has a braided beard.

To complete the trio, the article also has an image of Probus wearing a similar crown:

Coin with probus wearing spiked crown.

The early Roman emperors had a reputation as bloodthirsty enemies of Christianity, as did basically all the rulers of the ancient Middle East and Southern Europe. Indeed, the term "tyrant" is of ancient Greek origin. As such, when modeling the appearance of a tyrannical Dark Lord, writers would naturally look to the appearance of ancient rulers perceived as similarly tyrannical. Further, the crown itself was associated with worship of pagan solar deities, which would essentially have been Satanism for many medieval Christians.

However, Tolkien himself probably helped contribute to the prevalence of this trend in fantasy. Here is an image of Sauron drawn by Tolkien himself:

Sauron is drawn with red eyes and a shadowy, indistinct body against the sky, wearing what could be a crown of spikes. He stretches out one long, menacing hand.

Note what could easily be interpreted as a spiked crown on Sauron's head. Presumably Tolkien was influenced by the crowns of the Roman emperors when he made this sketch of Sauron's appearance, directly or indirectly. As indicated in other answers, this iconography had been used long before Tolkien to represent evil figures.

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  • I vaguely recall that "tyrant" used to mean "absolute ruler", so a "tyrant's crown" wouldn't have been associated with evil or oppression. At least at first.
    – Drejzer
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 17:33

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