Of the Darkness and the Light: Meditations on the Grimdark
Been kicking this around for a while. What has me posting it now is partly from a Q&A my publisher hosted on Twitter revolving around their open call, in which one person asked if there was room in fantasy beyond what is grim and dark and grimdark (Harper Voyager responded in the affirmative, and held up my book as an example of such). The other part is from my friend Teresa Frohock’s lovely post over on Tor.com regarding defining grimdark as opposed to horror (that post hasn’t much to do with this one other than the title; I just wanted to give Teresa a shout-out – buy her new book!).
When Shireen Baratheon was strapped to that stake, my stomach turned. I felt sick. All those memes shooting around on Facebook the week afterwards—the ones about how Stannis wasn’t going to win Father of the Year or whatever—were not funny. It was a horrible, horrible scene, gut-wrenching and soul-draining all at once. My compliments to the actors, the writers, and everybody involved with that scene. Holy crap, guys, did that ever work.
I find myself thinking a lot about Shireen Baratheon lately. She isn’t real and what happened to her didn’t really happen, but I find myself thinking about her anyway. I look at a horrible picture of a little boy drowned in the ocean, washed up on the beach, and my stomach turns. I see a picture of a Nazi soldier pointing his submachine gun at a Jewish family, the father throwing his body in front of his children, and I get sick inside. I feel just as horrible. And I think of Shireen.
Fantasy has been getting pretty dark lately. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like picking up a fantasy novel these days is more likely going to bring you down than bring you up. George RR Martin has, of course, said that he draws much of his inspiration from history and, as it happens, history is pretty dark and miserable territory. No doubt, the darkness of Game of Thrones and other “grimdark” fantasy stories out there are more “realistic” in the sense that the things happening in them are not any more extreme or horrifying than the things that actually happen out here, in the real world.
In response to this assertion of realism, though, I am forced to ask a question: why am I reading a genre called fantasy, then?
My late father-in-law did not read fiction, as a rule. He didn’t understand why you would read anything made up when history was so stuffed with great stories that actually happened. He read biography after biography, history after history, and possessed a breadth and depth of historical knowledge that, frankly, blew me away (and I’m no slouch at my history, myself). His refusal to read fiction I found curious, but he had a good point. I mean, why read about something made up when you can have the same experience and learn about something real at the same time?
Those two questions: “why read fantasy if it’s going to be so realistic” and “why read fiction when history is full of interesting stories” are dovetailed. The answer to either question is the answer to both, and the answer is this:
We read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic.
That’s it. That’s the whole point of fiction—to believe that which is inherently false. Because my father-in-law had a really, really good point. If realism is what I’m after, then I read history. I watch the news. I study the facts. I wallow in the real world, with all its tragedies and imperfections and rough edges.
But fiction is something different. I’m not reading it because I want it to be real. I’m reading it to make the real into something transcendent. I want the unsolvable to be solved (at least partially), I want the evil to be vanquished (most of the time), I want my story to do what the real world can’t do for me—get me to believe in magic, get me to dream about faraway places and wonderful things and heroes and dragons and swords with names. In fantasy, there is no reason we have to be miserable. The world can do that for us.
Now I’m not saying I need pat, happy endings all the time, nor do I particularly enjoy the same thing over and over and over. What I wonder at is this wish to have our real-world cynicism encroach upon our fantastical playgrounds. So much these days seems to be another version of apocalypse, another bonfire of heroics. While George RR Martin’s brilliant work is perhaps the most obvious example of this mood, it is hardly exclusive to him.
“Heroes,” a friend of mine told me once, “must tread carefully in the world of Westeros.” That’s true. Jon Snow’s heroics got him nowhere, just like his brother and his father’s nobility doomed them. And, again, that is much the same as history—history doesn’t treat many of its heroes well. So, I suppose we can all nod sagely at Jon Snow’s untimely end and say “yeah—figures. What a dummy.”
See, the thing is, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to find myself scoffing the hero just to assuage my own pain over their fall. I don’t want to shake my head at (yet another) rape scene and say “that’s just how awful this place is.” This is fantasy, friends! We don’t have to make it that bleak and, even if we do, we can have our heroes win. We can have them overcome the horrible nature of their world and, by doing so, inspire us to do the same.
I guess you can call that naive if you want, but my response to you is that a little naiveté is good for us. Because, contrary to what so many of us believe, the world—the real, actual world—doesn’t have to be such an awful place. It can change. We have to believe that, don’t we? I worry when even our fantasies become grim, bleak landscapes of suffering and degradation. What does it say about us that we aren’t even willing to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil and the heroes save the day?
So that brings me back to how we read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic. For us—for our society, our world—I think the most implausible and unrealistic thing we can imagine is the idea of redemption and the ability for people to change. In fantasy, we have a unique lens through which to view our own world and, yes, we can certainly make it dark and horrible if we want. Indeed, a utopian story of happiness and light would be difficult to connect with, I guess. That said, there is no reason that in the darkness and the horror someone can’t stand up and say “no.” Some guard who cuts the little girl free from the burning stake and runs off into the wilderness. Some man in a fishing boat defying fate to save some drowning child. And then—get this—that person gets away with it. They are the hero for that moment in time, when all hope seemed lost. They are the person we all hope we can be, doing the right thing when it is hard. Sounds crazy, right? Some of you are shaking your heads, maybe. Some of you think that sounds lame or that I’m a pie-in-the-sky crackpot.
But I’m not. And for me, that’s what fantasy and science fiction are there to prove—not how weak we are or how terrible, but how wonderful we can be and how noble, no matter how awful we were in the past. It’s our world, folks. Let’s make it a beautiful one for a change.