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!).

Anyway:

Even looking at this image makes me feel ill.

Even looking at this image makes me feel ill.

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.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 4, 2015, in Critiques and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    My name is C.T. Phipps and I am an author of both grimdark fiction as well as dark fantasy. I wanted to compliment you on your article while also giving something of a rebuttal. The death of Shireen Baratheon was, indeed, an immensley moving scene but I think you confuse the purpose of grimdark if assuming its misery for misery’s sake.

    The death of Shireen is, for Stannis, his moment of damnation as it destroys everything he has worked for and justfiably so. His armies abandon him for a kinslayer and child-murderer (probably joining the Boltons), his wife hangs herself, and even his prophetess realizes she backed the wrong horse. It is a tragedy which ends, appropriately, at the hands of Brienne who never wavers from her love of Renly or the desire to do right by those she has sworn herself to.

    Why do we, the many, love grimdark? We love grimdark because the darkness illuminates the light and gives shape to the struggles within it. Jon Snow, Eddard Stark, Daenerys, and Brienne are not heroes because they are axiomatically right in a setting that makes it easy to be a hero. No, they are heroes because it is HARD to be a hero in Westeros. Jaime Lannister’s redemption is meaningful BECAUSE it is difficult, unrewarding, and a personal struggle. It is easy to be good in paradise, less so in hell.

    Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Rob J. Hayes, Andrjez Sapkowski, Stephen Donaldson, Glenn Cook, Michael Moorcock, and others write stories where many of the heroes are not shining knights. So did Robert Howard and Fritz Lieber. The heroes of grimdark may have feat of clay, terrible flaws, or be faced with situations which are insoluable. However, when Geralt of Rivia tries to do the right thing, not knowing whether it will work out or not anymore than the reader, that is important.

    I love Luke Skywalker and Captain America, but I also have room in my heart for Daredevil and Batman.

    • I’m not saying, mind you, that I think there is no place for grimdark – far from it! I merely think we seem to be getting too much of it of late.

      I do object to the supposition that personal struggle can only be portrayed in grimdark fiction or that those things that are less grim are “paradise.” Things can be plenty hard and gritty and grim but they needn’t stay that way. There, I feel, is where I tend to diverge from guys like Martin and Abercrombie. I don’t see a real light at the end of the tunnel in Westeros and I despair at its arrival. That saddens me, is all.

      • There’s, of course, a spectrum to these things. Grimdark is no more total doom and gloom than High Fantasy is sunshine and roses. They’re just two ends of the same spectrum with many works in the middle. You can also have variations on the same thing with The Shadow of Mordor being a grimdark Tolkien game and The Hedge Knight series being high fantasy cheerful Westeros.

        As for Westeros? I think it’s going to a long road to any sort of resolution but is still trudging along to the end of the Long Winter. It just so happens Fall was a particularly harsh harvest.

        🙂

      • You’re right, of course–it’s all a matter of degrees. My own work could hardly be called sunny and optimistic, but nobody is calling it grimdark, either. I think my reaction here is linked to how far the pendulum has swung and how often the “realism” claim is deployed in its defense.

  2. Simon Ellberger

    Mr. Habershaw:

    It’s not true that we all read fiction only to believe in the implausible and unrealistic. Maybe you do; but I don’t. Authors often use the implausible and unrealistic to provoke new ideas and to examine (sometimes subtly or obliquely) such real-life things as gender issues in ways that they can’t so easily or safely be examined within the restrictions that reality imposes or through the preconceived mundane worldviews of the readers. For instance, writing about a world with multiple sexes and genders can help make one see gender issues in a new way. Issues of power can be looked at in the way Kate Elliott does in her new book “Black Wolves.” I read fantasy to explore these types of writings; it makes me think differently, bypassing my fixed mental models. It does this rather than have me believe in something implausible and unrealistic. In fact, such belief frankly scares me. I’d say I prefer reading not to believe the implausible and unrealistic, but to not to have to be bothered with whether what I’m reading is plausible and realistic, so that I can just focus on the themes, plot, prose, characters, and world building. A story of fiction is art; it’s not a factual report. It’s the same to me as looking at a surreal or abstract painting or sculpture to see what I can’t already see. You can only see what you observe; it takes imagination to see what you can’t. And good fiction incites imagination in ways history is not able to.

    I also read to have an immersive and emotionally engaging experience. I like being frightened in a safe, vicarious way, so I read horror. I like to laugh, so I read humor. Nothing seems to immerse and emotionally engage me like a gritty, grim, dark story. I can’t completely explain why; maybe because it’s cathartic, rather than leaving me with a lingering sense of depression afterwards. I know fiction is fake; its emotional effects thus don’t remain with me — I don’t spend extensive time afterwards thinking about Shireen. Conversely, real photo images of horrible events are a different matter altogether, because I know they are real. They do linger. And so do the horrors of real history. So fiction enables me to safely read about horrible things that occur in the real world that I can’t read in a history book without getting that lasting depression you get thinking of Shireen.

    Reading about humanity’s dark side helps expose that dark side, even more so in a story that doesn’t end well. There is also something about such works that adds sober gravitas to them. Let’s not forget that some of Shakespeare’s greatest works were his tragedies. And there is the grimdarkness (including moral ambiguity) of Greek myth (e.g., The Iliad) and of Beowulf. There is some reason these stories are considered great works despite the lack of “noblebright” fantasy heroes. For me, it’s the same attributes that I find attractive in today’s grimdark.

    Another thing about the best grimdark is that it is rarely relentlessly grim. There is dark humor in it, and it makes me laugh in a way that light humor can’t, and at things that would be totally inappropriate to laugh at in real life or in reading about real life (e.g., history).

    As for your comment that there is too much grimdark, I think you are dead wrong about that. There is a plethora of all types of good fantasy available; I know because I read them. Anyway, that’s really an issue for market forces. If there really were to be too much, it would most likely be because that’s what people want to buy and read.

    I’m also troubled by your statement: “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.” I find that odd. I think the opposite is true. I’ve seen change and redemption happen many times — enough so that I KNOW it’s not implausible or unrealistic. It may take a critical physical, emotional, or cognitive event to cause it, but it happens. There are people who oppose universal health care who suddenly change their minds when a personal tragedy occurs. Or if you are indifferent to making accommodations for the physically impaired, see if you still feel that way if you suddenly go permanently blind or lose your limbs. And sometimes reading about dark things in a grimdark story is sufficient to change a worldview through an abstract but critical cognitive or emotional event, instead of a physical one. That’s a good thing brought to light from the dark.

  3. I agree with much of your post, but will remind you of the heroism of Davos Seaworth. The reason he was sent away before Shireen’s burning was because of how he risked his own life to save Gendry from the fires.

    It’s a small moment relative to the large canvas of the story, but it’s why Davos is one of my favorite characters in the entire series.

    • I think Stannis and Alister Thorn’s actions in the finale struck the viewers far more than the Boltons or Littlefinger because they “betrayed” the viewer’s trust. Most viewers thought Stannis and Alister were gruff and misguided but fundamentally decent men. When, in fact, the show ended up showing them as evil all along.

      • Simon Ellberger

        C.T. Phipps: I don’t know that the finale showed them as evil. Stannis could be viewed as doing approximately the same thing Abraham thought he was doing with Isaac in the Bible, so unless you consider Abraham evil, there may be more to consider re Stannis’s morality. Stannis is essentially following the directions of a priestess of R’hllor (the Red God), and by her religious visions as she understood them, his act was not an evil one. Apparently sacrifice by fire via a priest/priestess is a common morally appropriate act in her religion. Furthermore, historically in our world, sacrifice of the pure in return for a favorable response from a deity was in many pagan religions considered a morally correct thing. And Alliser Thorne (not Alister Thorn) probably saw Jon Snow as the evil one who was a traitor and about to destroy the purpose of The Night’s Watch and wreak havoc upon civilization by bringing the enemy Wildlings beyond the Wall, and desecrate the sacrifice of those of his comrades who had died fighting them, and who was responsible for the death of Qhorin Halfhand, etc.

  4. A point which gets often ignored in the Abraham and Isaac story, though is that God makes it abundantly clear human sacrifice is against his commands. Stannis is also agnostic regarding the Red God both in the show as well as in the books. He believes very strongly in the Red Woman’s magic but has never brought himself to buy into the Red God’s faith.

    In the show he very clearly decides to make the choice to sacrifice his child for safe travels and there’s a pagan myth which is very appropriate for this in the story of Agammenon. He sacrificed his daughter to the gods in order to get a favorable wind, which resulted in him being murdered by his wife as well as her lover. Notably, kinslaying was something so accursed in the Greeks that they considered it one of the crimes the Furies punished heinously.

    In the end, though, you’re correct good and evil exist in the minds of the viewer–and the audience is almost certainly inclined to view both very harshly by Modern 21st century values as well as the ones of Westeros to which they’re inclined to agree.

  5. Simon Ellenberger: I think what you are saying about why you read fiction is actually exactly what I mean about fiction’s purpose, to explore “issues in ways that they can’t so easily or safely be examined within the restrictions that reality imposes,” to borrow your own words. Yes. Exactly that.

    I also agree that there are degrees to grimdarkness (as I’ve discussed with CT Phillips) and, yes, the best stuff does so with a dose of humor (Joe Abercrombie comes to mind). What worries me about a good bit of the grimdark subgenre, however, is the bleakness of it. Not so much the darkness, but the lack of hope. I don’t feel catharsis with some of that. I wouldn’t define Stannis’s fall as “tragic,” at least not in the classic Aristotelian sense. There is very little to be learned from Stannis’s plight and, indeed, if there’s a reason I’ve drifted away from Westeros, it’s because catharsis is typically denied. For me, there is almost no dramatic release of tension that characterizes the term. Good tragedy is like a meal – Macbeth, Agamemnon, Medea, Hamlet, etc. Conversely, grimdark (at its darkest) does not feed me. What am I to learn from a story that tells me everything is terrible and everybody dies? That’s my problem.

    Now, naturally, you have a different approach to it. That’s totally fair, and I’m not here to say the grimdark subgenre is wicked or evil or wrong. I just personally find it depressing. Yes, yes – there is lots of other fantasy is out there (I should know – I write the stuff!), but there has been a notable trend towards the grimdark in recent years. This is shaped by market forces, true, but market forces are a representation of what people want, and if what people want is the kind of misery that grimdark often peddles, then my questions and concerns stand.

    Thank you for the lovely conversation, by the way. This has been very interesting.

  6. Hey,

    I’m enjoying the conversation a great deal as well. To me, the general lack of hope in the genre is somewhat overstated. In all likelihood, Jon Snow is going to return and Daenerys is going to bring her dragons for some Other-burning but it’s a long ways away. Stannis’ fall from grace is also something I merely chalk up to bad writing as the developers clearly had the view he was on the road to damnation while the books seemed to show him as a more ambiguous figure so the two presentations were always clashing. I see Stannis as a Macbethian figure in the show in that his boundless ambition and desire to be more than “Robert Baratheon’s brother” led to his destruction and Richard the Third end.

    It just wasn’t done very well.

    I think the catharsis factor also depends very heavily on what grimdark author you’re reading. Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy ends the way it does because he wanted to make a point that stories don’t really end up neat and tidy. Good people die, bad people get rewarded, other bad people die, and they go on with their lives. It’s not an ending for everyone but it’s contrasted very strongly against, say, The Broken Empire Trilogy which ends very much so on an emotional and mental climax. Rob J. Hayes The Ties That Binds ends with some characters in terrible straights while also have happily ever afters.

    There’s nothing innately superior about the grimdark method where good people and the heroes suffer as well as may end up dying ignonimously. It’s certainly not uplifting and isn’t meant to be. There’s also nothing wrong with the reverse but I think it also adds to the human element. In the Gentleman Bastards series, not to spoil, but a substantial number of the lovable cast of rogues dies in the First Book. It ends with the catharsis factor of them being avenged and the destruction of the people involved but doesn’t really give our heroes much satisfaction.

    Because, sadly, revenge isn’t like that.

    I suggest you give some of the other entries in the genre a try as you might be surprised at the way they end up–but I also note that a diet of grimdark isn’t necessary or recommended either. I, myself, like to palette cleanse between works. 🙂

    • I find it interesting you’d define Lynch as grimdark! I wouldn’t characterize him as such at all! (My own stuff gets compared to his fairly often)

      Again, we come back to an issue of degrees. I quite like Abercrombie and find his unsatisfying endings bracing and interesting. Martin is darker than him, though, by a few degrees and the show is darker still. My critique primarily focuses on the darkest end of the subgenre, and it shares its space with the majority of apocalyptic scifi. Suffering with some kind of enlightenment is fine. Suffering for the sake of it or for the purpose of pointing out the futility of human endeavor…that’s where you lose me.

      • Eh, even so, there’s this work I quite enjoyed which was complete torture-porn. The protagonist manages to kill his evil uncle but he ends up killing a completely innocent man, killing the innocent man’s son out for vengeance, driving his girlfriend insane then to suicide, murdering his two childhood friends who maybe were betraying him/maybe not, gets his mother killed, and when all of the bodies are on the floor, dies himself. I forget the name of the story but it took place in Denmark. 🙂 The darkest of the grimdark can be an amazing journey–if it’s written well.

      • Yeesh! Yeah, definitely not for me. 🙂

  7. Okay, totally resurrecting this post (mostly because I only just discovered you as an author and am absolutely in love with your first book), but this post is my exact criticism of what has happened to my beloved genre of fantasy. If other people love the grimdark, that’s totally fine, but I loathe it. My job is in the medical field and I spend my day submerged in grimdark and have stories that would put George R.R. Martin’s to shame. So I read fantasy because I want escape and redemption – hence why I love your stuff (and this article). So my big question is, what other authors do you find who aren’t writing grimdark fantasy? I keep searching since I read faster than my favorite guys come out with books, but it’s so few (naturally I’m familiar with the big names like Rothfuss, Butcher, and Sanderson).

    • Thank you! Glad you’re enjoying the book!

      As for who to read, hmmm…
      Katherine Addison’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR comes immediately to mind (political intrigue that isn’t horribly depressing)

      Scott Lynch sometimes gets lumped in with the Grimdark crowd, but I don’t think that’s fair (my stuff is every bit as dark as his, I’d wager), so THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA (though if you’re familiar with the big guys, you probably already know him).

      Lesser knowns? Not sure, exactly (been on a scifi reading kick lately and been reading older Fantasy). Have your read Lois McMaster Bujold’s THE CURSE OF CHALION and PALADIN OF SOULS – utterly fantastic fantasy and not grimdark at all.

      Beth Cato’s CLOCKWORK DAGGER series (steampunk fantasy) is great, too, but not exactly “regular” fantasy.

      Max Gladstone’s Craft Cycle is really cool – highly recommended, though I haven’t read it all, yet.

      That’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. Good luck with your search (oh, and my next book comes out June 21st of this year–NO GOOD DEED)!

  8. Just blundered in here on an almost unrelated google search! Yes. This. Am now adding one of your books to my to be read list.

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