Pessimism vs Cynicism in Fantasy
The post about a Silmarillion movie got me thinking. You see, I raised the issue of Túrin, and how his story may conceivably be a bit hard for the wider public to stomach, Game of Thrones or no Game of Thrones. That got me wondering if we can, in fact, distinguish between Martin-style darkness and Tolkien-style darkness, because while The Silmarillion features mass character death, incest, and bloodshed, it is not something I can imagine Martin writing. By the same token, A Song of Ice and Fire is not something I can imagine Tolkien writing. It’s a matter of worldview – both authors treat darkness from different starting points.
After pondering it a bit more, I think the true distinction is between Tolkienian pessimism and Martinian cynicism. Tolkien treats history as a long defeat; his mythos engages in a thematic balancing act between sadness at the loss of magic in the world, and a determined acceptance that it cannot be any other way. It is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful. Martin, by contrast, expresses a much more cynical view – darkness arises not from theological underpinnings or a sort of teleological directive, but simply because human beings are often utter bastards.
Applying this distinction more broadly, I think it is possible to construct a two dimensional model for analysing modern fantasy: a pessimism/optimism axis, and a cynicism/idealism axis.
- Pessimism: Things are getting worse, and any victory will prove a mere respite.
- Optimism: Things are getting better, and any defeat will prove a temporary setback.
- Idealism: There is reason to place hope in people, even if they make mistakes.
- Cynicism: There is no reason to place hope in people, because they make mistakes.
This therefore creates four categories:
- Pessimistic Idealists
- Optimistic Idealists
- Pessimistic Cynics
- Optimistic Cynics
Pessimistic Idealists: This is the natural home of bittersweet endings and eucatastrophe, arising from an inherent tension between gloom and hope – to justify the former, you need to put your characters through hell, but to justify the latter you need to get them out of it, if only temporarily.
- J.R.R. Tolkien fits here, obviously – the darkness of Túrin is set against the light of Beren and Lúthien; the fading of the Elves speaks to Tolkien’s pessimism, yet the destruction of the Ring through Grace speaks to his idealism.
- I would also place Stephen Donaldson here – while the likes of Thomas Covenant suffer immensely, the suffering derives from pessimism more than cynicism. Foul himself is profoundly cynical, persuading his foes to surrender to Despair (much like Tolkien’s Sauron destroys Denethor, actually) – when Foul is defeated it is idealism that wins the day.
- Mervyn Peake would be another one. Buried beneath the grandiose gloom, Gormenghast is actually a rather idealistic piece – the fundamental human decency of Flay and Prunesquallor wins out against the bitter cynicism of Steerpike. On the other hand, Fuchsia’s fate, along with the uncertainty facing Titus, leaves the situation decidedly bittersweet. There are good people in Peake, but a cloud hangs over their future.
- For a non-fantasy example, the historical fiction novels of Mika Waltari (The Egyptian, The Dark Angel, The Wanderer) also fit perfectly into this category, with their interest in portraying nobility in the face of inevitable defeat.
Optimistic Idealists: You tend to see more classical happy endings here – while authors in this category still make their characters suffer, when victory is achieved, it is an enduring victory. Malign fate is not going to pull the rug out from beneath our protagonists, not when they are on the right side of history as well as morality.
- J.K. Rowling largely fits here. I say largely, because while her optimism is not in question (things are getting better, and Pureblood Elitism is on its way out), I am not entirely sure that her view of human nature is Idealistic so much as oddly Calvinist – that people are innately good or bad based off predetermined outcomes. Still, if you work with the characters that are actual characters, rather than caricatures, the depiction of Snape’s career shows that humans are worthy of hope.
- Jacqueline Carey is another interesting example. I put her here on the basis of her Kushiel books, where bona fide heroism is certainly rewarded, and after much tribulation, our admirable protagonists reach their happy ending. Alternatively, her Sundering duology is innately pessimistic – though seeing as it is a sort of commentary on The Lord of the Rings from the Witch-King’s point of view, that rather goes with the territory.
- C.S. Lewis is an obvious fit. There is nothing of the Long Defeat about Narnia.
- Patrick Rothfuss is another curious one. I think The Kingkiller books as they currently stand certainly fit into this category – not only do we have our roguish protagonist come out on top, but having a supporting cast modelled off Hogwarts seems to rub off in other ways. Alternatively, we know that Kvothe will eventually become the downfallen shell of a man we meet in the framing story, so this is an Optimistic Idealist story destined for either pessimism or cynicism. Or both.
- Buried beneath the melancholy and melodrama, I feel Guy Gavriel Kay ultimately fits here too – just as Peake has disguised idealism, I think Kay has disguised optimism.
Pessimistic Cynics: The world is shit, and people are shit – pessimistic cynicism is the natural home of the Grimdark sub-genre. It has all the gloom one associates with the Pessimistic Idealists, but has a much more bleak view of human nature.
- George R.R. Martin obviously fits here, at least so far as A Song of Ice and Fire is concerned. “You win or you die,” and “life is not a song,” are thoroughly cynical sentiments that drive into us the inadequacy of idealism (just ask Sansa Stark about that). Meanwhile, the failure of humans to have prepared for the oncoming winter, and the tendency for good works and good people to come to naught also betray a pessimistic worldview. On the other hand, Martin’s brand of pessimistic cynicism is also accompanied by a strange romanticism, a melancholy appreciation of beauty in the world, and his attempt to reconstruct at least some idealist concepts stops his work from stamping the reader’s face into the mud altogether.
- Joe Abercrombie lacks even Martin’s residual romanticism, to the point where existence in his world feels like a cruel cosmic joke (though it isn’t – there is nothing cosmic about it. It’s simply people being horrible to each other, with brutality begetting brutality). The First Law trilogy accordingly revolves around the conclusion that there is nothing anyone can really do to escape this cycle of oppression and bastardry, complete with one of Glotka’s former victims finding his own place as a torturer.
- Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains combines Abercrombie-level cynicism with an in-your-face approach to portraying the protagonist’s sexuality.
- R. Scott Bakker puts a different spin on this – rather than straying into Martin-style existentialism or into the realm of nihilism, he posits a setting which is pessimistic, cynical, and yet also inherently full of meaning. Eärwa has objective damnation and Old Testament-style morality, with all that entails – and given that the plot features the Anti-Christ battling Lovecraftian Space Horrors, the story is unswervingly bleak.
Optimistic Cynics: At first sight, this seems an inherently odd category: how can one believe the worst of people, yet also think things are getting better? One solution may be found in the Winston Churchill line about the United States doing the right thing when all other options have been exhausted – the idea that fundamentally flawed people can still (eventually) blunder around in the right direction.
- Terry Pratchett is the best exponent of this, I think. That is not to say that Discworld characters are portrayed as bad people – they’re not – but rather their flaws are at a level where they become comically endearing (and, of course, things invariably end happily). Pratchett’s thematic lectures, where they are present, also emphasise that treating people as things is the real problem with evil – in other words, a positive and morally correct outcome depends on these flawed people being free to blunder around on their own.
- Lord Dunsany’s short stories frequently end with a little ironic barb directed at the protagonist, but it remains playful, rather than cruel. Moreover, if one contrasts Dunsany’s portrayal of the environment with Tolkien’s, Dunsany is by far the more optimistic, suggesting that humanity’s negative effects will not endure forever.
- Clark Ashton Smith is a debatable one. He is unquestionably cynical in his portrayal of individual characters, but in his descriptions and settings, Smith revels in decadence to such an extent that one cannot really call it pessimistic in the true sense. Yes, Zothique is a dying continent, beneath a dying red sun, but there is a strange allure to these far-future hedonistic sorceries. Even with his more macabre subject matter, Smith tries to enchant you, rather than repulse you – there is nothing Grimdark here.
- With his Dying Earth setting heavily influenced by both Dunsany and Smith, I would put Jack Vance here too.
This two-dimensional framework is, of course, flawed: there are plenty of authors whom I would seriously struggle to place (including myself, though perhaps that is just me being too close to the material). I think, however, that it works as a crude starting point for looking at how different fantasy authors can invoke different sentiments depending on their underlying approach. As I have argued above, there is a significant difference between pessimistic darkness and cynical darkness, which in turn shapes what we as readers take away from a “depressing” story.