Pinning Down Grimdark
Gritty realism, moral ambiguity, flawed characters, and wall-to-wall violence: such are the claims that Grimdark has made about itself over the past decade. The term started out as a borrowing from Warhammer 40k (“in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war”), which was then applied pejoratively to literature. Since then, it has been worn as a badge by a whole swathe of writers, to the point where there is now a recognised sub-genre of Grimdark fantasy. But, as is the case with all genres (which I maintain are artificial distinctions made by readers and publishers, not writers), there is still copious disagreement about who or what counts as Grimdark. Hence today’s essay, which despite the title is less about an objective attempt to define the sub-genre, and more about attempting to put my own thoughts in order on the subject. Oh, and I also want to respond to a forum colleague (a self-identified Grimdark author, no less), who has recently had an essay or two published in Grimdark Magazine.
I have a particular view of what Grimdark is, as a sub-genre of fantasy. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and its various follow-ups. Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains (I have yet to get around to chasing up the sequels). Bleak, cynical fantasy with bleak, cynical protagonists, who regard life much like Thomas Hobbes regards life in the state of nature – “nasty, brutish, and short” – and who are eminently self-aware of their predicament. There’s a world-weariness, laced with nihilistic despair, about proceedings, livened only by a thick coating of black humour, and none of it is ever destined to change for the better. The contrast with the more idealistic and optimistic elements of traditional fantasy (by ‘traditional fantasy’ read a certain type of ‘candyfloss wish-fulfilment’) could not be more stark – it is essentially a literary reaction, one that takes delight in deconstructing while leaving little in its place.
Orbiting the Grimdark star (or black hole?) are a constellation of other works, which to my mind share many elements with the sub-genre, but which (in my humble opinion) do not truly constitute Grimdark. R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse, for example, is a staggeringly bleak setting – in the spiritual, as well as the material sense, and the author does seem to identify with the Grimdark label (which he terms Fascination with the Abomination). On the other hand, Eärwa is (explicitly) not nihilistic: it is a world laden with meaning, and there is less focus on bleak humour, and more on dark alienness. If Bakker is Grimdark, he is a slightly different variant: his idea of an Abomination seems less mundane and more fantastical than “humans are bastards” (though there is copious human bastardry in his series to go with the alien horrors). Also, if Fascination with the Abomination is the distinguishing trait of the sub-genre, does that mean Anne Rice and her literary descendants, who turn the Abomination into a veritable aesthetic, are grimdark too? That strikes me as an odd categorisation.
Another potential candidate for Grimdark Fellow Traveller would be Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogies from the 1970s and 1980s are extremely dark and deconstructional, and arguably lay the foundation for what came later. That said, I would place his books further from the black hole than Bakker – rather than embracing despair, Thomas Covenant is the story of a prolonged battle (literally and metaphorically) against it, with the entire first trilogy being haunted by High Lord Kevin’s abandonment of hope via the Ritual of Desecration. As I have mentioned before, Donaldson’s work is pessimistic, but not at heart cynical. It puts its protagonists through hell, but does not tap-dance upon the human condition, and certainly not after the manner of “the world is shit” Grimdark. This goes double with the author’s interest in character redemption – as terrible a human being as Thomas Covenant is (Angus Thermopylae even more so, in Donaldson’s space opera series, The Gap), there remains hope for both him and the world he stumbles into.
That leaves George R.R. Martin, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s claim to Grimdarkery rests very much on the notion that Good (Ned Stark) is often punished for pursuing morally correct actions, whereas Evil (Tywin Lannister) often reaps rich rewards from his perfidious schemes. I, for one, am unconvinced. Pointing out that successful politics often involves the dirtying of hands is not a particularly groundbreaking insight – Shakespeare does it, for goodness sake – but, more relevantly, I feel Martin (via the respective legacies of Ned and Tywin) suggests that there is more at work than mere politics. Ned dies a confessed traitor, and his family suffers… but there are still people in Westeros who remember and love him. Characters will march though snow-storms for Ned’s little girl. Tywin Lannister – supreme master of Westerosi realpolitik – gets rewarded for his cruelty by being shot on the toilet by his own son. And no-one marches through snow-storms for Tywin’s little girl.
I could further suggest that there is very little moral ambiguity about Gregor Clegane and Ramsay Bolton, while a character like Brienne represents a real attempt at reconstructing a romantic (and very non-Grimdark) ethos. Sandor Clegane and Bronn may be amoral poster-children for deconstruction and cynical “might makes right” viewpoints, but Martin isn’t simply tearing the genre down – he works within tropes or even rebuilds them. George R.R. Martin, after all, is a cynic with the heart of a romantic, which to my mind puts him outside Grimdark classification. He certainly isn’t a realist writer either (quite apart from the dragons and ice demons, the work isn’t interested in representing day-to-day banalities), though I suspect that when people praise the supposed realism of Grimdark, they are really confusing realism with focusing on the negative aspects of the human experience. Fact is, the works in question are just as stylised and artificial as anything else in the fantasy genre. Which is rather the point – fantasy, by definition, is not realistic.
Nor – despite the best efforts of the TV adaptation – is Martin’s work really nihilistic. Nihilism is belief in nothing (not to be confused with atheism, which is lack of belief in god or gods), and despite bad things happening to people in A Song of Ice and Fire, stripping human existence of meaning is not the intent of the text. Rather, it is much more about letting the characters discern their own sense of “what is right”, without claiming that an objective answer exists. Recall that Existentialism, an answer/solution to nihilism, is about imposing one’s own meaning on an objectively meaningless universe. “All Men Must Die. But first we live,” is a heavily existentialist sentiment, exhorting people to make something of their lives, not to sit around drinking themselves to death because it’s an inherently meaningless world and nothing matters. In this case, one can even imagine Nietzsche approving of Ygritte urging Jon to abandon the Night’s Watch’s slave morality (Nietzsche, despite popular misconceptions, was not a nihilist).
So much for the current literature. Can we see anything in older literature that may provide some insight into Grimdark? The sub-genre likes to claim sword and sorcery – we will discuss how true that is when I get to the response section of this essay – but, based off how some overly enthusiastic aficionados describe it, practically anything or anyone could be Grimdark, up to and including J.R.R. Tolkien himself. After all, The Hobbit is deconstructional, with plenty of moral ambiguity once the story gets to the squabble over the Hoard (and even before – Bilbo is explicitly employed as a burglar. Move over Locke Lamora!). The Lord of the Rings has the deeply flawed politician character, Denethor, who comes to a terrible end. The Silmarillion has the deeply flawed creative genius character Feanor, who comes to a terrible end while taking his people with him. The Children of Húrin is unapologetically bleak, and even has a section where our protagonist falls in with some amoral and arguably sociopathic outlaws (complete with attempted rape). The problem is that if Grimdark casts its net so widely as to include Tolkien himself, it cannot very well claim itself to be a new and distinctive development within fantasy. If you include everyone, you no longer have a sub-genre.
Going further back further, we encounter Shakespeare.
[Yes, retrospectively assigning genre is taking works out of period context, but I am primarily interested in looking at the supposed defining features of Grimdark. Besides, people have been claiming Frankenstein (1818) as science-fiction for decades. If they can do it with Mary Shelley, I can do it with Shakespeare, damn it.]
Hamlet is an interesting example, since we do encounter a jaded, morally ambiguous protagonist (mistreatment of Ophelia, accidental murder of Polonius, et cetera) in a rotten political environment, and, of course, nearly everyone dies. Oh, and it is objectively fantasy, what with the ghost thing. The funny thing about Hamlet as Grimdark, however, is that Shakespeare has his protagonist act realistically in the proper sense of the word – when confronted with the ghost’s allegations, he actually does what you or I might do, and tries to verify them first. Then he stands around thinking about the moral consequences of killing his bastard uncle. Hamlet’s dithering is not what we would expect from a Grimdark protagonist (who would more likely to skewer Claudius and Gertrude mid-coitus or something), but it is more true to life. People do have moral hang-ups, even if it is against their immediate or objective interest.
Ay, there’s the rub. What separates Hamlet from Grimdark in terms of human nature is that Grimdark would, I think, drop the deeper aspects of the protagonist’s personality – the ones that make him a three-dimensional character – and focus on the cynicism and sarcasm he develops in the face of his unenviable situation. Potentially make him more of a Claudius (corrupt, morally compromised schemer) or a Fortinbras (hot-headed man of action) too, because ditherers with moral hang-ups don’t conform to certain strange interpretations of human nature. There is a reason Hamlet is more important to the Western literary canon than Shakespeare’s genuinely Grimdark piece, Titus Andronicus, and I think it is at least partly because it achieves the proclaimed goals of Grimdark (dark, tragic, moral ambiguity) more effectively than the Grimdark mode does itself.
Shifting out of genre, one could – if one were feeling harsh – see antecedents for Grimdark in the work of the Marquis de Sade. Harsh, because, whatever its faults, modern torture porn tends to be better written than the eighteenth century variety (there are better fanfiction writers than the Marquis). Oh, and while there is copious cynicism, de Sade’s work lacks anything that a twenty-first century audience would consider humour.
Leaving aside whether de Sade was trolling, getting his rocks off, satirising society, or some combination thereof, the argument that he presents in Justine (1791) runs essentially as follows: what is good is determined not by a (non-existent) God and His corrupt church, nor by man-made institutions and law, but by Nature – and it is not man’s place to go against Nature. To illustrate this, De Sade’s ‘novel’ features two sisters, Justine and Juliette. Justine stays true to her faith, and commits to a life of virtue. Juliette starts off by working in a brothel, and from there commits to a life of vice. Justine is then subjected to an endless string of rapes and torments by every depraved libertine in France (there are a lot of them in the book), whereas Juliette prospers from her wicked ways. Ergo, Nature punishes virtue, and rewards vice, which means human beings should listen to their baser instincts, obey Nature, and be good by being bad. Q.E.D.
Between the notion that Being a Bastard is the only way to get ahead in the world, and de Sade’s (actually very sincere) rants about the wrongness of organised religion, one can see the overlap between this and Grimdark. De Sade does take things a bit further, admittedly – he is writing a self-consciously immoral work, whereas modern Grimdark prefers amorality – but poor Justine’s journey has the same excited delight in suffering one finds in the later seasons of TV’s Game of Thrones. Imagine Sansa Stark fleeing from one Ramsay Bolton to the next, all the while being given strange philosophical lectures as the Boltons try to correct her, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. To cap it all off, of course, Justine dies by being struck by lightning. I told you de Sade was a terrible writer.
Based off the above two thousand words, you can probably guess that I am not a fan of the Grimdark sub-genre. True enough, and I would not personally categorise any of my own work under the heading (your mileage may vary). On the other hand, I wish to clarify that I do not hate the sub-genre as such. If I have one objection, it would be that as a literary reaction to ‘fluffy’ fantasy, Grimdark has become played out these past ten or more years – and the solution to a jaded audience is not to ramp up the rapes and murders even more (*cough* Game of Thrones *cough*). This isn’t prudishness on my part either, but having read a fair amount of de Sade, I like to think that we in 2019 can do better than rehashing the “greatest hits” of an eighteenth century troll.
With that out of my system, let’s take a look at C.T. Phipps’ essay on the Grimdark hero:
Grimdark is a relatively new subgenre in the world of fantasy and science fiction, having emerged as the grittier, morally ambiguous side of fantasy in the 1970s and ‘80s with the likes of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series, Glen Cook’s Black Company, and the Warhammer 40K role-playing games and related literature.
As I have suggested above, I am sceptical that the ideas behind Grimdark are necessarily new, even if the notion of these ideas actually being a sub-genre unto itself is indeed a recent development.
As an author with a taste for the genre, I was required to ask myself a simple question: if I’m not going to write about a world where being the good guy works out, then what is the motive for the protagonist? What do our heroes fight for if, taking a look around themselves, they can’t noticeably measure any improvement in the world? Is it just a matter of making their opponents worse off than themselves? Turning those questions over in my mind, I came to the conclusion that answering them would make a pretty good novel in itself.
There is an implicit assumption here that someone would only do something if there was a tangible benefit arising from it. I think this is a short-sighted view of human nature – in addition to noting the unintentional evocation of de Sade (“if the world punishes Justine for being virtuous, why not be Juliette?”), I would also point out the entire Northern Theory of Courage, which so fascinated Tolkien, was based on the premise that true heroism was fighting on in a lost battle. People do absolutely futile things all the time, for matters of principle.
Gilgamesh, literature’s earliest known hero, was a complete bastard with sex addiction and aging issues. Hercules’ entire history consists of murdering people, then feeling really bad about it, so he murders some more offensive people. King Arthur, depending on the myth, one-upped Herod the infant-slayer and intended to burn his wife at the stake instead of sending her away. Indeed, it’s not until fairly recently people decided that heroes need to do more than awesome things to earn that title; they had to be role models as well—and we all know that just left a vacancy for other kinds of protagonists.
Applying modern attitudes and value systems to pre-modern societies – as this paragraph does – is a very dangerous game. How heroism is evaluated varied from society to society, and that includes how cultures viewed attributes that we would consider reprehensible.
(Arthur did not “one-up” Herod. In the story in question, he considered himself bound by law – and the law just happened to dictate burning at the stake.).
The first characteristic of a grimdark hero is, by and large, they aren’t fighting to improve the world. There are exceptions to this, of course, but mostly this truism holds fast: the grimdark protagonist is a product of their environment. Conan the Barbarian kills, plunders, and indulges because that’s what barbarians do. Elric is from a society where good is an alien concept, and his chief source of woe is his realization that that’s really messed up. There are idealistic figures in the world of grimdark, but invariably, they are bigger bads than the bandits because the axiomatic nature of grimdark is things don’t get better.
My immediate thought here was if Phipps considers Bilbo Baggins a grimdark hero. He’s not fighting to save the world – he’s employed to steal treasure.
Conan is often fighting the evil wizard of the week in order to rescue the damsel in distress. I think Phipps is confusing low stakes with inherent cynicism – sword and sorcery is rarely set on an epic scale. The difference between saving the world and saving the damsel is quantitative, not qualitative (it’s not as if Conan ever needs to save the world (Elric does, of course)).
It is an impressive summary of just how the grimdark world differs from that of more mainstream fiction, emphasising that things do not always work out for the best and events play out with no regard for the morality of the participants.
I think this is a misrepresentation of mainstream fiction. If events always worked out for the best, we would not have stories. And if events always played out with regard to morality, all stories would be nothing more than morality plays. There are plenty of works that are clearly not Grimdark, but which are also not morality plays.
Locke Lamora, protagonist of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, is a con man who possesses no higher aspirations than to continue tricking the absurdly wealthy out of their goods. He’s not even doing it for the money but simply because he enjoys tricking them.
Oh, he enjoys it, yes. But Phipps is missing one key component of Locke’s motivations. His devotion to the cause of the Crooked Warden is more than simply “thieves prosper.” It is also “the rich remember” – in short, idealistic notions of class war. Idealistic because a cynic would be more than happy with the Secret Peace.
The grimdark hero is the product of their world. They are nasty because the world is nasty, ruthless because the world is ruthless, and cruel because the world is trying to step on their face.
Again with the implicit assumptions. Juliette must be the hero because the world is nasty to Justine?
Even so, the best grimdark heroes are also the ones who invite us to sympathize with their perspective and maintain some sort of human hook that we can hold onto while enjoying the ride through their existence. Some lesser authors of the genre fail to keep readers invested in their protagonist because in their desire to shock, they neglect to make the protagonist someone who, actions aside, we want to succeed
On this point, I agree with Phipps. Perhaps I’d quibble, and replace sympathise with emphathise, but the basically the point stands.
The grimdark hero at their best is like Geralt, doing good in spite of its pointlessness, or at least having fun.
But, given the stakes involved, it is not pointless. By slaying a given monster, Geralt is helping people. He’s not saving the world, but he is making a difference – ask Ciri whether Geralt’s actions are pointless.
Most stories don’t involve the protagonists saving the world, because most people are rarely in a position to do so. That doesn’t make those stories grimdark. It just means they’re stories where the stakes aren’t that high. Personally, I am also on the fence as to whether I would consider Sapkowski’s Witcher books Grimdark, but let’s run with it…
The grimdark hero is the protagonist in a story who survives in a world not of their choosing. By hook or by crook, they will always fight to survive. Death may eventually claim them but it will not be for a lack of fighting. They have some quality, some spark of humanity, that rebels against a world of meaningless cruelty and apathy. This may only be because they find themselves in an otherwise miserable hellhole. We see some element of ourselves in the grimdark hero, not as we aspire to be, at least morally, but how we hope we might scratch out an existence in the worst of circumstances.
Well and good, and, yes, this is certainly a sentiment I can get behind (in my more self-important moments, I like to think my own Teltö Phuul is a less glamorous take on this). My issue is that I simply do not see this sort of character as being unique to Grimdark – indeed, I see potential for a fair degree of overlap with anti-heroes.
That concludes today’s essay on Grimdark. This one was written with a heavy degree of subjectivity in mind – this as an issue of definitions more than anything, and where, exactly, one draws the line between Grimdark and non-Grimdark. I suspect C.T. Phipps takes a broader view of the sub-genre than I do.