Fantasy fiction has experienced a shift in mood and tone over the last couple decades. Or people’s perceptions of fantasy fiction have shifted. As a genre, fantasy used to be stereotyped as fluffy, fairy tale tinted stories of rainbows and unicorns, where evil always fails and good always triumphs. Now, popular fantasy tends to be viewed as dark, gritty, bloody, brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s easy to point to certain fantasy novels and writers as examples of this descent into grit and grime.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones if you’re referring to the first book or the television show) has an upsettingly high body account among its large cast of main characters.
Joe Abercrombie is often mentioned in the same breath as the bloodthirsty Martin.
Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen strives to be so grim and gritty that it feels as though the entire world is covered in dead deserts and unforgiving wastelands.
Patrick Rothfuss’ anti-hero Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is responsible for the heinous assassination of the King and the war that followed. So much potential for going over-the-top with guilt, angst, and pathos, but Kvothe is too much of a cold bastard for that.
Other fantasy writers such as R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker, Matthew Stover, Scott Lynch, David Anthony Durham, Mark Lawrence, and Brent Weeks are frequently landing on lists of dark and gritty fantasy. The writers that I usually see recommended among fantasy fans are those who are known for writing dark, gritty, and “realistic” fantasy.
The first time I consciously noted this trend towards the grim and gruesome, and the shift from simplistic tales of good versus evil to stories of moral relativism, was with Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company. (Thank you, Brandon, for convincing me to read these books those many, many years ago.) I remember the pleasant shock of seemingly long-term characters being bumped off not only within the first book, but within the first several pages. The absence of a distinct demarcation between good and evil felt like a much-needed departure from and reinvention of beloved but tired fantasy tropes. Telling the story from the point-of-view of a rag-tag, oft-sidelined group of mercenaries instead of the central movers and shakers was a stroke of humanizing genius.
I’m not the only one who has noticed and remarked on the seminal nature of Glen Cook’s military epic. Do a search for The Black Company, and chances are that any reviews you find will comment on how Glen Cook was one of the first, if not the first, to trade in magical glamour for mercenary grit. There’s no doubt that the books were influential. The impact that they had on Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is instantly apparent in Erikson’s character and place names, and their influence becomes more concrete and vital as Erikson’s novels progress.
But thinking back on all the fantasy novels and stories I enjoyed as a child, teenager, and young adult, I’m not at all convinced that Cook’s reputation for helping to pave the way for dark and gritty fantasy is deserved. I’m not even convinced that the fantasy genre’s reputation for becoming darker and grittier is deserved.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often touted as being a prime example of how twee and simplistic the fantasy genre is capable of being. It’s often criticized for being a shallow, glossy adventure tale of Good and Light overcoming Evil and Darkness, but let’s not forget the creepiness of Smeagol’s demented spiral into despair and his pathetic addiction, or that Frodo fails his final test. Let’s not ignore that the epic’s overarching and ever present theme is about the long, grueling march of mortality and the inevitability of death and the end of all things. Good triumphs over evil, but our halfling heroes are unable to protect their home from the loss of innocence. Magic is fading from the world forever. Of all the fantasy stories I’ve read, this one is still the saddest. It was published 30 years before The Black Company.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan is an amoral thief and warrior in a world where life is cheap and violence rules. He has no qualms with dealing death and destruction, and is not a hero, but simply an adept survivor. The first Conan story was published 52 years before The Black Company.
Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, is about a city oppressed with dense and unfathomable tradition, which is populated with self-serving, monstrous individuals and pathetic, demented wretches. It was published 28 years before The Black Company.
The most popular incarnation of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the albino Elric of Melnibone. This self-loathing wizard and warrior wields the magical sword Stormbringer, which feeds on the souls of those it slays. Elric’s story culminates with Elric losing all that he holds dear, with Stormbringer feeding on his best friend before turning itself on Elric. The first Elric story was published 23 years before The Black Company.
Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are about a spiteful, lonely man suffering from leprosy who finds himself in a magical land that heals him of his terrible disease. One of his first actions in this world is to rape a young woman who had befriended him. His sense of guilt and his leprosy driven habits of survival cause him to angrily, stubbornly, and steadfastly deny the reality of the world he now finds himself in. Many readers find Thomas Covenant to be a loathsome, irredeemable character. Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series, was published 7 years before The Black Company.
There are many other examples of pre-Black Company fantasy stories with dark tones, disturbing ideas, or shocking events. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Asprin’s and Abbey’s Thieves’ World, Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, Gardner’s Grendel…
Look back even further, to the true progenitors of the fantasy genre such as Shakespeare, fairy tales, fables, myths, religion, Greek drama, epic poetry, and it becomes readily apparent that darkness and fantasy are true bedfellows. Fantasy stories of today are playing in the same heaps of grime and grit and violence that Oedipus was crawling through when he murdered his father, slept with his mother, and stabbed out his own eyes.
So, when someone declares that they love A Game of Thrones because it’s not typical fantasy, just remember that there are old versions of Sleeping Beauty where she was not awoken with a kiss, but by the suckling of her newborn twins, the result of her being raped while laying in an enchanted sleep. That’s sick.
And Cinderella’s step-sisters sliced off parts of their own feet in order to fit into the slipper. That’s twisted.
By the way, please read Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company if you already haven’t. It’s reputation as being groundbreaking in tone and mood might be overstated, but they’re well worth the read, in no small part to Cook’s deft use of first person, his engaging cast of colorful characters, his bizarre creatures and frightening, ancient wizards, and his sense humanity.
The series contains the following books:
1. The Black Company
2. Shadows Linger
3. The White Rose
4. The Silver Spike
5. Shadow Games
6. Dreams of Steel
7. Bleak Seasons
8. She is the Darkness
9. Water Sleeps
10. Soldiers Live