The Nitty on the Gritty

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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

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10 responses to “The Nitty on the Gritty

  • Julia

    Really great collection/list! I will refer back to this in the future 🙂
    What you said about LotR is really a good point. Sometimes I felt that in the Peter Jackson movies that particular sadness was captured only in that typical movie-sadness, the “it’s all over for the viewer” sadness. I cried in the cinema when Frodo sailed away because it was a sad moment for Sam – but the overarching implications of all that’s happening at the end of the books is missing. The scouring of the shire is something many people today would find misplaced in terms of the greater story-arch; but I find it to bring back the focus of the novels where they were supposed to be: the Hobbits and their innocence. You raised a good point about Frodo’s failure in the end – we tend to forget that I think.

    Also, I started reading Lord Foul’s Bane just last week, but I haven’t gotten far yet because I need to read Perdido Street Station for my thesis first. But I already fell in love with the style and I was gripped by the horribleness of Thomas Covenant’s story. The story of him becoming a leper is one of the best openings to a novel I’ve read in a while. 🙂

    • mikelpen

      Thanks for the comment!

      The absence of The Scouring of the Shire is the biggest problem I have with Jackson’s films. I completely understand his choice to remove it, and it was clearly the right choice when judged by audience reaction, but it’s one of the deeper, darker, more sobering moments of the story, and I miss it.

      Lord Foul’s Bane might indeed have the strongest hook of any fantasy series. But be warned, some readers sour on the story once Covenant finds himself in the Land. He’s not an easy character to empathize with.

      How are you liking Perdido Street Station? Mieville’s first book, King Rat, left me cold, but reading Perdido was like falling under a strange spell. What are you working on for your thesis that you get to read such wonderful books?

      • Julia

        I can already see what you mean about Covenant. His interaction with the girl in the beginning was a little weird. I wanted to slap her for being so nice to him and him for being so broody – something that fit his character well in the real world suddenly seemed a little put-on in the Land. But I’ll see how it continues.

        Perdido Street Station is brilliant! It’s so immersive and crazy and weird.. and detailed! I love that there’s no predestined quest for the characters, but that they all pretty much go about their daily worklives and stuff gradually develops. China Mieville has great skill as a writer (although he does love fancy words. I don’t think I’ve ever read the word ‘undulate’ quite that often in a novel before.)

        Oh and, well, I do my degree in English Literature and I’m actually writing about Power and Authority Structures in Fantasy Literature 😀 It’s pretty cool, but I’m also overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading material 🙂

      • mikelpen

        Good observation about Covenant feeling so out-of-place in the Land. His heightened cynicism and well-trained insular, myopic lifestyle clash with the simplistic and altruistic innocence of the inhabitants of the Land. It’s definitely not a comfortable read.

        That’s exactly what I enjoyed about Perdido Street Station. The focus on character and setting as opposed to plot helps you feel like you’re visiting a real place rather than simply observing a story. It’s like a novel mixed with a fantastical travelogue.

        The Wheel of Time might be just what you’re looking for with your thesis. The magic system is based on the dichotomy between the male and female. The male source of magic has been tainted, causing any male magic-user to go mad. The resulting power structures and gender relations are some of the more interesting aspects of the novels.

      • Julia

        Thanks for the tip! I’ll surely check that out; I am also including the Earthsea cycle, particularly Tehanu, which touches upon the gender thing as well. It’ll be interesting to compare them! 🙂

  • julianrmunds

    Wonderful collection here. I wonder if the darkness that has permeated Fantasy comes from the fact many of these authors sight H.P. Lovecraft as an influence.

    Have read any of Robert Jordan’s Wheels of Time? I’d love to read your take on that.

    • mikelpen

      Interesting that you brought up Lovecraft, because I kept thinking of his stories as I was writing up the post.

      I’ve been hesitant to bring up The Wheel of Time because I try to avoid getting too negative, especially over someone who was so prolific and influential, and who wrote some of my favorite books. Maybe I’ll give it a crack now that you’ve put the bug in my brain.

      Thanks for the comment. I greatly appreciate it.

  • Eric Peterson

    I gotta say, who thinks of fantasy as namby-pamby? In addition to all of your spot on citations, if you look back at the ultimate source of “Swords and Sorcery”; Norse legends, Arthurian legends, mythology basically, that stuff is way dark. King Arthur is fighting a doomed battle against barbarians and ultimately done in by his own incestuously-conceived son and betrayed by his wife and best friend, In Norse mythology the whole world is f-‘d from the get go. Heracles kills his whole family in a fit of rage and then spends his life trying to atone. It’s not a pretty picture. I’m having a hard time thinking the other extreme, though I’ve not read a lot of popular fantasy for many years.

    • mikelpen

      Great to hear from you, Eric.

      It’s possible that I’m misinterpreting peoples’ criticisms of fantasy being “simplistic” and “escapist” as fantasy being “namby-pamby.” Still, I have seen fantasy fans give up on “A Song of Ice and Fire” after the first book because “it was too depressing” and “the good guys didn’t win,” and I’ve heard readers lauding modern fantasy for being darker and more “realistic” than “traditional” fantasy. It’s the very reason why Erikson and Bakker and Rothfuss and Abercrombie and others have such hardcore fans. But I’m with you. I can’t recall a time when popular fantasy was nothing but light, fluffy, feel-good stories. “The Hobbit” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” are about as far as typical examples of quality, popular fantasies go when it comes to saccharine, simplistic adventure stories, and even they are threaded with disturbing, heady images and themes.

  • Eric Peterson

    I’m fully willing to confess my ignorance of current themes in popular fantasy, I checked out of the genre completely by about 1990. I’ve dipped my toe back in lately reading to my kids, but I’ve stuck to Tolkien, C.S Lewis and classical mythology. I’ve found myself editing on the fly with King Arthur and the Greek myths, there’s some seriously disturbing stuff in there!

    Nice work on the blog, it’s an interesting read…

    Hopefully we’ll cross paths someday, seeing as how we’re living something like 50 miles apart!

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