Tag Archives: a game of thrones

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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Escapism

The fantasy genre falls prey to some harsh criticism. Sometimes the criticism is so harsh and mean-spirited that many fantasy fans have developed a strong resentment toward the “literary snobs” that look down their noses at us.

Sometimes we have more personal reasons for our resentment. The sentiment that fantasy is worthless is so prevalent and deeply ingrained in people that sometimes the criticisms aren’t even criticisms, but are instead personal insults intended to belittle and demean. My negative encounters with anti-fantasy zealots have been thankfully brief and easily dismissed as the mindless nattering of small-minded bullies. There was the fellow student who spitefully snapped “aren’t you too old for that crap” when they caught a glimpse of the book I was reading. There was the English teacher who haughtily and condescendingly informed me that my choice of reading material was a waste of my time because fantasy is nonsense. The irony that her favorite unit to teach was mythology was completely lost on her. I’m sure many fantasy fans have had experiences similar to (or even much worse) than my own. We’ve been primed from an early age to hiss and raise our hackles whenever someone says something derogatory about a genre that we love.

Much of the negative criticism of the fantasy genre can be written off as being overly generalized. Their attempts to discredit the genre’s entire field of work clearly indicate an unreasonable bias or an attempt to codify and justify their purely subjective preferences. Their claims that the fantasy genre produces nothing but inferior product betray an ignorance of the genre’s broad and varied offerings, or at the very least a view of the genre that’s far too narrow and specific. Not that attacks on fantasy are completely warrantless. Any fantasy fan who is remotely honest will admit that the genre is full of problematic material. Of course, this is a problem that plagues literature as a whole, so I’m not sure why some critics single out fantasy. I guess we all just have our pet peeves.

The criticism I encounter the most often is that fantasy (or any genre fiction, for that matter) is “escapism.” This is an attack on fantasy that actually carries a lot of weight, because “escapism” is undeniably why many fans read fantasy, as many fans will be happy to attest. It’s a criticism that I love because, on the face of it, it’s so damningly accurate, but at the same time it manages to miss the heart of its intended target.

While I’ve encountered compelling arguments for why reading purely for escapism is not ideal, I’ve never encountered a convincing argument for why escapism is inherently a bad thing. The anti-fantasy zealots have accurately identified a trait of fantasy and fantasy readers, but have never been able to successfully color that trait as negative.

Escapism is one of the reasons why anyone, even “literary snobs,” read fiction. To vicariously experience other time periods, locations, cultures, genders, mindsets, and ideas is one of the reasons why we read, and it’s all a form of escapism. When the anti-fantasy zealots attack fantasy for being escapist, they’re attacking much of the literature that they elevate above fantasy.

Escapism is only one of the reasons why most of us read fantasy. While it’s true that I’ve encountered the rare, fluffy-minded fantasy fan who reads fantasy solely for its romanticized, sanitized fairy tale simplicity where the story always has an uplifting, happy ending, there is far, far too much fantasy in existence that does not fit the needs of such fans. Perhaps some of you have witnessed the wrath of the “they lived happily ever after fan” upon reaching the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Like most of their criticisms, the anti-fantasy zealot’s accusation of escapism is too narrow and generalized. If we read fantasy in order to escape the harshness of reality, why do we choose to vicariously explore so many fantastical worlds that embrace the harsh grittiness of reality?

Too often, when some actor or writer or director is asked to explain what makes science fiction special, the same pat answer is given. (Yes, I know that science fiction and fantasy are different genres, but they are related, despite how vehemently this is denied by some genre fans, so I hope I can be forgiven the faux pas in my effort to make some kind of point.) What makes science fiction special, they’ll respond, is that it allows the writer and the audience to safely explore sensitive issues by being comfortingly removed from the issue by protective layers of metaphor and symbolism. In other words, you can talk about something like racism without actually discussing racism. I call bullshit.

When science fiction gets topical and starts dealing with issues, what makes it special and powerful is that it can strip away some of the excess baggage of our societal norms, our expectations, our everyday experiences, our preconceptions, and our prejudices that obscure and cloud our view of an issue’s core truth. Science fiction doesn’t put up an obscuring mirror or window through which we peer at an issue from a distance. It strips away such obstacles and shoves our faces straight into an issue’s smelly guts.

The escapism that many of us fans find so appealing about fantasy is much the same. Fantasy, when it’s at its best, doesn’t try to distract us from reality with its colorful descriptions and stories of mystical creatures and magical worlds. It rather uses such fantastical elements to highlight and magnify its perceived truths about humanity and reality.

The fantasy genre does not exist to put up a soft, stained glass window in front of our reality that we can wistfully gaze through as we ponder how nice it would be to escape to a world that was actually colored by such blurry tints of warm rose. It exists to open and shatter such windows so that we can see to the heart of our reality all the more clearly.

Escape can be both to and from and back again. Fantasy simply opens some of the many doors that allow such escape to be possible.


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