Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

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


Metaphors Be With You

Metaphors are capable of cutting to the truth of a matter, or of casting images that sear and brand the mind, in a way that simple descriptions or statements of fact are not always capable of.

Odysseus threw the stool.

Odysseus let the stool fly.

The first example perfectly explains what happened. Odysseus threw the stool. The second example explains the exact same action, but it simply and poetically implies the grace and strength with which Odysseus hurls the stool, as though the stool has a mind of its own and wants to fly toward its target. The second example is laced with a sense of power and truth that the first lacks.

Fantasy and science fiction can have a lasting, hard hitting impact on audiences because fantasy and science fiction are fundamentally geared toward the delivery of striking, powerful metaphors. More than that, fantasy and science fiction are fundamentally geared toward being read and interpreted as extended metaphors. When a story is set in a fictional world, or an altered world, it’s easy to begin perceiving it all as symbolic and metaphorical. Witness the compulsive need that some readers have to interpret The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II, despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The human brain is so adept at perceiving patterns that it perceives patterns even where none exist. Fantasy and science fiction, lacking a one-to-one parallel to reality, is open to being formed into very personal and deeply held patterns that the reader places onto them, even in the lack of such a pattern.

I wonder if this is why some fans (myself included, if I’m being perfectly honest) develop fan obsessions that can resemble some form of religious zealotry.

Luke Skywalker is not really a young farm boy who becomes a Jedi. He’s a metaphor for the pains of transitioning from youth to adulthood.

Buffy Summers doesn’t really battle demons, but rather the perils and hurts of high school adolescence.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds isn’t really hiding from and ineffectually railing against the Alliance.  In truth, he’s the geek’s patron saint of lost causes.

These are metaphors that can speak to us in very personal, meaningful ways.

I wonder if this is why some of us fly into a rage when our favorite properties “betray” us by transitioning to a new mood and tone, to a new storyline, to new characters, to new themes… Perhaps we become so lost in our personalizing of these stories that when these stories change, it doesn’t simply feel like change, but like a personal attack on aspects of ourselves that we hold dear.

But before we become angry, maybe we should consider the opportunity that’s being offered us to discover and formulate new metaphors, new patterns, and new meanings.

And sometimes we simply outgrow our stories, or our stories outgrow us. That’s just life.

And sometimes something is just not very good, but still, that doesn’t mean that the Star Wars prequels kicked your puppy or ate all your french fries.

Metaphors be with you.


The Point

Stories are worlds?  Various mediums such as books, movies, and comics are the doorways that allow us access to these worlds?

I know, this is hardly an original or particularly deep thought, and it even sounds a bit pretentious (though I choose to interpret any inherent pretentiousness as romanticism), but I believe this notion of “worlds” and “doorways” gets to the heart of why many of us love and obsess over fantastical and imaginative works of science fiction and fantasy.

Those who are critical and derisive of such genres would point to this observation and claim it as damning evidence that science fiction and fantasy are mere escapism, suitable only for adolescents (and woe to any adult who actually enjoys The Lord of the Rings or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for they must be emotionally-stunted cretins).  But like many criticisms that are spawned and driven by bias and spite, this claim that genre stories are no more than simple escapism is so tightly focused on proving the worthlessness of science fiction and fantasy that they only see one or two trees and become completely blind to the infinite varieties of trees, mountains, rivers, seas, streams, and skies that these genres have to offer.

More on this in the future, I think.

So the point of this blog?  To simply provide me an outlet with which to express my life long appreciation of science fiction and fantasy, to spout any ideas I may have regarding these genres and specific works, and perhaps to share these thoughts with other fans.

Happy adventuring!


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