Logan Grimnar, Bloody-Handed Warrior
He piles the skulls of his enemies
He builds a mound of the fallen
His foes weep rivers of blood
Logan Grimnar, strong wolf of the pack
His Sword hungers for red flesh
His guns thirst for battle
He laughs amidst the war-din
Logan Grimnar, father of wolves
His sons haunt his enemies
Slay them where they falter
And bring their pelts to Fenris.
– from The Saga Of The Old Wolf (excerpt from the Space Wolves Codex for Warhammer 40k, the original Grimdark)
Earlier this week I was browsing r/fantasy when I came across further discussion of gritty fantasy. You might remember my article on the subject, which came about after I read Joe Abercrombie’s excellent post on the value of grit in fantasy. I personally figured this discussion had moved on, as much as it ever leaves us, but it is apparently still going strong. Perhaps I missed out because I was finishing off the first draft of Bloodlust: Will to Power, the sequel to that book in the sidebar.
Hilariously the label Grimdark has been stuck on to gritty fantasy. I partly blame TV tropes, a site dedicated to defining and listing tropes, but in a friendly fashion. Grimdark has been a gaming term for some time, often used to discuss the Warhammer 40k setting (which Sam Sykes notes, earning him my respect).
For those of who don’t know it, Warhammer 40k started off a minitaures game but has spawned several decent computer games a host of novels and many, many other hobby games. It is most recognizable for the iconic Space Marines, super-heroic defenders of humanity. The games setting is notoriously dark, crazily over top bleak. The Imperium is corrupt, uncaring, and undeniably fascist. All wars are like WWI, but with enemies inspired by Demons, Cthulu, Terminator, and Aliens thrown in. Betrayal, horrible death, and dark fate are staples of the setting. The best characters in this setting can usually hope for is to die a good death or maybe just survive. The few heroes shine out like flickering candles in a sea of night. GW and its fans pull this one off with a straight face, and it works. To outsiders the setting would appear so excessively bleak that they might think they have blundered onto a less cheerful version of a real-life doomsday cult. I love 40k.
Grimdark began as a proud fan-made label for 40k and it is a little annoying to see it applied pjoratively to gritty fantasy.
I have several other thoughts about the whole Grimdark discussion. Here they are in no paticular order.
Gritty versus Gratuitous
I have no problem with grit in fantasy. If I don’t like it I will simply not read the book. As readers develop their own personal tastes they will often be able to tell which works will suit those tastes and which will offend them. It reminds me a little of dating. When we are new to something let our tastes be determined by popularity. In high school most young men will fawn over a handful of women and vice versa. This changes as people get more experience with dating (or reading) and get to know what they want for themselves instead of just following the pack. It is a natural process and it is ever evolving for the true reader, often varying by mood. In following this process most of us will gain some appreciation for gritty fantasy and many will absolutely love it and delve right in. This is a good thing.
My only criticism of some so-called gritty books is when it gets gratuitous. I don’t like gritty when it serves no purpose. This a tough point to define, especially in the age of Quentin Tarantino where our culture has become so nuanced that types of violence can be used to perfectly convey differents moods in the same film. If the story seems to wallow in graphic descriptions of really nasty stuff without any purpose it is gratuitous. If the dark elements are pointlessly over-the-top without being entertaining, it is gratuitous. Honestly, I just think its bad writing more than anything. A good writer can make the darkest scene serve the needs of the narrative.
I also utopian fantasy can be gratuitous: too much sunshine and happiness can be just as sickening as too much grit and dirt. Best to be careful though, it is a fine line and not everyone likes the same things.
Shocking and Breaking Formula
Shocking a reader out of their comfort zone is a much tried technique. It is more hit than miss in my opinion. I’ve read Shake hands with the Devil and several eye-witness accounts of Death Camps and Death squads that have shaken me to the core. I don’t think any Fantasy novel has managed to shock me with excessive grit since then. It just doesn’t compare, nor should it.
However several gritty novels have managed to shock me by breaking formula. The most famous cases are The first books of the Song of Ice and fire series and the Thomas Covenant series. Both of these managed to shock me my twisting the conventions of standard storytelling on its head after a long build-up. The grit in this case is a by-product of the broken convention and more than acceptable, despite being rather grim.
Perhaps I just don’t like gratuitous shock…
Utopian, Pastoral, Heroic, or Escapist Fantasy… what is the opposite of Gritty Anyways?
Utopian Fantasy is a fantastical take on the idea of the perfect society. Utopian novels of any sort tend to demonstrate the biases of the writer more than anything.
Pastoral Fantasy is fantasy that longs for a pure, uncomplicated past where everything was brighter, more natural and more innocent. Fantasies of this type tend to take tribal or medieval life and present it in a very positive fashion.
Escapism is a term that used to be applied to all of Fantasy. Basically serious critics thought fantasy contributed very little to modern though and only appealed to readers who wanted to send their brain on a vacation. Hard to say that these days… Escapist Fantasy would be easy reading fantasy these days. The term has fallen out of use for a reason though, for some people gritty is escapist I’d wager.
My vote is for Pastoral. Utopian has very direct political connotations, and Escapist is too broad. I’d stay away from heroic fantasy as the opposite of gritty because as I noted in 40k the darker a setting is the more a hero can shine.
Don’t forget the middle ground!
The whole Grimdark discussion ignores a wide swath of books that exist in the middle ground, many of which are absolutely awesome. Guy Gavriel Kay and Michael J Sullivan leap to mind. Both deal with gritty, brutal subjects when the need arises but take a balanced approach, avoiding any movement towards the gratuitous or the overly pastoral.
In the end I think it is a healthy discussion. Most of the reasonable authors feel that grit is just another tool for a writer to use. Grimdark may very well become to fantasy as it is to gaming and help potential readers find the stuff that fits their personal taste.