I have written extensively (excessively?) about the Grimdark debate lately. My original thoughts of the matter still stand: Fantasy as a genre has grown large enough, with a diverse enough fanbase, that we can (and should) accommodate many styles and let the readers choose what they want to read. Puerile purists can still fight it out on their chosen corners of the internet, but they should let readers read and writers write. Gritty stories and even horrific ones, have earned their place in Fantasy, and they won’t displace pastoral and escapist fantasy any more than urban fantasy and steampunk fantasy will replace fantasy set in the medieval period. Its a big genre and I think all of these styles and sub-genres can co-exist, and, in the right conditions, thrive off each other. After all, the age of geek chic is coming, I tell ya…
That said I do feel there is a greater divide looming in fantasy, and in fiction (and politics, and life) in general. I’m thinking of fate and causality, my other go-to topic. In my mind these present a much more serious divide in fantasy than Grimdark and pastoral.
While it is possible for fate and causality to co-exist in the same narrative, they are often at odds with one another. A fate based narrative posits that the story ends the way it does because it is meant to end that way. This can be prophecy or even a form of world-weary cynicism. A causal narrative follows a chain of cause and effect from beginning to end. To examine the divide between these two types of narrative I am going to use a simple and familiar version of each. For fate driven narratives I will use the prophecy story, for causal narratives I will use the detective story.
The Prophecy Story
This narrative is driven by a predestined event that will occur some time in the future. The prophecy might be the type that can be thwarted or it may simply be fully and truly pre-destined. Regardless the focus of the narrative is centered around this particular event. The characters are involved in the prophecy, often even if they are trying to avoid it. The structure of the prophecy story can be very loose, allowing a wide range of unrelated scenes that can easily be drawn together with the sense of destiny inherent in following a prophecy. The joy of a prophecy story is in seeing how the characters react to the events and in the big reveal of the event itself, a sort of predestined climax that is somehow more satisfying because we know it will come. We all know that Odysseus will come home to Ithica and give the boot to the suitors at the end of the book but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying his travels or the final showdown.
The Detective Story
The narrative is driven by an event that has happened. The characters are involved because they are investigating this occurrence for reasons of their own (Job/personal connection). The narrative follows the characters as they unravel the causes of the event, eventually leading them to uncover and confront whoever is behind the event. Usually this a human agency, but in a fantasy novel it could easily be an evil sword or a malignant deity. The satisfaction in most detective stories is in uncovering the causal chain, link by link, and having our guesses about the who and why of the original event confirmed or shattered as we read onward. The final confrontation is just the logical end of this process, the last link in the chain. The structure of this form of narrative is necessarily a little more rigid: you have to follow the chain of cause and effect.
These two narratives are fundamentally incompatible. A prophecy exists outside of causality. It is going to happen no matter what, it the conditions that bring it about are fulfilled. The characters could be, and often are, actively trying to avoid it, but will be pulled in regardless of their desires. Think of the parents of Oedipus leaving him to die as a child to avoid the prophecy: fate always has ways of defying logic in this kind of tale. This is opposed to the detective story, which is relentlessly logical, following the chain of clues, each an miniature cause and effect, gathering evidence and motive, all working towards causality. This chain, no matter how many dead ends or false branches are thrown into the story must still be followed to get to the desired end, the cause behind the original effect, effectively the answer to the question(s) first posed of the reader.
Prophecy does not ask questions, it just is. The detective story is based on a series of questions. The incompatibilities of these two forms could be overcome in an entertaining fashion by a master writer, but the combination would require more planning and skill than combining gritty elements and worldview with something more sunny.
Ultimately, it may be that the philosophy behind these two views is incompatible. Fate decrees that there are things man cannot know, cannot confront, or cannot change. Causality is all about knowing, confronting, and changing. Just look at leaders: those who invoke fate do nothing but mutter the tenets of their particular ideologies and hope for the best, while those who follow causality will at least try to gather data from past mistakes to avoid future errors, changing their view to suit the world around them.
Food for thought: Something that puts both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings head and shoulders above much of their competition is that they are both epic and causal (at least up until book 3 :P). Tolkien and Martin manage this by creating detailed histories which become part of the causal chains of their epics.