In the Eye of the Reader

The Grimdark debate is still with us. Bumping into this article by Daniel Abraham re-ignited my thought process.

Yes, it is him.


Firstly, I think the generation that enjoyed The Lord of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia did not have any interested in Grimdark fantasy settings because they did not need the grit and grim brought to them. Living through a world war or two lets you fill in the blanks on what happened to Aslan on the Rock or Golum in the Tower on your own in very vivid detail.

Secondly, the article got me thinking about John Keegan’s Masks of Command, a brilliant book about the evolution of military leadership from Alexander to Hitler. Where Keegan rolls in on the Grimdark debate is in that masks of Command is actually a deep philosophical meditation on heroism. The central discussion is that in the age of Kings and Emperors, a leader had to give commands close to the front lines of battle. Alexander fought in the same mess as his men, Julius Caesar galloped around the battlefield in his distinctive cloak, Joan od Arc climbed siege ladders and so on. These warrior-kings and queens were often expected to lead by example, acting in a heroic fashion. When it worked, it could inspire the men to insane feats of bravery, when it failed it toppled empires. Alexander sums this up best. He led his men in every battle, had a flair for the dramatic, and when he went to far it ended his expansion and his empire. Even Napoleon and Wellington were present on the field at Waterloo, surveying the movements and giving commands of battle despite the massive amount of ordinance being thrown around and the staggering number of troops involved in such a concentrated area. As ballistics improved it became extremely difficult for a general to avoid snipers and concentrated fire. Some, like Rommel for a way to stay on the front lines regardless, but most began to rely on long distance communications. Civil war generals often had to rely on field glasses and dispatches; the heroics, if any, were left to their men. Hitler embodied a general who acted like an Alexander in the parade square but led from relative safety, a sham in his heroic image as well as many other things. He fostered a culture of hero worship in his men, rewarding those who excelled, but his centralization of command was distinctly anti-heroic and eventually ridiculous.

This is why people like Space Marines, you see, they lead from the front despite being in a post-modern battlefield. Perhaps Grimdark is a natural reaction to some of the excesses of the age where generals and leaders no longer have to share the dangers of their soldiers and people.

This leads me to the Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie, a book I have never read. I picked it up at a friends house once, read the back cover and swore: writing an entire book about a single battle is a cool idea — wish I’d been the first modern author to do it. That is my only judgement of the book; I won’t discuss something I haven’t read.

However I am quite willing to discuss other people’s reactions to the book. The Heroes is apparently a Grimdark depiction of this awesome battle between two decidedly ambivalent nations. From reading Best Served Cold, I don’t think Abercrombie gets fair treatment, despite being grim what I have read of his has humour and beauty. (I’m stuck on Best Served Cold because it makes me think about Causality and perspective). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Heroes is likely not as grim as Timothy Findley’s The Wars, and nowhere near as soul-crushing as Shake Hands with the Devil. With a stellar 4.4 rating on Amazon and a metric tonne of glowing reviews I bet it is damned entertaining. I should buy a copy for when my dinosaur brain works it’s way through his other book…

Where was I? Oh yes, Grimdark is a matter of perspective. It is all in the eye of the reader, you see. What I find grim, you might find entertaining or possibly even uplifting. I love the Warhammer 40k universe because despite the grit and the grime and the horrible, horrible things that happen the Space Wolves grin and bear it. Its over the top fun for me. Others read the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels by Dan Abnet and see a futuristic retelling of the meat-grinder body-count trench warfare of world war one. Each reader gets something a little different from each book. Critics (and bloggers) often seem to forget this. Grimdark is in the eye of the reader.

While we are on the subject. What exactly is the problem with portraying politics and war in a dystopic fashion? I’ll be honest with you, if I read a book portraying war in a pastoral fashion at this point I would find it far more suspect than Grimdark. It has taken us many, many brutal lessons but we now view war mostly as a last resort. In ages past, this was not the case. War has often been glorified and sought after, something which could be disastrous in the modern age. While Abercrombie might be writing about guys with swords, my guess he is making points about modern wars (and politics/leadership). Quite honestly I feel that Grimdark should be the default portrayal of warfare in Fantasy as it is in pretty much every genre. For good reason. Seriously. I don’t want to go back to romanticizing warfare.

That said, I’m still down for something like Starship Troopers every now and then.


Seriously NPH was in Starship Troopers.


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