Grimdark, Grit, Uncertainty, Investment, and I, Claudius

The picture is based on a Roman sculpture. The Roman sculptors were not especially flattering.

Much ado has been made about a style of Fantasy called grimdark this year. While the original term is now useg in gaming as a descriptor or even a badge of honour, some critics used the term as a pejorative to describe gritty authors whose work they don’t like and thus tried to smear. Naturally this backfired, since those authors had a well established readership who like their books and thus felt pretty secure against petty attacks like that. Plus if you don’t like gritty, don’t read authors who are known and advertised as such 😉

In the wake of these criticisms, however, we were left with a very interesting discussion about grimdark fantasy. I have posted many of the articles by Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, and Mark Lawrence, and others elsewhere on my blog. I also had the privilege to attended an author’s panel at Gencon this year, moderated by Brian Sanderson, where they attempted to define grimdark and discuss what people loved about that sort of book. Brian was an excellent moderator, in case you were wondering, but kept to his role, asking questions and adding details for the most part (I do wonder if he is thinking of trying a grimdark or dark fantasy series on the side though) . Lucy A. Snyder had the most cogent commentary out of all of the panelists, and really impressed me with her points about fear, risk, and unheroic people against horrifying odds.

I would have been content to leave the grimdark discussion be. It is a difficult sub-genre to pin down, and is best used to describe a style successfully adopted a handful of skilled authors (Many have tried, but few seem to get it right). Also I figured after three or four blog posts I’d milked the subject to death, right? Then my lovely and brilliant girlfriend handed me a book called I, Claudius.

Claudius was a Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (Lived 10 BC to 54 AD, became emperor in 43 AD). He was cripple with serious infirmities who was thought to be unfit to rule and widely mocked.  Historians often overlooked the seemingly weak Claudius, but recent scholarship has shown him to be a superbly effective emperor who survived a brutal dynasty. He even managed to survive and succeed his infamous nephew, the mad and utterly debauched Caligula. That he managed to survive to the age of sixty three is quite miraculous; Caligula was killed at twenty-eight, and Claudius’ successor , Nero was driven to commit suicide at 30. It is a rather amazing bit of history that such a man could live for so long and even become emperor in a time when poison, coup, and assassination ruled Rome.

I, Claudius is a brilliant bot of historical fiction, written as the personal memoir of Claudius and recounting the trials and tribulations of the early empire and the vicious, vicious infighting in the Julio-Claudian empire during and after Augustus’ death. The author, Robert Graves, posits that Livia, the wife of Augustus was a deadly woman who ruled through poison and intrigue and plotted to secure her position and keep the right children on course for the throne. The machinations of the various characters are vicious, brutal, and utterly Machiavellian. Half way through, I was struck with a thought: what if George RR Martin, or Joe Abercrombie had written something like this? And that got me thinking about grimdark again.

Despite the extraordinarily harsh subject matter (it is hard to get grittier than Caligula, and if you do I’m not sure I want to read it…), I, Claudius is not grimdark in my mind. It is written in an autobiographical style, with Claudius looking back on his life. Thus as nearly everyone Claudius knows and loves is systematically murdered by ruthless bastards he hates the blow seems cushioned despite the enormous number of sympathetic characters getting offed. We know Claudius survives, and we know that he triumph in the end without being too tarnished. The writing style is more factual, and leaves out the gritty details. In addition because it is historical fiction, we pretty much know the constraints that the plot has to operate within. By comparing I, Claudius to modern grimdark I was able to deduce a series of characteristics that I think define the sub-genre pretty well. I’ll start with the three that made me think I, Claudius was grimdark (in green) and end with the three that it seemed to lack (in red).

  • Flawed characters: In I Claudius, the villains and the heroes are defined by their flaws. Claudius succeeds by using his infirmity to make him seem like less of a threat, the very last priority on the hit list. He is a weak man in a world of beefcake nobles, whose only real weapon is his mind. He reminds me a lot of a certain dwarf in Game of Thrones in this regard. Grimdark characters are complex, very human, and very flawed. Those that succeed tend to be cunning or outright brilliant.
  • Machiavellian Power Plays: In grimdark gaining power and holding onto power is a dangerous game. I, Claudius has this in spades. Cynical characters often have a tremendous advantage over more noble characters and a knife in the back is often far more effective than brute force.
  • Sex and Violence: Almost all grimdark has sex (exception: Space Marines) and the sub-genre is well known for both bodycount and brutality. I, Claudius has tons of both, including discussions of adultery and impotence, sexual humiliation, and so many nice people getting murdered while the cunning make their way to power.
  • Gritty and Graphic: Grimdark is very descriptive. It does not shy away from blood, the smell of death, or the bulging eyes of a boy king who is about to die from poison. I, Claudius, while grim and brutal, is written in a looking backward, academic style that lacks the graphic nature that I think defines the sub-genre. Treading the fine line between descriptively gritty and pointlessly grotesque is what I think makes a great grimdark author.
  • Investment: This year we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of everyone who had never read Game of Thrones, but watched the show suffer the shock of the Red Wedding. The collective outcry was impressive but also instructive. The lesson is this: if you care about the characters who are killed and have followed them for some time, it can have far more impact than offing them at the beginning of the book/show. Investment matters.
  • Uncertainty: Because it is historical fiction, we know how the story of Claudius and many of his friends turns out. This lessens the impact more than a little. Good grimdark authors are very good at keeping the audience guessing. No character is safe, and the ending isn’t always happy.

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