As Grimdark dies, Classic Fantasy Returns…
I believe everything changes, including our tastes. Often it’s a subtle, slow shift that happens over time like hating nuts in your ice cream, then years later your freezer is chock-full of pistachio gelato. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t change (especially if you have a nut allergy). However, when it comes to the world of creativity, there’s no such thing as static. Romanticism didn’t last forever, post-modernism followed modernism and so forth… but most importantly, fantasy is returning to its roots.
Grim-dark fantasy has long dominated the genre of fantasy for the last few years or even decade with the like of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Glen Cook’s Black Company, and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, among others. These are gritty, sometimes depressing but highly addictive books that are a reprieve for many readers from the fairy-tale ‘feel good’ hero who saves the day on a brilliant-white steed fantasies. Their characters aren’t good or bad; instead, they’re both and every shade in-between. Grimdark tales take a quite literal stab at Tolkien’s world of dark-lords and white knights, of Sauron vs Frodo.
But I believe the "hope" side of fantasy is returning. And here are three reasons why:
1) The truth is that we are getting tired of fantasies where everyone is pretty much bad, where betrayal and death is commonplace. Sure, you can argue there’s good in each character, but most of the time we are just bemoaning Joffrey, or shielding our eyes because we know there’s going to be another ‘red-wedding’. This in itself has become a trope where winning for good guys, is replaced with losing or death; and the death of a good guy just incites a “Really? Again?” kind of feel. In essence, we are tired of a character we love, the only one who is doing the “right” thing, being killed off like a flower in a garden full of weeds. I also believe we’re growing tired of authors like Martin in particular who build up a character that isn’t particularly special, and before we can really grow to love or loathe them, he kills them off. If you want me to feel remorseful for a death and that is your shtick, at least develop that character more than plucking the flower before it even begins to sprout. Lastly, I believe our tiredness also stems from a lack of feeling connected to our characters. If we have to reach to identify with a character because of their “many shades”, then no longer are we immersed in the story and the world we’ve grown to love, and so we become the detached reader, not the character traversing the land.
2) The next is: “is this really more real?” Sure, we can all relate to temptation and to our darker desires, but we don’t always succumb to these do we? Also, while in real life, news flash: some heroes do survive.
3) The last reason is the most different among all three and that is: books are escapism, and on that dais of escapism, the king of that escapism arguably is fantasy. Literally the name gives away its intent. Fantasy. Fantastical. Of course, we want our stories as real as possible. Create as little need for ‘suspension of disbelief’ in our reader as can be, but still, have we forgotten the intent of fantasy? I believe in escapism there is a fundamental desire to not only be elsewhere, but to believe in something grander. Even what we say “I had a fantasy”—it most often entails something grand and magical like a girl or guy we like falling for us, or landing a truly dream job, or magical getaway. But to the core of this, fantasy for me at least, is about believing in something more and better. If our world really is so dark and terrible, I’d like to find the silver lining, the ray of light amid the darkness—I’d love to believe, to have hope. Characters like Aragorn and Frodo are those harmonious notes plucked lightly, those pinpoints of light that banish the darkness. Perhaps in reading these characters and their nearly insurmountable odds we learn hope and find inspiration and can apply these ideals to our own life to overcome and succeed.
All that said, grim dark, or however you want to define those gritty, gray-shaded novels have their benefits. They add complexity to once trope characters who are ‘good’ or bad’—challenging the idea that the villains often believe themselves the hero, or that all heroes wear shining armor and have snow-flake colored horses. Dirt exists and will often tarnish that heroes cloak or steed’s coat if they need to do what is necessary. Grimdark worlds also give a ‘realness’ at times by lessening magic. Less magic means characters have to find ways out of their sticky situations using ingenuity, desperation … or don’t. *Dun dun dun*.
But in the end, even good fantasies can have these things. And I believe we see with authors like Michael Sullivan, Jonathan Renshaw, and of course… cough cough… Matthew Wolf, these worlds of light breaching darkness are returning. If so, hopefully good will prevail.
P.s. If you like more of these posts, let me know… www.matt-wolf.com is the place, hoping for many more blog posts on the world of fantasy and good books.