Is Grimdark? Thoughts on a sub-genre, part one.
Genre tags have their uses, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. My suspicion has always been that they are born mainly of commerce, promoted by publishers to the detriment of authors and readers. They communicate an offer of familiarity – essentially “more of the same” - an uncomplicated sale, but also an explicit commitment not to stray beyond well-established comfort zones. Within fantasy literature that promise conflicts directly with the ultimate ambition of the genre: to transport us to strange places where our everyday prejudices and assumptions no longer apply, and thus force
us to consider new perspectives on reality.
The problem is, after you write a book, you quickly find out that everyone asks (actually they insist), that you describe it in recognisable genre terms, and that if you don’t, others will do it for you. In various reviews my debut, The Censor’s Hand, was described as “high-fantasy”, “grimdark”, “steampunk” and “medieval”. The two descriptors I favoured, “baroque fantasy” and “thriller”, didn’t feature anywhere. Surely I thought, there’s a sensible middle ground between letting others decide and confusing the hell out of potential readers? The only solution seemed to be to take the reins in hand, and chose the least bad available genre tag. Grimdark seemed the most likely candidate, but that raised the obvious question “what the hell is that anyway?” Does anyone even know?
Turns out, no they don’t . In fact it seems that just about the only thing that everyone in fantasy can agree upon is that shakiness of the “grimdark” label.
Adrian Collins' excellent grimdark anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective begins with an essay on the subject by R. Scott Barker, which is complimented, but also partially contradicted by another by Adrian himself. The first equates grimdark with the philosophical stance of moral anti-realism, the second with moral relativism and a fascination with transgression. Elsewhere, others describe it as nothing more than fantasy with an R rating, the sword and sorcery equivalent of a “video nasty.” Different others attempt to equate grimdark with “realism” – a quality inherently problematic when talking about literature which deals with the fantastical. The situation is so messed up that some even debate whether the works of Joe Abercrombie, the wonderful writer who was originally equated with the term (his twitter tag is @lordgrimdark), is actually a valid example of the genre.
One of the giveaways that grimdark is weak label, struggling for meaning, is that so many try define it by what it is not – that “other” being “traditional fantasy.” This definition of grimdark is useless, because (a) it doesn’t tell us what the genre is - romantic comedies are also not traditional fantasy, yet they are not grimdark and (b) it’s factually completely wrong.
Those who see Grimdark as in opposition to “traditional fantasy” almost always go on to present Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as the exemplar of traditional fantasy. This both misreads Tolkien and misunderstands his place in the history of fantasy writing, and I feel a strong obligation to come to the professor's defence on this issue.
Tolkien is both grim and, at heart, morally ambiguous. If we deal with the grimness first, ultimately it’s impossible to reconcile the reality of a book that mainly consists of helpless people trudging through a WWI influenced despoiled wasteland, being betrayed from within, ultimately being corrupted to the extent that they are unwilling to complete their mission, and finally returning home to find they no longer have anything in common with the people they saved and departing to the grey havens (a metaphor for death) as all magic fades from the world (also a metaphor for death), with a cheery vision of good triumphing over evil. The Lord of the Rings does not have a happy ending. If you think it does, read it again. Maybe good does triumph, but if so it does so at a cost that is hardly worth paying.
And if we turn to the issue of moral ambiguity, yes there are creatures and secondary characters in The Lord of the Rings presented as Good or Evil, but this is a literary device. Being largely a meditation on the nature of good and evil, LOTR presents the simple morality of Sauron, the orcs and elves is presented in contrast to the actions of its flawed human beings. Tolkien asks the question, “can pure Good and Evil exist outside of the mythic?”, and his answer is a resounding “No.” I don’t want to retread all of the ground covered in Tom Shippey’s magnificent J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, but suffice to say, the most closely drawn character in the story and possibly the most important one (he does destroy the ring, after all) is Gollum, possibly the most conflicted and morally ambiguous character in all of fantasy literature. And let’s not forget the betrayal of Boromir, grief-maddened Denethor attempting to cremate his still-alive son before committing suicide, and Saruman’s corruption by his ambition
Even the comparatively light-hearted Hobbit is about a burglary led by a bunch of self-interested and perpetually squabbling dwarves that ends with a five-way battle sparked by the intransigence and greed of its leader, during which the hero is unconscious, thousands die, a town is destroyed and the leader of the expedition dies.
Tolkien’s refusal to sugar coat either his worlds, or to give his readers moral simplicity, even in the context of a story aimed at small children, is one of the things that makes him such an interesting writer. One of the problems with those who see Tolkien as morally atavistic is that their views tend to be more influenced by the heroes-bashing-orcs knock-offs that he inspired, particularly the role-playing games and movies. This is particularly unfair because people fighting happens so very rarely in the books, which are almost devoid of action.
But even if you don't agree with any of that, and accept a saccharine interpretation of Tolkien, his works are completely atypical of traditional fantasy – in fact his obsession with Anglo-Saxon mythology, invented language and meta-ethical questions probably makes him one of the most idiosyncratic fantasy authors of all time. To claim Tolkien as typical of traditional fantasy because he begat Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, and countless terrible novels is like calling Led Zeppelin typical of rock and roll, because they spawned Def Leppard and Warrant.
What traditional fantasy really looks like is the works of Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber all of which pre-date The Lord of the Rings, and are far more representative of mainstream early 20th century fantasy as it appeared in magazines and on bookshelves at the time, than the good professor. This presents those whose claim grimdark as something new and reactionary with a big problem because those author’s worlds were full to the brim with sex, violence and sexual violence. Characters like Conan and Fafhrd who are about as morally ambiguous as it gets.
And worse still, for grimdark proponents, you can draw a straight line from those pre-war authors through people like Poul Anderson, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner. C.J. Cherryh, Margaret Atwood, Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Norman, Frank Herbert, Louis McMaster Bujold, Robert Asprin et al. That might just look like a long list of names, (and I’m sure I’ve missed out many), but the point I’m trying to illustrate is that the was no time during the 20th (or 21st century) that the mainstream of fantasy authors weren’t telling stories from the perspective of street-level, morally compromised individuals who indulged in a bit of murder, torture and innocent-directed cruelty.
Does that leave us with nothing? Is grimdark an empty term? Not necessarily.
The debate about the true nature of grimdark recalls the a decades older controversy about its science fiction relative – “cyberpunk”. David Brin, author of The Postman and several other fine tales, dismissively referred to the cyberpunk subgenre tag as the “finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction.”  He argues that SF is a constantly evolving beast, and that the moment you try to nail down the defining features of cyberpunk from a literary perspective, any clear distinction between works like Williams Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Alfred Bester’s Tiger Tiger (1957) breaks down. On the other hand, I recently put the question to Pat Cadigan, matriarch of the cyberpunk movement, and she STRONGLY disagrees. For her what distinguishes cyberpunk is not its disposable tone or street-level characterisation, but rather that it was science fictions’ response to the miniaturisation and personalisation of information technology during the 1980s.
So maybe that’s where the answer lies. If we can't draw a clear distinction between grimdark and traditional fantasy, should we consider that what qualifies a fantasy tale as grimdark is not what is contains, in terms of violence levels, grit (whatever that is) or dark imagery, but rather its place in history - the extent to which it arises in response to, and directly addresses 21st century ethical concerns within a fantasy framwork? That definition would allow it to capture both the absurdist satire of Joe Abercrombie, the riotous villainy of Mark Lawrence, Scott Lynch, Robert Morgan, the heavy metal grit of Ed McDonald.