An Old Man's Thoughts on Grimdark

The dark and violent aspects of grimdark help it reflect the human condition in all its complex glory, whereas heroic fantasy is limited to an idealized portrayal of good and evil. Lack of material rewards and the unfairness and violence of grimdark worlds mirror our own, and help us see that the true rewards in life are increased wisdom and understanding of the nature of reality. Grimdark fans like the subgenre because its anti-heroes share their high regard for justice and righteous vengeance, and that disposition means that the violence common to grimdark doesn’t detract from deep engagement with exploration of humanity, in all its glorious shades of grey.

~ from "Barbarians or Philosophers?" in Grimdark Magazine #13,

by Matthew Cropley and Victoria Bridgland

The concept of Grimdark started as a satire on dark and violent fiction. When the space fantasy game Warhammer 40,000 was created, it consisted of nothing but jokes about what was considered cool and edgy at the time. “In the grim and dark future of the 41st millennium there is only war.” It’s misery and violence and endless atrocities ALL THE TIME and EVERYWHERE. There is no concept of good, only endless attempts to out-evil each other. It was stupid and it was supposed to be stupid. 
But making fun of something that some people think is cool often goes over the head of the people who are being made fun of. Especially when they are 12 year old boys. And as time went on and those kids got older, some of them joined up to become writers for that setting and taking it’s deliberate ludicrousness serious. And then you got the modern Grimdark phenomenon.

~ from a comment at Black Gate by Martin Kallies



Cropley's and Bridgland's article in a recent issue of Grimdark Magazine got me thinking about what it is that keeps me from buying into the whole grimdark thing. I mean, I think there's a place for it in fantasy, but it's neither anything special or particularly new. The way I see it, grimdark writers start with epic fantasy, add shock-horror, and declare it a corrective to simplistic, cookie-cutter fantasy by having injected supposed realism, moral and physical. 

To keep myself from going off half-cocked in a fit of impolitic and misinformed ranting, I did a little hunting for things other people had written during those heated times a few years back, when everyone was attacking and defending grimdark.



The most valuable article I found was one by Joe Abercrombie, an author I haven't read yet, and who is one of grimdark's biggest posterboys. (Until a snide, triumphalist conclusion,) "The Value of Grit" is a good explanation of what he's doing in his stories, and the value of certain writerly elements commonly seen in grimdark fiction. He also provides links to other critics of grimdark.


From a more conservative viewpoint there's "A Song of Gore and Slaughter" by Tom Simon. From a liberal perspective, there's "Grimmy Grimmy Dark Dark" at nerds of a feather, flock together. Wherever you stand in regards to grimdark, both are worth reading. Jumping off from Leo Grin's famous (or infamous, depending largely upon which side of the grimdark divide you land) article regarding what he saw as the degradation of fantasy, Abercrombie makes clear that there is indeed a degree of giving fans of bloody gore what they want in grimdark. I think it's a more honest defense of the genre than any other, and one I can fully understand and support. Commercial fiction exists to be read, so why not write what folks actually want to read?


He offers more serious points of defense as well. Among his claims for grimdark's appeal are its realism, tight focus on character, moral ambiguity, honesty, modern prose, shock value, and range -- and that all those elements ultimately convey the crappiness of real life. That's a good list of the components of grimdark writing. I think he's absolutely correct that those elements all have something to offer to an author, because there's no tool that's wrong for an author if it furthers the story being told. But there is no intrinsic value to those criteria, and value is implied in his statement. Some stories benefit from a semblance to grim, gritty, reality. Others don't. 


Probably the most interesting point Abercrombie raises is the claim that gritty fantasy is

a reaction to and a counterbalancing of a style of fantasy in which life is clean, meaningful, and straightforward, and the coming of the promised king really does solve all social problems, and there are often magical solutions to the horrors – like death, illness, and crippling wounds – that plague us in the real world. Good fantasy does not have to gaze wistfully over its shoulder at an imagined past, it can cast its uncompromising eye on the now…

Where I really disagree with Abercrombie is when he writes "Clean books deny themselves a chunk of the physical and emotional spectrum." It's only a denial if the story can't be told well or properly without that chunk of the spectrum. On the contrary, "dirty" is inappropriate when it isn't in service to the story. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien -- because we can always go back to Tolkien when writing about fantasy -- manages to include betrayal, moral shades of gray, racial animosity and more without relying on extreme gore and whatnot. There's more vicious murder, destruction, and betrayal in The Silmarillion than in a lot of grimdark. To repeat myself, it's all a question of the story being told and how it needs to be told.


In the end, all of Abercrombie's points really fall back on claiming grimdark is more realistic, and that reality is mostly shitty. He writes "grit isn't just about realism," but that's exactly how he backs up most of his arguments, which is fine by me. The world is often a dirty, smelly place and horseback riding can make you chafe, and limb-lopping violence is rarely romantic. Of course, sword & sorcery has been doing this for ages -- and its inclusion doesn't make a book better than one that excludes it, only different.


I've been struggling with this piece for over two months now. Part of the trouble I'm facing is putting into words precisely what it is about the current crop of dark-themed fantasy that irks me. Having recently finished the pitch-black Children of Húrin (2007) by J.R.R. Tolkien, I'm starting to gain some much needed focus. A lot of modern dark fantasy is just plain old epic fantasy with layers of gore, sex, and charcoal gray morality slathered on. Then it's made out that those things, by their very presence, give a story greater significance and weight. One book I'm thinking of tells a very standard tale of reluctant heroes coming out of retirement to save the world, but somehow the addition of a lot of hot-button issues and some pretty sadistic sequences makes it a better, more important book? It's not an uncommon occurrence in my readings of grimdark fantasy. These stories are seen as more realistic, and therefore more relevant and more important.

There's good grimdark and there's bad grimdark, I think everyone can agree on that (see Sturgeon's Law). The good stuff, R. Scott Bakker's, Mark Lawrence's and Glen Cook's for example, is good because it's written well and tells compelling stories. It's also part of a literary conversation about fantasy. Bakker, in particular, takes many of the tropes and traditions of epic fantasy and subjects them to violent inversion and tears them apart, forcing the reader to think about possible deeper implications. I may not always agree with the direction of the conversation or the authors' positions, but I usually see the point of what's being done and why.



It should be clear that my biggest problem with grimdark fiction is the claim it is something deeper and more relevant and realistic. It's not. There are too many examples of grimdark fiction I've read and reviewed that don't reflect anything like the real world, unless the author's vision was of post-Mobutu Congo. (And as a side note, little of it actually is willing to go the extra mile and get that gritty and "realistic." In fantasy, only Bakker comes to mind as someone who actually gets anywhere near such a completely horrifying place.) Most grimdark isn't presented as fantasy horror or dystopian storytelling, which would give a good context for what instead comes across as gratuitous gore and whatnot; no, it's just presented as "realistic."

So why the rage for this sort of storytelling? If it's not reflecting anything like the actual world its writers and audience live in, what's the deal? Like most things, it is complex. Three reasons for the genre's popularity jump to mind, but I'm sure there are many more I could find if I took the time to think some more.


Some of its fans and creators are people who've fallen prey to the cynicism and relativism that plague our modern world. They believe there's a meaningful critique of the modern West in grimdark. Middle-class bourgeois morality is an illusion that needs to be shown for what it is. The deals made between the ruling classes, their lower-class collaborators, and the falseness of much that passes for honor and heroism need to be exposed.


Some writers want to run their characters through a mangler and see how they come out the other side.


Others, like folks who like Cannibal Holocaust and Hostel, are fans of gore, unremitting darkness, and hyper-violence. 

Most, though, are just looking for something new. For them, Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence are just writing cool stories with lots of bloody action. I don't agree with people who've called grimdark the new sword & sorcery (for my definition of sword & sorcery, go here), but I appreciate why some make the claim. Sword & sorcery exists in a dangerous and dark world, filled with action, and where most problems are solved with a quick wit and a sharp sword. In grimdark, they are definitely finding those things. 


Write whatever you want, but don't tell me your story of child-rape and sex-trafficking is some deep investigation of the real world. If your supposedly more truthful fantasy version of medieval Europe can't account for the rise of St. Francis or the Enlightenment, its realism is less than realistic. It's something else; and that's cool, because you're telling the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it; just don't make claims for its fidelity to the real world.


My last bone of contention with some of the proponents of grimdark -- admittedly more often its defenders and not its authors -- is their claim that older fantasy was somehow simplistic and "limited to an idealized portrayal of good and evil." What did the authors of that quote read? Surely not Moorcock or Wagner? Definitely not Leiber, Moore, or Howard. I would venture to guess not even Tolkien. None of these authors wrote stories that were purely black and white. There are noble villains and despicable heroes, and morally repugnant actions alongside noble ones. I shouldn't be bothered, but such claims are serious misinformation and when they're presented as a true depiction of non-grimdark fantasy, it does get me irritated. 

Look, I like grimy, gritty, fantasy -- when it's done well. What causes me no end of bother, though, is when claims are made that older fantasy was somehow lacking or less than contemporary fantasy. It indicates a lack of real, concrete knowledge of the genre, its past, of what's actually been written. If you're going to make pronouncements (and yeah, yeah, that's exactly what I'm doing), then take the time to actually know what the heck you're talking about. 



I'll stop here. I've gotten this out of my system for now and I'll just let it go (until the next time). 


Bonus: Just came across this grimdark checklist from Dominik Čičević. It's pretty good. It makes a lot of the same points Abercrombie made, but without the same degree of triumphalism.


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