The fantasy genre is afflicted by a dull and tedious obsession with adolescent cynicism, prurient scenes and one dimensional anti-heroes

The Critic Essay

For those unblessed (or uncursed) with an interest in contemporary fantasy, the phrase “Grimdark” may suggest the name of some 2000s era Goth club. It’s a recent coinage for an ongoing craze in “gritty” and dark fantasy settings, epitomised and popularised by George RR Martin, becoming the default tone for a whole range of feted fantasy offerings from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series featuring a dark, brooding protagonist who kills a lot of people — and occasionally feels bad about it — to Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy featuring a dark, brooding protagonist who kills a lot of people — and occasionally feels bad about it.

It’s a genre with a number of consistent features. It’s generally in a mediaeval fantasy setting, but shorn of any romance. Characters are overwhelmingly cynical, and those few who exhibit nobility are treated as foolish or naive. Generally a chaotic war is happening, or about to happen. Religion features, but largely as a tool of social control, often portrayed (usually with some real effort given the baseline awfulness) as even more cruel and cynical than the secular world around it. Dark observations about human nature substitute for any moral drama, with characters seeking to outwit, manipulate or overpower one another in a kind of Darwinian struggle for dominance.

It’s a script born of vaguely liberal, vaguely radical, vaguely anarchic sentiments common to most contemporary creative “industries”. But fantasy, with its over escapism and heroic aristocratic setting, presents something of a problem. This is the inner tension of left wing fantasy — how can a genre defined by apparent escapism not end up serving reactionary ends? If you accept Marx’s social analysis, in which otherworldly religion is a kind of cultural opiate, how does otherworldly fantasy not end up serving precisely the same role? The defamiliarising effect of fantastic settings and soul-lifting strength of a world pulsating with invisible power and meaning may expand the imagination and feed our spiritual hunger, but it cannot ever serve the ends of a materialist political philosophy.

It’s a problem that afflicts not only Grimdark, familiar to casual fantasy fans who will know it well from the televised adaptation of Martin’s Game of Thrones, but to anyone who has encountered the fast metastasizing cultural meme of Grimdark in other popular TV series like Breaking Bad, the Walking Dead or Boardwalk Empire. An idea that began as a way to bring “realism” to fantasy mediaeval settings (“see! Most people end up dying of plague, not marrying princesses” etc.) has ended up painting contemporary (but no less escapist) settings in the same darkly distorting light.

The Misty Mountain Hop — Tolkien meets the counterculture

The story of how Grimdark came to rule our screens and usurp the kingdom of the imagination goes back all the way to the 60s and 70s. Fantasy at this time was lost in the shadow of Lord of the Rings. For a genre still aggressively marketed with lurid covers of naked men holding swords on mountains, Tolkien was at once an aspirational figure, and a potential limitation. With the last of Lord of the Rings books released in 1955, it came to have an outsized influence on a counterculture that both loved and reviled it. Led Zeppelin referenced it in their music, prog rock albums were based on it, and by the 1980s metalheads were eagerly mining the books for material.

Tolkien is an inescapable figure for fantasy writers, who must be either made peace with, or overcome. This is necessarily so, because it is he who builds the literary bridge from the world of Edwardian neo-medieval romance (think Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, Eddison’s  The Worm Ouroboros, or the magical children’s stories of E Nesbit) to what we now know as high fantasy — a genre that is enchanted, with a style that is not straightforwardly modern, but strips back much of the affected or anachronistic language of earlier fantasy works, and their sense of whimsy. It’s a transition even visible in Tolkien’s own work, in the shift from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.

The idea of “high fantasy” imports very specific elements — a transcendent horizon, an emphasis on noble and virtuous characters struggling against evil, an enchanted universe steeped in history, and a sense of the ephemeral and tragic nature of reality. Like an earlier generation of romantics, this is a revival of mediaeval aristocratic and religious ideas, but stylistically poised between the style and atmosphere of Germanic mythology and modern prose.

Those who followed Tolkien, even from a commercial perspective, understood that modern fantasy was following in his wake; he gave a sense of moral and literary seriousness to the building of imaginary worlds, which would otherwise be absorbed into moralistic allegory or semi-comical whimsy. Tolkien’s world feels “real” not only because of his attention to detail, but because he builds a sense of emotionally freighted history and recognisable moral stakes, set out in a language strange enough to be compelling, familiar enough to be taken seriously.

Some authors simply populated their books with orcs, elves and dwarves, and sold their pulp fantasy off the back of superficial similarity. Others creatively explored the possibilities of high fantasy in original works. But plenty simply chafed under Tolkien’s shadow, not least because of the Catholic, conservative imprint he left on the genre. An early foe was Michael Moorcock, whose own writings — full of bitter and murderous anti-heroes, doomed romances and bleak accounts of human nature — essentially set the template for much of the anti-Tolkien strain in fantasy writing.

Everything that Phillip Pullman wrought, to universal acclamation by the literary world, was already explored by Moorcock decades ago. In his von Bek series, a 17th century German mercenary fights on behalf of Lucifer against God in order to bring about the rule of reason. Sound familiar? Well there’s also a vast multiverse, heroes directed by an invisible life force to restore order to the universe and  magic god-killing blades. Even Pullman’s much-discussed literary attack on the origins of Christianity — The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ — was anticipated by Moorcock, who published Behold the Man in 1966, in which a pious time traveller goes back to 1st century Galilee, discovers Jesus is mentally disabled, and is forced to become the messiah, dying on the cross repeating the words “it’s a lie”.

Attempts to seize the wheel from the high fantasy tendency are nearly as old as high fantasy itself, and it’s striking how little headway is made. Whilst Tolkien feels timeless, not least because of its echoing of the language and sensibility of myth and fairy tale, much of the “realist” fantasy that sort to supplant it now feels terribly dated. Karl, the protagonist of Behold the Man hits every 60s trope — he’s a druggy, a repressed homosexual, obsessed with Jung, and wants to start a cult. The heavy-handed commentary is equally of its time, “All the gospels do is retell the sun myth and garble some of the ideas from the Greeks and Romans”, reads one typical line.

Epic Pooh

Tolkien was vigorously at odds with literary fashion, whilst Moorcock was vigorously chasing it. This comes through most clearly in his famous attack on Tolkien and the conservative end of fantasy writing, in his essay “Epic Pooh” (getit?). Written in 1978, it’s dripping in the macho, relevance obsessed “get real” silliness of the era: “The sort of prose most often identified with ‘high’ fantasy is the prose of the nursery­‐room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth‐music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies. It is soft.”

Fellowship of the honey pot? Moorcock alleged that Tolkien was just Winnie the Pooh with swords. Picture credit: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

What should Tolkien have addressed himself to? It being 1978, the answer is obviously class politics: “Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo”.

One could ask where deep reflections on social class take place in Moorcock’s work, which mostly features mentally-ill aristocrats with magic swords and a loose conception of the value of human life, but it is enough not to sentimentalise. So long as you make your protagonists “flawed”, and your universe sufficiently chaotic, allegory can safely fall away, charges of conservatism are seen off and you can get back (with some relief) to the business of telling stories about magic, girls in towers and chopping off heads.

Aside from the basic contradiction of calls for social realism in the realm of fantasy, we also have the ever-present demand, on the anti-Tolkien side, for greater psychological realism. Pullman makes such a call, arguing that, “when I thought about it, there was no reason why fantasy shouldn’t be realistic, in a psychological sense – and it was the lack of that sort of realism that I objected to in the work of the big Tolkien and all the little Tolkiens.” By contrast, Pullman called his Dark Materials series a work of “stark realism”.

If fantasy is both socially and psychologically realist, in what sense is it fantasy? Why write fantasy at all? Would a serious literary work about the First World War be improved by replacing artillery with fireball wielding magicians, or substituting a Dark Lord for the Kaiser? It’s just such crude allegorising that Tolkien himself so fiercely resisted, and criticised in the work of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis (SPOILER: I hear the talking lion is meant to be Jesus).

This basic issue is never, in practice, overcome. Fantasy authors who trade in Grimdark are themselves tragic anti-heroes. They’re drawn to fantasy because they’d like to spend their days writing about magic, swords, elves and mediaeval maidens. They’re pure, beautiful nerds who just want to build their own imaginary worlds full of invented languages, histories and warring dynasties. But their desire for an enchanted reality is at odds with their inherited politics and cultural sensibilities (call it their traumatic origin story); an inner dilemma that sees their desire for heroism turned into a need for limitless violence, largely inflicted on the most innocent of souls of all — fictional characters.

Grimdark violence always starts out the same way, and with the best of intentions. The sad reality of war must be portrayed with a total, pitiless honesty, no detail must be spared, or how else will we learn the lesson of history? Unfortunately, on further reflection, the lesson of history is surely that Man never learns the lesson of history, so there are going to be a lot more scenes of violence portrayed with total, pitiless honesty. Why? One forgets, but at this point you’re 400 pages in, have a contract for a trilogy, and you’re trying to portray the brothel monologue with total pitiless, anatomical honesty. Social and psychological realism demands it.

The problem, of course, is definitional. Tolkien is setting out an, in many respects, idealised world. But this idealised reality is one that he believes, in some sense, really exists. Middle Earth is a fiction of course, but the metaphysical Real with a capital “R” is more “real” than our sinful, broken, chaotic world. His imaginary universe is not about realistic political or military conflict, but an eternal, mythopoetic reality of beauty’s erasure by time and mortality; of the seemingly doomed struggle to overcome ever-recurrent evil; of moments of domestic warmth or heroic valour flashing bright in the night of existence. In other words, like all good fiction, it’s not factual, but it is real.

If the purpose of fiction is to create or discover order and meaning in a chaotic universe, then the significance of fantasy, especially high fantasy, clicks into place. It doesn’t suspend or inhibit political or social struggle, but it does put it into proportion. In other words, high fantasy prioritises the normie — the person who thinks about politics once a year, and their family and friends every day.

There’s something distinctly adolescent about Grimdark, by comparison. Sometimes literally so, with a taste for angry young teenagers on quests for revenge (Game of Thrones is largely populated by such characters). Cynicism is a natural response to childhood innocence meeting flawed reality. Growing up is about, in part, learning to be innocent again in a world that is broken.

Cynical escapism

At a time when many people around my own age aren’t getting married or having children, and many have no plans to do so, this moment has simply never come for large numbers of millennials. In some ways, of course, cynicism is a merited response to a world that objectively offers young people fewer opportunities than their parents. Whilst social realism is a poor fit for the fantasy genre, bleak cynicism is actually grist to the mill of a truly escapist fantasy.

Once you discard the improbable claims that the clunky and often grotesque fictional worlds of Grimdark are masterpieces of social and psychological realism, the far more obvious reality of prurient wish fulfilment floods into the gap. “Flawed anti-heroes” do whatever they want, say outrageous things, have doomed affairs, sleep with prostitutes, kill and torture freely, all whilst enjoying rich, torturous inner lives. They’re what every angry teenage boy longs to be.

In the 1970s this sort of thing still hovered on the margins of culture. Mainstream TV and film largely offered up clear moral messages and presented clean-cut heroes. But by the late 1990s, it burst into the respectable centre of culture. At the same time Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series was landing on bookshelves, TV series like The Shield and The Sopranos were shocking and titillating audiences with viciously amoral protagonists. By 2008, history seemed to catch up with the fictional gloom, with the financial crash and failed Middle Eastern wars. In that same consequential year, Breaking Bad told the story of Walter White, frustrated, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned meth dealer. Three years later, in 2011, Martin’s works got the small screen treatment. Sex and violence have never been hard sells, but Grimdark offers an apparent moral justification for portraying them more gratuitously than ever before.

Old school fantasy lurks just beneath the surface of modern anti-hero dramas. Breaking bad Actor Dean Norris dresses as Conan the Barbarian for San Diego Comic Con. Picture credit: Mark Davis/Getty Images

It’s a genre that flatters the egos of audiences who get to feel superior and sophisticated by absorbing its cynical social commentary, and at the same time covertly satisfying their most pornographic impulses. It’s not a fixable problem either — the pleasure derived from consuming it is directly connected to the sleight of hand. Far from bringing humanising realism, the pleasure of works like Game of Thrones derives from the distancing effect of cynicism — our outrage or horror at acts of slaughter and cruelty is softened to a delicious subversive thrill by reducing it to the play of calculation, or the pretence that everyone is really just as bad and selfish as the worst characters.

If there’s a political or social commentary to be found in this often incoherent genre, it’s something like a Hobbesian state of nature. Typically muddle-headed liberals, authors and scriptwriters tend to imagine a world of pre-modern chaos, in which people are naturally self-interested. Only cold rationality and a monopoly of force, achieved by fair means or foul (think enlightened despots, Frederick the Great style), can bring order and progress. The attack on mediaeval honour culture (or for that matter modern honour culture, as in the Sopranos), reflects a failure to imagine a concrete morality outside of liberal constitutionalism.

The issue isn’t just one of worldview, but of style — Hobbesian realpolitik may make for a good IR paper, but it’s poor storytelling, because it is definitionally inhuman. Like reading an Ayn Rand novel, Grimdark often serves up characters barely recognisable as living, breathing humans. But unlike Ayn Rand novels, we’re generally blind to the ideological squeeze being applied to them.

Redeeming Grimdark

Is there a good version of Grimdark? Perhaps. Certainly outside of the fantasy genre, there are plenty of examples of bitter commentary delivered with real moral heft. There’s room, and welcome room, for pessimistic, rather than merely cynical, literature. John le Carre recounts a real world of machiavellian realpolitik in his spy novels, and you can immediately see the difference between a work that starkly reveals all of the bitter horror of that reality, versus works that covertly revels in it. Dystopian fiction, likewise, works because the protagonists are generally horrified by and struggling to live within the bleak world they inhabit.

Is it just that pessimism belongs within realist fictional settings? Certainly not. Successful works of horror treat much the same dark material, and often within fantastic or supernatural settings. But, crucially, good horror exposes, rather than conceals, the audience’s prurient impulses. Most importantly, good horror has a moral. The Exorcist, for example, may seem a far cry from the Shire, but is just as much set in a world of absolute good and evil as Tolkien’s writings — and just as much a work of Catholic culture and theology.

The Exorcist proved that the dark material and flawed heroes beloved of Grimdark can live alongside a coherent moral message and a Christian metaphysics

Modern culture, and literature in particular, is much burdened by the pretensions of artists to transcend tradition and history, or to embody political and social radicalism. There’s a sort of pervasive left-Nietzscheanism coupled with a vague anarchism (Micheal Moorcock famously declared the point of his books was “no gods, no masters”) which tends to trample on any notion that storytelling must reflect any inherited ethical logic, let alone metaphysical superstructure. But the great works of 19th century literature that define the modern novel, rely not on a materialistic universe, but a thoroughly providential one. No blind Darwinism pushes around the characters of Dickens or Austen, or even those of thoroughly gnostic and revolutionary Victor Hugo.

It’s extremely hard, by its very nature, for literature to escape the far older logic of myth and folklore. Rationalists like Michael Shermer, who coined the terms patternicity and agenticity to describe the human tendency to ascribe meaning and agency to an inanimate mechanical universe, may have a perfectly coherent argument. But even if one accepts (as much of our cultural elite do) that this describes the physical world, it becomes a real problem when applied to fictional works. After all, every novel is a thing of intelligent design; by definition no part of it is absent meaning or intention, none of it is, in first order terms, random. You can seek to portray a random, chaotic universe, but your own beliefs and desires will permeate the work, providing pattern and significance to every word.

This abandonment of teleology — the loss of the moral of the story — is poison for culture. It seeps into even the most innocent bits of entertainment. Where once superhero films were about virtue and self sacrifice, increasingly they’re violent, kinetic films with convoluted, inhuman plots. The cynical satires about superheroes have merged with the original product. What really separates something like satirical anti-superhero series The Boys (in which nihilistic ubermensche kill, rape and lie) from Captain America: Civil War (in which once fondly beloved comic heroes bicker, lie and knock buildings onto civilians) other than a question of degree?

Even the most procedural and univentive of past fictional fare starts to look good, next to the chaotic and senseless storytelling that is increasingly the norm. Breaking from old formats has been celebrated as a golden age for everything from fantasy novels to TV, but has only produced tedious repetition and the endless rise of the sequel and the franchise. Grimdark is the perfect grimy filter to throw over old intellectual properties; a false claim of innovation to defend the inability to find new material. Real innovation, as in Tolkien, can only come from adapting, rather than subverting, timeless storytelling traditions.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover