Leo Grin kicked a hornets nest late last week when he asserted that modern fantasy is represents a nihilistic turn away from the glorious heritage of Robert E. Howard and JRR Tolkein. I’ve been following the article and its responses across the net since then, trying to come up with something to say about the proceedings, though at this point the conversation is too broad for me to do more than poke at the most interesting bits. But such interesting bits those are!
I’m more than a little sympathetic to Grin’s complaint, as I had suffered the same thing with the disappointment of Chronicles of the Black Company. But unfortunately I think that the original piece comes across as too much of a personal complaint, with enough political slant that it was easy for his detractors to dismiss him. That’s why I’m glad for Theo’s essay at Black Gate, which expands on the original points and turns the discussion away from gripes and into actual analysis of the texts in question. I agree with nearly every point that Theo makes here, though I also appreciated the counterpoint by Matthew Surridge, whose demonstrates mostly that the “new” trend of anti-heroic fantasy is actually quite old. Also, if I may be forgiven one more link and one more self-contradiction, I found that this “rebuttal” from Philip Athans is also pretty close to what I would want to say.
If I may reiterate one point that several people made in the links above, there is an enormous difference between fantasy that is merely dark and fantasy that is actually nihilistic and anti-heroic. Tolkein could be very dark (I won’t comment on Howard, as I’ve never read him), and the Silmarillion drinks deeply from the chilly well of Norse mythic fatalism. Thus, for example, this blog post titled “Missing the Point” is guilty of missing the point in a far worse way than Grin. Tolkein’s world may be hopeless and often tragic, but it is a world in which goodness unambiguously exists, and in which heroes distinguish themselves by fighting for the good even when their defeat is assured. This is the furthest thing in the world from a fantasy with no notion of virtue, in which there are no heroes who comport themselves virtuously. And again: the existence of Tolkeinian heroes who falter in virtue and who are seduced or corrupted by evil is not a repudiation of goodness, but a way of putting it into high relief. If I may quote the original article:
Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth…
This wouldn’t just be a different story, but a dramatically worse one. Fortunately, Tolkein didn’t write it that way.
Moving on to a different angle, I was very intrigued by Kate Elliot’s hypothesis about the reason for “nihilism” in contemporary fantasy:
It does occur to me that a reason — one possible reason — for the rise of the new gritty may be not the death of morality but the death of belief in the stories that we were told to believe were the truest measure of what is foundational….
So I am not surprised to see some of the writers of today writing skeptically or critically or even cynically about the institutions and “sentiments” that we have societally been raised to valorize even and maybe especially in the fiction we tell ourselves to try to describe what I might call “deeper truths” about culture and society and our place in it. So maybe those people write in ways that are uncomfortable, unpleasant, or downright ugly.
This is the most original take on the whole controversy, but I still want to pick it apart.
On the one hand: it’s possible that the “new gritty” is meant as a reaction against old narratives that have lost their power. But if that’s what those authors are trying to do, then I think they’re doing an awfully poor job of it, because—look, you can question conventional narratives or whatever without sliding into nihilism and madness. What you might do, instead, is offer an alternate model of heroism, an alternate view of goodness. If you do this well you can wind up with something that is compelling, inspiring, and life-changing in much the way that Tolkein and the classical heroic narratives are, but which compels people in a direction that you find more salutory. If you don’t think this can be done, I refer you to the entire oeurve of Ursula K. LeGuin, especially the Earthsea novels and her recent Annals of the Western Shore books. These books repudiate conventional heroic tropes in a variety of ways, but the result is not a demoralizing darkness, but the calm and confident demonstration that there is another way.
Of course, we can’t all be Ursula K. LeGuin. (Oh, but what if we could?) Still, if we grant that the foundations of reactionary fantasy are rotten (not something I agree with, but for the sake of argument), then a lot of the dark, gritty fantasy that I’ve sampled seems like it’s just kicking in the creaky old doors and drawing obscene graffiti in the entrance hall. If the literary building is decrepit, who cares? But this doesn’t impress me. Better you build something beautiful in the ruins.
A final aside: Elliot also mentioned that Grin doesn’t talk about female fantasists at all, and I agree with her that this is an important omission. As I look over my shelves, I notice that all of the really good fantasies that I’ve read in the past few years have been written by women. The real solution to the problem of too much rotten nihilist fantasy may be to just read less Joe Abercrombie and more Carol Berg.