“Nihilists! I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

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.

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3 Comments

  1. It’s so gratifying to find someone who gets the point of Leo’s article while not necessarily agreeing with all its sentiments, and I truly wish more people were as considered and insightful.

    I think the reason Leo didn’t discuss female fantasists is because… well, he wasn’t discussing female fantasists. Leo seemed to be concentrating on nihilistic fantasy, and since the modern female fantasists I know of don’t fit that paradigm, they were outwith the bounds of the article. Hopefully Leo will follow up this article with one on modern fantasists he enjoys.

  2. I think Kate Elliot’s response is intriguing and I have a theory as to why it is male fantasists that are so eager to demythologize epic narratives. You may have read “Where Have the Good Men Gone” and the proposal that males are not so much given a script of what “to” do in contemporary American culture so much as what NOT to do. Roy Baumeister gave a lecture a few years ago pointing out that historically and culturally men, particularly unmarried men, tend to be the ones drawn to high risk high yield ventures and that the essential value of non-parent males in any culture is, paradoxically, their utter disposability. Men can die for causes and even half the men in a generation can die in a war but so long as all the mothers survive and the financial strength of a society doesn’t fail it won’t preclude the next generation growing up and continuing the culture. Francis Schaeffer once said that the problem of the statement “nothing is worth dying for” is that it then confronts you with the miserable question of what is worth living for. Perhaps to the extent that male fantasists question what causes are worth dying for but do not have any convincing (to themselves) idea of what is worth living for they stick with nihilism.

    Here, too, I would suggest that the problem may be particularly acute for those who men who are neither married nor fathers. A man who is both a husband and a father has responsibilities beyond himself to consider. A man who is neither must simultaneously justify his participation in society while not having a certainty that the social unit to which he is obliged to be useful is worth his sacrifice. I’ve seen this particularly with unmarried guys my own age (i.e. thirties) who have embraced this or that ideology in lieu of having ever settled down. Two of them particularly have entrenched themselves in different ways against marriage and childrearing as evil or irresponsible acts that defy sustainable living or independence of action. It is, to me, sour grapes at an absurd scale.

    In the past when an unmarried person simply could not succeed in the mating game society had places for that person to go (i.e. into the church or the army, as Jane Austen books by themselves could amply attest). Neither of those options are considered seriously by less-than-eligible bachelors because of America has no state church and the military has called upon people to die for the sake of founding narratives that are now viewed (with good reason) as suspect. Consider the joke from the film Smoke Signals in which American Indians refer to the 4th of July as “the white man’s independence”.

    I Could write more but I should probably channel more of these thoughts into a project I’m working on for Mockingbird.

  3. ~~~~~~~~~
    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…
    ~~~~~~~~~

    That’s actually quite realistic, and it happens more like that, than any other way. To assume that the heroes always finish their trials or succesfully end their quest and they always defeat the bad one, and even if they do, one of the good ones doesn’t turn into the next “baddun”, is naive. To assume most leaders (like Aragorn) would be perfect or “chaste” by way of perfect justice, is again, foolish.

    Sauron was, after all, “The Lord of Gifts”, and before this, a good angel that was corrupted by Morgoth. So the succession of evil is very powerful, by way of direct heritance and hierarchy. To assume Evil dies only once, and forever, is truly naive.

    As for “The Sons of Thurin”, it’s such childish fantasy, it can’t even be called “dark” or even “fantasy”. It’s more about the fabulations of two goodie dooers, brother and sister, who fight Morgoth and his golden Ring Wyrm, an evil dragon, to somehow regain their true fate and free will again. They end up falling in love (pathetic weaklings), then killing themselves because of the terrible guilt of incestuous love. Their line ended thusly. Das Endeung !!

    This is typical germanic tragedy. And nothing more. Call it a remedy to good will and optimism. Creating imaginary “evils” to torment the once pure minds of it’s peons. To distract them from the actual true evils, which are maybe hiding in plain sight, and being left unchecked.

    The Reason Lord of the Rings was “told”, is because it’s actually a happy ending story. In reality the author also mentions the many fails and misshaps that predate the events there. Such as millenia before, when Isildur the king of men who fought against Sauron to kill him and most of his armies to save MiddleEarth for several more ages, he failed in destroying the ring. Despite the Elf king’s advice, in the mount of doom.

    This implies that whatever potential for Good people have, they also have a potential for power lust, perhaps even greater now. This is what Aragorn knew, and feared, as the direct heir of Isildur, and even chose to be a ranger, to not become corrupt like Isildur, the fallen king of his line, before him. Even the ressistance against Evil isn’t perfect, because Aragorn refused to take the ring, and bear the burdain, because he knew the supernatural evil and Corruption forged into the Ring itself.

    So despite all his human spirit of Good, the Evil was forged by a much deeper and greater Evil, that even Gandalf feared he could not resist. They both knew the Ring could create more evil than good, if it was weilded by them. So they had enough common sense to “let go” of it, to someone of less ambition.

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