Or, Why Fantasy Needs to Move Past Gritty Realism and Grey Morality
A few days ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who consumes fantasy novels at a rate I would not have guessed was possible had I not been witnessing it for twenty years. This is the woman who read all fourteen Wheel of Time books in about three months.
“I want to write a story about Elves,” I said. She responded by giving me a look that made me feel like a Victorian Age woman showing off her ankles.
“You can’t do that,” she told me. When I asked why, she began a lecture on how such concepts are outdated and that fantasy has “evolved” past that. She took it so seriously, and so personally, that I felt I had to at least dig into this.
Anyone who has read other articles I’ve written know I’m an incredibly trope-conscious person. However, I’ve consistently rejected the idea that tropes are inherently bad. Even ones as oft-misused as the Chosen One or the Dark One.
With that in mind, it never even occurred to me that some people might think it so egregious to write a story about Elves. The subtitle of this article is an inversion of this, which is that prompted me to throw my hat in the ring regarding Grimdark Fantasy. (Please note: Patrick Rothfuss was misquoted in this article. He has clarified, saying if you want to do them, be original.)
I decided to keep Moving Past Gritty Realism in the subtitle because, in short, it sounds ridiculous. As ridiculous as the article linked above.
Grimdark fantasy authors are commonly seen as the evolution of modern fantasy writing. They boast characters of gray morality and ambiguous sides. But what I have read seems little better than something in the vein of The Sword of Shannara or The Iron Tower trilogy. Except now, up-and-coming writers are using George R. R. Martin as their springboard instead of J.R.R Tolkien.
What separates Mark Lawrence from Terry Brooks?
Aside from Lawrence’s superior command of the English language, that is. Both of them took the idea of the bestselling fantasy saga of their time, both simplified the core elements and both of them used a post-apocalyptic setting to make it sufficiently different. Both feature a struggle over a throne while telepaths twist the minds of rulers to their will, and all while a horde of the undead is on the horizon. While not as similar as Brooks was to Tolkien due to the first person presentation, why is Lawrence praised for setting A Song of Ice and Fire in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust while Terry Brooks is lambasted and downright accused of plagiarism for giving The Lord of the Rings in an apocalyptic setting?
What sets Joe Abercrombie Dennis L. McKiernan? Both seem to take place in a Diet version of Westeros and Middle Earth respectively. Why is one lauded and the other condemned?
I will grant that with the invention of the internet, the Martin Clones are much savvier in finding ways to rehash George’s ideas and change it enough so that they can stand on their own. To their credit, they are better at it than Tolkien’s clones.
But that does not change the fact that these books are Martin Clones. And the reason they are taken so seriously is because they write serious fantasy. Some of the Martin Clones feature little to no humor because of how seriously everyone is taking themselves. With the amount of gore and grey morality they throw into their books, it’s easier to call it grown-up fiction. Yet even the concept of grey morality is laughable in many of these ripoffs. They despite the idea of black-and-white morality, but welcome black-and-blacker with open arms.
And many people praise Martin Clones because of their gore and how seriously they take themselves. Because of the R-rated fantasy world, the label grown-up fiction is proudly stamped onto their novels, as if that makes it inherently better.
I’m not kidding. There are people who think “grown-up fiction” is just inherently better than the Lord of the Rings. To quote Richard K. Morgan, “Tolkien’s general outlook on things is such that in this day and age you can’t really take it seriously as grown-up fiction. It’s full of enormously dodgy racial and cultural stereotyping, highly unlikely military tactics and ridiculously simplistic perceptions of good and evil.”
This is to say nothing of Michael Moorcock’s essay, The Epic Pooh.
And many of the Martin Clones seem to echo that statement of Tolkien’s world being something to enjoy as a teenager that inspires you, but that you must grow out of. “Black and white morality is unrealistic!” say the authors who make a conceited effort to make all their characters despicable in some way. The Ned Starks of these novels are seen as rarely as the Gollums and Denethors of the Tolkien Clones. “Tolkien has a childish perception of good and evil!”
To that, I would say that black-and-blacker morality is juvenile.
And now we come to the idea of the unrealism of Tolkien’s work. People refuse to read Tolkien anymore because it’s unrealistic. They demand so much grit and realism from their works that many seem to forget that they’re writing (or reading) fantasy.
Of all genres, fantasy has the most potential. Fantasy is the genre in which you can do anything you want. And you’re demanding fantasy novels evolve towards “realism?” If a fantasy novel is not realistic enough, some people will go so far as to refuse to even open it.
Have they forgotten that realistic fantasy is an oxymoron?
The Martin Clones and their most avid readers often love to poke fun at Tolkien Clones. The same people who deride them for being unoriginal refuse to accept a fantasy society outside the mold of a High School understanding of Medieval England.
And it is this juvenile hatred of anything Tolkienlike that leads to things like Elvish Fiction being outlawed. Sometimes they don’t even have to be named Elves to be labeled as Diet Tolkien.
….A lot of those claims sound ridiculous, don’t they? How does an epic like A Song of Ice and Fire have any similarities to such a self-contained work as A Prince of Thorns? Who has the right to say black-and-blacker morality, however it pertains to Lawrence or Abercrombie or any other fantasist–is a bad thing?
That sounds hypocritical, doesn’t it? What right do I have to say that these works are drivel or bad or similar by being even tangentially related to George R.R. Martin’s work? Why is a society based off of Medieval England such a bad thing? Even if it’s a High School understanding–it’s a made up world! All it has to be is consistent! There are clearly fantastic things being done in the context of these stories.
And that’s the problem with a lot of modern, lighter stories being labeled Tolkien Clones. How similar is Wheel of Time to The Lord of the Rings, really? Or even any of the Best Tolkien Clones? How are these novels related to Tolkien, aside from having things like pseudo-medieval settings, Dark Lords, Chosen Ones, Elves, Dwarves or something superficially related to Tolkien’s work?
Therein lies the problem. Many novels labeled Tolkien Clones simply feature elements that Tolkien used in his work. And it is ridiculous that a story about Elves be labeled Tolkien Clone because somebody out there read the back cover.
Perhaps that’s the very reason Grimdark exists–to distance itself from Tolkien. The man’s shadow is so large that it extends into Grimdark in its own twisted, meta inversion of the very comparisons many authors seek to avoid.
Fantasy is a world you can do anything in. Your Elves can be as powerful or weak or tiny or tall or nonexistent as you want. You can base your world off of England or create a nonsense world where the laws of physics go out the window. You can do a mix of both!
Don’t let the demand for grim, gritty and realistic fiction stop you from writing the story you want to tell. Don’t let the urge to go against what’s popular dissuade you, either.
Write your story. Forget about the publishing and what’s trendy and popular and have fun, dammit! You’re a writer! Isn’t this fun?
I think it is.
Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was rejected anywhere from 51-58 times by various publishing houses, depending on who you ask. But I doubt Donaldson wishes he never worked on it. He had fun with the idea and shopped it around the publishing industry until someone bought it became a national bestseller. Don’t write something you hate because it’s easier to get published or because more people will like it. Write something because it’s fun.
And on a related note, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is heavily inspired by Tolkien, but it remains original enough to stick to its own themes and tell its own story and introduce absolute good, grey, and absolute bad morality in an original and clever way. All while having (and I’m not kidding) a Dark Lord named Lord Foul and, in the first novel, a subordinate named Drool Rockworm.
And by the same token, Prince of Thorns features characters of black-and-blacker morality, a bunch of Kings fighting over an Empire Throne, psychics and vague magic twisting nobles against each other while an unseen supernatural threat rises on the horizon still manages to be an engaging read with much humor, subtlety and even moments of humanity in the novel’s point of view character.
Whichever flavor of fantasy you prefer, I think we can all agree on one thing:
Dragons….man, they need a rest.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala and Lydia Raya.