This is a compilation and expansion on the original Realistic Fantasy, as well as The Problem with Serious Fiction
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 one 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 with a look that acted as something of a warning–the kind that made me as panicked as a sack of wet cats.
“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 When I asked why, she began a lecture on how such concepts are outdated and that fantasy has “evolved” past that.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 scoured the internet for even the slightest of genre advice knows that there is a lot of information regarding clichés and what to avoid and knowing what to do and what not to do in order to please their readers. Like, almost too much. Now, I’m an incredibly trope-conscious writer. However, I’ve consistently rejected the idea that tropes are inherently bad. Even ones as often-misused as the Chosen One or the Dark Lord.
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.) as well as realism in the fantasy genre in general–because to imply that fantasy needs to move past gritty realism is just as ridiculous as the article links above saying it needs to move past Elves and Dragons.
But are the two styles of presenting the genre held to an equal standard?
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 the often maligned Terry Brooks and his Lord of the Rings ripoff, The Sword of Shannara?
Aside from Lawrence’s superior command of the English language, that is.
Lawrence used George R. R. Martin as his jumping off point as much as Brooks used Tolkien. Both Lawrence and Brooks took the basic plot of the bestselling fantasy saga of their time (Lawrence took A Game of Thrones, Brooks took The Lord of the Rings), both simplified the core elements of the respective books and both of them used a post-apocalyptic setting to make it sufficiently different.
Both Lawrence and Martin use 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. Granted, Lawrence makes the tale the story of one man, while Martin’s work spans an entire world. And while Prince of Thorns is not as similar as The Sword of Shannara was to The Lord of the Rings, for some reason 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 a post-apocalyptic setting?
What sets Grimdark founder Joe Abercrombie apart from alleged Tolkien ripoff Dennis L. McKiernan? Both seem to take place in a Diet version of Westeros and Middle Earth respectively (Diet Fantasy! For when you want the refreshing flavor of the giants in the genre, with none of the original flavor or enjoyment!) 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.
Admittedly, I am being tongue-in-cheek, here. Brooks infamously copied scenes wholesale for The Sword of Shannara and changed the mildest of details. Lawrence only borrows from Martin in broad swaths. I draw these comparisons only to further a point which will be illuminated below.
Because ultimately, them being better at hiding the fact that they are taking as much influence from Martin as they are that does not change the fact that these books are as much Martin Clones as any given book with Elves is a Tolkien Clone.
But the reason Martin Clones are taken so seriously while Tolkien Clones are not is because they write a much more serious form of fantasy. Some of the Martin Clones feature little to no humor because of how seriously everyone is taking themselves. Gone is the days where Elves sing songs and you can dance on tables after a great battle. Gone is the inherent silliness of the antics that show up in The Hobbit. With the amount of gore and grey morality these Martin Clones throw into their books, it’s easier to call it grown-up fiction. Serious fiction. Literature, even. Yet even the concept of grey morality is laughable in many of these ripoffs. These new fantasists despise 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. No fun allowed, this is serious fantasy. It’s like in the early 2000s when every super hero film had to be extra dark because people still saw comic books as kids stuff.
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. As if something being darker gives it a greater literary value. 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. Tolkien approached his works with an aim to mythify a history for England. Read The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and come back to me about how seriously it takes its battle tactics. Most critics don’t seem to understand that Tolkien was not writing with realism in mind. But that doesn’t make it inherently lesser.
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. Because that is totally realistic. The Ned Starks of these novels who are fundamentally good people are seen as rarely as the grey morality of Gollums and Denethors of the Tolkien Clones. “Tolkien has a childish perception of good and evil,” they cry.
To that, I would say that black-and-blacker morality is juvenile. Just as the 2003 version of Marvel comics’ Daredevil was juvenile in how seriously it took itself, for example.
And now we come to the idea of the unrealism of Tolkien’s work. People are quick to critique Tolkien because for being 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? I have seen people put down a fantasy book because it promises Orcs and monsters and Elves and Dwarves. “It’s too unrealistic. Fantasy has moved past that.”
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 will unquestioningly accept a fantasy society in 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.
Many will say that I’m being hypocritical. Or that I’m being too fair to Tolkien Clones. 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 for surface elements. How similar is Wheel of Time to The Lord of the Rings, really? Or Lord Foul’s Bane or The Fionnavar Tapestry or any of the other Best Tolkien Clones? Hell, The Chronicles of Prydain was published only eleven years after The Lord of the Rings, which only became a cultural phenomenon in the seventies. How are any of 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. It is equivalent of saying watching movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and saying, “No, I want more movies like the 2003 Daredevil. Superheroes can’t be fun. They have to be serious.
Perhaps that’s the very reason Grimdark exists–to distance itself from the notion that fantasy is silly or fun–because the knee jerk reaction is to label that as childish. And so Tolkien is labeled as childish. 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 genre 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! (Just please, if you’re not writing Alice in Wonderland, stay consistent with the rules you establish.)
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. Nobody wanted Marvel to embrace the silliness of superhero comics until movies like Iron Man came along. Don’t let someone tell you that fiction has to be serious in order to be taken seriously.