The Sword and Sorcery quotient has been on the rise here at Singular Points. Last week I had a guest post from Scott Oden, and today I have one from my friend and frequent collaborator James A. Moore. Jim has a brand new Grimdark Fantasy book out, the first in a series, that's bound to please readers of his Seven Forges books. Today Jim's going to talk about the origins of Grimdark, which is really the modern equivalent of S&S.
From Wikipedia: “Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic. The word was inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.’
Let me state this unequivocally: Grimdark is not new. The term is, to be sure, but the actual writing style? Hardly. I imagine a dozen different scholarly types would go back in time and tell you exactly where they believe Grimdark started. I am not a scholar. I read. I write. Somewhere along the way I started writing Grimdark.
What I write is often grim and certainly dark. I’m not known for happy endings in my stories and the best of my characters tend to have a rather vague concept of the moral high ground. When I was writing Horror it was just called Horror, or, oddly, Urban Fantasy. When I started writing Fantasy, I thought of it as Sword & Sorcery.
That was the right definition in both cases, but, like horror, Grimdark borders on being an emotional mindset. The notion that the world will not end nicely, the thought that sometimes good people do bad things and that the best people aren’t really at the center of your stories? That’s not new. It’s been around since Shakespeare at the very least. It’s just been renamed.
I’m going to stick with books. I could go into movies and point out several recent ones, actually, but I’ll stick with books. Some of the movies I would point out make my blood boil (Sorry, Man of Steel is NOT a superman movie. It’s a movie about an alien with an “S” on his chest. It’s properly Grimdark, but it ain’t Superman.
Ewe can look at several mythologies and see certain elements of Grimdark. The Norse had a special love of bloodshed in their tales. The best fighters, the most savage and fearless, got a reward when they died. They got to go live among the gods and fight with them every day until the universe ended. How’s that for happily ever after?
But I said I was sticking with fiction. I won’t argue the validity of mythologies. I’ll just stick with the printed word and the pulps. Going with the definition that Wikipedia gave us, I’d have to say that the real origins of the subgenre go all the way back to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane among others are seldom swashbuckling adventures about characters with a high moral background (Kane is arguable) Kull the Conqueror, really most of Howard’s fantasy creations, all have certain things in common. They are tough as nails, they are flawed, and they answer most questions with carnage. Do you want to know why most Conan movies don’t hold up? Because they feel the need to make Conan a likeable character, and, frankly, he ain’t. He might be a nice enough guy if you’re on his good side, but first and foremost he’s a survivor in a bad time. Each movie feels the need to make him noble. Each movie wants to tell you how he was wrong and recovered from impossible odds. They must, as with previous Spiderman and Batman movies, tell you how he became Conan.
Go find the story where Robert E. Howard told that tale. I mean, yeah, we know he was born on a battlefield, but an actual origin story? When you find it, please send me the link where I can buy it.
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales are another perfect example of Grimdark in my eyes. You have a cutthroat and a barbarian going around and doing their utmost best to survive in a world that seems determined to kill them. Along the way, much slaughter ensues and any attempt to find morality is pushed aside as sorcerers and worse things cross paths with the good guys repeatedly. Seriously, you should read these books. They’re amazing. There is humor but it is dark and earthy. There are tales of greed, lust, woe and the occasional deity.
I could, again, argue that Shakespeare is close to the real start, but let’s be honest here: there is no true origin. A lot of it depends on what you like and where you look. You could argue that the blues and jazz are the foundation of rock & roll. You could also argue that rock and country come from the same place.
My buddy Charles is letting me post this rant on his blog and I can basically guarantee you that he could find seven more sources for Grimdark. Most people look toward Fantasy as the setting for Grimdark and some point out that Sci-Fi can be just as nihilistic.
Some would argue that Grimdark didn’t start until novels came along. I’ve discussed that with a few people and I’m not sure I agree. I can see their logic. I just don’t think it’s accurate. I think Sword & Sorcery is best served as a short story. I think Grimdark works well on both levels. Leiber, Howard, a lot of modern Sword & Sorcery writers, wrote short stories. They didn’t write novels. They collected their tales into books, but they didn’t really write very many novels. A few, I’ll grant that. Mostly, however, they worked in shorter forms.
The thing is, High Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, to name a few, works better in novel form. There’s a different sort of paradigm. There is definitely darkness in all of them. They get grim and gritty, but there is a different perspective. The heroes might be weak from time to time, but they are, overall, a different breed of people. The stories themselves talk of prophecies and good versus evil in a different light. The stories lend themselves to sweeping combats, epic battles and legends that span centuries. There is almost always going to be an ending where the heroes have made sacrifices for the betterment of the world. Where the world is better for those actions.
Grimdark can have epics, but they aren’t the same beasts. That’s just not the case in Grimdark. Your hero might be aiming to make the world a better place, or might believe the actions taken will be for the betterment of all, but, really, the predestination is gone. The light of a better tomorrow is dimmed by the bloodshed and actions of world populated by less savory people. You don’t get high kings and heroes. You get politicians, sellswords and homicidal maniacs with bloodied axes. You get torturers, sorcerers with an agenda that has nothing to do with helping the world out. You get wonderfully flawed people who are part of a tapestry that is dyed in stains of red and gray instead of black and white. The best colors are muted by shadows. The brightest places are buried under mountains of ash.
Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series of books often has an element of High Fantasy. His Elric of Melnibone books, however, do not. Elric is a drug addict, a hedonist, a powerful sorcerer who rules over a stagnating empire and a morally bankrupt soul that takes what he needs in order to survive. And he’s the good guy. And most of the bad guys are honestly even worse. Though there are heroes in the series, most of them are mowed down by Elric and his unearthly sword, Stormbringer. It isn’t Elric doing the killing, either, it’s the sword. In order to survive, he needs the sword far more it seems than the sword needs him.
Lest I forget, a few names you should be considering as you go about your research of Grimdark. Tanith Lee is often catalogued in Dark Fantasy and Gothic fiction, but some of that is simply because Grimdark didn’t exist hen she was doing most of her writing. You should check out her works. Try the Birthgrave Trilogy. It doesn’t get much grimmer. The same is true of Marion Zimmer Bradley. While some of her words are decidedly High Fantasy, she never hesitated to slide into the Grimdark regions. Try the Darkover series if you doubt me. Just a couple of names that are often overlooked in the history of Grimdark, and names that I feel should not be ignored. They certainly had their influences on my work.
Do we even need to discuss Joe Abercrombie? No. Let’s leave it at he is one of the kings of Grimdark and you should be reading him.
I mentioned Rock & Roll earlier. The thing is, Grimdark is a lot like Rock and Roll. Grimdark is its own thing. But if you look back, you can see the roots of it hidden in other things. Shakespeare? Sure. Why not. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? Absolutely. It doesn’t get much darker. Leiber and Howard? You better believe it. You can throw Lovecraft into that mix, and Machen and a few dozen others. Just as with Rock, they’ve added riffs here and there. They’ve tossed in certain sounds and sensations that are uniquely their own, often imitated and never duplicated. The seeds come from all over the place, the roots grow together in a dark place where heroes are flawed at best and amoral at worst. The gods of these realms don’t promise light and redemption: they demand sacrifice and they offer nothing in return but, perhaps, continued existence. There is no Christ here. There is Crom. There is no magic without a cost and the price is high enough that only the foolish or the very mad would consider working those dark sorceries. Hope is a foolish notion and the best you can hope for is being strong enough to survive the worst life tries to throw your way.
It’s often a dark world. But the rules are simple. Survival of the fittest. He who draws first wins. The Old West is made manifest. The empires of the world are shaped and restructured depending on the whims of sorcerers, gods and men who can wield a bloodied sword.
He who sacrifices the most is not guaranteed a place in Heaven, but he who can cut enough throats might make it to a place where they can retire in relative peace. Or not.
It’s a Grimdark universe. I like studying the roots of that particular world tree whenever I can.
Charles says: Great Post, Jim. Thanks for stopping by. And you're right. There is Crom. And he doesn't care. Not one bit.