This month's Amazing Fantasy Round Table examines the question of whether modern fantasy comes in shades other than grim and gritty.
Warren Rochelle: Fantasy: How Many Shades of Grey?
All right. I’ve been browsing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. I googled “different kinds of fantasy—and, for the most part, found similar lists and similar terms. I doubt most of those who write for this blog would be surprised at the terms and definitions I found, such as:
Ø high fantasy: immersion, set wholly in the secondary world, “with its own set of rules and physical laws,” (no connections between here and there). Think Middle-earth.
Ø low fantasy: “a sub-genre of fantasy fiction involving nonrational happenings that are without Low fantasy stories are set either in the real world or a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories (see above)… The word "low" refers to the level of prominence of traditional fantasy elements within the work, and is not any sort of remark on the work's quality” (Wikipedia contributors. "Low fantasy." (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 May. 2013.) Examples include The Borrowers, Tuck Everlasting, The Five Children and It, Edward Eager’s novels, and so on.
causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.
Ø epic fantasy, which is centered on the quest, relies on a heroic main character, stresses the battle between good and evil, heroes, legendary battles—often called heroic fantasy. A portal-quest or portal fantasy could be a variant, with a prime example that of the Chronicles of Narnia.
The lists go on to include contemporary/urban fantasy, anthropomorphic, historical, dark, science fantasy—you get the idea. Fantasy, all about good vs. evil, the light versus the dark, heroes and heroines, magic, dragons, and their ilk, comes in many shades of grey. (50? That’s another essay—see the blog on sexuality in fantasy, okay?) Then, there is immersive vs. intrusive and liminal or estranged and … But instead of defining each and every one, and dredging up examples (which is something I like to do when I teach fantasy lit—English 379, this fall, 3:30-4:45 TTh, come on down), I want to talk about the shade of grey I write and why (and yes, grey, the British spelling, and not the American gray. Grey just looks …. well, grey, and it’s prettier… I digress).
So. What’s my shade of grey? I have two published fantasy novels, Harvest of Changelings (Golden Gryphon, 2007) and its sequel, The Called (Golden Gryphon, 2010). A third is being edited, The Golden Boy, and a fourth in progress even as I write, The Werewolf and His Boy. They are all, I am thinking, low and intrusive fantasies. True, The Golden Boy is sort of pushing the above definition of low, as it is set in an alternate reality, that of the Columbian Empire. Magic is real, but it is illegal, and the Empire is definitely meant to be a rational country. Magic, does, however, intrude, according to the Columbian political and religious authorities. But, the others: this world (more or less), and then magic returns (thus intruding), or is disclosed in some fashion, voluntarily and otherwise. Harvest and The Called are set in North Carolina; Werewolf, in Virginia. Complications ensue—lots of complications. Bad things happen. The good guys are in serious trouble. Yes, there are forays into Faerie from time to time, but on the whole, things happen here, not there.
The question of the moment is why, to what end. Part of me has always wanted to believe in magic (oh, all right, part of me does believe in magic) and that it is real and if we just knew—the right people, the right words, where to look—we could find it. It’s always been here. There has to be a reason for all these stories. So, I create fictional worlds that satisfy this longing. In these worlds the magical and the mundane intersect, overlap, come into conflict—and I find these encounters fascinating. As do their real-world counterparts (encountering the unexplainable), such meetings pull back the veils and reveal us as who and what we really are. They are meetings in which we are forced to ask the question of what it means to be human. That some of these encounters are fraught with peril is also part of this question.( Read more... ) To be human is, sometimes, to be in danger, to be facing great evil, and to have to confront that evil, albeit the evil is a monster, another human, or a personal darkness. To be human is to undertake the quest. As Le Guin says in her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” “fantasy is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul”(Language of the Night 64).
In low fantasy, in intrusive fantasy, the metaphor, the myth, the symbol, the shadow, can be real, literal. It can be touched, felt, and fought. Russell, a hero of Harvest and The Called, is an abused child; so is Jeff, his partner. They grew up with people who behaved monstrously. They also find themselves confronted with evil reptilians and black witches and other bad guys. They find they have to fight their inner demons as well as those that wait for them. Could I do this in high fantasy? I think so, but I am finding it is important to me to acknowledge the darkness and mystery that is here, in this world.
Good fantasy, after all, is about human beings doing human things, and with all the ambiguity and trouble and good and evil and love and hate and all the rest that comes with being human. Yes, they have to deal with the magical, the impossible, the mystery, the myth made real, but they are still humans—most of the time, and mostly.
So, I write in this shade of grey because it is here that I live, that my imagination lives. Oh, yeah, by the way: magic is real.
Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His story, “The Boy on McGee Street” was published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012). http://warrenrochelle.com
The last ten years have seen a rise in what is known as "grimdark fantasy" (or, more amusingly, as "grittygrotty"). Joe Abercrombie defines the core of the genre as:
"The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook."
There are numerous articles discussing grimdark, covering everything from what makes it "more real", "less real", "nihilist", "gratuitous", "honest", or "unimaginative". Most of all, "sexist".
Beyond being a sub-genre I'm disinclined to read, I'm sure some of my negative reaction to grimdark is due to some of its champions positing it as an "evolution" of fantasy: something which has left less evolved, inferior versions of fantasy behind. This both annoys and confuses me.
Part of the confusion is due to what I see as a lack of newness about some of these concepts. Are grimdark protagonists more morally ambiguous than, say, Elric of Melniboné? Steerpike of Gormenghast? Heck, Lord Vetinari of the Discworld? How much more cynical in outlook are these worlds compared to, say, Mary Gentle's "Grunts" (a satire of heroic fantasy, but certainly not a recent one)? Is Leiber's Lankhmar naïve and 'unevolved'?
What exactly has evolved here? Is a willingness to describe people peeing the big advance we're supposed to find in grimdark?
The other, perhaps larger, source of my confusion is whether the link made between "grey" and "real" is supposed to lead to a second link between "heroic" and "fake". If the charcoal greyness of the protagonists is the big selling point of grimdark's advances (ignoring the decades of "pre-grimdark" fantasy featuring morally grey characters), does it follow on that real heroism does not exist?
The people-are-fundamentally-rotten trope is common to another genre: post-apocalyptic. Almost inevitably, post-apocalyptic stories feature small bands of people, sometimes fighting viciously for resources against other bands, until their own group dissolves when Untrustworthy-Second-Male produces a schism against Mr-Reluctantly-In-Charge because he wants to be in charge/to get the girl/to go that way. My own apocalyptic story was a direct reaction to how boringly predictable I find this story progression, and to recent events at the time of drafting – particularly the 2010-2011 Queensland Floods. Here, as with countless other natural disasters, lives and safety were threatened…and thousands of people stepped up. Helped out. Behaved heroically.
If we spend the time to look around us, at the real world, we see villains, we see plenty of morally grey people – a vast bunch on the paler side of the grey scale. And we see heroes.
Grimdark is a genre which removes a portion of the real. To cast a crapsack world as a "more real" world is to ignore the considerable amount of grey in large portions of heroic fantasy, and to suggest that the concepts of nobility, heroism, selflessness, and the rule of law are all weak figments which do not and never did exist in (historical) reality.
A brief stroll through the myths and legends which are used as the basis for many modern fantasy stories will show us that grim and tragic events are hardly new to the genre (try Deidre of the Sorrows on for size). A passing acquaintance with history will show us heroes.
Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.Her website, Autumn Write.
Sylvia Kelso: Shades of Fantasy
Originally I meant to talk about sub-genres, but I’ve covered this before, so instead I’ll look at shades in high fantasy, varying by both authors’ style and time. Which logically lets me start with one of the fathers of modern fantasy, Lord Dunsany. Here’s the intro to his short story, “Carcassonne:”
They say that [Camorak’s] house at Arn was huge and high, and its ceiling painted blue; and when evening fell men would climb up by ladders and light the scores of candles hanging from slender chains. And they say, too, that sometimes a cloud would come, and pour in through the top of one of the oriel windows, and it would come over the edge of the stonework as the sea-mist comes over a sheer cliff’s shaven lip where an old wind has blown for ever and ever (he has swept away thousands of leaves and thousands of centuries, they are all one to him, he owes no allegiance to Time).
Writing pre WWI, Dunsany has more than an echo of Yeats’ Celtic twilight: whimsical tone, slightly formal, archaic usages such as the “they say” beloved of medieval romances. And characteristic of Dunsany, whimsy extended into a long, flapping, image-ridden sentence that in the wrong hands could come perilously close to a place in the Bulwer Lytton awards.
From around the same period we have:
“His highness rode a hot stirring horse very fierce and dogged; knee to knee with him went Styrkmir of Blackwood o’ the one side and Tharmrod o’ the other. Neither man nor horse might stand up before them, and they faring as in a maze now this way now that, amid the thrumbling and thrasting of the footmen, heads and arms smitten off, men hewn in sunder from crown to belly, ay, to the saddle, riderless horses maddened, blood plashed up from the ground like the slush from a marsh.”
Yep, that other Daddy of the Genre, E. R. Edison, from the chapter “The Battle of Krothering Side,” in The Worm Ouroboros. And yes, nobody sounds or ever again could sound like Edison. The lavish detail, the exuberance, the outrageous yet so brilliant faux Elizabethan language is a Phoenix. One of a kind.
The writing in The Worm actually ranges widely, from battle scenes like this, sounding almost straight out of Mallory, to the ornate settings, and breathtaking natural beauty like the sunset that closes this chapter, or the first view of Zimiamvia. But it’s a good shade away from Dunsany, not least in the ferocity of its focus, and the equally ferocious insistence of its rhythm.
Now here’s one of the modern heirs of both Edison and Dunsany. Describing magic outright this time, 70 or so years later, when fantasy styles have greatly simplified – or been dumbed down, imo – for a far larger, less literate readership.
Lynn Hall had changed again. This time she showed me how her secret wood devoured it, in a monstrous tangle of root and vine that wove into its stones and massed across its gaping roof. Past and future and the timeless wood scattered broken pieces of themselves within two rooms. Nial Lynn’s marble floor lay broken and weathered by the years, even as his blood or Tearle’s flowed darkly across it. A curve of tree root so thick it must have circled the world had pushed through the floor beneath Corbet’s table...
Much plainer than Edison or Dunsany, yes, and yet no less part of Elsewhere in the starkness of images like the broken marble floor and the flowing blood, here in service to the time-folding, reality-dissolving effect so common in McKillip’s work. Yes, Patricia McKillip again, this time from Winter Rose, Chapter Twenty-Three.
And now a particularly famous figure from modern fantasy who first appeared in the late ‘60s and returned in the 2000s, through his creator’s trademark mix of utterly everyday details and sudden, yawning vistas of unreality:
The leaves shook and the man came briskly down the ladder. He carried a handful of plums, and when he got off the ladder he batted away a couple of bees drawn by the juice. He came forward, a short, straight-backed man, grey hair tied back from a handsome, time-worn face. He looked to be seventy or so. Old scars, four white seams, ran from his left cheekbone down to the jaw. ( The Other Wind Ch. 1)
Yup, it’s Le Guin’s famous mage, Ged, in his (happier) old age. Now an almost poverty stricken dweller on the heights above Havnor, with a plum tree and some goats and chooks – chickens, to American readers – a handsome old face, and the four scar marks that invoke his first mortal struggle in the magical world.
In this quote everything looks deceptively simple. Until you begin to analyse the subtle, resilient rhythms of the prose, and the almost invisible patterning of assonance and alliteration. If Edison is the High Priest of Ornament, Le Guin is the Mistress of Understatement.
Further into the present, and not quite high fantasy, here’s a very good Canadian writer doing urban fantasy at its most attitudinous. It’s from The Second Summoning, a world where Keepers use their magic to maintain the fabric of reality against determined incursions from Hell, below, but sometimes, accidentally, from Heaven above. In this one, a street evangelist is confronted by a currently humanly-embodied angel (read the book for the full outrageous details):
“Greenstreet Mission. We’re doing a Christmas dinner. You can get a meal and hear the word of God.”
Samuel smiled in relief. This, finally, he understood. “Which word?”
“Well, God’s said a lot of words, you know, and a word like it or the wouldn’t be worth hearing again but it’s always fun listening to Him try to say aluminum.” (Ch. 7)
But, I hear you muttering, where are the famously gritty and dourly “realistic” masters like George R. R. Martin? OK, I confess. I loved Fevre Dream, years ago, but the Thrones books feel to me like a fantasy version of Stephen King’s gross-out followers. It’s not realism I find in Martin. Perversely, it’s like King, a “gritty fantasy” gross-out.
When it comes to gritty, I’d sooner go with another prize-winning contemporary woman fantasy writer, and the opening of her first book in the “Chalionverse”:
Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them. He glanced over his shoulder. (Lois McMaster Bujold The Curse of Chalion Ch. 1)
The well-worn track behind him curled up around a rolling rise, what passed for a hill on these high windy plains, before dipping again into the late-winter muck of Baocia’s bony soil. At his feet a little rill, too small and intermittent to rate a culvert or a bridge, trickled greenly across the track from the sheep-cropped pasture above. The thump of hooves, jangle of harness, clink of bells, creak of gear and careless echo of voices came on at too quick a rhythm to be some careful farmer with a team, or parsimonious pack-men driving their mules.
It’s not over-gritty – yet. Before the end it will go beyond gritty to grotesque, to appallingly realized unrealities, like Cazaril’s demon-pregnancy, but here the only signals are in the landscape. The natural fallacy. Bleakness in the meager messy surroundings foreshadows Cazaril’s own plight, penniless, dressed in rags, with crookedly healed fingers and a back thick with flogging lesions, creeping like a beggar toward his last hope of sanctuary, after a life of war, siege and the galleys that have left him only the knowledge of “how to prepare a dish of rats.”
I meant to end with a tour de force from the grand master of modern fantasy, who in one book can do all the shades of tone and voice from chatty children’s book to King James Version mythology, with epic and romance and comedy and tragedy in between. But I’ve traveled too often already in the realms of Tolkien, so I’ll stop here, with the grit under Cazaril’s sandals, only one of my particular favourites among fantasy’s more than fifty shades.
Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012. “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” is forthcoming in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Press, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in August 2013.
This month's blog tour is called Shades of Fantasy -- a perfect title, I think. Because what is shading, exactly?
There are shades of evil, shades of humanness, shades of power, shades of the psyche, shades of power, shades of spatiality, shades of time, shades of intelligence and different kinds of intelligences, shades of sexuality and gender, shades of cultures, shades of life and non-life. Each shading can bring us closer to the darkness in the universe or in humanity. It can also bring us closer to the light.
Depending on the writer, any of these shadings can be explored. A good fantasy book will show its reader so many shadings of its theme that the book and its issues will forever linger in the reader's mind. For better or for worse or for all the shadings in between.
Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her first novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower. http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/
Here's my own essay: Fantasy –A Long View of the Gritty, and Hope for the Numinous
At first, I thought the current fashion of dark, gritty fantasy – fantasy noir – is just that, a recent shift in popularity, like the explosion of angsty teenage vampire stories. If we take the long view, it’s an established variation in a much larger genre. Historically, fantasy’s appeal was as tales of wonder, from Homer’s Odyssey (a “tall tales” story if there ever was one) to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Scary things certainly do happen in these stories and much is at risk, but the tone is elevated and the sensibilities are distinctly romantic. I suspect that one reason movie-goers who loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and found the novels unengaging was the somewhat old-fashioned “epic” level of prose, very much in line with the mythic tradition Tolkien is so much a part of and yet foreign-sounding and artificial when placed in the context of contemporary “realistic” literature. In this, Tolkien’s work has much more in common with Beowulf than with The Dresden Files.
Spooky stories like the early Gothic novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1796), the works of Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) approached the fantastical as other-worldly, making no pretense of portraying the seedier side of everyday reality. In Germany, Gothic fiction was called Schauerroman (“shudder novel”), in the sense of a delicious fascination with the macabre. Black magic, occult rites, vampires and ghosts, haunted castles, “the sins of the fathers,” Byronic heroes, ancient curses and the like pervaded these works.
Even stories that sought to balance supernatural elements and realistic settings could in no way be described as “gritty.” As time went on and literary tastes changed, the macabre or horrific elements shifted to include “explained supernatural” and psychological horror. What constitutes “realistic setting” has evolved from 18th Century drawing rooms to the streets and skyscrapers of modern urban fantasy.
Contemporary gritty fantasy, whether in an urban setting or not, has been influenced by the larger movements in 20th and 21st Century literature. The Cold War fostered the twin sensibilities of paranoia and impending disaster, giving rise to generations of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t think Ann Radcliffe or William Polidori, or even Robert Louis Stevenson would have dreamt of the bombed-out cities, virulent plagues, social disruption, and ecological collapse that characterizes modern dystopic fiction. Taking this thought a step further, I see the transformation of the zombie from a figure in voodoo religious rites to yet-another-monster to the victim of an epidemic, to one of hordes that walk the streets and break down doors, infecting everyone they bite, with all the attendant end-of-the-world you-will-be-eaten-next tropes. As a person who remembers the McCarthy Era, I see a chilling parallel in the underlying themes of contagion and loss of humanity. In this way, what we see in gritty fantasy today, particularly the dystopic and urban flavors, reflects the fears rampant in recent history.
At the same time, although it has occasionally fallen out of popular favor, epic fantasy, whimsical fantasy, fantasy that echoes spiritual or religious themes of hope and redemption, not to mention beautiful magic and romance, has not gone away. I think readers (and writers!) respond to the optimism and portrayal of courage, loyalty, and imagination in these tales.
I first got the idea for my own epic fantasy trilogy from a series of short stories that were published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress series. I love horses and was intrigued by the cultural clash between the Romans with their cities and disciplined infantry, and the nomadic horse peoples of Asia – the Scythians, Sarmatians, and others. I wondered how these two very different cultures might give rise to different systems of magic as well as different military strategies. One story (the first one being “The Spirit Arrow” in S & S XIII) wasn’t enough! I fell in love with the vast reaches of the steppe, the nature-based religion of the nomads, the lore of horses. This isn’t so different from what Tolkien envisioned in the Rohirrim of Rohan, although I came at it from a different historical context. As one story followed another, “Rome” deepened and became less of a monolithic enemy and more of a culture to be admired. In order to create the complexity of conflicts necessary for a work of novel length, I added an ancient city-state, guardian of the magical devices that once protected the living world from the forces of chaos. All this was background for the real story, the adventures of a handful of characters as they make their way through this world, each with her or his own goals and follies. I was off and running with The Seven-Petaled Shield. The first volume comes out in June 2013.