Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Grimdark Fantasy
Sub-genres of fantasy literature are manifold and multiform, each pursuing and providing a different central idea around which a magical, marvelous world is built. However, to truly understand what each sub-genre entails, one must first look into what fantasy itself is as a genre/type of literature. This series of articles will begin with an overview of most commonly referenced theories of fantasy and the fantastic, and will then move on to explore and analyze fantasy’s most prominent sub-genres.
Theory of Fantasy Literature 101 is divided into six chapters including:
1. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: What is Fantasy?
2. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Mythic Fantasy
3. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Epic Fantasy
4. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Magical Realism
5. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Grimdark Fantasy
6. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Sword & Sorcery
“In the grim darkness of the future there is only war” is the tagline of the Warhammer 40,000 role-playing game from which grimdark as a fantasy genre descriptor was sculpted. A sub-genre mainly tied to popular fiction, it has not been deeply or seriously explored in academic circles. However, it does bear resemblance to other forms of speculative fiction, namely horror and the Gothic. After establishing the parallels between grimdark and its adjacent (sub-)genres, a discussion will follow on what makes grimdark important for the contemporary development of fantasy.
Grimdark as a genre of fantasy fiction is based in a secondary world governed by violence, amorality, and a gritty sense of realism. Here every character, from the hero to the villain, is flawed in some way (or in many ways). Rarely, if ever, are the characters within a grimdark setting characterized as fully good or fully evil. Moral greyness is the base from which every important character of such a setting stems; in other words, one would struggle to find heroes as pure as Gandalf or Frodo. Moreover, the entirety of Tolkien’s world building and story presentation is directly opposed to that of grimdark authors such as George R. R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire. Here Tolkien is taken as an example because of his irrefutable impact on the development of fantasy as a whole, since considerable time passed before fantasy as a genre evolved past often lackluster imitations of Tolkien’s style and writing ideology.
As was stated previously, grimdark has not received academic attention as of yet. The closest definition comes in the form of those describing dark fantasy as “horror stories set wholly or partly in secondary worlds” (Stableford, 2009, p. 97). Here, description evokes the imagery and stylings of another entirely separate genre that can (but does not always) include fantastical elements.
Even in the 80s, as evidenced by Noël Carroll (1987), one of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy of art, “horror novels [seemed] to be available in virtually every supermarket and pharmacy, and new titles [appeared] with unnerving rapidity” (p. 51). The pervasiveness of horror as a genre has hardly lessened even today: one only needs to consider the success of the Netflix series Stranger Things or perhaps consider the seemingly unending popularity of works by Stephen King, both in their original written form as well as in later adaptations. All this is to state that horror as a genre has not certainly lost its draw and appeal: grimdark borrows some of this allure by incorporating certain atmospheric and visual trappings of horror. However, horror as a genre is derived from another.
With its roots in the English gothic novel of the eighteenth century and a body of work that spreads across different media, the horror genre has persisted in art for more than a century, gaining gradual popularity among audiences. (Bantinaki, 2012, p. 382).
The next logical step is, therefore, to understand the cornerstones of the Gothic. Mark M. Hennelly (2001), Professor Emeritus of English at Sacramento State, ascertains that the Gothic possesses “twin mystiques of mystery and fear — often commingled is either the mystery of fear or the fear of mystery — whether the mystery generates overlapping scientific (Frankenstein), spectral (Dracula), psychological (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or skeptical (The Turn of the Screw) readings and whether the fear appears as ‘terror’ or ‘horror’” (p. 69).
Of the two combinations of fear and mystery proposed by Hennelly, the first resonates much more strongly in grimdark stories. There exists a mysterious nature of fear as the pervasive emotion that can be felt at every corner. The way George R. R. Martin constructs Westeros serves as a good example. There, people of all ranks fear something, whether it be an encroaching fantastical enemy from the north or a strong political opponent from the west. Especially strong is the “individual against the unknown” (Rodabaugh, 1996, p. 70) concept: in Gothic fiction, the unknown is a place of mystery or an enemy in the shadows – an idea that is, more or less, preserved and further explored in grimdark fantasy. Another important aspect of the grimdark setting and style is the violent and unforgiving nature of the world. This is perhaps the single aspect most commonly linked to realism, yet even here grimdark goes a step further — corruption is at every corner, every individual of power has some ulterior motives, blood and guts can be spilled on every page of the story.
Despite being a derivation and a merger of the two aforementioned genres, grimdark is an extremely important facet of the contemporary development of fantasy. One of the reasons is the implied seriousness of the narrative. Although still fantastical, an underlying gravity, which is appealing even to an audience that would otherwise vehemently reject anything fantastical, still exists.
These stories are also appealing because of the common subversion of tropes. Perhaps the greatest example of this again comes from Martin’s Westeros where he aptly manages to subvert the expectations of the reader. When Lord Eddard Stark is first introduced, this honorable and just man, the sense is created that he is the protagonist and that he cannot die until the story is resolved. Yet, everyone familiar with Martin’s work knows how cruel of a fate befell the supposed protagonist.
It is also worth mentioning that grimdark is a relatively new sub-genre and as such has not yet been fully explored. There exist avenues of development that could change certain aspects of it, but it is doubtless that moral greyness, trope subversion, and gritty realism will remain its pivotal elements.
Grimdark stands in opposition to the Tolkienesque fantasy setting that has been overflowing the market ever since Tolkien’s trilogy achieved great success. Yet, it is also a continuation of that great tradition that, with its stylistic and tonal changes, manages to bring a breath of fresh air to fantasy as a whole. With its grittiness and a profound sense of realism, it brings an entirely new audience to fantasy literature: one can only hope that further developments in the genre will achieve similar success.
Bantinaki, K. (2012). The paradox of horror: Fear as a positive emotion. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 70(4), 383–392. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43496533
Carroll, N. (1987). The nature of horror. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46(1), 51–59. https://doi.org/10.2307/431308
Hennelly, M. M. (2001). Framing the Gothic: From pillar to post-structuralism. College Literature, 28(3), 68–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25112603
Rodabaugh, W. L. (1996). Teaching Gothic literature in the junior high classroom. The English Journal, 85(3), 68–73. https://doi.org/10.2307/820110
Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press.
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