Instructor: Faina Polt
The Need for Hope in Fantasy
The Need for Hope in Fantasy
A grizzled hero stands on a cliff, sword in hand. His face is coated in blood, his own and others'. There is no hope. There is no light. There is only the grim darkness of war.
That… doesn't sound like a very fun book to read. But recently, fiction, especially fantasy, has reveled in that lightless despair. Everything is awful, and nothing can change it, and the reader is just along to watch the world crumble. This growing genre, often called grimdark, is a subgenre of fantasy or speculative fiction with a notably dark, violent, and/or despondent tone. It often revels in the gore and other repulsive things in it. All of this, while unsavory to some, is not the issue with the genre. Grimdark fantasy is problematic because it encourages hopelessness in its readers in an age where we need hope more than ever. We need hope to rise up and fight for ourselves and others—hope that grimdark aims to quash.
Grimdark begins its descent into despair by crafting a world of unscrupulous, uncaring, and downtrodden people. Author Adam Roberts describes the genre as fiction where "nobody is honorable and Might is Right". Essentially, grimdark is promoting a Hobbsian worldview that all people are, at their core, selfish, greedy, and unkind. In a grimdark world, no one does things out of the goodness of their heart—there is no goodness in their hearts, really. Kindness is a lie that people tell to get ahead. Grimdark erodes our trust in each other by creating a world where everyone is mean, morally dubious, and deeply, deeply hopeless.
One of the best examples of this problem is George R R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which was later adapted into the enormously popular Game of Thrones television series. It is a wonderfully rich world with gorgeous prose and real depth to it, but it revels in how awful people can be. In the books, for example, Daenerys is only fourteen when her brother sells her off to be wed to and impregnated by a man twice her age, and Brandon Stark is only seven years old when the Lannisters attempt to murder him. The gore and small deaths that don't affect the plot are rampant. Despair abounds. However, I believe the cases of Samwell Tarly and Sandor Clegane are the clearest examples of grimdark in Game of Thrones.
Samwell, also called Sam, was a chubby and kind boy who routinely failed at swordplay, much to the dismay of his knight father. When Sam was fifteen, his father gave him the choice to go to the far north and join the Night Watch, a brotherhood of black-wearing rangers who protect against the monsters beyond the legendary Wall, or be killed in an "accident" arranged by his father. Keep in mind that fifteen is a child and you begin to realize how horribly deranged this situation is. Instead of being allowed to pursue his life of choice, Sam is forced to go north to a life of cold, bitter isolation. Sandor, on the other hand, is first noted by the Stark children for his horribly warped and scarred face. It is later revealed that his burns are the result of his own brother, Gregor, holding his head in a flaming brazier in a fit of vengeful jealousy. Both of these characters are innocent children when their lives are forever changed by the cruel whims of those more powerful than them. After all, in a grimdark world it's never too early for a character to learn the soul-crushing power of violence.
Damien Walter, writing for The Guardian, described grimdark as "bigger swords, more fighting, bloodier blood, more fighting, axes, more fighting". The emphasis on war, warriors, and gory battles is another way grimdark leads the reader to despair. Any wars fought in grimdark are unjust, of course, but no matter how horrible the war we must revel in the violence of it. We must absorb the glory of the blood and guts and splattered brain matter because it's cool. Violence is cool. It's awesome when someone is decapitated, and metal when someone's brains are dashed across the floor. In short, grimdark glorifies violence in an age where violence is already too rampant.
One can, however, write a dark story without writing a grimdark story—the distinction lies in the central message. The 2017 Netflix series Castlevania (based on the game series of the same name) is a deeply, deeply disturbing show. It follows Trevor Belmont, the last son of the infamous Belmont family of monster hunters, as he works to stop Dracula's plan to murder all of humanity. The violence is gratuitous and one of the most central plot points of season two is whether Alucard, Dracula's half-human son, must kill his own father to save all of humanity. The Church is corrupt, people are eaten whole by demons on screen, and the series bears many of the quirks traditionally associated with grimdark, except for one thing: the central message of Castlevania is one of love. Dracula's genocidal plans are sparked by his love for his wife, who is unjustly burnt as a witch in the opening scenes of the show. Trevor does the thankless work of killing monsters because he feels a need to protect the innocent. Alucard murders his own father because of the love his mother felt for humanity even as they burned her at the stake. It is entirely possible to write a dark story without making it grimdark—it just comes down to if we the viewers are allowed to hope for a happy ending.
For the sake of example, let us compare grimdark to its archnemesis, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. In Tolkien's famous trilogy, the ring is not destroyed in a climactic battle where the grizzled hero uses its power to kill Sauron. It is destroyed because two small, weak hobbits loved and supported each other no matter how ghastly their journey became. It is destroyed because Bilbo Baggins showed mercy to a strange, cowering creature under a mountain. It is destroyed because people (and hobbits) in Tolkien's world are fundamentally good.
There is a fascinating idea that runs through all of Tolkien's work: that nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron, the evil eye in the big scary tower, was once a benevolent angel-like being who wanted nothing more than order and stability for the people of Middle Earth. It is only because of the outside influence of the original Dark Lord of Middle Earth, Morgoth, that he turns to evil. In the world of Tolkien, all people are originally good and deserving of redemption—even Sauron, Morgoth's favorite servant, is given a chance to redeem himself after Morgoth is defeated. It is a remarkable display of kindness that Sauron is given a chance to redeem himself, and though he does eventually fall back into evil, this act reflects the themes of redemption and compassion prevalent in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's famous trilogy encourages its readers to leave the world a better place, no matter how irrevocably wretched it may seem.
The media we are surrounded with, whether or not we consume that specific piece, has a profound impact on our emotions, worldview, and moral compass. For example, Tolkien took the elf, a somewhat obscure bit of fairy lore, and remodeled them for Middle Earth. The earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons took heavy inspiration from Tolkien's depiction of elves. Dungeons and Dragons influenced most of early gaming and fantasy, putting elves even further into the popular consciousness, and now even if you've never read Tolkien or played a fantasy game of any kind you can likely give an apt description of what an elf is and how they behave. Now imagine that same process—the adaptation and slow seeping into popular culture—with the demoralizing message that hope is useless and all people are evil.
We need hope in fiction because fiction influences life and life influences fiction. If our fiction tells us that hope is futile we will believe that hope is futile—a bleak message in a time where we need hope more than anything else to fight the battles that need fighting. While early fantasy writers like Tolkien were not perfect, they provide a blueprint on how to craft a brighter future simply through words in a made-up story. Good fiction makes us feel hope in a dark and hopeless world. Good fiction inspires us to be our own heroes. Good fiction reminds us that even if we aren't superpowered, we can change the world for the better.