Modern Heroic Fantasy: Vibrant and Diverse or Bankrupt and Nihilistic?
Big Hollywood's Leo Grin ran a post earlier this week entitled "The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists." The "Fallen" referred not to fantasists who have passed on, but a new generation of heroic fantasy writers who have striven for a gritty and, to them, more realistic approach to what could also be called high fantasy, swords & sorcery, or epic fantasy.
The article holds up Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien as paragons of virtue in this regard: moral writers who understood the Campbell Imperative when it comes to the heart of legend and myth. Specifically, Grin came to realize that what he cherished was "the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves." Thus, to him, "This realization eliminates, at a stroke, virtually everything written under the banner of fantasy today."
The novels of Joe Abercrombie are the first to face Grin's wrath: "Think of a Lord of the Ringswhere, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer." (This correspondent must admit that he now wants to read a version of LotR where all of this happens.)
Why has fantasy devolved, in Grin's eyes? "It’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten."
As might be imagined there were several responses to Grin, most prominently from Abercrombie. Abercrombie notes that Howard and Tolkien are "polar opposites," one considered the godfather of modern high fantasy (Tolkien) and the other of low fantasy (Howard)--indeed, the very gritty fantasy Grin hates.
Abercrombie also disputes the sides being drawn: "We’re on sides, now? No one told me about sides. What are the sides? Of what? And on which side am I? I love Tolkien, after all. I’d like to be on his side. Grew up with The Hobbit. Read Lord of the Rings every year. I’m a great admirer of his. Without Tolkien there’d be no fantasy as we know it, and certainly no First Law. When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realised fantasy world, he pretty much knocked it out of the park. But that means there’s not much point in my writing it again, is there? Forgive me for saying so, but it feels as if folk have been writing Lord of the Rings again for a while now, and I think we could probably, you know, stop."
The author also refutes Grin's claims about western society: "Surely the hallmark of western civilization is variety, richness, experimentation. If we all settled for repeating the same-old we’d still be stuck in the dark ages, no? We’d certainly have no Tolkien and Howard, who were bold enough to try to do new things with established forms, cook up new combinations of influences with their own stamp. Isn’t that what it’s all about?"
Since then, others have chimed in, including Adam Whitehead, John C. Wright, Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, Paul Smith, and R. Scott Bakker. (Thus far, though, I have seen little about women writers of heroic fantasy, so expect a feature on that topic next week.)
So, fantasy readers, what do you think? Is modern heroic fantasy vibrant or decadent, jaded or joyful?