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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.)

Joe Abercrombie: hero or villain, devil or saint?

Among others, Michael Swanwick also comes under fire, for his The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which Grin claims "sported a title that lured in many young girls thinking they were getting a standard Young Adult fantasy...Scenes of teenybopper elf sex and coke-snorting pile one atop the other until the book becomes to fantasy literature what the films of Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) are to cinema."

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. WrightPat'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? 


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I realize that I'm posting late, but I find it interesting that most are gravitating toward politics as the reason one person would write one way and another the other.

I, however, feel that this has to be more character driven. Abercrombie, Martin, and others delve greatly into what a particular character would do in a particular situation. Many modern fantasy novels have chapters as told from the perspective of a certain character, so we are constantly getting a view of what's going on from the point of view of good, evil, and in between.

As much as I love JRRT, I can't honestly imagine reading the books from the view of Aragorn, Frodo, Gandalf, and the like. We simply never see the motivations that drive these characters (other than "this is good, so I should do it") and in fact, other than the moral drive, I don't know that the characters are complex enough that we can assume they have other motivation.

"I love Arwen, but I'm really insecure about my family's failures in the past. Even though they happened hundreds of years ago. I wouldn't make a good king. But I have to do the right thing. I'll get Frodo to Mordor, but there's no way I'm going to Gondor. Well, maybe. OK, fine." That doesn't make a ton of sense, and Aragorn would likely end up a whiney ponce we hate, instead of someone we revere, along with all of the rest of them.

What Stephen J. said ... and particularly this: "There's a difference between acknowledging the suffering entailed in heroism, and wallowing so deeply in that suffering that you end up teaching (inadvertently or not) that no heroism is worth it."

I can see this Grin fellow standing up from his lawn chair and shouting at the children that could, potentially, enter upon said lawn.

Joe Abercrombie, Swanwick, etc., must be doing something right if they've managed to generate such a strong reaction from someone who (apparently) doesn't like new things.

Personally, I'm very glad that fantasy fiction has reached a point of maturity as a form that it can hold such strong divergence. It has become a very interesting genre, these last two decades.

I disagree with Stephen J. A genre, whether heroic fantasy or anything else, is not limited to 1 point of view. Quite the opposite - a writer can make a powerful statement by using tropes to build an expectation & then going in a different direction. Mature adults are not afraid of having their beliefs & assumptions challenged from time to time.

Jeff, as for that Mordor story, take a look at "The Last Ringbearer" for an intriguing take on that subject...

Personally, I'm very excited by the diversity in fantasy fiction these days. There's room for all kinds of stories.

Abercrombie says: "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?"

To me, that sounds awfully like saying, "When it comes to a revenge tragedy with a conflicted hero set in a historical past, Shakespeare pretty much knocked it out of the park with HAMLET, so what point is there in anyone writing a story like that again?"

If you don't *want* to emulate your predecessors, that's fine; but don't hide that choice behind claiming the predecessors have done too perfect a work to bother playing variations on. No punk rocker ever justified their choice not to play classical music by claiming "we can't do any better than Beethoven's 5th, so why bother?".

I have to admit that a *lot* of what I'm seeing on the shelves today seems to think that if it ever presents its world, its characters, or its situations as appealing or admirable, it's being somehow dishonest -- as if the nobility of characters like Aragorn and Frodo, or the courage and determination and (in his own way) honour of Conan, are false ideals designed only to lure people into justifying violence and war, or into blind service to manipulative demagogues.

High heroism doesn't mean you have to have wholly happy endings, either. Anybody who thinks that the resolution of LOTR was "easy" -- that we're not meant to feel loss and grief at the price of our freedom, the suffering and death and the diminishment of the world's wonder -- seems to be missing the point of Grin's complaint: There's a difference between acknowledging the suffering entailed in heroism, and wallowing so deeply in that suffering that you end up teaching (inadvertently or not) that no heroism is worth it.

I won't say that fantasy as a genre has become dominated by this yet, but I do think that subverting that particular trope of the genre -- that ideals and moral principles, both good and bad, can manifest as objective and real forces in struggles both personal and epic -- is to some extent to miss the point of the genre in the first place. If you really want to write a story about how flawed and morally ambiguous people survive suffering at terrible prices, never sure if it was worth it, the real world offers more than enough scope for that.

Personally, the contemporary crop of fantasy is likely both. You do have an excellent point that (at least so far) women writers have been left out (especially as writers of the brutal stuff).
And I've been wondering about the usage of nihilism. Is its usage meant to act as a disqualifier- the literature is nihilistic, therefore should not be read? Having read Martin and a few others, I don't see nihilism so much as deconstruction and subversion (if even that).

I find it telling that Grin's screed, which is careful to throw in an absurd jab at college-educated liberals, comes from a website run by Washington Times writer and one-time Drudge Report editor Andrew Breitbart. That he longs for fiction free of moral ambiguity or uneasy resolutions, for the simple and uncomplicated pleasures of Conan slaying evil sorcerers or hobbits foiling Dark Lords easily identified by their big boiling eyes, is no wonder at all.

I think it's not enough to say that modern fantasy is vibrant or decadent, jaded or joyful, without accepting that past fantasy was a mix of the same things, whether you're a fan of Tolkien or Howard, or a devotee of Lovecraft, Poe and Leiber.

Setting aside the arguments of which of these are pure fantasy, gothic, horror or otherwise, they all still existed in the same basic writing microcosm that we have today, and what they wrote inspired as many people as they equally horrified in the ideas and worlds they created.

It wasn't exactly a stagnant pool where good vs. evil was a clear cut path through the brambles. Oil and water I suppose.

Even Kipling had moments where he wrote of characters and events that strayed far from noble origins and shining deeds.

I'd actually love to see what Terry Goodkind thinks of this whole matter, since he's very conservative, and writes a fairly epic fantasy, but his works are full of utter repugnant acts, including a habit of torturing his characters, much like what Leo Grin is railing against.

I guess Joe Abercrombie never got around to answering Leo Grin's fan letter.

If "The First Law" trilogy is "too fat," try Abercrombie's stand-alone "Best Served Cold" -- it's a rush.

Western civilization self-loathing bored liberals deconstruct nihilism !!!

... And get off my lawn!

So, fantasy readers, what do you think? Is modern heroic fantasy vibrant or decadent, jaded or joyful?

Yes. Modern Heroic fantasy ranges from Joe Abercrombie to Elizabeth Moon to Brandon Sanderson.There is plenty of variety to be found. Sure, low fantasy of a sword and sorcery bent seems to be ascendant, but there is plenty of epic fantasy out there.

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