Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Some ruminations on sword-and-sorcery’s slide into Grimdark

Sword-and-sorcery continues to show stirrings, and life. Outlets like Tales from the Magician’s Skull, DMR Books, new projects like Whetstone, New Edge, etc., are publishing new authors and new stories that embrace its old forms and conventions. Obviously the genre ain’t what it used to be circa 1970, but who knows what the future may hold for us aging diehards.

I speculate on some of the reasons why S&S died off in Flame and Crimson (which, by the way, just surpassed 100 ratings on Amazon—thank you to everyone who took the time to rate or review the book, as these help with visibility in some arcane, Amazon protected manner). I won’t rehash them all here, they are available in the book.

What I haven’t written as much about is why Grimdark filled the void, what makes that genre popular with modern readers, and what we might have to learn from this transition.

First, I am of the opinion that Grimdark is the spiritual successor to S&S. One of them, at least. I agree with the main thrust of this article by John Fultz. S&S has many spiritual successors, from heavy metal bands to video games to Dungeons and Dragons. But in terms of literature, the works of Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and George R.R. Martin, bear some of the hallmarks of S&S, while also being something markedly different. 

I believe this occurred as part of a natural evolution within S&S, with some things gained, others lost. As occurs during the general course of all progress.

First, I think this shift mirrored a broader cultural change. If we accept that Grimdark is marked by graphic depictions of violence, as well as a bleak/everyone is shit/might is right outlook (grossly simplified), then we can see what was acceptable in the 1950s-early 70s was different than what we saw in the popular culture in the 1990s and into today. Heavy metal was born in 1970 with the gloom and doom of Black Sabbath, before Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, then Metallica and Megadeth and Slayer, took the form to 11, giving the hard rock of the late 60s/early 70s a much harder, darker, aggressive edge. Popular westerns went from the tough but heroic John Wayne to the spaghettis of Clint Eastwood, reaching a culmination in Unforgiven that essentially deconstructed the genre and cast the “hero” in a very different light. War films gave us Platoon instead of The Longest Day. Frank depictions of sexuality also became acceptable. Essentially “the culture” decided this shift, artists and directors and musicians needed to break norms and explore new territories to keep their visions fresh and original. It’s a natural process, the way art always evolves. But things are lost, old forms abandoned along the way. S&S was a casualty.

I also think the ascendance of Grimdark mirrored a change in publishing trends. Grimdark borrowed from high/epic fantasy in form and length, and with its emphasis on world-building. This aspect is less appealing to me, for the most part (I love Tolkien, but I think very few if any authors have done the world-building aspect of Tolkien as well). But it seems many fantasy readers love getting lost in worlds and so gravitate toward multi-volume series. I won’t argue with that impulse, though I think a really good writer can accomplish that with few words and deft sketches of detail. Trilogies and stretched-out stories offer a far more reliable and lucrative business model for publishers and authors. But less cynically they also allow for greater character development, a thought which struck me during a recent read of Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself (Glokta and Logen Ninefingers and Jezal all feel very real, and three-dimensional, as we consistently read/hear what they are thinking). Again, some like this aspect of fiction, some don’t. S&S can do this, and has, albeit across multiple stories (see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), but it’s not a typical hallmark of the subgenre. But readers seem to want that, hence our fascination with origin stories, identification with characters "like us" rather than larger-than-life or abstract heroes, etc.

The general cultural trend of amplified violence and post-Vietnam war-weariness led to grittier literary material like David Gemmell’s Legend and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Before Martin gave it full life with A Game of Thrones and his multivolume A Song of Ice and Fire, and Joe Abercrombie picked up the torch with The First Law trilogy. And we have what we have today in Grimdark, a sort of mash-up of S&S and epic fantasy and other influences.

Grimdark’s ascendance doesn’t mean we can’t have S&S too, with its greater emphasis on the short form, wonder and weirdness, and less emphasis on world building and cast of characters stories. But whether it will become commercially viable again remains to be seen. Baen is about to give it a shot with its signing of Howard Andrew Jones, and Titan Books set to publish a new Conan novel. 


Matthew said...

I've read much more S&S than Grimdark so take my opinion for what its worth, but while S&S is a cynical genre for the most part it was in a sardonic not relentlessly nihilistic way. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories were sardonic stories about rogues even the Conan stories were sardonic to an extent. The line about civilized men being less polite than barbarians because the former does not have to worry about having the head caved in has a certain dark humor to it. From what I gather a lot of grimdark is just relentlessly nihilistic.

TheDreadedGug said...

I am in the middle of a Fafhrd and the Mouse re-read (as I am reconnecting to D&D's Appendix N canon). It has been decades since I've read these books, and I don't think I appreciated how good of a writer Leiber was, how weird these books are (in the 'weird tales' sense of the word), and how frigging funny they are. The violence in these stories is present, but not graphic, which--to me--is a big difference between classic S&S and Grimdark: Grimdark can be incredibly bloody. Like, splatterpunk bloody. I'm not sure that adds much to the work most times.

Brian Murphy said...

Matthew: Good point on sardonic vs. cynical. Would tend to agree. And even when cynical--Howard's ethos was of entropy, slide into barbarism, cyclical rise and fall of civilizations, etc--the heroes of S&S typically can make a difference, or at least live to fight another day.

Michael touches on something similar with his comment about humor. Agreed there too. I actually do think Abercrombie does this well, as opposed to Martin and Richard Morgan (The Steel Remains), which are about as funny as Schindler's List.

Agreed with Leiber in general. At his best, I don't think S&S has had a better prose stylist.

Andy said...

I don't think I've ever read something that would be officially classified as grimdark, but the impression I get of it reminds me of a theory I read a while back about how art is sliding in this direction because of how insulated modern (first-world) society is, so the less we see or have experience with something, the more likely artists will get hung up on imagining it and probably overcompensating a bit for their ignorance. E.g., we see more gore in our stories because a lot of people don't have any real experience with hunting or butchery thanks to our supermarkets. I've noticed many modern fantasy writers seem oddly fixated on how everything smells like excrement - have they never been on a farm before...? I don't know.

Matthew said...

Brian, as you said Howard definitely had dark themes, but there were also themes of courage in his works. Conan wasn't the type to give up. I'm more interested courage in desperate times then extreme nihilism.

Andy, that's an interesting theory. It may be true.

Brian Murphy said...

Andy: Could be. The way (some) Grimdark reads, it's as though no one ever heard of how medieval battles were usually decided. When they did fight, which was not frequent, it was decided through morale breaking. Not everyone slaughtered to the last man.

Alex Beecher said...

I once read that the difference between hard boiled and noir fiction lies primarily in character agency: in the former, the protagonist has the ability to act independently on the outside world; in the latter, it’s the world that acts on and controls/constrains what the protagonist does.

I think a similar heuristic might be useful here. In “true” grimdark, characters can’t really define themselves via their actions, whereas sword and sorcery features protagonists who do so.

Brian Murphy said...

Great observation, @Alex Beecher. Would say that is largely true; not in all cases, but enough to be a useful heuristic. I think of a character like Ned Stark, for example. Principled heroism of any sort is a death sentence in that universe.