Grimdark and Noblebright

Ever since George R. R. Martin exploded into public consciousness, there have been legions of imitators, and a whole new sub-genre of fantasy dedicated to grim “realism.” Grimdark fantasy is noted for anti-hero protagonists, good guys losing, and usually lots and lots of violence on the side. Originally, it was a reaction to the sometimes saccharine and repetitive fantasy that came before, where the good guys always won–sometimes literally by virtue of their goodness–and where Tolkien, father of the fantasy genre, set the tone for rather bloodless combat, chivalrous romance, and clear-cut lines of good and evil.

George R. R. Martin cites actual historical events as inspirations for his work, such as the Black Dinner for the Red Wedding, and there’s no doubt that there’s historical precedent for any amount of mayhem. It’s also true that in the real world, the good guys don’t always win, and an unscrupulous enemy can take advantage of their honor to destroy them. It makes Martin’s books unpredictable in a way fantasy has never been. It gives him room to play with characters’ motivations and allow them to shift from good to evil and lots of shades of gray, and also indulge in not just wildly-over-the-top evil, of which there is plenty, but also more low-key sneakery and backstabbing.

There’s a lot to be said for that nuance and complexity, and I used to greatly enjoy picking apart the books with fellow fans to try to guess where it was going, and how it might turn out in the end. But in spite of our awareness that Martin was perfectly willing to kill the good guys, I don’t think I have ever seen a group of fans operate under the assumption that the Lannisters would win, at the end of the day. Almost all fan speculation I’ve seen from the first book until now has always ultimately pointed the same way: how do the Starks get their revenge?

In the real world, it’s entirely possible that they never would. History is littered with example of noble houses who get crushed and never rise again. But who wants to read that story? If GRRM ever does finish his series, who will be satisfied if the Starks never have vengeance? Who will enjoy an ending where the White Walkers take over the world and kill everybody? In the real world, that could happen, but there are very few people who want to go through 20,000 pages to find out the bad guys win, the end.

I think that’s the trap GRRM is finding himself in. In the real world, people do things that make no sense. History takes bizarre turns that no one can explain to this day. Innocent people die and never get justice. But fiction has to make sense. Characters’ motivations are preferably logical, or at least explicable. And at the end of the day, we want to see the good guys get rewarded, and the bad guys get what they deserve. Unless GRRM wants to spend his remaining years listening to the sobs of legions of disappointed fans (admittedly, not that great a change from the current state of affairs as we head toward year seven and the sixth book still nowhere in sight) he is going to have to suck it up and write a happy ending.

But something else came along with the nuance and complexity of GRRM’s fantasy, which appears to greater or lesser degrees in almost all the other “grim, dark” fantasy that followed him. Nihilism. There are some excellent authors whose writing is strong and whose plotting is as complex as anyone could ask for, but I can’t get through them because the underlying message of their stories, whatever else they’re trying to say, is despair, everything dies and there is no justice. There aren’t many people who can stomach that long term.

The proliferation of such fiction has resulted in another sub-genre, noblebright fantasy, where the characters are actually good people who mean well, for the most part. They’re not saccharinely sweet or preachy, they’re not morality tales, but they are about good people overcoming obstacles for a noble end. The best example I’ve read is The Goblin Emperor, where the unwanted, half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elves comes to the throne after his father and all his half-brothers are killed in an airship crash. He comes almost crippled with self-doubt, uneducated in many ways, and having internalized a lot of the elves’ low opinion of goblins, to the point where I occasionally got impatient with him calling himself names. But he succeeds because he’s a fundamentally decent person, and other characters realize that over time and give credit where credit is due. It was wonderful to see all the threads come together in the end, as he became not just an Emperor that cares about his people, but an Emperor who has learned how to effectively wield the power he possesses. He worked hard, built something, and it paid off.

I would say noblebright fantasy is still more “realistic” than a lot of the fantasy that preceded it, but it doesn’t wallow in the darkness and violence the way grimdark fantasy does. In grimdark fantasy, it’s not enough that someone gets hanged; you have to see it in excruciating detail. Indeed, it seems there’s a contest to constantly one-up each other and find new, bloodier, crueler ways to kill people.

In both sub-genres, and really for almost all stories, when you tell a story you’re saying, this is what we’re like. We as human beings, we as people. GRRM made people sit up and take notice because those old good-guys-always-win-because-they’re-good stories rang false. That’s not how we’re like, that’s not how the world is. But we’re also not all cruel, manipulative, power-hungry, bloodthirsty killers with no conscience. We have empathy. Many of us honestly mean well. And even though obviously the worlds grimdark authors create aren’t our world, after a certain level of brutality and despair, a lot of readers are going to decide they don’t want to visit that world. Even if that is how the world is, I don’t want to be part of it.

I’m not arguing for or against either genre, but I find it fascinating how genres and tropes emerge in reaction to each other. I do hope we are hitting peak brutality, despair, and nihilism in entertainment. I hope in movies and TV we’ll start seeing a move not to the tooth-rotting sweetness of TV’s early years, but at least to stories that appeal to our better natures. I read another blog that pointed out that we used to tell ourselves about a better future where technology would be amazing and there would be peace on earth. Now almost every story we tell ourselves about the future is dystopian, poor, miserable, and cruel.

The stories we tell ourselves matter. They need to resemble the world as we know it enough to believe in them, but when we acknowledge the dark, we need to remember the light.

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