Grimdark isn’t so grim
The writing of Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and George RR Martin has all been tremendously popular and successful in recent years. Their writing style, in terms of explicit violence and grey morality, was either a refreshing change or a depressing turn down a dark path, depending upon your point of view. Numerous deaths, sex scenes and torture led those who dislike this darker style of fantasy to call it ‘grimdark’.
I’m not sure that’s necessarily a negative label anymore, given Joe Abercrombie’s taken to Twitter under the name LordGrimdark. But I’m also not sure the label is accurate in itself.
Yes, their writing is undoubtedly grimmer than fantasy has traditionally been. But when we compare it to history it’s actually rather light.
I recently finished By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare by Sean McGlynn. If you’re squeamish now would be a good time to stop reading.
In the first chapter he explains the basic level of violence in ‘peacetime’. Fun games included setting free a pig and then chasing it with clubs to see who could beat it to death. Another was nailing a cat to a tree and then headbutting it to death.
Of course, hurting animals and hurting humans are different things. Brutality in the medieval world, which is where a lot of fantasy morality and technology is derived from, was not merely acceptable to many people, it was actively welcomed. States were generally weak and disorderly, and the best way (some feel) for the King to keep order was with an iron fist. So, people being interrogated would have weights tied to their feet, be suspended from the ceiling then dropped and suddenly halted so that the weights yanked down excruciatingly on their ankles. Or they might have oil applied to their soles, which would then be set alight. Cutting tongues off was common, and there’s even an example of someone having their tongue split.
But perhaps this is all in the past, and fantasy usually has stronger centralised countries than the fragmented nations of the Middle Ages. The book focuses on the period from about 1000 to 1500. It was a long time ago, with different social norms, political structures and attitudes towards violence and cruelty. Today, capital punishment is rare in the first world and torture is forbidden (or meant to be, at least). But then, didn’t one of the men fighting in Syria cut out and eat his enemy’s heart? There have also been widespread reports, in the same conflict, of genital mutilation, rape (including male rape, which tends to get skipped in history/fantasy), and beheading.
In Vietnam American soldiers sometimes had necklaces of ears cut from their enemies. That’s intensely gruesome. And yet, if you had to go into a blazing gunfight perhaps you might prefer to have such a man on your side.
Grimdark fantasy is undoubtedly harsher than the stereotype of fantasy. But it’s still not as horrendous as the reality of yesteryear, or today.
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