Today’s post is based on a question from Dirk Reul:
What is it that people find fascinating about gritty fantasy compared to the classic story types like The Hero’s Journey?
As I noted when the question was asked, I can only talk about this topic from my personal perspective. Sadly, the radiation from Japan’s nuclear power plan problems has yet to give me the ability to read the minds of everyone on the planet. I’m as upset about it as you (admit it, you wanted to get super powers too).
First, to definitions, just so we’re clear what we mean (or I mean) by “gritty fantasy.” George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is gritty fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and successor works are the classic “hero’s journey” stories. The difference between the two isn’t so much the lack of a quest, but rather a rejection on the part of gritty fantasy of romantic notions
about medieval societies. In classic fantasy, death is glory; in gritty fantasy, death is horrible, costly, and deeply personal for the characters. There may be overlap, but I think the absolutism is essential. For the purposes of this post, I will focus specifically on A Song of Ice and Fire (books one and two, which I will refer to as GRRM to save space and my fingers). Expect a few spoilers.
As much as I enjoy glorious tales of heroic quests, the gritty realism of GRRM and related works does something else for me: it gives me a sense of insecurity. I know the hero will survive in classic fantasy tales. But I don’t know that is true in something like GRRM, because characters are routinely killed or abused by other characters. Take, for example, Eddard Stark. He is set up as our main hero in A Game of Thrones. We come to love him, flaws and all, and to care deeply for his cause and for his family. But he dies at the end of the book, betrayed by the very people he hoped would help him save the kingdom. It doesn’t get any better for the Starks after that. Sansa is kept hostage by the sadistic King Joffrey; Winterfell and the Starks are betrayed by Theon Greyjoy, their ward, and the city burned to the ground; Arya is forced to skulk through an increasingly dangerous terrain, at first pretending to be a boy; and Catelyn, Eddard’s wife, must watch as her son, Robb, makes war, worried that her two daughters will be killed by the Lannisters (Joffrey at the head), and that her son(s) will die. There is nothing safe about this situation; for me, it produces a sense of compelling dread, because anyone could get hurt at any moment.
Likewise, gritty fantasy gives me the violence that is almost always absent from classic fantasy. As much as I love The Lord of the Rings, it is a narrative that, in my mind, finds a kind of honor and glory in war. When I read Tolkien-derivative works, I expect this dynamic, and even enjoy it. Romanticizing war creates an emotional connection to the moment that is two parts hope, one part fear. One of the scenes that makes me cry in the film adaptation of LOTR is the moment when the Riders of Rohan appear on the hilltop looking over the fields of Pelennor, ready to ride into certain death. I love this scene because it is so human. It’s about sacrifice for honor, something I think we’ve lost in this world because we don’t seem to understand what it is that soldiers do — our honoring of soldiers is somewhat empty.
But gritty fantasy tends to avoid these glorifications. War is terror. It is blood and mud and guts and death. It is a sea of despair. People die, and they don’t die well, because there is no good death in battle. And death outside of war is equally without glory. Disease. Starvation. Murder. All of it working in conjunction to make a medieval world that feels lived in, rather than ideologically constructed (utopian). GRRM does this remarkably well, taking the piss out of those moments when we expect honor and glory to drive men and women to victory. Instead, they tend to fall, often to dishonorable men. Wars are sacrifice, but whatever glory can be found there is bittersweet. Take the first battles at the end of A Game of Thrones. In one such battle, a small contingent of soldiers is sent to meet Tywin Lannister’s host, but only to distract him while the greater force heads out to take the armies of Tywin’s son, Jaime, and free Riverrun. A lot of people die. But there is no moment of glory for them. There are no beautiful horns chiming in harmony. Whatever stories are told are glorifications, but the narrative itself never gives us that glory (in fact, the battle is show from Tyrion Lannister’s perspective, a mangled dwarf who has never served in battle, let alone been trained for it).
Those are two reasons I enjoy gritty fantasy. What do you think? Do you agree? Or are there other things that draw you to gritty fantasy?