I’ve never been much one for violent media. Movies, TV shows, books — I tend to avoid the bloody stuff. Which is not to say that I can’t handle gore, or that I’m squeamish about the sight of blood — I can handle violence, I just don’t like it. When given the choice of reading material, if I am told a book is extremely violent, I will likely avoid it. Therefore, if you know much about the fantasy genre known as “Grimdark,” it probably comes as no surprise to learn that I am not a huge fan.
Grimdark is a sub-genre of fantasy that is characterized by extreme violence, an amoral or nihilistic worldview, and a general tone of hopelessness. Grimdark is full of antiheroes rather than heroes, characters who are ultimately, if not evil, then at least self-serving. Grimdark does not moralize, in fact, perhaps one of the biggest distinguishing features of Grimdark is its postmodern relativistic view of the world — there is no good, there is no evil, there is only the harsh and stark reality of people trying their best to survive.
It is perhaps not difficult to imagine Grimdark’s appeal. Fans of the genre often site their preference for “realism” versus overt escapism of traditional epic fantasy. Whereas traditional fantasy tells the story of the young hero, called away on a quest, often to defeat a great evil. The hero is usually victorious, and evil is defeated. Of course, it is true, in the real world evil is not defeated quite so handily, and it is true too, that the real world is often brutal. However, if traditional epic fantasy only shows one side of humanity, the heroic, optimistic side, then Grimdark swings far in the other direction. Real life, true realism, is more balanced than either.
Grimdark justifies its violence and amorality with a view that humans nature is selfish, that the quest for individual power is all that really matters. War and death are presented as the inevitable outcome of human conflict, but the sheer scale and scope of death, the graphic descriptions, at some point, no longer horrify the reader. One recent Grimdark novel (I will not name names, my intent here is not to bash specific authors or books) lovingly described war atrocities, in detail, for a full six pages. The characters in this novel believe these deaths to be “the only way,” but in the grand scheme of things, the deaths change nothing. The war continues, atrocities pile up. For characters in Grimdark, death is justified, but it isn’t meaningful.
It might surprise readers to learn that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a book of stories about the Vietnam war, and as such, it is not without violence. In fact, The Things They Carried is at times downright gory — it describes a man stepping on a landmine, it describes desecration of enemy corpses, it describes a soldier brutally killing a baby water buffalo. However, despite all of this there is an undercurrent of hope that runs through the novel. The soldier who kills the baby water buffalo does so out of sheer despair over losing a friend in the war. Death changes these characters fundamentally, because these characters want more than individual power and glory. Although they may do horrible things, awful things, they are not irredeemable as human beings. Death in The Things They Carried is never justified, but it is meaningful.
Ultimately, Grimdark is an essential expression of the kind of moral relativism that has taken up much space in our modern consciousness. It tells us that there is no absolute good, and that therefore everything, even extreme violence, has its place in an amoral world. In a world where humans are ultimately self-interested, empathy, compassion and self-reflection have no place. Violence is a means to and end, and while it is sometimes regrettable, it is rarely preventable. Violence is the inevitable and “rational” result of human actions. In fact, there is perhaps a large Venn diagram overlap between the fans of Grimdark and the internet types who harp on about logic and reason. If violence is the logical result, then it becomes, once more, realistic, and none can argue that it is gratuitous.
In fact, when violence is seen as the logical and inevitable result of humanity’s selfish nature, then there is no reason to decry it. For those who relish violent scenes of death and destruction, Grimdark offers an excellent excuse. Go ahead, Grimdark says, and enjoy the awesome battles and gory beheadings, because what other alternative is there? The world is a horrible place, so here, have your bread and circuses, but don’t imagine for a second that there is any chance for change.
I refuse to believe that the world is an inherently selfish place. Now, more than ever, I need to believe that there is an inherent drive in humanity towards cooperation, a desire to help one another, rather than hurt. I cannot relish in violence, in death. The author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, is a Vietnam war veteran himself, and his book is full of empathy for all of those people touched by the horrors of war. Those who have experienced war themselves know that hopelessness is no way to get through dark times, and these are dark times indeed. Embracing the grim darkness that represents the worst that humanity has to offer is something I cannot bring myself to do, not when the world is so desperately in need of the light.