Grimdark is a relatively new subgenre in the world of fantasy and science fiction, having emerged as the grittier, morally ambiguous side of fantasy in the 1970s and ‘80s with the likes of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series, Glen Cook’s Black Company, and the Warhammer 40K role-playing games and related literature. It is a creature that has many close relatives, arguably twins, in dark fantasy, low fantasy, and sword and sorcery. However, grimdark is a special breed. It is fantasy which places the hero in the meatgrinder of a world where good and decency are but words or at the very least rarer than unicorns, and then asks, “So now what, hero?”
But who is the grimdark hero?
Does such a creature exist?
As an author with a taste for the genre, I was required to ask myself a simple question: if I’m not going to write about a world where being the good guy works out, then what is the motive for the protagonist? What do our heroes fight for if, taking a look around themselves, they can’t noticeably measure any improvement in the world? Is it just a matter of making their opponents worse off than themselves? Turning those questions over in my mind, I came to the conclusion that answering them would make a pretty good novel in itself.
Nevertheless, I will share some of my thoughts here in this article.
To understand the grimdark genre we have to go back before it was really codified into the building blocks upon which it is constructed. Heroes have always been a collection of saints and sinners if we’ll be perfectly honest.
Gilgamesh, literature’s earliest known hero, was a complete bastard with sex addiction and aging issues. Hercules’ entire history consists of murdering people, then feeling really bad about it, so he murders some more offensive people. King Arthur, depending on the myth, one-upped Herod the infant-slayer and intended to burn his wife at the stake instead of sending her away. Indeed, it’s not until fairly recently people decided that heroes need to do more than awesome things to earn that title; they had to be role models as well—and we all know that just left a vacancy for other kinds of protagonists.
However, speeding things along to the 20th century, grimdark heroes begin to evolve from the protagonists of sword and sorcery: Conan, Elric, and a certain duo operating in Lankhmar. They don’t have much in common. Elric is a civilized sorcerer-nobleman from a decadent, dying civilization, prone to melancholy and physically frail save when using magic or his Chaos-God Sword. Conan is a physically powerful barbarian from a more vibrant, less civilized time who often ends up fighting wizards while wielding no magic himself (save in one instance during The Tower of the Elephant). Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a barbarian and thief pairing who practice magic while enjoying the fruits of civilization in-between wilderness jaunts. However, all four share a common trait of being (mostly) good men making the most of a cruddy situation. Indeed, what all of the precursors to 21st century’s grimdark heroes have in common is none of them are actually heroes. They just sort of stumbled into the role, carrying all their faults and flaws.
The first characteristic of a grimdark hero is, by and large, they aren’t fighting to improve the world. There are exceptions to this, of course, but mostly this truism holds fast: the grimdark protagonist is a product of their environment. Conan the Barbarian kills, plunders, and indulges because that’s what barbarians do. Elric is from a society where good is an alien concept, and his chief source of woe is his realization that that’s really messed up. There are idealistic figures in the world of grimdark, but invariably, they are bigger bads than the bandits because the axiomatic nature of grimdark is things don’t get better.
They just get slightly less bad.
This hopelessness in the balance of good versus evil, this yearning to make the world less bad, allows us to accept the grimdark hero, flaws and all. In Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series, Geralt of Rivia gives a fantastic example of this when he relates his first ‘adventure’ to his silent lover Iola:
‘Where was I? My first noble deed. You see, they’d told me again and again in Kaer Morhen not to get involved in such incidents, not to play at being knight errant or uphold the law. Not to show off, but to work for money. And I joined this fight like an idiot, not fifty miles from the mountains. And do you know why? I wanted the girl, sobbing with gratitude, to kiss her savior on the hands, and her father to thank me on his knees. In reality her father fled with his attackers, and the girl, drenched in the bald man’s blood, threw up, became hysterical and fainted in fear when I approached her. Since then, I’ve only very rarely interfered in such matters.’
It is an impressive summary of just how the grimdark world differs from that of more mainstream fiction, emphasising that things do not always work out for the best and events play out with no regard for the morality of the participants. As the titular character said in the 1982 John Milinus-penned Conan the Barbarian: ‘No one will remember if we were good men or bad, how we fought or how we died. No, all that matters is that few stood against many. That’s what’s important.’ Locke Lamora, protagonist of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, is a con man who possesses no higher aspirations than to continue tricking the absurdly wealthy out of their goods. He’s not even doing it for the money but simply because he enjoys tricking them. We, the audience, sympathize with Locke in his pointless cons and mindless accumulation of wealth because, really, the people he tricks deserve to be tricked (with rare exceptions).
The grimdark hero is the product of their world. They are nasty because the world is nasty, ruthless because the world is ruthless, and cruel because the world is trying to step on their face. If the grimdark hero is, finger wag, evil, then that is because their world is no less so. Rob J. Hayes’ The Price of Faith stars Inquisitor Thanquil Darkheart who is as close to a ‘good guy’ as you might get in most grimdark fiction. He is pious, gentle, nonviolent, and cares for the common people with a loving heart. He’s also forced by his religion and the mandates of his superiors to engage in some truly horrific acts because he believes the alternative is unleashing literal hell on the world of man.
Even so, the best grimdark heroes are also the ones who invite us to sympathize with their perspective and maintain some sort of human hook that we can hold onto while enjoying the ride through their existence. Some lesser authors of the genre fail to keep readers invested in their protagonist because in their desire to shock, they neglect to make the protagonist someone who, actions aside, we want to succeed. This can lead to the TVtropes.org defined concept of ‘Darkness Induced Apathy’, which is easily summarized as, ‘I don’t care who wins; I want them all to die.’
Some of the best grimdark heroes are those who, in other circumstances, would have been shining knights. The aforementioned Geralt is a cold-blooded mercenary and deadpan snarker who rarely has anything but contempt for the people around him. Geralt desperately wishes he could improve the world around him, but he can’t because it’s not that kind of story. Geralt thus contents himself to pissing against the wind by slaying the worst of the malefactors he encounters and trying to survive another day. The grimdark hero at their best is like Geralt, doing good in spite of its pointlessness, or at least having fun.
Much of the grimdark hero’s appeal is that they tend not to have degenerated quite as much as their fellows. Another Rob J. Hayes novel, The Color of Vengeance, stars the Blackthorn. The Blackthorn is a character that the preceding novel, The Ties that Bind, establishes as a murderous cutthroat who kills people with absolutely no regard for their innocence or guilt. He kills them simply because they stand in his way. Yet, The Color of Vengeance makes him an engaging hero through his love of his cohorts and gang and contrasts him against the utterly monstrous Swift who has no loyalty to anyone around him.
To use another example, Locke Lamora’s actions would be reprehensible even from a charming rogue such as himself, if not for the fact he is surrounded by psychopaths who bleed the kingdoms dry. Glen Cook’s infamous Black Company’s members are professional mercenaries in the service of an evil overlord but said evil overlord isn’t any worse, really, than the other dictators around her. It’s just she’s better at conquering and despotism. Z, the ruthless anti-hero of the dark urban fantasy Clandestine Daze novels by Tim Marquitz, murders an innocent man then assumes his life because that’s what is required of him to do his job, a job which is all that stands between humanity and the Ael race.
Grimdark is a relativistic genre and, like good and evil itself, an infinite direction you can walk into. The hero is a villain who is a hero compared to a worse villain who might be better still than another.
So who is the grimdark hero?
The grimdark hero is the protagonist in a story who survives in a world not of their choosing. By hook or by crook, they will always fight to survive. Death may eventually claim them but it will not be for a lack of fighting. They have some quality, some spark of humanity, that rebels against a world of meaningless cruelty and apathy. This may only be because they find themselves in an otherwise miserable hellhole. We see some element of ourselves in the grimdark hero, not as we aspire to be, at least morally, but how we hope we might scratch out an existence in the worst of circumstances.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #5.