‘Bleak’, ‘savage’, ‘nihilistic’, are words that tend to get flung around when discussing grimdark. It’s kind of in the name, really. A grimdark book ended ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ would quite possibly be in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act. I don’t think it will come as a huge spoiler to say that the Empires of Dust series doesn’t end with a group hug and the words ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. Grimdark worlds are generally bleak, savage, violent, filled with cruelty and pain and hate. ‘Life’s but a tale told by an idiot, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
But I never really think of it as ‘nihilism’. ‘Statement of the bleedin’ obvious’, more like it.
The great bleak brutal masterpieces of war literature, from The Trojan Women to War and Peace to Das Boot, are bleak because they are opposed to war. Their purpose, if I can I be so reductive, is to point out how terrible war is in the hope that someone might, you know, think a bit about that. ‘War is bad’ is hardly a radical statement – outside of heroic fantasy, when war is so often shown as morally necessary and good and without real consequence. If grimdark fantasy is particularly violent fantasy, getting down and dirty and bloodsoaked and vicious, it’s possible there’s a reason for that. Killing the evil dude might be morally necessary, even in grimdark – but it still doesn’t mean it’s anything other than awful and likely to damage everyone involved, and grimdark goes out of its way to show that.
Grim and dark is what life is. What life means. That passage in Bede when he compares a human life to a bird flying in the dark empty night, and it flies into a great feasting hall filled with noise and warmth and laughter, and then out into the empty dark again and it’s gone. People do terrible things to each other, people’s lives are blighted and broken, there is no hope for them. Children’s lives are blighted before they are even godsdamned born. Those who inflict these things triumph. Those who suffer them suffer on and on. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, most people are basically horrid …. wait, what? Seriously? Who knew? The only think that shocks me when some terrible scandal breaks is that everyone seems so surprised to learn all isn’t for the best in not the best of all possible worlds.
As my mum once said: I’d like to believe in divine purpose, a benevolent god, an afterlife, yes.
A fantasy in which good endures and triumphs, the good guys are simply good is just that … a fantasy. We need morality, we need to scream out to universe that some things are an abomination against any basic notion of human decency, of course we do. But, as I’ve said before and I’m sure I’ll say again, believing in heroes is too easy. Dividing the world into good and evil and agreeing that we are on the side of good is both too easy and far, far too dangerous. A lot of very bad people have deeply and genuinely believed themselves to be on the side of the angels. It’s frighteningly easy to side into the age-old excuse that the end justify the means. And sometimes, sometimes, the terrible truth is that we’re too busy to condemn when ultimately perhaps the end did justify the horrifying means. The image of the hero striding into battle knowing that’s he’s justified in what he does, fighting for the light against the darkness, those he kills are simply evil, his sacrifices are worth the cost … it’s inspirational, yes, wonderfully so, rightly so. But read uncritically, it’s also profoundly dangerous. The truth is dirty and terrible, good people are arseholes, bad people do great noble thing. Sometimes an innocent child has to suffer and die for the greater good of the many. Sometimes there’s nothing anyone anywhere can do. In the end, deep down, we’re all walking on other’s suffering.
The world’s really not fair, no.
But understanding how brief life is, how easily all that one loves can be crushed out: with that understanding comes the desperate need to hold those things close. One fragile moment of happiness, of beauty … hold it tight to your heart and treasure it, for too soon it will be gone, all things die, all things fade, darkness comes and the light is so weak. The old lie, ‘Death or glory! Death! Death! Death!’ No: remember how fragile life is and how pointless, and cling on to life.
That thin pathetic line between rage and despair: that’s hope.
The voice screaming into the abyss: that’s hope.
Hold those you love close to you. Recognise that the world’s a cruel place.
Grimdark is that awareness. The reality of pain, the knife blade cutting in. And the determination to go on, keep on, fight on. There are no heroes, no certainty, there’s no bright shining prophecy of light. Just messed-up selfish wretched people trying to live their lives as best they can, trying to find something of love and happiness, trying to survive all the pain life brings. One single moment of beauty. One single glimpse of something good. A tiny perfect fragment in a damaged life.
Grimdark nihilism is hope, I think.
Check out The House of Sacrifice for more grimdark nihilism
Haven’t read the first two books? Crikey! Sort that out!