The Odd Hopefulness of Grimdark

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

In today’s social-media-saturated world, a lot of what we see are the highlights of people’s lives, and it’s easy to feel inadequate when confronted with the reality of one’s own life in comparison to such apparent happiness. Grimdark fiction, on the other hand, tells us that the world can be an awful pile of shit, but that’s okay, because people can come through the hard times stronger for it. Grimdark isn’t a celebration of the darkness in life, but of humanity’s ability to endure it. Take, for example, a character like Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. He’s former hero who’s been broken by years of horrible torture, to the point where even walking down stairs is a painful, herculean task. Despite this, he’s a hilarious, clever, and extremely powerful man. A person going through similar hardship who read this would be far more reassured about their own life than by reading about, for example, a shining hero for whom violence never has any real consequence. Life can be a struggle and sometimes we fail, sometimes we do the wrong thing, sometimes people die, and sometimes we’re hurt. Reading about characters who experience hurts and self-doubts is therapeutic. Grimdark stories, despite the grimness and darkness, are oddly hopeful. If someone like Glokta can go on to live a full life despite his disabilities, then one’s own excuses for giving up seem less reasonable.

Grimdark fiction also hammers home the point that good things don’t just come to you because you’re entitled to them. Young people just reaching adulthood are often accused of feeling entitled, and expecting a good job, a loving, attractive partner, and material wealth. People expect their lives to be like stories, and since everyone is the main character of their own life, they expect everything to work out okay. They’re special. They’re the chosen one. It’s easy to become depressed, disillusioned and dejected after making the jarring discovery that life isn’t a story, or if it is, it’s more like a grimdark one, where bad things happen to good people for no reason at all and the important things in life are earned by blood and tears. This is perhaps an exaggeration, and life for most people with enough money to be reading e-magazines isn’t going to be as gritty or violent as a grimdark novel, but the point is still valid.

Perhaps we need more of a grimdark flavour in the stories we tell children, to prepare them for the way the world is. After all, the first stories we tell children are often fairy tales, where the prince always gets the princess and slays the dragon just because he’s the prince. Maybe we should tell children fairy tales in which the princess rejects the prince’s advances because she’s just not that into him, and the prince has his arm bitten of by the dragon because he didn’t practice enough with his sword.

Depression is more prevalent than ever in our modern world, and perhaps this is due to people assuming that when their life doesn’t work out, it’s because they’re simply not good enough, that they’re not the hero they thought they were. If more people read grimdark then perhaps they’d know that it’s okay not to be a hero, and that the world just isn’t fair. But grimdark also teaches us that even in such a world, there is still heroism, and there is still fairness. It’s just not a constant, and that’s okay. Grimdark teaches us that when the world screws you over, it’s not because you’re a bad person. For example, in Last Argument of Kings, Collem West, the only competent leader in the Union Army, dies an awful, pointless death after playing a crucial role in saving the Union. In a way, that makes his efforts all the more selfless and admirable than if he’d been rewarded with a position of prestige after the completion of his tasks. This contrasts starkly to, for example, characters in The Lord of the Rings, who return to places of prestige among their communities. West’s fate teaches us that we should make our choices for our own reasons, not for external rewards.

Despite the large amount of violence in grimdark, it’s actually far more anti-violence than heroic fantasy if one thinks about it. Heroic fantasy often shows violence without consequence, for example Garion, the plucky farm boy gifted with a magical destiny in David Eddings’s The Belgariad and The Mallorean can make it through ten books of constant combat without any significant damage. This, while providing quality escapist fun, suggests that violence has no price. Contrast this to, say, Matthew Woodring Stover’s Acts of Caine series, in which (spoilers) the protagonist suffers horrible injuries and pain from his long life of fighting, and even becomes a paraplegic early on in the series. Despite this, he learns to cope with his disability, and accepts it as a consequence of his violence. There are three more books after he becomes a paraplegic, and every detail of his struggle, from getting out of bed, to going to the toilet, to somehow surviving a prison riot and even coming out on top, is vividly conveyed to the reader. Not only is it demonstrated in this series that violence isn’t bright or heroic, but brutal, bloody and not without permanent consequences, but it’s also proven that those consequences are never so great that someone with a strong will can’t overcome them and even flourish. Examples of this are present in the works of Abercrombie, Lawrence, Weeks, and many, many more. To be fair, while stories of this nature are, thankfully, now common in grimdark books, that’s not to say that they’re completely absent from works predating the grimdark movement. A shining example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). I read that book as a child, and remember being deeply affected by the story of Gedd’s inexperienced dabbling with magic. He spends a lifetime dealing with the consequences of one mistake he makes as a child, and reading this as a child myself, it forced me to consider the consequences of my own actions, which, as a child, I rarely did.

A character like Jorg Ancrath, from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, although he is inarguably a deplorable person who should not be idolised, has an inspiring determination and indomitable spirit in the face of brutal adversity, horrible childhood trauma, and personal tragedy. Grimdark is filled with these odd little gems, hidden in the mud. Although Jorg is an extreme example, it can be a huge relief to read about characters that are deeply flawed, since we are all, ourselves, deeply flawed. It’s just part of being human. By finding the good hidden in ‘evil’ characters like Jorg, it’s easier to extend compassion to ourselves and think about the fact that yes, we do have flaws, but that’s alright, because we have good qualities as well. Reading about ‘good’ characters in fantasy and sci-fi novels can make one feel inadequate. Unlike those characters, we don’t always choose the right thing, or live up to our duty, or come out on top. It’s a relief that grimdark characters can fuck up in such a spectacular fashion.

When we’re sad, it’s just nice to be sad and not be alone. When reading grimdark, the characters are sad with you, and a lot of the time, they’re going through the same things you are in your life: loss, pain, grief, rejection, feelings of inadequacy. These things are ever-present in grimdark fiction, and it’s comforting to see its characters endure, whether they emerge victorious or not. For example, reading about the plight of the world-weary Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his seemingly doomed Bridgeburners in Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon as they’re batted between an Empress who wants them dead and warring gods makes one feel better about their dick of a boss. Beyond that, the author who wrote those characters probably endured some aspect of that same pain themselves, or else they wouldn’t be able to write about it. Despite the fact that the characters aren’t real, it’s still a real person’s pain that you’re feeling, and hey, they got through it and wrote a book. There’s a cathartic satisfaction in reading these books.

Darkness in fiction is important. An exploration of the worst aspects of life is important, since to ignore those aspects is to be unprepared to face them. A character like Vaelin Al Sorna from Blood Song only succeeds because of his preparedness to face the worst aspects of life head-on. Life’s bad sometimes, but if grimdark teaches us anything, it’s that we can be badder. In the words of Jorg Ancrath in King of Thorns. ‘A dark time comes. My time. If it offends you. Stop me.’ There’s an odd hopefulness in grimdark fiction, a light all the more radiant for being surrounded by darkness.

Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #11.

Grimdark Magazine #11

Grimdark Magazine #11 is available for purchase from our catalogue.

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Matthew Cropley

Matthew lives in a basement in Adelaide, Australia, coming out only very rarely for food to sustain him through long nights reading. He makes films, acts, and dabbles in game development, but his real love has always been writing. Prince of Thorns introduced him to grimdark several years ago and he hasn't looked back since.