A few more thoughts on grimdark

So I was rereading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories[1]–because, you know, that’s my job right now–and found he had some very clear thoughts on the subject of grimdark, even though it wasn’t “a thing” during his lifetime.

In paragraph 82 he notes that the richness of our artistic heritage offers a unique danger: that of boredom or an anxiety to be original. This is a danger because it can lead us to despise what has become trite and familiar in favour of the startling and titillating. He writes:

“But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery.”

And that is where grimdark has strayed from the foundation Tolkien laid for fantasy. It has pursued the dark and unremittingly violent in an attempt at authenticity; it has abandoned hope rather than seeking to recover what we’ve lost along the way. And the end result of grimdark is clear: darkness, pain, and despair await. But for Tolkien, the end is Joy, “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (99).

You see, Tolkien does not ignore the pain and loss and grief that run rampant in this world or in the secondary world he imagined, he just denies the universal, final defeat that nihilism foresees. Why? Because he knew that defeat doesn’t have to be the end of the story. As a Christian, he knew what kind of story he was living in. He knew that, despite the horrors of two world wars that supplied much evidence for the inevitable defeat of hope and peace, the Christian story begins and ends with Joy. New life brackets the story. Birth and resurrection provide the frame. There might be horrible pain filling the story’s middle, but the Joy at story’s end is everlasting. As St. Paul wrote: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” And that man knew affliction in his bones.

So hold fast to your hope, even when the darkness seems impenetrable. Day will dawn, and Joy will follow in its wake.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

Why There’s No Such Thing as Christian Grimdark

First, a special thanks to Josh Castleman for pointing me to the interview with Steven Erikson I’ll be thinking through in this post. Before you click on that link, know there’s some colorful language sprinkled throughout. Just so you know…

So in the linked interview, Steven Erikson, author of The Malazan Book of the Fallen and other novels, defines the current trend in fantasy literature which many have called Grimdark. Erikson’s take on Grimdark differs from many others in that he doesn’t focus on the “grittiness” of the stories or the often rampant violence they contain. No. Erikson looks deeper, saying: “As a writer I can’t help but look at another author’s work of fiction from a perspective of what, how and why. What is being said, how is it being said, and finally, why is it being said.”

It’s the why that stands out to me and to Erikson, and it is the why that answers the question in this post’s title. So why is Grimdark gritty, visceral, and hopeless? Because it’s taking its cues from the ethosphere–Erikson’s term for the ethos of the culture surrounding you–of both authors and readers, and sadly enough that ethosphere is a Nihilistic one. Many experience this world as a hopeless one, devoid of compassion, justice, mercy, and love where there is no chance for redemption or reconciliation. In short, they recognize that this world is broken, but they don’t see any hope for its healing.

And that is why there cannot be, by definition, Christian Grimdark. If we write from within, and we leave something of our souls on the page when we do, as Christians we cannot leave our stories as hopeless ones because we do not believe that is the way this world will end. If we are, as Erikson says, “driving towards authenticity” our stories must contain something of that hope we carry. That’s not to say that every story must end hopefully, or with all the pieces put back together, but there must be room for it. We must as readers be able to see how redemption is possible, even if it’s only hinted at beyond the story’s end. Because this world is broken and many days and weeks end in the darkness and brokenness of despair, but that’s not where the story ends. This world will be redeemed and made whole once more.

So go ahead and tell the dark and gritty story you have to tell, let it pour out into the secondary world you’ve invented, but if you want to be authentic in your writing, make sure there’s room in all the grit for faith, hope, and love–in short, for redemption. Because that is the foundational reality the primary world is built upon.