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The Decline and Fall of Bankrupt Nihilism

Sunday, February 20th, 2011 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Return of the KingThis post is the latest installment of an ongoing discussion in the fantasy blogosphere, which I think has raised some interesting questions about fantasy and the fantastic tradition.

It began when Leo Grin put up a post at Big Hollywood arguing that modern fantasy writers, specifically Joe Abercrombie, were inferior to J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other past writers; the inferiority, argued Grin, was a function of modern writers’ desire to tear down heroic ideals of the past. Abercrombie wrote a post responding to Grin; so did a number of other people, including John C. Wright (pro-Grin), R. Scott Bakker (mostly anti), and Jeff VanderMeer (fairly neutral and descriptive). Adam Whitehead, Phil Athans, and Paul Charles Smith, among others, also had comments. Around these parts, John O’Neill put up a post on the Black Gate blog which spawned an interesting discussion. Earlier today, another blogger here, Theo, put up a post restating Grin’s thesis and responding to Grin’s critics. I think Theo’s post was much clearer than Grin’s, though I still disagreed with the basic argument profoundly. I had a long response in the comments thread of that post, expressing that disagreement, but also noted that I had more to say. Which I now want to say here.

Grin and Theo both argue, among other points, that fantasy fiction was originally heroic and inspiring, but in recent years has become dominated by the anti-heroic and the disheartening. The point seems to be that while Tolkien and Howard can both be tragic, modern fantasy seems to question the existence of any meaningful system of values. From the heroic, fantasy has become ironic. Theo, specifically, argues that “something material and significant has changed within the field of fantasy fiction” in the past 71 years (roughly since the publication of the last of Howard’s stories), and specifically in the past 52 years (since the publication of Return of the King). I think that this argument raises a number of issues, and that it’s worth looking at them to see what we might learn about fantasy and the development of fantasy fiction.

The Savage Tales of Solomon KaneThree questions immediately present themselves to me. One, are Howard and Tolkien similar enough that some point of common ground can be found between them? Two, if they are, is that common ground also common to other fantasy writers; that is, are they actually representative of their times? And, three, if there is a change between their times and ours, is the change real and perceptible across all or most of contemporary fantasy writing? There’s also an ancillary fourth question which the discussion has raised: how does the suggested change in fantasy writing relate to the broader literary and historical traditions of Western civilisation?

I would say to begin with that I’m skeptical of the first point, which would suggest that a common moral outlook was shared by Tolkien and Howard. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think it needs to be supported with references to their works and writing if somebody wants to base an argument on it. I think Tolkien thought an awful lot about good and evil, and found most of his answers within a Christian and Catholic framework; he’s said as much, and the text of his writings bear him out. I’m not convinced that Howard had as well-developed a sense of good and evil, nor do I think he cared as much about those things.

As I noted in my comments to Theo’s post, I think Howard wrote most of his heroes as essentially pagan — even, perhaps especially, the Puritan Solomon Kane (Howard actually says of him that “in the full sense of the word Solomon Kane was not wholly a Puritan, though he thought of himself as such”). By ‘pagan’ I mean that they were concerned with doing right, but doing right by a moral code based around virtues like honour and strength. I think that’s a far cry from Tolkien’s Christian sense of morality, and I’m not sure that Howard viewed even this code as particularly meaningful. Conan does what he thinks is right in “Beyond the Black River,” but the nominal hero of the story ends up dead, and though Conan’s side wins a victory they lose the war. So I think some work needs to be done on this point if the argument’s going to hold up.

The second question is really what interests me. Would it be accurate to say that other early fantasy writers, let’s say from the start of the twentieth century through to at least 1956, when The Lord of the Rings was published, depicted a traditional moral framework and featured traditionally heroic protagonists whose actions were held to be unequivocally just? Were they more or less prone to featuring blaspheming anti-heroes?

The answer, it seems to me, is not as obvious as one might think. William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell were all religious skeptics, and their work to various degrees displayed not only irreverence but sometimes outright cynicism about moral proclamations and the accomplishments of heroes and warriors. It’s fair to say that E.R. Eddison, somewhat like Howard, featured heroic characters acting out of a specific moral code; but Eddison was even more pagan than Howard, essentially seeing the world as a product of the interplay of Jupiter and Venus. His characters were based on Renaissance nobles, but it was a Renaissance without a church, the Renaissance at its most Machiavellian.

Lud-in-the-MistHope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist seems to me not to be particularly interested in grand moral codes, though the characters mostly try to do what they think is right. She doesn’t have a traditional all-conquering hero, either, since the main figure is a hapless middle-aged politician. What may be most relevant is that the book (broadly speaking) suggests that a seeming great triumph of the past was not, ultimately, a victory for goodness and reason (or at least that that’s not the whole story); that the system of values based on a certain interpretation of the world is wrong, and needs to be reinvented for society to move forward. What I’m saying is that there seems to be a certain level of cynicism present in a book written in 1926.

I have to tackle a darker subject here, because I think it’s directly relevant to Howard’s Conan. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories seem a great rebuttal to the argument that fantasy traditionally presented morally upright heroes we were meant to admire. Cynical, decadent, filled with violence and a sometimes-feverish sexuality, faith and religion are typically either mocked (as in the story “Lean Times in Lankhmar”) or largely absent from the stories (except insofar as they take place, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, in a world where the Gods go around breaking in atheists’ windows). But there’s more than this: in a 1973 story, “The Sadness of the Executioner,” the Gray Mouser rapes a woman; Fafhrd, typically the more good-hearted of the two, doesn’t interfere (“Oh, well, no business of his. With a courteous ‘Pardon me. Pray continue,’ he shut the door behind him and tackled the problem of disposing of the berserk’s corpse.”). You could argue that this is actually an early symptom of some sort of modern moral decline, but it’s clearly not unique; Jack Vance has his Cugel the Clever rape a woman in the 1966 novel The Eyes of the Overworld. Like Fafhrd and the Mouser, who originally appeared in 1939, Cugel derives from a tradition of morally grey scoundrel-heroes. But then, so does Conan.

In Howard’s story “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” Conan’s the last survivor of a major battle in the snow-covered north; wounded, he’s taunted by a beautiful woman who provokes him into pursuing her. She leads him to her brothers, giants who had been plotting with her to kill him. Conan kills the giants instead, and then pursues the woman further, clearly intent on rape. He almost succeeds, but is thwarted by divine intervention; she calls out to her father Ymir, and vanishes in a flash of blue fire. You can argue that this recalls myths like Pluto and Proserpine, or Apollo and Daphne (though in that case Apollo was under the influence of Eros). But I don’t see how you can argue that this is a morally justifiable act. And nothing I can see in the story suggests that Conan’s action is incorrect, or makes any moral judgement against it. In other words, it takes place in a morally grey, even nihilistic, world.

So Howard seems less and less like Tolkien, fantasy writers always used irony, and there’s a tradition of the anti-hero that can be seen at least as early as 1939, if not all the way back to 1932. So much for the past. How about the present? Are current fantasy writers all bleak and nihilistic?

LaviniaWell, no, of course not. In my comments on John’s post I mentioned Jeff VanderMeer, Felix Gilman, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Kage Baker, and Ursula Le Guin as counter-examples. If you want a writer maybe more strictly adventure-oriented, I’d suggest Scott Lynch. I don’t know what Grin or Theo think of China Miéville, but to my mind both he and his predecessor Michael Moorcock seem moralists who, in great fantasy tradition, use irony and flawed heroes as a way to discuss right behaviour (they’re more than that, but that’s what seems to me most relevant about their writing in the context of this conversation). So that question seems simple.

But I do think that a certain stylistic approach has become broadly more common in fantasy, specifically because it’s an approach that’s perceived as more realistic. I’m not talking about the morality of the writers, though, so much as a greater focus on world-building, plot detail, and the amount of cruelty that one can expect to find in the world. This is intentionally a vague statement. I think you could easily find writers for whom this tendency is not as pronounced, and many for whom it doesn’t apply at all. But it seems to me that in any narrative form there’s a general sense among readers and writers of what is to be considered real, and how that reality is to be depicted. And I think in fantasy fiction this sense has changed since, say, 1986, never mind 1956 or 1940.

MimesisI don’t mean that fantasy writing has actually become any closer to reality. I think any use of the term “realism” when talking about fantastic fiction is problematic, and indeed any use of “realism” in talking about fiction at all soon runs into problems, as a fiction is inherently something that is not real. But it is broadly true that the means of representing the world through language has developed and changed over the course of history; you can read about that in Eric Auerbach’s book Mimesis. So at this point we’ve reached that fourth ancillary question: how does modern fantasy relate to the broader traditions of Western civilisation? And it seems to me that the answer is: like any other form of writing, it has developed new techniques and approaches that aim to create a sense of verisimilitude in the reader.

Does this process have any great significance? Is there an ideological component to it, as suggested by Grin and elaborated by Theo? Personally, I don’t see it. On the other hand, it does seem that new literary movements with new ideologies often like to declare themselves to be something ‘closer to life’ than their predecessors, on a formal level doing away with clichés, techniques, structures, and what-have-you that are ‘unrealistic.’ That’s the way the Romantics talked about the Neoclassicists; the way the Modernists talked about the Victorians. It’s not necessarily true — newer movements will have their own ‘unreal’ aspects to them, which happen to be invisible to their practitioners — but it’s a useful piece of rhetoric. So maybe something like that’s actually going on here.

But it doesn’t feel like it. Nobody’s produced a manifesto of realistic fantasy, or even nihilistic fantasy; in fact, Abercrombie’s written about how much he admires Tolkien. Instead, you’ve got critics using the rhetoric to attack a new movement where no such movement actually exists. I suppose you could argue it’s like critics in the early nineteenth century lumping poets together in a “satanic school,” claiming their writing represented “monstrous combinations of horrors and mockery, lewdness and impiety.” Or perhaps art critics almost a hundred years later lumping painters together as “impressionists.” But I don’t see any kind of coherency in the current critical argument; there’s a lack of actual definition. There’s no specific characteristic so far enunciated that really distinguishes, say, Abercrombie, Eriksson, and Swanwick (all mentioned in Grin’s essay) from Howard, Leiber, Cabell, and Vance. When that definition is made, there might be a useful advance made in the way we talk about fantasy. For the moment, I think it’s only an interesting idea worth kicking around. We’ll see what happens going forward.

All this said, and I still haven’t actually read any Joe Abercrombie. I’m really going to have to do something about that.


Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.

22 Comments »

  1. Spot-on post, Matthew. I especially love this point: “Like Fafhrd and the Mouser, who originally appeared in 1939, Cugel derives from a tradition of morally grey scoundrel-heroes. But then, so does Conan.”

    So very true. Not all protagonists in heroic fantasy are “good guys,” nor should they be. Art (even fantasy art) is a reflection of life, and therefore should (and usually does) reflect life’s complexities.

    And don’t even get me started on Elric….

    :)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 21, 2011 12:53 am

  2. Matthew, an excellent essay, I think. What has been driving me crazy about this debate is the lack of coherent definitions- what is meant by “realism,” “nihilism,” etc. Another thing that raises questions is the time period stand ins. It seems a lot of the argument is centered around fantasies set in rather more European medieval rather than either earlier or later periods.
    Interesting food for thought, if you ask me.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 21, 2011 1:11 am

  3. Again, I find myself in agreement with you.

    Apparently acceptance into the Great Canon of Fantasy ™ has made REH, Leiber, and Tolkien immune to these questions of morals. Abercrombie will apparently need to wait it out many years to gain acceptance from everyone.

    All too frequently many forget that such tales were of questionable morals in their day. They do not seem so now because times change.

    Comment by dahayden - February 21, 2011 1:29 am

  4. “I suppose you could argue it’s like critics in the early nineteenth century lumping poets together in a “satanic school,” claiming their writing represented “monstrous combinations of horrors and mockery, lewdness and impiety.” Or perhaps art critics almost a hundred years later lumping painters together as “impressionists.””

    This was in fact my initial reaction to Grin’s essay, having brought to mind my derision for Matthew Arnold’s ‘sweetness and light’. I am struck by the durability of the ‘conservatism for the sake of conservatism’ argument. What is it about new takes on traditional tropes that makes certain people so venomously livid? And what makes those bits traditional anyway? You’ve done a great job of raising these questions with plenty of supporting research, and those of us with a respect for all corners of the fantasy genre (the dark and dirty ones included), certainly appreciate your efforts.

    Comment by AlexG - February 21, 2011 2:15 am

  5. A well-written rebuttal, Matthew.

    I suddenly wonder what Leo and Theo think of Flashman?

    Comment by Nathan Long - February 21, 2011 5:23 am

  6. Matt, I think this is a much more cogent response than the one you provided in the comments, although I doubt anyone is going to find it worthwhile to methodically go through the field and methodically score the moralities of the genre authors of the last 80 years. However, I think you are confusing the concept of “the morally grey scoundrel hero” with “the rejection of moral standards”. In the case of the former, his behavior is perceived to be morally incorrect at times and correct at others. In the case of the latter, there is no correctness or incorrectness because there is no applicable standard. These are two very different things despite their superficial similarity in terms of the character’s behavior.

    The point that many commenters seem to be missing – aside from the fact that I am not in the least bit “livid”, much less “venomously” so – is that in the case of the latter, it is very, very difficult to write convincing moral characters regardless of whether their morality is supposed to be “good” or “evil”. It removes a significant amount of depth from the character.

    Since nearly everyone subscribes to some form of moral standard and the moral inertia of society means that most people in English-speaking countries subscribe to most of the elements of traditional Western morality, this means that the characters created by the post-moral writer will tend to not ring psychologically true to the morally cognizant reader. Which, of course, is the case in most fantasy literature, as it is very difficult to conceive of a fantasy version of, say, Crime and Punishment. Take out the moral element, and what is left of Anna Karenina, Madam Bovary, or even A Christmas Carol? This may be why so much fantasy is little more than Find the Foozle, Save the World, or Restore the Balance. And now, of course, Sex with Dead People. Clearly it is crazy to think in terms of decline when necrophilia is the best-selling section of the genre. Perhaps in another 20 years of progress we can hope to add Rape the Kiddies!

    It is not news that fantasy and science fiction have long been relegated to a literary ghetto because it is so reliably mediocre when it comes to characters. And yet, despite three decades of SF/F writers supposedly focusing on characters rather than plot or the shiny, the gruel is thinner than ever. I would think it is readily apparent that the moral vacuity of the genre is at the very least a reasonable explanation of this. Keep in mind that I am NOT saying that writers should adopt any specific moral standard and abide by that in their writing. I am simply saying that one cannot reasonably expect much in the way of quality characterizations or quality literature when the moral element is omitted, which has long been the case in the genre and is increasingly the case today.

    As for Flashman, my only familiarity with him was in Hughes’s books. He was certainly not an attractive character there, especially when contrasted with Tom Brown, much less George Arthur. But it certainly sounds like an interesting use of public domain IP.

    Comment by Theo - February 21, 2011 7:47 am

  7. […] Il post incriminato ha suscitato parecchie risposte, che si trovano riassunte in un post di Matthew David Suridge, comparso oggi su Black Gate, dal delicato titolo The Decline and Fall of Bankrupt Nihilism. […]

    Pingback by La contrazione degli utili « strategie evolutive - February 21, 2011 10:12 am

  8. I find it interesting that in these discussions of historic trends within fantasy fiction, the wider world of literature is largely left out. Post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima, we find a deep cynicism in much of literature. Look no farther than Samuel Beckett for one example. Moral relativism is the province of an age that knows we exist only at the behest of those with the power to end all our lives with the push of a button. Can fantasy possibly be immune to these tectonic shifts? I don’t see how. Some writers will respond violently, others with a fixation on “saviors” of youth (witness Harry Potter). In any event, the morality of a given writer is only half the battle; the response of the reader is at least as important.

    Comment by markrigney - February 21, 2011 3:04 pm

  9. The point that you seem to be missing, Theo, is that Matt is saying that there is no continuous decline. There were “post-moral” books written back in the good old days, and “moral” books being written now, and vice-versa. It WAS the best of times and the worst of times, it IS the best of times and the worst of times, and it WILL BE the best of times and the worst of times.

    Before I agree with you or disagree with you on your “rejection of moral standards,” I’d like you to define moral standards. It’s such an amorphous term to try to push against.

    Do you mean Christian standards? Do you mean secular humanist standards? Do you mean good-old American standards? None of these is unchanging and immutable. Back in the old days Christian values meant burning heretics. Now it means a hundred different things to a hundred different Christian sects. Secular humanism once meant the Socialist Worker’s Party, now it means Amnesty International and wishy-washy liberalism. Good-old American values used to mean Whites Only drinking fountains, now it means a black president. Everything changes.

    Regardless, I do believe that there are things that are always right, and other things that are always wrong, and I hope I have a strong personal moral code, but it’s probably not exactly the same as yours. So before you say that MOST fantasy literature is created by “post-moral writers,” who have “rejected moral standards,” please define your moral standards.

    And as to “Rape the Kiddies” coming to popular fiction in 20 years, you’re 60 years too late. That was the popular entertainment of the 50s. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” a family musical, is about mountain men kidnapping young brides. “Gigi” is about grooming a child to be a rich man’s mistress. “Daddy Long Legs,” is about a rich old man falling in love with a naive French school girl. There are plenty of others.

    Despite the rhetoric of campaigning politicians, there was never a golden age when things were better than they are now, and when men were more moral. It’s always been a muddle, and every man has had to sort it out for himself. THAT is what great literature, regardless of genre, has always been about.

    Comment by Nathan Long - February 21, 2011 3:40 pm

  10. That you are drawing a distinction between ‘realism’ and ‘mimesis’ for fantasy fiction is fundamental.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 21, 2011 3:47 pm

  11. I may be missing the point here, but isn’t this same thing been going on in all genre fiction, maybe even all art forms, more or less?
    If you ask me fantasy may even be a little late in the game compared to other genres. I pointed out that Westerns went the same way with the introduction of Spaghetti Westerns and Clint Eastwood. But the same could be said for murder mystery; Sherlock Holmes to Dirty Harry. (Hey that’s it!!! It’s Clint Eastwood’s fault. LOL!!)
    But you also have a very good point with the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, and the others. Take those into account, and except for maybe the “graphic-ness” of the sex, violence, and language, it seems that the these different forms of story-telling has always been co-existent, which makes sense if you take into account that fantasy and sci-fi wasn’t as widely read or familiar to the general public as it is now.
    The same could be said of Comic books, and I’m not talking about after the Comics Code was introduced. From the start Superman was more of a classical hero and Bob Kane’s very first Batman was a dark, vigilante, motivated by seeing his parent murdered.

    Comment by kid_greg - February 21, 2011 5:37 pm

  12. John: You know, I wanted to find a place to mention Elric somewhere in there, but couldn’t find a spot. Thanks for bringing him up!

    sftheory: Thanks for the kind words! I’m a big fan of defining terms at the start of a discussion; it just seems to make everything much clearer.

    dahayden: Thank you, too! Something I wonder about: are some of the stories I mention now more outrageous than they were back when they were first published? Particularly in terms of the treatment of women (in Howard, Leiber, and Vance); is that more shocking to a contemporary audience than it would have been back then?

    Theo: “I think you are confusing the concept of “the morally grey scoundrel hero” with “the rejection of moral standards”. In the case of the former, his behavior is perceived to be morally incorrect at times and correct at others. In the case of the latter, there is no correctness or incorrectness because there is no applicable standard. These are two very different things despite their superficial similarity in terms of the character’s behavior.”

    I’m not sure I entirely agree. That is, I agree with your general point, but as I read Howard, Leiber, and Vance, they don’t sit in judgement on their characters. I don’t see anything in the stories which suggests a standard of moral behaviour to which the characters are being held accountable. This is particularly notable in Leiber’s case; the incident I’m talking about is described in the table of contents as a “salutory but not therefore altogether unsadistic rape.” The woman is given a happy ending (in a parenthetical aside) and that’s the end of it. It seems to me to be the perfect example of a case where the author doesn’t provide us with any applicable moral standard.

    I have to admit I don’t see why it’s difficult to imagine a fantasy version of Crime and Punishment — except insofar as it’s difficult to find a way by which a fantasy element will better serve to bring out some aspect of a story which Dostoevsky already did so well. I have to say I read Madame Bovary much differently than you did; I mean, yes, as a tragedy there’s a certain basic system of values in the book, but as I recall (it has been a while) the book refused to make simple judgments on its characters. At any rate, Madame Bovary is a great example of a text which has value aside from its morals or theme; the realist style of the book was hugely influential. So actually its use of language is something that’s there regardless of morality.

    I’d disagree that fantasy and sf writers are worse at character now than they were three decades ago. I tend to think that on the whole there’s not much difference. If there has been a change, it’s probably a marginal improvement; fantasy as a popular genre really took off in the late 70s, so I suppose it’s possible writers were still figuring out how to approach the form thirty years ago. Put it this way: are Abercrombie, Erikson, and George R.R. Martin any worse in terms of characterisation than Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, and David Eddings? (Seems to me those writers occupy roughly the same place in the market, so the comparison ought to be apt.)

    markrigny: You bring up a great point, but I couldn’t figure out how to connect mainstream lit and fantasy/sf. I’m not even sure there is a connection in the context of this particular discussion. Beckett, Nabokov, Pynchon, and the like seem to me primarily what I suppose I have to call ‘literary’ writers, aiming at a significantly audience than the popular fictions of Howard, or Leiber, or Abercrombie (Tolkien, I think, was telling a story to tell a story, which is something else again). I think Nathan makes my point very well: it was, is, and will be the best of times and the worst of times.

    C – Foxessa: There was a discussion on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog a while ago which started out about Brandon Sanderson, postmodernism, and deconstruction; it sprawled all over the place, and somewhere in there the question came up of whether it made sense to talk about ‘realism’ in books by Sanderson and Robert Jordan — lots of details of dress and diet in there, but not really ‘realism’ as the term’s traditionally understood. So, yeah, important to think about these terms in relation to fantasy.

    kid_greg: I think a lot of what you see in the Western and the mystery is what I was trying to get at in the last bit of the post. How writers try to find new ways of increasing the sense in readers that what they’re reading feels true. Comics are … really interesting. I just spent a lot of time reading Golden Age comics to talk about them on a friend’s podcast. It’s a bit eye-opening to see Batman straight-up machine-gunning his opponents, you know? Or Superman accidentally dropping a gangster from a great height — and not caring.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 21, 2011 8:03 pm

  13. […] the Black Gate blog Matthew David Surridge argues that there has always been fantasy with clear-cut morals and fantasy w… A very good post which echoes one thing that tripped me up in the original post, namely that Robert […]

    Pingback by See the stats shoot up – Yet more on plagiarism, nihilist fantasy, thrillers and blogging | Cora Buhlert - February 22, 2011 12:47 am

  14. Again, as I said in the last post by Theo, this discussion has, at its core the primary question of: What is good fantasy literature? And what is the state of our society and what should that state of our society be?

    Ignoring these core questions will end up in posts and comments that go nowhere.

    And discussing all this, without the mention of God (Who either inspires you or infuriates you) is the equivalent to talking about a vortex while only discussing a small space on the event horizon.

    With these mentions of Tolkien, I’m surprised no one’s mentioned his essay: “On Fairie Stories.”

    Matthew David Surridge brings up 4 questions in this new post.

    1. Do Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien share a common moral ground?

    2. If they share a common ground, then do they truly represent the era they wrote in?

    3. Has there been “a change between their times and ours, is the change real and perceptible across all or most of contemporary fantasy writing?”

    4. If there’s been a change since those days and ours, how does it relate to Western Civilization.

    Surridge’s answers are as follows:

    1. Common moral ground? No.

    I would say, though, that the sense of right and wrong was more pervasive in society back in early 20th Centtury, and that although the ultimate realization and culmination of right would be the Christian Universal Church, Howard at least knew what direction “the moral river was flowing” –even if he did not owe complete fealty to the Almighty. I blame the original posts of Leo Grim (who started this large discussion more than a week ago) for mentioning Howard as someone on the same plane as Tolkien.

    2. No, there were plenty of atheistic establishment-hating writers long ago.

    Yes, Surridge, but these people are forgotten. I contest that it is those who latch on to at least a part of the Holy Spirit who maintain favor in the hearts of readers through the rest of time. And although Howard’s characters had faults and were in morally dark environments, at least the stories flowed toward the right ending. Again, the essence of what was right flowed more freely in people then.

    3. Have times changed from then until now? Surridge says: “But it seems to me that in any narrative form there’s a general sense among readers and writers of what is to be considered real, and how that reality is to be depicted.”

    Surridge, you are switching the argument. In points One and Two, we were discussing the morality of Tolkien and Howard. Now, you are talking about style. Your question was vague. You should have asked either “has there been a change in morality” or “has there been a change in literary style.” The answer to both is yes. Immorality as defined by God is widespread among people now. And yes, style has changed too, but style is a tool that can be used by either the good or evil.

    4. How has this change related to Western Civilization? He says it’s getting more realistic. He states: “Does this process have any great significance? Is there an ideological component to it, as suggested by Grin and elaborated by Theo? Personally, I don’t see it.”

    Stylistically speaking, fantasy literature is getting to be more realistic. Moralistically speaking, fantasy is becoming more “modernist” and more immoral–also defined by God. And if we read fantasy as a symptom or a pulse of the health of Mankind, I’d say we are worse off than a century ago–which is Theo’s point. But, of course you “don’t see it.” Why would you? Go do what thou wilt!

    To dahayden: Yes, times change, but morality does not. So far in history, the works that have been remembered by more than three generations are the works that contain Ultimate Morality in some form. Works that do not are weak and are forgotten.

    AlexG said: “What is it about new takes on traditional tropes that makes certain people so venomously livid? And what makes those bits traditional anyway?” Well, it’s not a “realistic style” that betrays the author’s immorality and faithlessness. It is the “realistic style” being used to comprise a world of crap to tell the reader that…the world is crap. THAT is what tells us of the author’s moral decline, and hints at society’s decline.

    The author named Davide, who wrote about this ongoing BlackGate discussion (in his post, titled La contrazione degli utili) says it best:

    [translated from the Italian] The message seems to be “the world sucks, and then our story will talk about characters who do horrible horrible things for petty and selfish reasons, then they’re doing because you know you too well that goes, right?” This does not suit me – because it is the basis of pornography, of course, because it’s easy. Appeal to the worst of it is always easy. I have no problem with a morally ambiguous story, with heroic characters unless moved by motives less than clear – but claim that the author appeals to my best part, however, and will stimulate discussion, not a simple thrill of the forbidden.

    To Nathan Long: You say that things have always been the same and have never changed. I beg to differ. People are much more immoral now than they were before. And this is reflected in the literature that people produce. You ask for a definition of moral standards. The best definition of a moral standard in Western Civilization comes from what the Catholic Church has put out. Not the staff of the Church, mind you. But the “paperwork” is plain enough. And I think it’s obvious to everyone what the moral standard should be–it’s just that no one wants to acknowledge it.

    I think the more “modernist” any genre of literature becomes, we have that much more an indication of our lost society. Then again, they weren’t called the Lost Generation for nothing!

    -Laramie Hirsch

    Comment by Nobious - February 22, 2011 5:03 am

  15. To call this questioning of moral systems merely a “decline” in the state of fantasy and/or Western civilization demonstrates, to my mind, too great a focus on the fantasy genre itself. A similar change has taken place in our understanding wars: WWI and WWII had the standing of “great wars,” of conflicts of good versus evil, and had an enormous influence on the works of their time, even if they were not directly referenced. War has changed, however, and by the time of the Vietnam war we no longer had this clear-cut portrayal of good versus evil. I don’t see it as a product of decline but as the result of change in our society generally, specifically the fact that we can now listen to more voices than we used to. Feminism came along, and so did cultural relativism, and those developments meant that more voices were heard than had been previously. When enough information is available that the underlying motives of war can be more thoroughly understood by the general population, and when we can hear voices on multiple sides of the conflict, the morality no longer appears clear-cut. In the same way, we hear more voices in fantasy than we used to, and these can be the voices of victims, or people considered “other” within the more traditional model. There’s no need for this to be perceived as a decline. The older, more traditional voices ring differently in this context, but I don’t think giving voice to the silent detracts from the value of society as a whole. It seems clear from this discussion that books make us think, and that experiencing a work of different moral compass allows us all to understand our own with greater clarity.

    Comment by JulietteWade - February 22, 2011 10:51 am

  16. Juliette Wade is moving all this in an excellent direction. The fact that a publication like Black Gate still exists suggests that there’s life in the old warhorse of fantasy and fantasy adventure, but for fantasy lit to function as its highest, best self, it must also refract the world at large, both in the arts in general and in the “real” world at large. Oh, and a quick note about Tolkien, stemming from someone’s comment above that he was mostly about tale-spinning and story-telling: If memory serves, he began Lord of the Rings and all that backstory while home from WW I and recuperating from a mustard gas attack or injury. By the time he was healed enough to be sent back, the rest of his squad/brigade/troop had all been killed. Do you think he had German soldiers in mind when he worked up his Mordor legions? I rather think he did. Story-telling, yes. But he had the real world very much on his mind.

    Comment by markrigney - February 22, 2011 4:00 pm

  17. Laramie says, “People are much more immoral now than they were before.”

    When you say ‘before,’ when exactly do you mean? When in history can you point to where all men, or even a majority of men, were more moral than they are now?

    Perhaps, because of prevailing publishing standards in bygone times, certain things were not discussed in books, but if you think those same things were not happening in society at the same time that the books were published, you are deliberately closing your eyes.

    Comment by Nathan Long - February 23, 2011 3:32 pm

  18. Nathan Long asks if I can point to a time when men were more moral.

    I will point to some watermarks where we can see the tide of moral men change. But first, I will say that we can measure the morality of a society by the works put forth from its artists.

    The most recent watermark of change in my mind is 1968. Sure, most folks recognize this as the peak of the hippie era and the assassinations in America–but the most striking point for me about 1968 was the Second Vatican Council, when the Mass became watered down. It was at that point that we saw the numbers of Mass attendance begin to dwindle due to the new age concepts being introduced into the Church. Before this period, Catholics were more devout.

    Another watermark I can think of is the so-called “Enlightenment.” During the Reign of Terror, we see people being torn apart in the streets of France, and degredation of the Church was underway. Yet, shortly before here in America (early 18th Century) we see that before this “Enlightenment” that there is piety in the colonies of America, both before and after the Revolution. Ever read the speeched of George Washington?

    I’d also point to the piety of the so-called Middle Ages, a time in which people were not haughty in their thought. I recommend Regine Pernoud’s “Those Terrible Middle Ages!”

    I doubt I’ll convince anyone here that there was a time when people were better. Everyone’s mind is made up, I feel. I’ll just conclude and say that if you go into a Church, and you see little old people praying the rosary, that you are witnessing the older generation carrying the humble spirit of a past age with them. When they go, so goes many of the humble values that our generation treads on. I’d point to those folks as evidence.

    Comment by Nobious - February 24, 2011 4:48 am

  19. […] but luckily they provide a counter-point to this wrongheaded banality. Matthew David Surridge is anti-Grin: Would it be accurate to say that other early fantasy writers, let’s say from the start of the […]

    Pingback by At Least It’s An Ethos « Everything Is Nice - February 27, 2011 11:10 am

  20. […] one controversy about morality and fantasy was being thrashed out around these parts last week, another, quieter, discussion seemed about to […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Epic Fantasy: Notes Toward a Definition - February 28, 2011 2:49 pm

  21. […] This will get you to most of it. There are a lot of people with a lot of positions here, so don’t let my descriptions of their positions influence you; I’m not even really responding to those cats, anyway, just using this whole thing as a jumping-off point. […]

    Pingback by Thoughts About EVIL « Threat Quality Press - April 6, 2011 11:33 am

  22. […] written: Joe Abercromby’s response. Followed by this, and this, and this, and this, and this, oh… I’m slumming for pingbacks, so […]

    Pingback by Bankrupt Nihilistic Fantasy! | - June 17, 2011 4:03 pm


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