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The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel

Sunday, February 20th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

the-blade-itselfLast week, I read with great interest the discussion that began with Leo Grin’s comparison of the heroic fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard with the anti-heroic fantasy fiction of Joe Abercrombie. As this is a topic that has interested me for years, I have a number of thoughts regarding it.  However, since I am a political commentator who is correctly said to be well outside the ideological mainstream of the SF/F community, I think it is best to begin by pointing out to those on both sides of the spectrum who may be eager to turn this into a political debate that this is not a political subject, but rather a historical, literary, and philosophical one. And as such, there is no need to argue over whether the trajectory over time that Grin observes is desirable or not, since that is a matter of perspective and personal opinion.

Regardless of one’s ideological self-identification or opinion on the specifics of Grin’s observations, it should be eminently clear to all and sundry that something material and significant has changed within the field of fantasy fiction in the 71 years that separate Howard’s final publication from Abercrombie’s first one and the 52 years that separate the publication of The Return of the King from The Blade Itself. I should also point out that I offer no personal criticism of Joe Abercrombie here, as he merely happens to serve as a representative of modern fantasy fiction and one of its more accomplished representatives at that.

There are four important aspects to Grin’s essay. First, he is decrying the transformation of fantasy fiction from a heroic and inspiring literature into an anti-heroic and disheartening one. There is little to disagree with here, as those who have attempted to point out the pervasive darkness of Tolkien’s and Howard’s works have failed to recognize that the darkness of their environment is intrinsic to the heroism of their characters. The salient point is not that evil exists, but that it exists in order that it can be opposed and that the hero’s active opposition to that evil will provide inspiration to the reader. In heroic fantasy, good and evil are palpably distinct; the failure of the hero to act in a purely good manner does not change the observable fact of this distinction. Indeed, without moral failure on the part of the hero, we would lose one of the most powerful tropes of the genre, that of heroic redemption.

lord-of-the-ringsAbercrombie serves an excellent counterpoint to the heroic fantasy of the past as he is openly and intentionally subverting it. Hence the title of his most recent novel, The Heroes. Indeed, he is rightly praised for breaking free from the past models, which is why it is a more than a little disingenuous for him to do so without being willing to also accept criticism based on that act. Consider the following description of his anti-heroes from The Blade Itself.

Hardened, noble barbarian with his own crude code of honor? Check. Except he loses his mind on occasion and will kill anyone, even friends, even children. Twisted, deformed torturer? Check. Except he’s the good guy. The enigmatic wizard, out to save the world? Check. Except this one is a shameless liar, and just as crazy as the so called “evil” he’s fighting.

This leads to the second aspect of Grin’s essay, which is the moral confusion that is represented by so much modern fantasy. Whereas good and evil are abundantly clear in both Tolkien and Howard – although in the case of the latter, good is primarily defined through its opposition to evil rather than being good in itself or by virtue of its obedience to Ilúvatar – there is no such thing as “good” or “evil” per se in most modern fantasy. All is more or less relative, which is why modern writers are so often forced to manipulate the reader’s emotional responses with “shocking” scenes of dead children and raped women in order to provide an artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility. Abercrombie has taken this relativistic trend to new heights by having the anti-heroic heroes behave in a manner identical to, or in some cases worse than, the villains of the past.

revisiting-narniaAs Grin implies, this moral confusion comes at a price, not only in its potential effect on the readers, but on the quality of the literature itself. This is the third aspect of his essay and is a topic I addressed at some length in a piece that was published in Ben Bella’s 2005 Smart Pop anthology entitled Revisiting Narnia. When both morality and religion have been methodically excised from the beliefs of the characters and as well as from the environment in which they are found, especially in a quasi-medieval setting, the overall effect is bound to ring as false to the intelligent reader as providing the conventional low fantasy protagonist with a ray gun and a battery powered gene-splicing device would be. The morally confused anti-hero who alternates between conventionally good and conventionally evil behavior may be interesting and well-written, but when every character exhibits the same moral relativism and behaves in the same morally nebulous manner, it readily becomes apparent that the writer is constitutionally incapable of observing actual human behavior much less creating psychologically credible characters that are not stand-ins for his own confused moral sensibilities. It is precisely this intellectual shallowness that pervades the greater part of modern fantasy fiction.  And is it not extraordinarily strange to celebrate a novel set in the medieval time period because it notes the fact that life was brutish and dirty while simultaneously leaving out the single most important element of that time period, especially given the logical connection between those two things?

The fourth and final aspect of Grin’s essay was the one that appeared to most wound Abercrombie and those who sympathize with his position because it cuts uncomfortably deep and close to the heart. This is the way in which Grin points out the fundamentally pretentious and uncreative aspect of modern fantasy in general and Abercrombie’s work in particular. To break the mold may well be desirable, (and I for one have no desire to ever again read a novel which concerns a fatherless farm boy who nevertheless becomes a great King/Magician/Warrior and goes on a Long Journey in which he Saves the World from Incipient Destruction by Great Evil), but it should never be confused with actually creating an entirely new mold. And yet, Grin was merciful in that he didn’t point out the inherent cowardice and hypocrisy of modern fantasy writers as he so easily might have done. While today’s literary moral relativists write characters who enthusiastically embrace historically anti-social behaviors such as rape, murder, and torture, they uniformly fear to tackle current societal taboos.  Their work isn’t the least bit daring or dangerous, it is entirely predictable as they only attack the targets of the past now deemed safe by modern sensibilities.  Thus we can be confident that the murderous, blaspheming anti-hero who rapes women and tortures children will almost surely never belong to a fantasy stand-in for the German National Socialist Workers Party.  So, what we see in modern fantasy is not so much true amorality comprised of various shades of gray as an an alternative nihilistic morality in which black is white and white is black.

the-heroesUnfortunately, Abercrombie’s good-natured response to Grin’s astute observations was  woefully insufficient as it amounted to little more than a non-sequitor. Worse, and contrary to the remark from the Black Gate commenter, he had it absolutely wrong when he inexplicably declared: “Surely the hallmark of western civilization is variety, richness, experimentation.” This makes absolutely no sense at all, especially from a writer whose work is set in a historical  European setting.  Western civilization is a synonym for European Christendom and it stands, by definition, in contradiction to the cultural and religious traditions of the East. Indeed, the central concept of “balance”, which now serves as a substitute for good and evil in much fantasy fiction, is a fundamentally Eastern philosophical concept and is foreign to all four primary elements of Western civilization, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, medieval/Renaissance Christianity, and the Enlightenment.

Now, it may surprise you to learn after all this that I quite enjoy Abercrombie’s books. In fact, I have four of them and he is one of the few modern fantasy writers that I find to be of interest these days.  The Heroes is next on the reading list once I finish Gibson’s Zero History.  But my personal appreciation for Abercrombie’s work does not mean that I cannot recognize it as a symptom of what any secular historian would be inclined to describe as societal decline. In fact, one cannot properly appreciate Juvenal without being aware of the social decay of the Rome that he chronicled.  So, in much the same way that the excellence of the band Disturbed does not prevent one from recognizing that their music indicates an obvious decline from the music that was created by Hayden and Mozart, it is no aspersion to Abercrombie to observe that his novels appear to be indicative of a decline in fantasy literature that reflects a greater societal departure from long-standing traditions of the past.

In conclusion, I note that Black Gate Magazine itself has been described on more than one occasion as a return to a specific literary tradition that had fallen out of fashion.  The fact that Black Gate can not only be distinguished in this manner but remains so noticeably different than other magazines in the SF/F genre tends to lend an amount of credence to Leo Grin’s argument.

63 Comments »

  1. Hang on. If “Western civilization” is a synonym for European Christianity, then what’s Ancient Greece doing as a primary element of it?

    Also, what’s this about “Western civilization” standing in direct contradiction to “Eastern civilization”?

    Even presuming, for the sake of argument, that “Western civilization” is actually one thing, as opposed to a broad category that includes a wide variety of different things (though, somehow!, never manges to touch on the idea of balance in all, what, three thousand years of history?), and that “Eastern civilization” is ALSO one thing (which, despite being around even longer, somehow ONLY recognizes balance, and to which the idea of absolute virtue is alien) — even presuming these things, why do they stand in direct contradiction to each other?

    To say that they contrast each other is one thing; if you isolate the history of one half a hemisphere of the world for three thousand years, and then compare it to the other, sure there are going to be some major and startling differences; but they aren’t opposite cultures. It’s not like the Asian continent is a mirror universe full of Popes wearing goatees, or anything.

    Even Soviet Russia isn’t the contradiction of Western culture — as Yakov Smirnoff pointed out, it’s only the converse.

    Aside from that, it does seem a little peculiar to hold Joe Abercrombie up as representative of modern fantasy, when the reason that he’s so popular is precisely because he isn’t like the rest of the modern fantasy mold. Is it really accurate to say that because Joe Abercrombie exists, there must be a dearth of writers working hard to imitate Tolkien?

    Comment by braak - February 20, 2011 10:44 am

  2. Christendom, not Christianity, Braak. As Wikipedia describes it “the informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed in the West.” I said nothing about any “Eastern civilization”, I was specifically referring to multiple “cultural and religious traditions of the East”.

    If you want to argue that Western civilization doesn’t exist, that is really beyond the scope of this discussion. But, to the extent that you admit that it exists, it should not be difficult to understand that the very term “Western civilization” implies a) there is at least one non-Western civilization, and b) there is at least one non-Western non-civilization. Of course, the Graeco-Roman take on this would be that what opposes Western civilization is simply barbarism, presumably from the East.

    I very much agree that it is not accurate to say that “there must be a dearth of writers working hard to imitate Tolkien because Joe Abercrombie exists”. Of course, I never wrote anything of the sort.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 11:07 am

  3. I can appreciate a well-written, well-argued essay even when I don’t agree with a lot of the points it makes, so thanks for this post.

    However, I do think you’re being disingenuous when you claim this is not a political essay and then make statements like the following:

    “Thus we can be confident that the murderous, blaspheming anti-hero who rapes and tortures children will never utter a racist thought, be disgusted by homosexuality, or express skepticism about any religious stand-in for Judaism or Islam.”

    This strikes me as a thinly veiled attack on what you see as a preponderance of political correctness in American society. Whether you intended to or not, you dragged this discussion into the realm of the political, I don’t think you needed to go there.

    One other statement in your essay I take major issue with is this paraphrasing of Grin’s essay: “First, he is decrying the transformation of fantasy fiction from a heroic and inspiring literature into an anti-heroic and disheartening one. There is little to disagree with here…”

    There’s plenty to argue there. For example, from where I’m standing, works like Abercrombie’s still remain the exception; and they don’t represent a transformation to a new norm, but rather a move toward an even greater diversity of fantasy fiction. And this is good. I love the fact that I have the opportunity to read both C.S. Lewis and Joe Abercrombie, appreciate their differences, and not feel threatened by either.

    I also love the fact that, because there’s so much good fantasy fiction on the shelves, I’ll never be lacking in a good fantastic tale to read (unlike decades ago). So, if there’s anything I think is garbage, I can simply ignore it and read something else rather than denounce it.

    Comment by likeahawk - February 20, 2011 12:41 pm

  4. Thus we can be confident that the murderous, blaspheming anti-hero who rapes and tortures children will never utter a racist thought, be disgusted by homosexuality, or express skepticism about any religious stand-in for Judaism or Islam.

    I thought you said you had read Abercrombie?

    Presumably the flesh-eating cult from the East with its prophet and its flowing robes and its jihad would be a stand-in (twisted and untrue IMHO) for Islam? Lots of racism here between the “blacks” and the “pinks”.

    R. Scott Bakker has a similar set of stand-ins for all of the Abrahamic religions in his re-creation of the Crusades.

    Comment by peadarog - February 20, 2011 1:19 pm

  5. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Bakker’s world and some of his viewpoint characters are very homophobic and very sexist too.

    Comment by peadarog - February 20, 2011 1:22 pm

  6. I assure you, I am not being the slightest bit disingenuous. I am sure it is well understood that if I wished to court controversy here, I would do so much more directly. Don’t read too much into the observation, after all, there is nothing political about noting the striking avoidance of certain social taboos by the very writers who cheerfully violate other social taboos.

    With regards to the other point, I think you are failing to notice the intrinsic similarities between Abercrombie’s work and that of other modern fantasy when viewed from a moral perspective rather than a stylistic or thematic one. His may be among the first to move towards open, full-blown nihilism, but he is building on a decades-long tradition within the genre of moving away from “simplistic” views of good and evil.

    I don’t think Abercrombie’s novels are garbage. I don’t dislike them nor would it occur to me to “denounce” them. I certainly am not “threatened” by them! But considering that it would take a very obtuse individual to fail to notice the obvious signs of societal decline in the works of Juvenal or Euripides, it should not be controversial to note that there appear to be similar elements at work in many modern fantasists, including Joe Abercrombie. If you think about it, regardless of whether you consider the satirization of myth to be entertaining or not, it is very unlikely to be a sign of a society yet to approach its peak. The myths must be accepted before they can be subverted, after all.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 1:22 pm

  7. I haven’t read Bakker, so I can’t comment on that. Perhaps he has attained the ultimate enlightenment of post-morality. We’ll know the genre reached that point when we start reading fantasy novels that feature Nazis as the unironic heroes.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 1:28 pm

  8. >I assure you, I am not being the slightest bit disingenuous.

    I don’t know, Theo. I’m not convinced.

    This is a fine, fine essay. I think you were being fair to Abercrombie in both your praise and your criticism, especially in your first three points.

    Until the post went totally off the rails for me with this comment:

    > Thus we can be confident that the murderous, blaspheming anti-hero who rapes and tortures children will never utter a racist thought,
    > be disgusted by homosexuality, or express skepticism about any religious stand-in for Judaism or Islam.

    At that point you stood exposed, not as a dispassionate and insightful critic, but as a reader with an overtly conservative Christian agenda.

    Your readers know you well as a conservative Christian, so this is hardly a surprise. But as a liberal Catholic, I was thoroughly impressed with the first half of your argument, since it was brilliantly argued and I strongly agreed with it.

    But I can’t agree with any post with that line in it, I’m afraid.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 20, 2011 1:50 pm

  9. Lol! Absolutely pathetic! Shine a light in the darkness, and watch the cockroaches scatter! Dare to mention civilization, culture, or morality, and the same happens here!

    I love this one…

    “Until the post went totally off the rails for me with this comment:

    ‘Thus we can be confident that the murderous, blaspheming anti-hero who rapes and tortures children will never utter a racist thought, be disgusted by homosexuality, or express skepticism about any religious stand-in for Judaism or Islam.’

    At that point you stood exposed, not as a dispassionate and insightful critic, but as a reader with an overtly conservative Christian agenda.”

    Lol! I guess murder, blasphemy, rape, and torture aren’t bad, after all! What’s the big deal? You right-winger, you! Didn’t you know that all the “bad” stuff is in vogue now?

    At this point in history, I find that God-haters can smell Truth, no matter how faint it is reflected in a person’s writing. And such lack the language capability to comprehend any further conversation.

    Prediction: This article will draw a great many disparaging comments that work to tear its substance apart.

    -L.H.

    Comment by Nobious - February 20, 2011 2:04 pm

  10. “At that point you stood exposed, not as a dispassionate and insightful critic, but as a reader with an overtly conservative Christian agenda.”

    Hmmm, it appears I should have gone with my original Nazi example even though it didn’t fit with the medieval setting. My point there has absolutely nothing to do with my beliefs about right and wrong or good and evil, still less an agenda as a reader. The point is that there appears to be a morality in modern fantasy that is not the same morality that appears in the fantasy of Tolkien and Howard. Therefore, Abercrombie and others cannot rightly be accused of amorality nor can they correctly be portrayed as bold skewerers of sacred cows. They’re simply skewering someone else’s cows while respecting their own.

    Would you agree with that, setting aside the specifics of what either the older or newer morality might be?

    Anyhow, because people appear to be hung up on the specifics and thereby misinterpreting the point, I will attempt to rephrase it with a different example, if that’s all right. Especially since, as Peadarog has pointed out, it appears to be an incorrect prediction in some cases such as Bakker.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 2:18 pm

  11. To your first point, “…there is nothing political about noting the striking avoidance of certain social taboos by the very writers who cheerfully violate other social taboos.” Fair enough, but you seem to be basing this on the assumption that the majority of today’s fantasy authors are doing this, and I’m not convinced that’s true (or false) without solid empirical evidence. I think others could add to peadarog’s contradictory example to this claim, just as you could add your own in support. And whether you were being political or not, none of this really gets around the inherently political nature of the examples you chose to use (homosexuality, Islam, etc.).

    To your second point, I certainly recognize the similarities between Abercrombie’s work and other modern fantasy. I wouldn’t deny that. I just view it as a current trend flowing through the larger fantasy genre (i.e., the present popularity of another fantasy sub-genre). It co-exists with, rather than pushes out, already existing fantasy trends and sub-genres. We’ve seen this time and again through the history of fantasy fiction.

    To your third point, I didn’t mean to imply that you yourself were denouncing or threatened by Abercrombie; I didn’t get that impression from your essay. I should have clarified that those comments were in response to certain points made in Grin’s essay.

    Comment by likeahawk - February 20, 2011 2:20 pm

  12. And whether you were being political or not, none of this really gets around the inherently political nature of the examples you chose to use (homosexuality, Islam, etc.).

    I suppose, but I simply didn’t happen to come up with any other modern taboos other than the Nazis at the moment. Keep in mind that I wrote the entire thing in one sitting this morning, it’s not as if it’s a polished essay or anything. And the Nazis obviously didn’t fit the historical milieu. But, since the examples obviously distract from the point I’m trying to make, I’ve taken the liberty of changing it to the Nazi example since I don’t think too many people find moral “shades of grey” in the Holocaust.

    I didn’t mean to imply that you yourself were denouncing or threatened by Abercrombie; I didn’t get that impression from your essay.

    Good, I didn’t intend that either.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 2:27 pm

  13. “At this point in history, I find that God-haters can smell Truth, no matter how faint it is reflected in a person’s writing.”

    No, it’s merely that the examples initially provided trigger a reaction that throws the reader out of the argument. The argument, (be it right or wrong), is no different as it is presently revised, but is much less likely to drive the reader off the rails.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 2:36 pm

  14. This too shall pass…

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - February 20, 2011 2:43 pm

  15. Theo,

    > The point is that there appears to be a morality in modern fantasy that is not the same morality that appears
    > in the fantasy of Tolkien and Howard.

    That’s quite a bit more clear – thanks for re-phrasing.

    While I’m tempted, I can’t immediately agree though. When you say “there appears to be a morality in modern fantasy,” I think you’re implying modern authors are choosing different moral values for their heroes, and quite the opposite of those of Howard and Tolkien.

    If so, I’d provisonally agree with you. Modern fantasy – and modern fiction in general – has a deep fascination with flawed heroes, and sometimes heroes who are so flawed they would be seen as villains by readers from a generation ago.

    But if you’re saying that modern authors as a group are making a direct statement on the nature of true heroes (or lack thereof) today, I disagree rather strongly. This is the argument I saw Leo trying to make.

    I don’t see this as any kind of moral statement. Modern audiences are just more interested in complex characters, and that’s reflected in their book choices.

    When you’re writing an entertainment, morally ambiguous characters are always more fascinating (and bankable). Look at the entire genre of the hard-boiled detective, or the Han Solo who shot first.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 20, 2011 2:59 pm

  16. > No, it’s merely that the examples initially provided trigger a reaction that throws the reader out of the
    > argument. The argument, (be it right or wrong), is no different as it is presently revised, but is much
    > less likely to drive the reader off the rails.

    Theo,

    Well said. And precisely on the mark, at least in my case.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 20, 2011 3:00 pm

  17. I think you’re implying modern authors are choosing different moral values for their heroes, and quite the opposite of those of Howard and Tolkien. If so, I’d provisonally agree with you. Modern fantasy – and modern fiction in general – has a deep fascination with flawed heroes, and sometimes heroes who are so flawed they would be seen as villains by readers from a generation ago.

    That’s precisely what I was attempting, perhaps in a less than perfectly articulate manner, to point out. Moreoever, the fact that the authors themselves see their protagonists as “anti-heroes” indicates that they have at least some awareness of this intrinsic distinction between their moral values and those of their predecessors in the genre.

    One need not choose between them, or even subscribe to either set of values, to notice that the two sets are different.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 3:15 pm

  18. I made a brief comment on FB earlier about the Leo/Joe debate and noted that there was interesting discussion lurking in the weeds here but that we weren’t really getting to it. Let me expand on the thought.

    John Gardner wrote a book called ‘On Moral Fiction’ [1] in which he argued, not for a particular morality or ideology, but for the notion that literature only really excels when it reflects (and reflects upon) human nature with a certain fidelity. When literature fails to do this, it cannot really work as literature. It may entertain, which is fine as far as it goes, but in the end it will lack depth. The “fictional dream” only achieves its real power when it is, in a paradoxical but profound sense, true. The truth in question here is a properly literary truth – one perfectly compatible with (perhaps even aided by) fantastika, but not compatible with a cavalier disregard for the real sinews of human life.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Moral_Fiction

    Comment by ironnoir - February 20, 2011 3:21 pm

  19. “Western civilization is a synonym for European Christendom and it stands, by definition, in contradiction to the cultural and religious traditions of the East. Indeed, the central concept of “balance”, which now serves as a substitute for good and evil in much fantasy fiction, is a fundamentally Eastern philosophical concept and is foreign to all four primary elements of Western civilization, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, medieval/Renaissance Christianity, and the Enlightenment.”

    That statement makes no sense. Particularly to an historian of American history.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 20, 2011 4:04 pm

  20. This essay was badly written. You’re a political writer you said?

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 20, 2011 4:07 pm

  21. I think it’s great that fantasy writers are exploring new types of fantasy charaters (i.e. going beyond the “good vs. evil” tropes), but I also think it’s reflective of our modern society’s general confusion of our own morality. For example, in a society that considers pimps as heroes, gangsters as role models, ruthless killers as patriots, and practically worships the anti-hero, it’s no surprise that many of our writers begin to reflect this type of thinking in their fictional characters.

    It all depends, though, on what you as a reader want from your fiction. China Meiville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION was brilliantly imagined and highly original…but it depressed the hell out of me! There were no “heroes” there and there certainly was no happy ending…just lots of dirt, scum, and tragedy. No thank you.

    When I read heroic fantasy, I’d like a bit of HOPE mixed in with all the evil and destruction. Yes, I want realistic characters and moral complexity, but I also want a character or two that I can LIKE, someone who may not be perfect but who’s carrying a light (however dim) against the dark world they struggle within. For example, Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is an extremely gritty and “realistic” fantasy–more akin to historical fantasy with is festering wounds, despicable nobles, incest, and deadly combat stripped of glory–yet there are still “heroes” here. Those who display a morality that, while it might not be perfect, you can’t help but root for. I’m thinking specifically of Tyrion Lannister–freakish scion of an absolutely corrupt and decadent house who stands up against his own family in devious and creative ways. An Jon Snow, who is a bastard and rejected by his father’s house, joins the rejects who guard the ice wall and achieves heroic status through sheer pain and suffering as he helps guard the land against inhuman hordes from the north. I could go on, but let me just make a final point:

    Fantasy needs realistic characters, or it’s just a repetition of dead formulas. There is also room for heroes and anti-heroes. The sort of fiction we choose to write AND to read, says a lot about US a human beings. As someone mentioned above, I like to see room for various styles of fantasy in today’s market. And I’m not sure it’s fair to call the increasing moral complexity of fantasy characters as a “decline” of any sort. Rather, I’d say it’s an “evolution” that allows for more eclectic, original, and distinctive fantasy stories.

    One size does NOT fit all…

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 20, 2011 4:17 pm

  22. There is societal decline and then there is literary decline, John. For example, the plays of Euripides are considered more sophisticated and innovative than those of Aeschylus, but they also betray indications of the changes in Athenian society that corresponded with Athenian decline. Juvenal’s satires make for highly entertaining reading, but they overtly chronicle the decadence of Roman society that is believed to have contributed to its ultimate decline. So, there may be a link between “evolution” and decline even if we reject the idea that any literary decline has taken place.

    But I would argue that one has taken place because I very much agree with your point that fantasy needs realistic characters. You see, there is no realism when the single most influential element of an entire society is completely omitted from fantastical depictions of that society. It’s rather like imagining a fantasy novel set in a supposedly “historical” America in which there is no vestige of democracy, individual rights, or the pioneer spirit. It might be interesting, it might be well-written, but it will nevertheless ring entirely false to anyone who knows anything about actual American history.

    Moreover, “maintaining the balance” is an absolutely horrific plot device. It doesn’t make any sense in any Western or Eastern terms.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 4:44 pm

  23. I agree with John R. Fultz that Perdido Street Station is depressing as hell, but I love the Bas-Lag series. So, I’m wondering if this does not have a lot to do with tolerance- in the sense of subject matter that violates each reader’s comfort zone.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 20, 2011 5:15 pm

  24. Wow, I’m going to agree with John R. Fulz, even on George R.R. Martin, who by merit of his writing, and afterward lack-there-of, made me turn against modern fantasy because it was indeed too dark [and long in coming]. But John is right, even Martin had at least two true heroes in those books, and in that they are worthy. I still don’t think this has much to do with what Theo was talking about, but ah well, not everything should be debated.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - February 20, 2011 6:03 pm

  25. This is an interesting article, with which I have to disagree entirely. I think the organisation of points here is much better than in Grin’s essay; it’s much clearer, and I concur (coming from the left) that the political aspect seemed irrelevant to his argument. But I still find the thesis doesn’t stand up.

    You put four points forward, which I would summarise as 1) originally a heroic and inspiring literature, fantasy’s become disheartening and anti-heroic; 2) modern fantasy is morally confused due to its moral relativism; 3) the moral confusion weakens the writing, because the treatment of morality and religion are minimised, weakened, and historically falsified; 4) modern fantasy is uncreative, being more interested in subverting ideas from the past rather than putting forward new ideas of its own. If I’ve got any of these wrong, I apologise and please let me know, but this is what I get from the post. I’m going to look at point 1) in another post later, but the other points seem to me to be fairly simple.

    Point 2 seems to me merely descriptive; it’s not clear that morally confused fiction is necessarily lesser writing than literature with fixed moral purpose. It’s also not clear, from the way you write about it, whether the moral confusion exists in the fiction or in the writer. You note that Tolkien and Howard depicted good and evil clearly, then say that “there is no such thing” in modern fantasy. But: a) how sure are you that good and evil are absent in modern writing, as opposed to simply not as clearly delineated as they were in classic fantasy? If rape and child murder are used to shock, doesn’t that imply an acknowledgement that they are wrong or evil? b) whether good and evil are absent or obscured in modern fantasy, why does this imply confusion? Certainly much mainstream writing has been set in a world where good and evil are hard to determine, but still remains highly moral. Could this not simply be a different philosophical approach? c) you claim that “good and evil are abundantly clear” in Howard; I have to disagree with that. I think right and wrong are often plain, but right and wrong are not the same as good and evil. That is, you could say that Conan lives his life according to a heroic code, like Homer’s heroes, but like Homer, I think Howard was probing the limitations of his hero’s outlook. In “The Tower of the Elephant” Conan decides to rob a priest just because he thinks he can. “Beyond the Black River” I think gains much of its power precisely from the amorality of the story; Conan’s helping some imperialists try (futilely) to pacify land they want to settle. Why? Conan says “This is as a good a life as any … it’s as well on the border as anywhere.” Is he morally right or wrong there? Ultimately, he’s driven by personal loyalty, and by a respect for courage. I don’t think this is a moral code that’d be recognisable to Tolkien.

    Point 3 seems to me to try to cover a lot of ground, arguing that both character and setting are shortchanged by an absence of religion and an absence of morality. You say that it feels false if “both morality and religion have been methodically excised from the beliefs of the characters and as well as from the environment in which they are found, especially in a quasi-medieval setting,” but a fantasy is not a history, nor is it a depiction of acutal events; nothing is ‘excised’ from pre-existing matter. If a writer imagines a world lacking religion and morality, and then depicts it convincingly, the writer has succeeded. You can argue that this is not the case with Abercrombie or whoever else, but that’s a failure of the individual writer, not the basic assumption. Similarly, you complain about writing in which “every character exhibits the same moral relativism and behaves in the same morally nebulous manner,” but that’s not a problem with a writer’s moral perspective (you note that a “morally confused anti-hero … may be interesting and well-written”), it’s a problem with the writer’s sense of character. If all characters held the same philosophy of virtue, that’d be equally unrealistic.

    Point 4 breaks into two parts. First, you say that a work which subverts a given tradition is by definition not as creative or valuable as what it subverts. How to account, then, for Don Quixote? It’s widely considered more creative than the chivalric romances it subverted. Byron’s brilliant “The Vision of Judgement” is still read today, not Southey’s maudlin “A Vision of Judgement” which it satirised (and of course one can argue that Romanticism in general was a subversion of, or reaction against, the nowadays-comparitively-less-read neoclassicism of previous generations). The point, I suppose, is that the process of subverting earlier writing may lead to a creative breakthrough inaccessible to the original work. I’m not saying that’s happened in modern fantasy, but it seems that a work reacting against an established tradition is not necessarily less creative than the works which established the tradition. Sometimes the later work can create a tradition of its own.

    Second, you say that modern writers “only attack the targets of the past now deemed safe by modern sensibilities,” while refraining from having their characters join a Nazi-like organisation. Four responses spring to mind. A) You don’t really specify which “targets of the past” you had in mind, and it’s not clear to me which targets you meant. While you refer to a “blaspheming” anti-hero I wasn’t sure what the anti-hero was meant to be blaspheming against. Christianity? That’s clearly still a part of the modern world, in a number of forms; more so for some people and in some places than others, but still significant. Some elaboration here would be helpful. B) Claiming decisions made by writers are made out of “fear” or “cowardice” seems an unnecessary assumption, and close to an ad hominem argument. It may simply not be how their imagination works. At any rate, if those decisions hamper the work, then the work is flawed; if not, not. And it seems to me that you’re not talking here about how this specific approach creates a specific flaw in the work. C) Simply not having the protagonist do or not do certain things (such as join the Nazis) has no necessary relevance to the author’s position on any of these things. If the writer’s encouraging us to be skeptical of the protagonist’s values, then anything the protagonist does becomes suspect; take a look at Michael Moorcock’s Pyatt quartet, in which the racist pedophile ‘hero,’ whose morals we’re meant to loathe, joins the Nazis. It’s a different approach than Howard took, but no less valid; certainly I think Tolkien’s characters at various times did things he didn’t agree with. D) Your argument here seems to me to go against the grain of most of the rest of your comments about fantasy. If these writers are not writing certain things because they believe it’d be immoral to do so, your claim that they’re morally confused seems to have no basis; clearly they’re making a moral statement.

    (I originally wrote the above earlier today, as I worked on this post off-and-on; I note you seem to acknowledge this in comments. Some more elaboration might be useful here.)

    As I say, I’m going to write more about Point One later. But I do still want to look at your last couple of paragraphs. You say Abercrombie’s mention of Western cvilisation was a non-sequitur; I wonder if you could elaborate on that, since it seemed pretty much to the point so far as I could see. Certainly his comment about Western civilisation was in direct response to a statement from Grin.

    Now, I’m the commenter in the previous thread who said that Abercrombie’s characterisation of Western civilisation was correct, and I stand by that statement. To some extent, this is a disagreement of definitions; I don’t see how “the primary elements” of Western civilisation could exclude the past two hundred years of history, which would mean excluding the industrial revolution. But more significantly, it seems to me untenable to say that Western civ is European Christendom under another name. I don’t see how the pagan Greeks and Romans can be counted as part of Christendom (Plato the Christian?). I don’t see how the Enlightenment, marked by a move away from Christianity both socially and philosophically, can be considered part of Christendom (Voltaire the Christian?). I don’t see how Romanticism can be counted as part of Christendom (Shelley the Christian?). I think a lot of 20th-century fiction wasn’t Christian in any significant sense (Yeats the Christian?). More significantly: I don’t see how “the informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed” (the definition you used in your comment above) is inconsistent with Abercrombie’s “variety, richness, experimentation.” An informal hegemony still allows for variety; presumably, you’re counting the different forms of Protestantism as still Christian, which right there represents variety. Why say the hegemony is the hallmark of civilisation and not the variety, when the variety is consistent across the breadth of the civilisation, and the hegemony is not?

    I think that taking one writer as a symptom of societal decline, as you do with Abercrombie, is essentially indefensible. Why is Abercrombie representative of modern civilisation, and not, say, J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman? Or: what would you say to people seventy years ago who thought that Howard represented a societal decline? And for that matter: how sure are you that secular historians still hold to terms like societal decline? There’s been considerable discussion among historians in recent years about whether the Dark Ages were really dark. Some historians will still talk about societies in decline, certainly, but I’m not sure all of them would. I’ve read some Juvenal; I don’t know what it means to “properly” appreciate an author, but it seems to me that Juvenal is still read because of his satire is still applicable today. (“Who watches the watchmen?” leaps to mind.)

    And I think your comparison of Disturbed to Haydn and Mozart only works if you think that Disturbed’s aiming at the same thing through broadly the same methods as the classical composers. I don’t see it; folk music and ballads seem a closer comparison (especially as opposed to a court musician like Haydn). You might have a better case if you’d compared the classical composers to Philip Glass, but I think that kind of evaluation can only really be done once time has passed.

    That’s all for the moment. More later!

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 20, 2011 7:08 pm

  26. Matthew, that is a brilliant rebuttal! Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 20, 2011 7:32 pm

  27. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Elizabeth S Craig , Chris Northern and Jeff A. Jones, Ara Trask. Ara Trask said: Well-written thoughts on heroic fantasy RT @elizabethscraig The decline and fall of the fantasy novel: http://bit.ly/hjzctB #amwriting […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel -- Topsy.com - February 20, 2011 8:57 pm

  28. I find Matthew David Surridge’s arguments most amusing, and sftheory1’s salivating reaction to the “brilliant rebuttal” is rather funny.

    There is an Elephant in the room that people simply won’t bring up. Instead they dance around Him pretending that He isn’t there–and the more one pretends not to look at this Elephant, the more intelligent they perceive themselves.

    The idea is: good fantasy that reflects a great society is fantasy that reflects a sincere drive to seek the Divine. Not clear enough? How about: good fantasy is written with Self-Evident Eternal Truths that God is real, and that the Supreme Being has specific Rules, and that it is our responsibility to seek those Qualities out, or perhaps defend Them.

    Now, I don’t wanna sound like a Funamentalist here, but the way everyone dances around the genuine core of this debate is a fiasco!

    Ironoir states how Gardner argues “for the notion that literature only really excels when it reflects (and reflects upon) human nature with a certain fidelity.” That fidelity is our debt to our Creator. The fantasy that we cherish and others copy and bastardize is the fantasy that reflects this fidelity.

    Matthew David Surridge’s ramblings remind me of the novel “Out of the Silent Planet,” in which Ransom’s captors, Weston and Devine, ramble on and on in Earth language about why they are important and how important it is that they might be able to subdue Mars. And when Ransom translates their hot air to the inhabitants of Mars, he is able to do it simply and briefly.

    We all know that the fidelity that Gardner is alluding to is truly the fidelity to the Christian God. That’s why this article has drawn forth such nasty and silly rebuttals!

    And the more that critics of this truth try to keep from defining themselves, the more they expose themselves and what this discussion is truly leading to.

    I just hope that Black Gate allows this important discussion to continue, for I predict that it will take many interesting turns, and much can be learned from the dialogue about this topic.

    Good article!

    Comment by Nobious - February 20, 2011 10:04 pm

  29. Matthew David Surridge just said nearly everything I was about to say. Almost certainly better than I could have.

    Your essay is taking the position of a true social conservative. (Not speaking of politics here.) I say social conservative because you see a society in moral decline. However, I see one ascending to a better place.

    I see a society in the US at least with the lowest crime rate in 60 years, where women and all races now have equal rights, though injustices remain, where gays can now serve openly in the military, where evolution is taught in schools, and many other advances. You may not agree with all these points. I’m just saying that not everyone sees it your way. Your view of our moral state colors your interpretation of Abercrombie’s work.

    I feel that many of these advances have been made by questioning the old moral code through various art forms. And yes, from influences such as those found in Eastern civilizations.

    You hold up REH and Tolkien. Yet I find it difficult to stomach REH’s racism at times, though I mightily love his stories–which I find frequently amoral and were plenty scandalous in their day. I find it difficult to stomach Tolkien’s distrust of the darkies from the southern continent and races not born pure and wholesome. There are many little things in LotR that disturb me, though I still like the story.

    Joe Abercrombie would probably love to have the sales figures that would make him truly representative of modern fantasy, but he is not.

    I’m glad to live in a world where we have so much wonderful literature that I can find most anything I want from anti-heroes to the grand old battle of good versus evil.

    Finally, you do realize that pulp authors and their works were criticized in their day, accused of representing the moral decline of society? It’s true. This escalated until you get to the Comics Code episode in the 50’s.

    Comment by dahayden - February 20, 2011 10:09 pm

  30. Theo: you didn’t say the words “Eastern Civilization” but you posited a concept that is “Western Civilization” and then suggested that it “stands in direct contradiction to the religious and cultural traditions of the East.” One thing can’t stand in direct contradiction to several different things; if something is in direct contradiction, it can only be in direct contradiction with one other thing. To say “Western civilization” and “stands in direct contradiction” is to specifically imply an “Eastern civilization.”

    I mean, let’s think about this for a seocnd; European Christendom can’t stand in contrast to Eastern religion and culture if particular Eastern religions and cultures are wildly diverse; it’d be like saying “White is the opposite of red, blue, and orange.”

    It’s, incidentally, a little misleading to talk about “the Graeco-Roman take” on a thing, since there’s no reason to think that Greeks and Romans had precisely the same take. The Greeks called everything that wasn’t Greek barbarism (whether it was in the east, as I guess you must presume, or the west), but to call it “simply barbarism” is to impose a more modern interpretation on the term. But the early Greeks weren’t an empire, and the Romans were; we’re talking about one case that is a funadmentally cultural distinction, and one that’s a socio-political distinction.

    As for the “Christendom” or “Christianity” issue, that’s a difference that’s wholly beside the point; if Western Christendom is the informal hegemony enjoyed by Christianity in Europe, it STILL doesn’t include the ancient Greek civilization that predated it by hundreds of years.

    But, ultimately, all of this is ALSO besides the point, because it overlooks the fact that ideas like “Western civilization” are really just tools used to organize historical information–when they aren’t just misguided atavisms–and are rarely useful descriptors, considering just how much in the way of religious and cultural interplay there was between the “West” and the “East.”

    I mean, are we counting the Middle East, here, as East? Is Islam in play? Because that is built on the roots of both Judaism, which is a foundational element of European Christendom (despite its technical birth in “the East”) and on early Christianity (also, technically, born in “the East”). How, then, are we to handle the Muslim influence on European culture after the fall of Constantinople? Or its contribution to the arts and sciences in Moor-dominated Spain?

    But if we’re NOT counting Islam, then what do we do with the fact that there are more Muslims living in East Asia than there are in the Middle East, or the fact that Islam was introduced into India in the 7th century?

    There’s no actual boundary here, between “the West” and “the East”, much as there’s no actual distinction between the “four elements” of European Christendom. (And, while we’re on the subject, just what, exactly, are medieval Christianity and Renaissance Christianity doing just separated by a slash? Are we supposed to conclude that those are basically the same thing?)

    The idea that “balance” could be “foreign” to any of these systems presumes that there’s an real “Medieval/Renaissance Christianity” that can be isolated from both its precedents and its antecedents.

    Finally, while you didn’t say precisely that Abercrombie was representative of modern fantasy, you did, in fact, say “something of the sort”: that Abercrombie’s writing was symptomatic of a societal decline. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but certainly I think this suggests the supposition that Abercrombie is representative of a general and signficiant trend which, if true, means the question remains the same: why posit Abercrombie as being representative, or symptomatic, or anything else, when his significance is based primarily on how unusual he is?

    Comment by braak - February 20, 2011 10:27 pm

  31. Nobious:

    I think it’s only an “elephant in the room” if everyone knows it but no one wants to talk about it.

    I just think that your statements about fantasy are not correct. I mean, I can’t prove it, obviously, since what you’re talking about is essentially a self-referential definition: A is Good Fantasy, because A is what Good Fantasy is.

    I’ve been a pretty…devout isn’t exactly the right word…I guess, “thorough”? I’ve been pretty thoroughly atheist for as long as I can remember, but also an avid fantasy reader. Plainly, my definition of what constitutes “good fantasy” just isn’t going to be the same as yours.

    But…that’s not “dancing around the issue.” I just don’t happen to think that’s what the issue is.

    Comment by braak - February 20, 2011 10:37 pm

  32. […] is yet one more response to the nihilism in fantasy issue at the Black Gate blog by someone named Theo, who is also the ultra-rightwing blogger Vox Day. Very […]

    Pingback by Sex, Morality and Epic Fantasy | Cora Buhlert - February 21, 2011 12:05 am

  33. I can’t say that the argument here is one of religion. I find placing Western Civilization in opposition to Eastern Society a bit a troubling concept, especially in the context of a discussion of fantasy literature. fantasy barrows from whatever culture it wants. Sometime from several at once. That’s what makes it one of the most dynamic genres -it transcends boarders, cultures and race.

    Isn’t the “societal decline” we’re talking about here the inclusion of post-modernist themes into fantasy? There are comparatively few authors doing that, so what’s the harm? I mean, to say that the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis has been abandoned, or is even no longer in the majority, is absurd. There’s certainly no dearth of that type of fantasy. That the popularity of fantasy would attract writers that wanted to deconstruct the genre, was, I think, inevitable.

    I see no problem with writers asking questions like “What would Christendom have been like without Christianity?” Or, “What if Robin Hood had robbed from the rich…and the poor?” There’s no proscription on writers from changing the nature of reality.

    If you think such stories are not credible or readable given what you know and believe about real world history, I would respectfully submit that you are over-thinking it. But there are many authors that share your opinions, so I doubt you will lack for books.

    Comment by darangrissom - February 21, 2011 12:21 am

  34. Matt and Braak, there appears to be little to discuss with either of you on the subject of Western civilization, still less its observed decline in demographic and other terms, as your knowledge of the concept clearly doesn’t even rise to the level of Wikipedia. Nor is this the proper venue to explain the principium contradictionis, so I suggest you read up on what the “Western world” and “the Occident” are and how they have been defined for decades, if not centuries. What you have presented, Matt, is not a rebuttal, but rather a collection of contorted wordplay and suppositions which attempts to avoid the manifestly obvious. Let me put it in terms you might be willing to acknowledge. Suppose you were to write a modern fantasy set in America circa 2010, but completely leaving out all science and technology. Don’t you think that would create a ludicrously false image of both the setting and the basic mindsets of the characters? Then suppose that people began claiming this omission of science and technology as well as scientific modes of thinking actually presented a more realistic understanding of the period than its inclusion. That would border on the insane, wouldn’t you agree?

    And yet that is precisely what we see in the moral perspectives presented in most modern fantasy today. And that is one reason why Tolkien and Howard will still be read in 100 years when the Rowlings, Mievilles, and Abercrombies of the world are forgotten. Their portraits ring true while the others simply don’t. Just for amusement, look at the bestselling novels of 1910-1919 sometime. Aside from HG Wells, Joseph Conrad, Zane Grey, and Winston Churchill(!), few will recognize any names on it. It is very rare for works of literature to survive the test of time and I suspect that an unusually low percentage of modern and post-modern fantasy literature will do so because it is generally not reflective of the historical human norm. I don’t see many prospective candidates to pass the test of time from the 1970s and 1980s, still less the 1990s and 2000s. Do you? If so, who?

    As for dahayden’s vision of a society “ascending to a better place”, we shall simply have to disagree. But be advised that my view is not one of a social conservative, but rather that of a best-selling economics writer who sees sub-replacement level birthrates across the West, ruinous levels of public and private debt, and the onset of a massive, worldwide economic contraction on a scale that dwarfs the Great Depression of the 1930s. At no point in recorded history have such indicators boded well for any society, regardless of its dominant religion or social mores. It may interest you to know that the increasing nihilism of Abercrombie and other authors in this and other genres is not only predictable in these circumstances, but was predicted more than 10 years ago by the socionomists who utilize the markets as measures of social mood and behavior.

    I have no problem with writers asking questions like “What would Christendom have been like without Christianity?” either. Why not? It’s an interesting thought experiment. But that’s not what we’re discussing here. Where I have a problem is when people attempt to justify the so-called “realism” portrayed by their favorite modern fantasy writers when there is demonstrably very little that is historically realistic about either their fictional settings or the moral perspectives of their characters. Such writers are the collective Vanilla Ice of fantasy to the Run-DMC of Tolkien and Howard, and, I would add to complete the analogy, Lewis.

    There’s nothing wrong with growing up in the Dallas suburbs… except when you pretend that you’re from Hollis, Queens.

    Comment by Theo - February 21, 2011 4:55 am

  35. […] side of the debate is “The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel,” which appeared on Black Gate  just this past Sunday. In this essay, Theo breaks Grin’s lament down into four categories, so […]

    Pingback by The Rise and Triumph of Modern Fantasy « Three Pound Brain - February 21, 2011 11:44 am

  36. C-Foxessa writes: “….all four primary elements of Western civilization, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, medieval/Renaissance Christianity, and the Enlightenment.”

    That statement makes no sense. Particularly to an historian of American history.

    However it makes perfect sense to a Biblical/ANE historian like myself. And should make perfect sense to anyone who graduated from high school.

    The idea that previous civilizations cannot leave lasting cultural impressions in later civilizations it comes into contact with is one, as your statement and one made by braak (…if Western Christendom is the informal hegemony enjoyed by Christianity in Europe, it STILL doesn’t include the ancient Greek civilization that predated it by hundreds of years.)suggests that would get one laughed out of a history, sociology or anthropology classroom.

    The Reader’s Digest version of this recipe for Western Civilization is that the philosophical way of looking at life and its components were dumped into a melting pot, along with one part Law and Morality (from Israel), one part Republican government (from Rome), strained through medieval and Renaissance Christian thought and baked in the intellectual fires of the Enlightenment.

    This is NOT an unknown concept Theo has presented here; in fact its almost a cliche! If you have never heard of this “recipe” for Western Civilization before, in some form or another – in HIGH SCHOOL, much less college – I would demand a refund for your history/sociology/anthropology/philosophy education from the instructor.

    Comment by PapaBryant - February 21, 2011 2:54 pm

  37. I don’t believe that Socionomics is something that can reasonably be used as a justification for a condemnation of nihilistic fantasy literature. Even if social mood was universally accepted, there’s no way to counter it. Even if these writers didn’t write these books, the underlying social mood would still be present. I’m not saying that there isn’t a diagnostic tool there, but you seem to be attacking a symptom, not the disease.

    Comment by darangrissom - February 21, 2011 3:11 pm

  38. […] were quickly 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! | - February 21, 2011 3:22 pm

  39. PByrant — We are not inhabiting the same discussion.

    It’s as though you’re C.S. Lewis talking about the moral degeneration of Amer-euro culture caused by the medieval fantasy-romances of courtly love in his Allegory of Love, 1936 vs. Denis d’Rougemount’s Love in the Western World, 1940 the enrichment the Romance fantasies of courtly love provided.

    One argument is narrowly religious, the other is expansively enlightment-humanist.

    As these romances are as much what we point to as forebears for Fantasy and Science Fiction, this distinction is appropos to this discussion.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 21, 2011 4:06 pm

  40. “As these romances are as much what we point to as forebears for Fantasy and Science Fiction, this distinction is appropos to this discussion.”

    Guh, rushing about: this was supposed to include “romances are as much what we point to as forebears for Fantasy and Science Fiction as myth and epic ….”

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 21, 2011 4:08 pm

  41. “I don’t believe that Socionomics is something that can reasonably be used as a justification for a condemnation of nihilistic fantasy literature. Even if social mood was universally accepted, there’s no way to counter it. Even if these writers didn’t write these books, the underlying social mood would still be present. I’m not saying that there isn’t a diagnostic tool there, but you seem to be attacking a symptom, not the disease.”

    Of course not! The literature is merely a symptom, one among many. I don’t blame the moral relativism and nihilism in fantasy for the general decline, I see it as an inevitable result of the decline instead. That being said, I do condemn it for being inferior, reactionary, and unrealistic literature. If fantasy is ever going to escape its ghetto, it has to grow up by dealing with people as they actually are rather than as the authors would like to imagine them to be.

    Morally confused characters are absolutely fine… but not when there are no moral characters or immoral characters to which the reader can compare them, or even credible moral standards by which the reader can perceive that confusion. Taking the bad guy and making him the good guy isn’t creative, innovative, or subversive, it is simply derivative and not infrequently comes off as downright juvenile. When reading that sort of thing, I tend to find myself mentally patting the author on the head. “Yes, what a brave little cheeky monkey you are!” What was entertaining when Tanith Lee did it has become tedious and predictable now.

    Comment by Theo - February 21, 2011 4:54 pm

  42. Maybe I’m out in left field, but I would like to untangle some of the skeins of thought here.

    1. There is a question about literary quality and its decline. This is an argument that gets recycled every decade. I’m not going to address it because it’s boring.

    2. There is a question about “social values” and societal decline. This critique requires a historically relevant standard and a theory of how culture changes, which have not yet been presented here. This argument has also been recycled many times, usually by people who don’t actually read history. I’m going to skip this one because there is insufficient basis for a coherent discussion.

    3. There seems to be a question of historical accuracy in depicting European civilization. Without doubt, many people despise the European cultural traditions represented by “Western civilization,” so they would like to fantasize about a world without such traditions. Hence, they turn to fantasy fiction.

    4. There is a question about the moral relevance of a story. That is to say, a story needs to have a moral reference point for the reader, a “warrant,” if you will. It isn’t quite fair to pigeonhole Theo as a dogmatic moralist, since he seems to appreciate all kinds of “immoral” cultural artifacts. Rather, it is better to consider bringing this moral quality out into the open and accepting the fact that its relevance in the marketing of fiction writing reflects a predisposition of the readers as well as the authors.

    For example, ancient Greek fantasy fiction (such as The Iliad), ancient Roman fantasy fiction (such as The Aeneid), and early Italian fantasy fiction (such as The Inferno) all exhibited culturally specific reference points to help the contemporary readers/listeners understand the motivations of the characters and the movement of the plots. Not all of the heroes were “good,” although some were exemplary. Virtue had little to do with any divine moral standard, and the gods themselves were hardly “good” even by cultural standards of the day.

    Likewise, Howard and Tolkien worked from an assumption of certain cultural traditions, character types, and symbols that their audiences understood, whether or not they personally identified with them. There is no church dogma, or even valid theistic doctrine, upheld consistently in the works of either. Moreover, by the time they were writing, there was already a sense that “traditional” religious ideas belonged to previous generations.

    It is a modern conceit to assume that audiences in the past were so stupid and narrowminded that storytellers had to present every motivation and purpose to them in childish, black-and-white terms. Sometimes, what we call “moralism” or “moral values” is simply a specific point of view clearly presented by the author, whereas nowadays the point of view may be deliberately obscured. But that in itself reflects the modern pretense to objectivity and the delusion that authentic life means keeping an empty mind and expressing dark passions violently.

    5. In answer to Theo’s challenge, I nominate Stephen R. Donaldson for literary longevity.

    Comment by David the Wake - February 21, 2011 5:35 pm

  43. Theo and PapaBryant: I wonder if your definition of Western Civ is coming from a specifically American view of the Western tradition? It’d explain why you have Western Civ ending with the Enlightenment, which shaped the formation of the USA. Bryant, not only have I not been given the formulation you describe, I checked with my brother, who was in a Liberal Arts program; while we both recognise the things you list as elements of Western Civ, the specific formula you give is unfamiliar to both of us. We’re Canadian, and both studied up here, so if you’re talking from an American perspective, maybe that explains the dissonance?

    At any rate, I suspect some of the confusion here may be (to judge by PapaBryant’s comment) that you’re considering Greek and Roman culture only insofar as it affected Christendom (“strained through medieval and Renaissance Christian thought”) as opposed to an entity in its own right. That is, it isn’t an “earlier civilization”, it’s part of this one. Of course it affected medieval Christianity and later Western Civ, but equally obviously it wasn’t itself affected by Christianity. (I’d also say that aspects of Greek culture in particular are important to the later West beyond those which were taken up by the church; the drama, for example.)

    On another note, Theo said: “Where I have a problem is when people attempt to justify the so-called “realism” portrayed by their favorite modern fantasy writers when there is demonstrably very little that is historically realistic about either their fictional settings or the moral perspectives of their characters.”

    I can see your point here, but I don’t agree with it. I think there’s a distinction between “historical accuracy” and “verisimilitude.” The first obviously may help establish the latter, but, particularly in fantasy, is not absolutely necessary. I go into this a bit at the end of the other post. Basically, I think when people praise Abercrombie or Erikson or whoever as ‘realistic’ what they mean is not ‘this is an effective recreation of a certain period of western history in a secondary-world context’ but ‘this is a story in which the characters behave in a way consonant with my experience of people in my day-to-day life and my broader understanding of how people would likely behave if placed in these situations.’

    At least, that’s how I’ve interpreted the reviews I’ve read; you may have read different ones. Personally, I write about history, and read a fair amount of it; I’ve come to accept that fantasy is rarely going to accurately recreate the attitudes and mentalities of past eras. Religion’s only part of it. The hierarchical world-view of the past, the feudal outlook, these things don’t necessarily feature in much fantasy.

    And there’s no necessary reason why they should, any more than religion should. In a world that has magic and nonhuman intelligences, you’re going to have different societies. I remember being thrown when reading Erikson by a reference to a valley that’d been formed as “a glacial dump”; I thought, wait, wizards know geology? And then thought: well, why not? Especially as this culture seems to have been around for thousands of years. How can historical fidelity have any significance in a world so different from our own?

    Put it another way: classic fantasy writers certainly succeeded in creating worlds without any formal religion. E.R. Eddison didn’t have any that I remember. And, of course, there’s no formal religion in Tolkien …

    You also asked an interesting question: “Suppose you were to write a modern fantasy set in America circa 2010, but completely leaving out all science and technology. Don’t you think that would create a ludicrously false image of both the setting and the basic mindsets of the characters?” I think the broader point you were making I addressed above, but I wanted to look at this question because, while it’s difficult, I think I can just about see how to do this. It’d probably be more mainstream lit, though.

    Basically, if you wrote a story from the perspective of a character who was themselves fundamentally not a rational person, you might be able to get away with this. Imagine someone who saw cars and computers not as the result of a human technology or a scientific worldview, but as magic; automobiles driven by belching demons who lurk inside wrought metal ‘engines’, computers powered by angels or benevolent spirits lurking in the aethernet. I think you could write this character as a high-functioning something-or-other, possibly trying to open the eyes of the people around him or her to the magic that surrounds them. Then start adding actual magic to the setting, and see what happens.

    Hey, it’s not necessarily a great idea, but it’s one way to go. Generally, though, I think your comparison’s flawed; the kinds of fantasies we’re talking about with Abercrombie (so far as I know), Erikson, or whoever else aren’t set in medieval Europe. They’re set in a world where the technology, and perhaps some other social conditions, is similar to medieval Europe. What I think would be the equivalent question is: ‘Suppose you were to write a fantasy set in a world equivalent to North America in 2010, but leaving out the science and technology. Wouldn’t that be false to the characters and their mindset?’ And the answer is, actually, not necessarily; not if magic substitutes for science, and the equivalents of cars and computers really are powered by demons and spells. It might end up as steampunk — but that, to me, is certainly a kind of fantasy.

    With respect to the question of social decline, I don’t have a lot to say other than that I generally agree with dahayden that life’s gotten better; you and he seem to be arguing from different criteria. But I have to ask a question. You said: “Morally confused characters are absolutely fine… but not when there are no moral characters or immoral characters to which the reader can compare them, or even credible moral standards by which the reader can perceive that confusion.” So: Who is the moral character in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”? Do you think Howard was encouraging us to view Conan as morally confused?

    Finally, you also noted: “I don’t see many prospective candidates to pass the test of time from the 1970s and 1980s, still less the 1990s and 2000s. Do you? If so, who?”

    First off, I certainly agree with you that most writers don’t pass the test of time. I was just reading Q.D. Leavis’ book Fiction and the Reading Public; in the first chapter she mentions about two dozen different bestselling authors of the day (1932), of which I recognised Sax Rohmer, H. Rider Haggard, Zane Grey, P.G. Wodehouse, Rafael Sabatini, and E. Philips Oppenheim — and I don’t think Oppenheim can really be said to have stood the test of time (possibly not even Sabatini, depending on how you want to define it). The ratio gets much better when she mentions critical favourites, but there’s still an attrition rate.

    That said, yeah, I do think there are writers of the past forty years who’ll last a century. I mentioned a number in the other post, but trying to take both quality (because being part of a critical conversation seems to help keep a book alive) and sales into account: Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delaney, Jeff VanderMeer, Felix Gilman (if he continues to write and has the kind of career I hope he does), Susanna Clarke, John Crowley … but so much of this is unknowable. Who can say what sort of career Hal Duncan (say) will end up having? Will Neil Gaiman’s charm continue to grip people for another century? You seem pretty sure Rowling will be forgotten; but kids today still read the Oz books and Edith Nesbit, so I don’t see why Rowling’s well-machined tales won’t have a similar longevity.

    This is really interesting food for thought.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 21, 2011 7:08 pm

  44. Well, considering that I don’t live in the States and haven’t lived there for more than a decade, I think it’s fairly safe to say that my perspective is not a specifically American one.

    I think it is dancing madly around the point to claim that Abercrombie’s worlds aren’t set, more or less, in medieval Europe. Let’s be realistic here, almost all fantasy is set in medieval Europe. The ridiculous thing about that is if a writer doesn’t want to deal with the historical reality of Christendom, he has more than half the planet that wasn’t Christian to utilize. Of course, that would take actual work learning a different language and culture rather than just lopping off the bits that make you feel uncomfortable for whatever reason.

    Rowling’s tales won’t last because she is a mediocre writer. Not that either of us are likely to be in a position to adjudicate this, but I’d be very surprised if any of the writers you mention aren’t completely forgotten in 100 years. A few of them are all but forgotten already. I mean, Moorcock’s best-selling book on Amazon is 15,000 places below one of mine right now and I certainly don’t expect anyone to be reading my stuff then.

    I’m glad you said Oppenheim. If you’d said Wodehouse, I would have actually gotten venomously livid. I’ve been on a Psmith kick lately. By the way, Sabatini is still pretty big here in Italy. And I confess, I am mystified by the appeal of Zane Grey.

    Comment by Theo - February 21, 2011 7:27 pm

  45. Theo — “Well, considering that I don’t live in the States and haven’t lived there for more than a decade, I think it’s fairly safe to say that my perspective is not a specifically American one.”

    Fair enough; just a guess.

    Sadly, I can’t comment about Abercrombie, not having read his books. But I can’t agree that most fantasy’s set in medieval Europe. As I said, I think most secondary worlds in fantasy are made different from historical models by the existence of magic and nonhumans. The geology in Erikson’s a good example; as I understand it, civilisation’s been around for thousands of years in his setting. So even if the technology’s not advanced beyond a medieval stage, it’s going to be a different world.

    Maybe some specifics would help. Are there particular writers, or particular works, besides Abercrombie that you have in mind that would have been improved by more fidelity to medieval European models?

    On another note, I certainly agree Rowling’s a mediocre stylist at best. I just think that what she does right, for a juvenile audience, will end up outweighing the quality of her prose. But who knows? It could easily go the other way.

    Doesn’t Amazon sales rankings measure books sold only over a certain number of days? I think Moorcock’s had enough of an influence on subsequent writers (which is ultimately what makes a writer live, I think, influence in others) that his work is going to outlive him. I don’t know for how long, though.

    I will admit that I tended to skew my selections toward the literary side of the genre. My thinking on that was that of the more ‘literary’ writers Leavis mentioned, I was familiar with eight out of nine, missing only David Garnett (who I would have known if I was more familiar with the Bloomsbury Group). As I say, it seems being part of critical conversation helps keep a book alive. But who knows?

    And I’m a huge Wodehouse fan (though I prefer Wooster and Jeeves — my God, what writing there), so no worries there.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 21, 2011 8:23 pm

  46. As someone who likes to read away from “literary fiction” (I prefer Jim Butcher, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson) I think the idea that medieval themes dominate fantasy fiction is a fading one. More and more we see The Enlightenment as a setting, which I personally enjoy. I can’t wait until we hit the Industrial Revolution. I look forward to communist wizards.

    To the debate about what constitutes western civ., I thought I’d mention that the definition changes depending on the academic discipline. In Anthropology, for example, Islam is included in the western tradition because of certain shared cultural characteristics. I know political science profs that don’t agree wit that because western society, to them, is about democracy and human rights. Then there’s cognative linguistics, which uses a theoretical proto Indo-European languages as a starting point. The list goes on.

    I can’t say that I see this type of literature as product social decay. A product of increased cynicism perhaps. I would hesitate to label it as reactionary as well. When you start down that road you have start asking questions like. “What about the Objectivism of Goodkind?” “What about the Christianity of Lewis?” Those writings aren’t knee-jerk political reactions, there just works of authors who happen to have different world views that are expressed through their works. It’s the same with Abercrombie.

    Read what you like. I’m going to go read the “Way of Kings.” Again.

    Comment by darangrissom - February 21, 2011 11:59 pm

  47. Darangrissom,
    Steampunk tends to be the fantasy genre dealing with the Industrial Revolution period equivalent. For communist (kinda, more like the communards of the Paris Commune) wizards, see China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 22, 2011 12:25 am

  48. Matthew writes: Theo and PapaBryant: I wonder if your definition of Western Civ is coming from a specifically American view of the Western tradition? It’d explain why you have Western Civ ending with the Enlightenment, which shaped the formation of the USA.

    No, it has been the general view of Continental Scholars and Philosophers as well that what we call Western Civilization today followed this general evolution from Greek to Roman and Jewish to Renaissance. Part of the confusion may be due to my calling it a formula – and I’ll assume as much and address just a little further in the next quote, especially since you and your brother have at least heard of these “elements of Western Civ”.

    Bryant, not only have I not been given the formulation you describe, I checked with my brother, who was in a Liberal Arts program; while we both recognise the things you list as elements of Western Civ, the specific formula you give is unfamiliar to both of us. We’re Canadian, and both studied up here, so if you’re talking from an American perspective, maybe that explains the dissonance?

    Possibly, but its just as likely a case of political ideology getting into the curriculum (I will say I believe there has been a concerted effort on the part of politically motivated educators since the 1960’s to de-emphasize Western Culture. However, going any further into THAT would really be moving this conversation into a political argument, and I don’t want to completely hijack Theo’s excellent article.) But the most likely cause is my use of “formula”.

    At any rate, I suspect some of the confusion here may be (to judge by PapaBryant’s comment) that you’re considering Greek and Roman culture only insofar as it affected Christendom (”strained through medieval and Renaissance Christian thought”) as opposed to an entity in its own right.

    No, no, no! I won’t speak for Theo here but definitely not in my case. Of course they can be examined as separate entities. But Roman culture was affected by Greek culture; in this case the Romans looked to the Greeks as models for Roman culture to both emulate and reject. The Greeks were held up by the Romans as standards by which to judge themselves – which means you cannot study Rome without some working knowledge of the Greeks.

    That interrelatedness, when we specifically talk about Western Civilization and Culture, cannot be glossed over. Especially concerning your next quote.

    That is, it isn’t an “earlier civilization”, it’s part of this one. Of course it affected medieval Christianity and later Western Civ, but equally obviously it wasn’t itself affected by Christianity. (I’d also say that aspects of Greek culture in particular are important to the later West beyond those which were taken up by the church; the drama, for example.)

    The fantasy novels in question here aren’t dealing with Greek culture (unless you count Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson novels)- I think that was Theo’s point. In so far as they CAN be said to be social commentaries, they are commenting on A. Medieval Christendom – a civilization centered in Europe which drew inspiration from Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture as interpreted through its dominant and shared religious perspective; and B. Our current Western Civilization – which evolved still further from Medieval Christendom, through various religious, social, intellectual and political uphevals into the culture we live in today. The particular subculture of “fantasy writers and readers” live within the larger culture and reflect trends within the larger culture – both deliberately and accidentally/subconsciously. One of those trends deals with how Western Culture has traditionally thought of moral behavior and how those traditions are being changed/challenged/dismissed in the fantasy literature.

    Your earlier points about Plato the Christian, while clever, miss the point. The culture in both cases being critiqued by the literature frame its questions from the perspective of Christianity’s influence. Voltaire, while rejecting God, nonetheless dealt with the question because Christianity FORCED him to deal with it, and in a manner defined by the religion. He didn’t reject the Tao, or Shiva, or his ancestors – because neither Taoism, Hinduism, or Shinto framed the questions he asked. He would have asked different questions as a disputer of the Tao. Thus the elephant in the room.

    The notion made by earlier that these depicted changes are just a case of “being diverse” is silly, IMHO. Dave the Wake’s points 3 and 4 seems to get the point that none of what is being discussed here happens in a vacuum.

    Now to read your long form rebuttle, my new friend!

    Comment by PapaBryant - February 22, 2011 12:43 am

  49. How many of you have read Abercrombie’s books?

    I have read them.

    Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, and the world of the Renaissance. If you want to be all european historical about these fictions. Yes, GRRM has included the Mongols. Then, as Ghandi said, “Western civilization? I think it would be a good idea.”

    Martial prowess celebrated along with courage, fidelity and honor is in ever damned culture you look at, and that includes African ones, which have been left out — like – women as writers, as protagonists — in this discussion. Think about it, when it comes to the U.S. — if it were taken over from the outside what of our culture would abide?

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 22, 2011 1:14 am

  50. “Darangrissom,
    Steampunk tends to be the fantasy genre dealing with the Industrial Revolution period equivalent. For communist (kinda, more like the communards of the Paris Commune) wizards, see China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series.”

    Thank you for the recommendation, but I’ve read my share. Steampunk is too much a product of the Victorian age. To referential of the works of Verne, Wells and Conan Doyle. Imagine Gandalf and Saruman fighting during the 1916 Easter Rising, and you’ll have an idea of what i’m thinking of.

    Comment by darangrissom - February 22, 2011 1:28 am

  51. With regards to Plato, Christianity and Western civilization, the point is not to claim that Plato was a Christian, which he quite clearly could not have been, but that the synthesis of Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine put forth by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica was the dominant philosophical mode of thought throughout most of the High and Late medieval periods. There is a reason that he is described as being “immensely influential”. Wikipedia puts it thusly: “His influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy was conceived as a reaction against, or as an agreement with his ideas, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law and political theory.”

    Comment by Theo - February 22, 2011 5:55 am

  52. Darangrissom,
    Ah, the only one I can think of off the top of my head would be Fullmetal Alchemist. Other than that, I don’t know of any secondary worlds utilizing the twentieth century as inspiration (although in my own work, I’m working on it).

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 22, 2011 10:57 am

  53. Okay,so the argument has morphed from 1) I don’t like this gritty maybe trend in fantasy because it’s too “realistic” (really explicit) to 2)I don’t like this because it’s “nihilistic” (or I can’t see the morality in the text) to 3)If you are going to have medieval European inspired secondary worlds some writers need to be more slavishly devoted to authentic period modes of thinking (no moderns masquerading as medievals please). I hope I got that right.
    This is fantasy. Writers don’t have to (or shouldn’t have to) slave away to an “authentic” mode of thought. None of these worlds are real-they’ve either lasted way too long, have impossibly large structures, have non human sentients, and magic of some kind is likely to be real. The point of fantasy is to create new worlds. Now, is most of fantasy still stuck in “Bloody Ol’ England” stand ins? Unfortunately, yes.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 22, 2011 11:14 am

  54. Following up on my previous comment, I have to admit that I’m not keen on medieval history, especially western European. And consequently, I’m not as keen on most medieval fantasy. I would love to more “periods” explored, but recognize that that is unlikely given the market.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 22, 2011 4:24 pm

  55. I agree with the opening of your post. It has indeed been quite some time between the publication of Tolkien and the emergence of Abercrombie and the world of fantasy literature has changed a great deal on all three counts—historical, literary and philosophical. What I take issue with is that neither you nor Mr. Grin provide actual examples from _The First Law_ or any other of Abercrombie’s books except for one small fragment detailing the motley crew assembled by the author. Instead, you both use broad generalizations, intended to start debate. You also never provide a concrete definition of Nihilism. If you will allow me: By definition it is 1) the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless, 2) extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence, 3) _historical_ the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c. 1900 which found nothing to approve of in the established social order. (Oxford American College Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2002, pg 918.) By its very nature, nihilism falls beyond the purview of morality since it is the absence of morals. Therefore I fail to see how you can have nihilistic morality.
    I have read all four of Abercrombie’s books (please, save your snark). To be sure, there is an awful lot of cynicism, dark irony and justification (i.e. we have power, therefore we can do X.) But, where, I ask, is all this nihilism that you speak of in Joe Abercrombie’s books? As I stated, I have read them and quite thoroughly enjoyed them myself because the characters were quite well done. And I think that Mr. Grin, in his summation of _The First Law_ leaves out some details. True, at the end there is a sickness that sweeps over the population of the capital. And yes, the king is revealed to be nothing but a puppet for the sorcerer. You know part of the ending. But the whole story? I think not. There is a lot going on in the books and I think to talk about the books as nihilistic is cheapening them. If they were truly nihilistic then I don’t think people would respond to them as positively as they have. John O’Niell puts it best when he said that today’s readers want flawed characters. Abercrombie gives them to us. In spades. Here a just a few.
    Glotka, in _The First Law_ starts out doing things that are historically anti-social: he tortures people until they tell him the Truth. He wasn’t always like that, though. Prior to the events of the books, he was a dashing you cavalry officer who was captured, imprisoned, tortured and left a cripple by the Gurkish. Upon his return to the Union, he was shunned by his family and wound up working for the Inquisition. He does some pretty horrible things, mostly under the direction of his superiors while at the same time trying to uncover facts about what is going on, only to be thwarted at every turn. He also reiterates through a running internal monologue about how dead he feels inside. However, at the end he saves the king’s mistress’s life after being ordered to kill her.
    Logen is shown to have a split personality. One is a well-mannered individual who just wants to try and keep on surviving. The other is a bloody, indiscriminate killer who comes out when Logen is in battle. However, throughout the books we learn more and more about his bloody past, and his attempts to change how he is perceived.
    Ferro, I will say, could be the only true nihilist in _The First Law_. She has no love for anyone and thirsts only for vengeance against the Gurkish. She has some moments of doubt, but always shuts them away by proclaiming her own personal philosophy of trusting no one and expecting nothing.
    I’m not saying that the three characters above don’t engage in horrible acts, just that nowhere in the books do I recall Logen or Glotka feeling joy in inflicting pain on others. For Glotka it’s just a job. Does that make it right? I don’t think so and as the story proceeds, neither does Glotka. Ferro, well, Ferro marches to her own drummer. The characters who ‘enthusiastically embrace historically anti-social behaviors such as rape, murder and torture’ (Severard, Ladisla are two) get what’s coming to them.
    Your second point about good and evil being ‘more or less relative’ in modern fantasy doesn’t quite cut the mustard either. Sticking to _The First Law_ for examples, perhaps the problem some people have is that evil is hidden behind smoke and mirrors instead of out in the open. From a historical standpoint, this rings true. Except for a few instances, good and evil depend upon which side you are on. There is an air of mystery permeating the books. Indeed, Abercrombie has stated his affection for noir. Glotka, Logen and company scramble around trying to figure out just who is really the enemy. Sure, they end up fighting a common enemy, but their resolutions at the end are quite different, once the true evil is revealed. The answer is surprising and the ‘twist’ so decried by some at the end of _The First Law_. There is Evil, it just doesn’t hit you over the head or wear a shiny ring.
    To your third point about a morally confused anti-hero acting conventionally heroic in one instance and then conventionally evil in the next again I ask, where are the examples? I’ll use Glotka because I like him and because he is a major player in _The First Law_. He works for the Inquisition, whose job is to root out traitors to the crown by any means necessary, usually torture. It’s his job. He does it because it’s all he really has left in his life. He tortures people, has them killed and dumped into harbors, that kind of thing. But as the story progresses, and once he’s thrown in the deep end by his superior, he begins to question the validity of his orders because he begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. This goes hand in hand with just how dense the layers of the story get and enlightenment comes to both reader and character once all is revealed at the end, which I won’t give away here. (Again, please save your snark.)
    The fourth point, which is how modern fantasy is neither ground breaking nor creative is not at all well represented. Do you have an example of ground breaking, creative modern fantasy? I nominate Joe Abercrombie. I say his true attacks are not on the targets of the past now deemed safe by modern sensibilities. Sure, they’re there (it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the Gurkish are a fantasy stand in for the Ottoman Turks) and yes they invade but they’re not the total focus of the story. Instead, the true enemy is shown to be something much more sinister: one man’s grand design, the lust for power and the corruption that it breeds from the complacency of a populace more interested in keeping the status quo than in the pursuit of knowledge. Again, it’s not rocket science that Bayaz has much in common with the medieval papacy and also Hitler. Also, I fail to see how you can have nihilistic morality since the two are mutually exclusive.
    Your critique of Abercrombie’s response left me confused. Are you saying that European Christendom and Western Civilization are one and the same or that the former had great influence on the latter? If the second part is what you are getting at, then I can agree with you. Without European Christendom we would not have a western civilization as we know it. However, if the first part—that European Christendom and Western Civilization are one and the same, then I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree. Here’s why.
    I would imagine that Western Christendom was not a nice place to live. Sure, you’d have all the cathedrals, castles and grand Gothic architecture serving as a bulwark against the hordes from the East. A lot of them are even still around today, albeit in various states of decay. However, one needs to look beyond the images of splendor to get an accurate picture of Western Christendom. The pope pretty much ruled the populace through the various bishops and monasteries. You couldn’t be a legitimate monarch without being crowned by someone within the Church. Old beliefs were stamped out without mercy. Anyone who didn’t convert was put to the sword or forced to renounce their beliefs lest it shatter the bedrock upon which the Church had built its power. Chivalry was more like a set of guidelines than rules and it didn’t stop the historically anti-social behaviors of rape and torture from going on. There’s a reason people along the eastern end of the Mediterranean called the crusaders the Franj. As much as we want to laud the heroes of the past and dress them in silver and gold, I suspect the actual person would be somewhat less than savory. And I’m quite glad that we have shaken off the superstition of the Middle Ages for the pursuit of knowledge.
    As for your point that Western civilization is opposed to all the eastern(read, for me at any rate, Asian) doctrines and philosophies; that washes out when you throw fantasy into the mix. Sure, most heroic fantasy is set in a pseudo-medieval European setting. That’s where King Arthur, Beowulf and Roland fought their battles, and where Chaucer’s pilgrims traded bawdy stories. But that doesn’t mean the world has to adhere strictly to the historical facts of the era. After all, this is Fantasy. The author can use as much or as little of history as he or she wants to. (I pointed out in a previous post that I found a lot of analogues to historical events in _The First Law_, such as the sacking of Constantinople and the Turkish invasion of southern Europe. You could even say that the Wars of Beleriand in _The Silmarillion_ were Tolkien’s literary analogue to World War One.) Which leads me to your dislike for eastern philosophies like ‘balance’ being used in fantasy. So what? It’s the author’s world, isn’t it? If he decides to imagine a world where you have grand gothic castles and cathedrals raised to honor some form of Taoism, then let him. When you look at the influx of Eastern (Asian) Thought into the West it seems only logical that such concerns would begin to show up in literature. And Nature seeks to maintain a balance.
    If you’ll allow a tangent. Suppose we compare Tolkien (and Howard, I suppose) to the castles, cathedrals and grand Gothic architecture. As anyone who’s traveled abroad, or looked at a photo essay book, can see, many of them are still standing and in use today. And in use. Something about it resonates with us even now when as we stand in awe of what people accomplished centuries ago without the benefits of modern construction methods. Last time I checked Tolkien was still in print and so was Howard. He even got definitive text editions of all his stories. I think it’s safe to say that neither of them are going anywhere anytime soon. They are two of the pillars on which all fantasy (from the 1930s onward, anyway) rests. We’re not talking about tearing them (Tolkien and Howard) down and salting the earth from whence they sprang. Without them, there would be no Abercrombie, Erikson, Moorcock, Cook, Martin, and so on. And, this discussion wouldn’t be taking place.
    To the last point. It seems to me that people who find Abercrombie’s (or whatever other author you want to slag) work guilty of contributing to the decline of western civilization wish to reserve the right of artistic creation (literary or otherwise) for some kind of self-absorbed cultural elite who are only interested in maintaining the status quo. Keep the college educated, middle-class liberal arts majors out of our club before they ruin everything, Grin seems to be saying. Both history and nature show that in order for something to survive, it must adapt to new concerns or die out.

    Comment by Light in the Black - February 24, 2011 12:31 am

  56. I almost forgot. Thank you for you time and I apologize for being so long winded.

    Comment by Light in the Black - February 24, 2011 12:33 am

  57. […] slant that it was easy for his detractors to dismiss him. That’s why I’m glad for Theo’s essay at Black Gate, which expands on the original points and turns the discussion away from gripes and into actual […]

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  58. […] gate observes the replacement of heroes by anti heroes, and the replacement of morality by anti morality: Thus we can be confident that the murderous, blaspheming anti-hero who rapes and tortures children […]

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  59. […] a couple of essays taking differing views on the merits of Grin’s post. Theo Spark is pro-Grin: Last week, I read with great interest the discussion that began with Leo Grin’s comparison of […]

    Pingback by At Least It’s An Ethos « Everything Is Nice - February 27, 2011 11:09 am

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

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Epic Fantasy: Notes Toward a Definition - February 27, 2011 9:32 pm

  61. […] on the New Nihilism of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and others subsequent to a post entitled The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel, I found myself interested in the works of my interlocutor, who happened to be the author of The […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Crüel World of R. Scött Bâkkër - July 3, 2011 6:49 am

  62. health…

    […]Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel[…]…

    Trackback by health - October 10, 2011 7:58 am

  63. […] most readers here as a perfectly absurd perspective, especially since many who disagreed with my literary criticism of the ahistorical nihilism that presently infects the fantasy genre did so on the basis of a false assumption that my critique […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The SF classics and the human condition - December 4, 2011 12:16 pm


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