I’ve never been part of a book club until recently, and feel quite lucky to have attended one in which all members were writers and editors in some way involved with the fantasy genre, both men and women were evenly represented, and the book lent itself well to discussion of fantasy literature’s various facets: not only questions of plot, structure, and characterization, but also what ethos (if any) heroic fantasy is meant to illustrate.
The book in question was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, which I understand has become a boogeyman to those who look to fantasy for uplifting tales of derring-do that affirm the indomitable human spirit. This, to the online fantasy community, is now ancient history (which means a blog post incited the argument over three months ago). It was, however, news to me.
The Blade Itself is by no means a book above criticism, but to attack the ideological bent of this fantasy series seems deeply strange to me. I’ve been informed one of the main proponents of this criticism is Leo Grin, who claims to not to be a fan of fantasy as much as “the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation (?), and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.” Mr. Grin believes the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard best represent these.
These two narratives are very much at odds with one another. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is a might-makes-right savage: an animalistic fighter of cunning and brutality, a hard-drinking loner, a murderous outlaw hateful of civilization’s power structures. The Lord of the Rings is a story of fellowship: a tale of civilization preserved through collective action, where the true heroes are the quiet good-hearted subjects who walk onward in the face of doom to restore order and preserve the Divine Right of Kings. Conan is very frontier America, The Lord of the Rings is stereotypically English, and neither is much for “thematic richness.”
I suppose they do both affirm the idea that one can, through sufficient action and willpower, create positive change (even if that change might be successfully burgling someone else’s temple of worship, or achieving massive racial extermination; are not orcs people, too?). But what these tales both lack is the nihilism, or perhaps what Lovecraft would call the sense of “cosmic doom,” so ubiquitous in the “myths and fables of old.”
What is sometimes misidentified as “nihilism” is an ever-present thread in the literature of myth, legend and fantasy. It is the grim concept of “fate.” And the one aspect of fate shared by all mortals is inevitable death, and every act of hero’s life is but a matter of forestalling it—especially in the Anglo-Saxon traditions. This elegiac attitude is central to Beowulf, whose hero is acutely aware that bold acts are the only means he possesses to stave off oblivion. “Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good,” he says. Yes, death is coming for you, but if you are ballsy enough it might hold off for a while yet.
Beowulf brims with mortal/existential anxiety. The impermanence of all human achievement is expressed numerous times in its lines: . . . . the coat of mail that came through all fights / through shield-collapse and cut of sword / decays with the warrior . . . And death, in the form of a dragon, does come for Beowulf, and so he does “seek the doom of those fast in truth.”
Le Morte d’Arthur, written in prison by notoriously violent drifter and accused rapist Sir Thomas Mallory, adapts the romance of Arthurian legend without overlooking the innate death-drive of those good old-fashioned legends. (Mallory did know a thing or two about living by the sword.) Camelot falls when friends and lovers betray the rape-spawned hero-king, Arthur. He is mortally wounded in the process of slaughtering his bastard incest-son on the battlefield. We get this uplifting gem toward the end of it all:
Then Sir Bedivere cried and said, “Ah, my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies?”
“Comfort thyself,” said the King, “and do as well as thou mayest, for in me is no trust to trust in…”
The inescapable downfall of flawed people, places, and things is a long-standing part of the fantasy tradition. Deeper characterization in modern fantasy literature (as opposed to the archetypes of folkloric or mythic forms) might make the unsavory elements of human struggles more acutely felt, but it really doesn’t make them new and corrupting phenomena. Few things are more ancient than pessimism. But I suppose by not revering the sacred tropes of fantasy (or even acknowledging their existence), I am in the just one of those “punk kids farting in class and getting some giggles from the other mouth-breathers,” as Mr. Grin would put it. Perhaps we should look to a passage from Michael Moorcock’s new, edgy fantasy series known as the Elric Saga for a response, when the thing known as Stormbringer speaks at last:
“Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou.”
And then it leapt from the earth and went spearing upwards, its wild voice laughing mockery at the Cosmic Balance; filling the universe with unholy joy.
But I suppose all this has little to do with the flesh and bones of The Blade Itself. It is a book with a lot going for it. For example, Abercrombie captures the unforgiving physical brutality of hand-to-hand combat with an eye for detail rivaling any of Howard’s bloody pulps. The breathless wet prose brought to these moments seems to have a certain amount of glee to it, and this sometimes undermines the supposed misgivings its perpetrators (the barbarian Logen in particular) have about dealing it out. Perhaps this isn’t accidental. Some characters, such as the ruined war hero turned inquisitor, Glokta, have sufficient inner turmoil and dramatic weight to inspire the reader to actually care what happens to them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most of the story’s players.
It’s inevitable that this series receive some A Song of Ice and Fire comparisons that, along with Tolkien parallels, are the herpes of fantasy criticism (if you write enough fantasy, you will eventually get them). I will spread the outbreak here. You may feel free to suppress it later. In Game of Thrones, characters have clear motivations, and engage in various plots and subplots with distinct arcs affecting the story as a whole. The reader delights in this tapestry of threads, and is consistently rewarded for his effort with new revelations as the book progresses. And Martin’s characters are not all deviations culled from other sword & sorcery novels of the last 80-some years. I wish I could say the same for The Blade Itself.
Those expecting a gritty alternative to fantasy tropes are not going to find it in Abercrombie’s debut novel. We have a barbarian — from the North, of course. We have a handsome arrogant nobleman. We have a beautiful woman who serves as his love interest and little else. We have a dungeon-keeper/torturer with physical infirmities indicative of his flawed morality. We have a strange wizard who knows more than he lets on. We have a dark-skinned savage woman from the deserts of the south. We have a glorious imperial city with gold domes, burbling fountains, and towers that are soaring. We have evil armies massing in desolate lands. We have a prophecy or two. Fans of the genre won’t be put off by this, but it certainly takes more to re-imagine genre conventions than making them drop an f-bomb now and then over a flagon of ale.
Speaking of conflict, that’s another thing that undermines The Blade Itself. If one is going to introduce stock devices, a reader expects a plot that fulfills their promise. Each chapter should answer a question, and then present another. The stakes rise as the pages turn, and we get caught up in the tale as it unfolds, and so on.
The Blade Itself involves a lot of people running about and getting into swordfights, except when it involves people wandering around and torturing other people. Having finished the thing, I still don’t know exactly who I’m supposed to care about here, why they are being gathered together by the wizard, where they’re going, and what they’re supposed to do once they get there. I’m not sure what this novel is about, exactly.
The book is structurally questionable at best. A new point-of-view character is introduced over one hundred pages in, and then disappears for scores of pages only to resurface at random times so wizard-number-two can solve problems for her. (Magic solves many problems, magically.) One group of characters is still stomping around in the North at the novel’s end, never having done anything to directly affect the lives of any of the other characters. Perhaps this matters in the second book of the series. Or the third. But it doesn’t matter in the first, which is frustrating when that happens to be the book you’re reading. And though I turned page after page, and enjoyed much of it, I’m not particularly compelled to move on to part two if I still don’t know why I read part one.
I’m hoping Abercrombie’s talents (which are many) developed into something more compelling in his more recent works.