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All Quests End in Death: The New Old Nihilism of Heroic Fantasy and a look at The Blade Itself

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 | Posted by G. Winston Hyatt

bgblade1I’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.

bgfellowshipThese 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.”

Art by Bertha Rogers

Art by Bertha Rogers

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:

bgelric“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.

bghangedThose 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.

bgkingsThe 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.

13 Comments »

  1. An ideal book club, the four of us. Did we decide on Dandelion Wine next? And Adventures of Alyx? Gosh. I have to get to the library…

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - May 18, 2011 1:08 pm

  2. I agree with the thrust of the argument here, in that it is a criticism of Leo Grin’s apparent cognitive dissonance when it comes to Conan and his relation Abercrombie’s fiction — and that of Fantasy fiction generally. One of Moorcock’s complaints about LotR was its lack of tragic humanism that classic epics had in spades.

    Where I take significant issue with your characterization is: “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.”

    Quite the contrary actually. As I wrote in a post entitled “What’s So Special About Conan,” (http://cinerati.blogspot.com/2007/10/whats-so-special-about-conan.html) I pointed out that in Phoenix on the Sword that Conan is an ardent defender of the artistic elements of civilization, “For Conan, the atypical Cimmerian, poems and the arts have more power than weapons or royal authority. Not only that, but it is right and just that this is the case.”

    My full argument is at the post. Needless to say, Conan is a complex barbarian who isn’t served well by reductive statements about Civilization etc.

    Comment by ChristianLindke - May 18, 2011 3:23 pm

  3. There is bleakness in mythology, but in the Northern epics the heroes did not give up, even though death was inevitable. They even approached death with levity, at times. Tolkien dubbed this “the northern theory of courage.” Tolkien was pessimistic, both personally and in his works (see The Long Defeat of the elves, and especially The Silmarillion/The Children of Hurin), but he did believe that there was something worth fighting for—and that, even if this fallen, broken world ends only in darkness and uncertainty, something better waits beyond.

    Grin did a good job describing what is “right and good” in Tolkien in his articles subsequent to “Bankrupt Nihilism”, but I feel like he left it unfinished; in my opinion he did not do an adequate job explaining why Conan/Howard’s heroes are not nihilistic.

    If I could perhaps speak for him: Conan has his own rough barbaric code. For example he does not rape (though you can argue that it was his intent in “The Frost Giants Daughter”), nor murder children to fulfill his ambitions. Howard’s stories contain violence but he does not revel in grue. Conan despised civilization because he thought it was a corruptive influence. Howard saw civilization’s downfall not as a reason for joy but an inevitable occurrence.

    That said I do think there are fundamental differences between Tolkien and Howard. Tolkien had a benevolent creator at the center of his universe while Howard had the grim god Crom, who was only one god among many and at best gave men strength of arm and the will to use it, but otherwise did not interfere in their affairs. (And to quibble with some of your descriptions, Conan understood the power of the pen, and used tactics as well as animal instinct when fighting).

    I cannot vouch for the moral compasses of Abercrombie’s characters as I have not read any of his fiction (yet). But I have read Martin’s and it is pretty bleak, even in comparison to Howard. It’s hard to say what, if anything, is worth fighting for in his universe.

    My own take is that there is a place for “nihilism” in fantasy because it’s part of the human condition; there are plenty of awful people out there who care only for their own ambitions, and fantasy can certainly provide comment. I personally have enjoyed much of Martin’s series. But I wouldn’t want to make a steady diet out of it.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - May 18, 2011 3:23 pm

  4. I’m glad someone came to the defense of Conan, who is often miscast as a lustful savage. Christian did a fine job setting the record straight, so I’m just popping in to give him a thumbs up.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - May 18, 2011 4:37 pm

  5. I don’t think it’s possible to comment on “The Blade Itself” in isolation. It’s part one of a trilogy and everything in it is subverted by the final hundred (amazing) pages of “Last Argument of Kings”.

    Also, for any undecided readers out there, let us not forget that Joe Abercrombie also displays a wonderful sense of humour in these books. They don’t take themselves as seriously as some of the critics do.

    Comment by peadarog - May 18, 2011 4:54 pm

  6. On the whole, a good article. I want to echo Howard’s thumbs up for Christian. Howard’s Conan is often unfairly maligned.
    Back to the article itself, I agree that a “new” epic or heroic fantasy requires more than just f-bombs, gore, and sex. I tried reading The Blade Itself, and was not impressed.

    Comment by sftheory1 - May 18, 2011 5:07 pm

  7. I have to admit to reading The First Law trilogy all at once, as if it were one book. I mean, I literally opened up the second book the minute after completing The Blade Itself, so in my mind I can’t distinguish where one book left off and the next began. The trilogy works all together, of course — though I have to agree that the first book is weaker than the second two. It certainly feels like a “first novel,” but I was sufficiently impressed with the writing to keep reading on to the next.

    I did keep asking myself “where is this going?” I wonder if Abercrombie sold all three at once and there was a publisher’s decision to split it into three, or if he wrote the first one hap-hazardously (not really knowing where it was headed) and then tied it all together when he got to the second two. Maybe he was trying to world build into an epic twenty-volume series?

    I don’t care, though. The writing and story was FUN to read. People who worry about the ideological foundation of a fantasy series or someone who’s looking for “myths and their timeless truths” would probably bore me in a conversation about this book. It was damned entertaining, okay? And Mr. Hyatt explained pretty clearly what those “timeless truths” are: everybody dies. Boring! The Last Argument of kings was exciting and fulfilling. If anything, I thought the story wasn’t as gory or gritty as other fantasy works I’ve read. Take Glenn Cook’s “The Black Company” series, for instance.

    We’re not living in an age where ideology or theme will win over an audience. Everything an author does today needs to compete with television, films, and other visual media. And you need to have clever, engaging dialogue. There’s simply no time for exposition (nobody can stand reading it), unless you disguise it somehow. Limited POV characters are great at achieving this because the audience doesn’t expect any insight that the character could not come up with themselves. You can skip the exposition that a omniscient narrator might get mired in, and have to explain things either by dialog with more knowledgeable characters or by having the audience learn along with the POV character(s).

    To get back to the Blade Itself: no I wasn’t that impressed with the overall story — but I could overlook that when the prose, mood, and characters are compelling enough to drag me along. And I’m glad I stuck with it to the end of the trilogy.

    Comment by albamuth - May 18, 2011 6:32 pm

  8. Albamuth,

    I must disagree with you. If, as you say, an author must do these things to compete in today’s media environment, then why are so many long dead author’s selling so well? In the last few years, we’ve had Howard (real Howard, not the edited de Camp), Lamb, and others back in print. Tolkien continues to be enormously popular.
    Perhaps nihilism isn’t the right word for the ‘edgy’ fantasy of the last few years. I’d use the word juvenile. And since nihilism and angst are frequently present in our teenage years, I can see where critics arrive can misconstrue the underlying theme. The same issues can be seen in film and, really, in all of art. Hack artists of all types increasingly rely upon cheap shock value and, to my ongoing amazement, it sells.

    Comment by Tyr - May 18, 2011 7:42 pm

  9. Tyr:

    I’m talking about new works of literature — and I don’t think we disagree, regarding hacks relying on cheap shock or tired tropes (just look at the glut of contemporaneous vampire novels). My point was, I didn’t think The Blade Itself was hack writing, simply because it recycled some common fantasy tropes. However, it doesn’t stand up on its own without including the trailing two books, because of the reasons Mr. Hyatt pointed out (questions unanswered, no real ending to the novel/volume).

    Old classics do well because … well, they’re classics (meaning, that they’ve come through the ages because they were probably popular as their first edition run; they’ve built up a loyal following and tons of word-of-mouth recommendations, larger media franchises, and sometimes even become part of college syllabi)

    Trust me, I’ve experienced my share of hack writing in several genres. Usually, I don’t get more than 10-20 pages in. Sometimes, even the first page will force me to put the book down. My tolerance (and attention span) is pretty low for crappy writing.

    But, this trilogy somehow managed to keep me reading all the way through (perhaps in part due to the convenience of having all 3 books loaned to me at once). If I thought the writing relied on cheap shocks, I would have put it down pretty quickly.

    Comment by albamuth - May 18, 2011 8:35 pm

  10. Just leaving yet another thumbs up for Christian’s defense of Howard’s Conan.

    Comment by Kerstan Szczepanski - May 19, 2011 1:27 am

  11. In defense of my very brief evaluation of Conan, I would like to point out that I perhaps meant he is a character hateful of society’s corruptions, particularly those of urban environments, as opposed to society as a whole. Conan isn’t amoral, he has a code much like many lone-gunslinger types that populated pulps of the time. And while Conan might carry a love of song in his heart, it is worth noting that this doesn’t keep him from splattering his beloved poet’s head in “The Phoenix on the Sword.”

    Conan generally resolves conflicts in a similar manner, and I don’t recall many pages devoted to his pursuit of posey, architecture, or song-craft. He kicks ass for a living, people, and is a better ass-kicker than a king. (It also would make sense that REH wouldn’t make his idealized man despise what REH does for a living, hence Conan’s expressions of manly love for poets/storytellers, even after he, well, kills them.) Still, I will concede that the character is more nuanced than this short entry paints him. Christian’s response and posting certainly has inspired me to revisit the stories with new eyes, and I thank him for that.

    Comment by G. Winston Hyatt - May 19, 2011 1:21 pm

  12. I don’t think anyone meant to browbeat you, G. Winston. I think many of us feel protective of Robert E. Howard and Conan because he and his creation have been so casually maligned and dismissed for so long. And still are today, indeed, by many.

    And it must be said that he gave the poet Rinaldo multiple chances to NOT end up dead, even getting wounded himself in the process.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - May 19, 2011 6:29 pm

  13. […] mean, we started out with The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, which was written up by Mr. Hyatt back in May. Then we decided to get our claws into some Joanna Russ and vintage Bradbury. Next we’re […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Alyx Among the Dandelions: Exploring Joanna Russ and Ray Bradbury - October 5, 2011 6:50 pm


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