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Another View: The Difficult Experiment of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

Monday, October 2nd, 2017 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

A-Gathering-of-Ravens-smallerI really wanted to like this book. With pleasure I listened to Oden speak on The Literary Wonder and Adventure Show. He talked at length about Tolkien (my own spiritual and literary master), and it seemed that Oden’s and my dials were approximately set. Oden’s book, like Tolkien’s most popular works, deals with “that northern thing” (though I just today learned that Tolkien objected, in part, to this characterization from W.H. Auden).

But Oden’s book is so grimdark that, while reading, I couldn’t find my feet. The work ostensibly is about an orc Hel-bent on revenge — and here is my first objection: the attitudes and actions of this orc, our “protagonist,” are indistinguishable from those of the larger majority of characters in the book. Grimnir, our orc, seems capable only of speaking and thinking in profanities. He murders even when there absolutely is no reason to. The only thing (in this book) we can’t accuse Grimnir of is the sin of rape. That assault remains to be committed by many of the other “human” characters you will find therein: your average male, in this portrayal, seems hardwired to enter rape mode the moment he lays eyes upon any “unprotected” female. Now, remember, Grimnir is supposed to be the “orc,” yet he doesn’t behave much differently from the novel’s many other human characters. Moreover, even when it doesn’t cost a character anything necessarily, few characters are liable to show any shred of kindness for one another. Oden’s narrator summarizes this world’s milieu thusly: “She [the character Etain] knew the score … and she knew sooner or later there would be a reckoning. Men did nothing — undertook no good deed, performed no kindness — without first attaching a price to it.” Oden’s characters, I suppose, are consummate Dark Age businesspersons.

“But that’s the Way It Was,” a number on Goodreads might say, defending Oden’s work from the very few negative reviews I can find there (here and here are two well-said assessments). What these apologists are claiming is that the worldview of the so-called Dark Ages is exactly this: murder whenever you can get away with it, rape whenever you like (for those who like it, I guess, who are all young pre-modern men). I don’t entirely agree with this representation. In the worst possible reading, this might represent the author’s views of the natural state of humankind freed from the fetters or checks thankfully supplied by modernity. In the best possible reading, this representation assumes that, at least in the area of moral development, humans who happened to live a mere millennia ago might be considered pre-human in these respects. Granted, the spread of more nation-building and socializing beliefs and philosophies such as Christianity might have a civilizing influence on a pre-modern worldview, might even be of some aid in the sense of an evolving moral consciousness. But this book barely acknowledges even this. It ostensibly presents two competing worldviews, that of northern paganism and that of Christianity, but, in this book, in practice adherents to either faith might as well be indistinguishable. They merely serve one team in a two-sided competition that is drawn as equal in every respect. Again, apologists should be quick to point to aspects of history that reveal a number of Christians as hypocritical and intolerant throughout their persecutions. Granted, but are you going to deny that there remain some fundamental differences and worldviews between the two perspectives, and therefore requisite actions and behaviors on behalf of the religion’s adherents? To this point Oden seems to relent, to some measure, in the second and much-preferred half of the book, in the figures of King Brian and his freed thrall Ragnar. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

gardens-of-the-moonOther apologists might defend this book on merits of genre. It’s grimdark, they say. If it’s too much for you, simply let it alone. The thing is I do read — and often enjoy — works that are termed grimdark. I’ve read through G.R.R. Martin twice. I read Steven Erikson. This is not what I’m used to. Oden’s darkness is relentless. I think some readers enjoy this kind of writing because, while reading it, they get a sense that thoughts, characters and worlds portrayed therein are So True, utterly divorced of naive sentimentality. The problem is, obviously, that too loud a note spoils the song. The “reality” strains the bounds of credulity. What Chesterton says about his generation’s form of modern writing might be applied here: “Modern tragic writers have to write short stories; if they wrote long stories … cheerfulness would creep in. Such stories are like stings; brief, but purely painful.” Oden’s much longer story, for me, was therefore more like prolonged torture.

Writing a review like this is a tricky affair. It is so hard to make a living as a writer — in fact, most don’t — and there are fewer and fewer readers out there to give writers even token payment for their hours of turmoil and trouble in producing a work of heart and soul often to be savaged by casual critics. As a result, many readers simply set aside the books that don’t sit right with them. If they review anything, they tend to review only those works which they enjoyed, which they want to share with a larger community. In this noisy world, they seek to increase the bandwidth of their favorites. Besides, I suspect that Oden and I, this book aside, can be very good friends. In fact, I’m certain that we are friends at one remove. It is clear that he communicates directly with many members of the community here on Blackgate. [In fact, before publishing this review, I reached out to Scott and we did, indeed, correspond.] I should wish — and do wish — only the best for him. So why try to diminish his success? I should recognize that A Gathering of Ravens simply was not for me and let all of those who might enjoy such a thing do so without comment.

And this is what I intended to do until I completed the book and noticed from Oden no small amount of ambivalence for what he himself had done! This was given in his Author’s Note, in which it became clear that A Gathering of Ravens was a bit of an experiment — that, like some others, Oden had sought to “redeem” the orc — and he wasn’t at all certain that, even though published, his book had accomplished that. I recognized that Oden was working within a conversation that had begun with Tolkien, and I consequently felt invited into that discourse.

To start with Tolkien, then, Oden, in his Author’s Note, cites Steve Tompkins, who writes, “To reconfigure them [Orcs] as an unlovely-but-arguably-racially-profiled warrior-race, unrestricted free agents looking for a destiny of their own is to risk losing the plot.” The plot that is at risk, of course, is Tolkien’s, whose Orcs were bred in twisted pits of alchemy, “bent” (since, in Tolkien’s worldview, nothing purely evil is — by Boethian definition — capable of “creating” anything, even anything evil) from “good” or pure Elves. In other words, if I am understanding Boethian evil correctly (and I am relying a lot here on Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century), Tolkien’s Orcs understand what “good” is, and yet they are incapable of tolerating or condoning it. In fact, they are genetically engineered to fight against it. They are, indeed, “bent” beyond redemption and worthy of destruction at the good hands of those performing God’s will.

jrr_tolkienIn this view, Oden’s orc Grimnir behaves in precisely this way. Since he is an orc, of course he is expected to behave in this way. And yet, as I have already pointed out, Grimnir’s behavior is not appreciably different from anyone else’s in the book. If Oden’s task is no more than to redeem the orc, then it appears he has succeeded for no other reason than that the orc really is no different from any one of us (to follow the latent grimdark worldview). Either this is the lesson or it is another, that none of us — neither orcs nor humans — are worthy of redemption: we all are vile and gross.

Unless either of these or both — that we are no better than orcs or that we are orcs — is the point, it appears that the experiment has failed. For a proper study of an orc, the orc should be kept in a controlled environment. The orc, vile, reprehensible, beyond redemption, should be seen to operate in an environment that is counter to its nature, one that is graceful, mild, forgiving.

In his note, Oden seems to suggest that he has removed the orc from its proper environment. That environment is Tolkien’s fictive world, whereas Oden imagined what the orc would be like if it had a real, historical antecedent. This, though, Tolkien might allow only in part. In a letter to his son Christopher Tolkien while his son served in the Royal Air Force, Tolkien writes (and I might as well quote at length),

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in “realistic” fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For “romance” has grown out of “allegory”, and its wars are still derived from the “inner war” of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se! And what it is all about (or thought to be). It is even in this world possible to be (more or less) in the wrong or in the right.

Clearly Tolkien himself is ambivalent about whether it might be more accurate to consign the orc to the interior or allegorical being of the person or to apply them as a metaphor for the ways in which so many “real” people, in the exterior, behave. In light of this ambivalence, making a real, historical orc and thereafter redeeming him might be too difficult an experiment, and reading the results might be too difficult an experiment for readers like me. However, there were elements to like. I appreciated experiencing Oden’s representation of mythic and folk elements. It was interesting to see what soup he boiled out of Tolkien’s (and others’) ingredients.

The final thing to address is this “missing” plot. The way in which Oden approaches this question is through the critic Tompkins, and in this lens to miss the plot is to neglect the eugenical genesis of the orc. There is another consideration, though: Grimnir is much too “one-note” to sustain a novel of this length. A more interesting novel would have taken Njall and King Brian as its central characters. This is because they would have been better able to highlight the tensions outlined above by Tolkien, balancing the beasts of pre-history, so to speak, with the encroaching, transfiguring culture of angels. With all irony, however, I say that for me to explore this theoretical novel any further would be to spoil Oden’s “plot.”

Gabe Dybing blogs about Norse-themed roleplaying and other gaming pursuits at Tower of the Valkyrie. He used to publish, with fellow commentator Nick Ozment, Mooreeffoc Magazine.



  1. It is generally considered bad form to reply to a review, but yours is so thought out and precise that I feel it warrants a reply.

    First, it’s a good critique. My defense, though, is kind of “lame”: before I could redeem the Orc in the world I’d created, I first had to show him in his day-to-day existence: snarling, spitting, profane, full of hate, quick to anger and quicker to murder, whose world is darker than dark. Then, in increments, I peel that away. He still speaks mostly in curses and epithets, but I added layers of rough honor. I tried to make him slightly better than those he faced — he’s still a stone-killer, but at least he’s not a hypocrite like Hrothmund, or alien like Nechtan. Etain knew Danes; my reasoning was, she’d use that to know Grimnir, as well.

    The disparity between halves of the book was noted by Patrice Louinet, as well. He was a beta reader: half the book is a grim Norse saga, hopeless and without redeeming qualities; the second half is an Irish epic, grim, dark, but with a sliver of hope. He wondered if that was an accident of the writing. No, that was a feature I’d intended. As Grimnir grows more “amiable”, his world changes. It’s supposed to illuminate his minuscule character change, but it may have been a case of “too little”.

    I disagree with the idea that Grimnir and Etain aren’t dynamic, though I fear such an argument would ultimately boil down to “are too!” and “are not!” Suffice it to say, they were dynamic enough for *me* to sustain my interest through 334 pages of prose. Mileage, as they say, will vary.

    Your ideas would make for a great novel, seriously. But it wouldn’t be A Gathering of Ravens. Part of the draw of it, for me, was the dichotomy between Human-Christian and Non-human-Pagan. Human Christians and Pagans aren’t wildly different. They have a force of belief that’s very nearly identical to one another. But, I wanted to add a facet by introducing the Pagan world-view through the eyes of someone NOT hampered by mortality, someone who knows his side is “superior” because he’s *met* the gods and monsters of his faith. Met them in the flesh and not just as the figments of a religious fever dream. Now, I could have done this with a Human, true. It is, first and foremost, a fantasy. But, the driving force behind this book was the idea of presenting Orcs as a component of mythic history in such a way as to not see the zipper on the rubber suit or the blurry edges of bad CGI. Originally, I’d imagined AGoR as a second-world fantasy, with Orcs as Jannissary-like slave-soldiers to a mammoth monotheistic empire cribbed from the Ottoman playbook. But, it was plain. Bland. I toyed with trying to shoe-horn Orcs into Greek myth, as monstrous children of Phorcys and Ceto. Then, a friend bet me I couldn’t work them in to *actual* history. Gauntlet tossed and accepted!

    Because I know his whole arc, Grimnir is *real* to me, and that colors my perceptions. Now, I admit I didn’t expand on him as well as I could have. This is a failing I have as a writer — I’m lazy with explanation and illumination of character and motive. I rely on actions and dialogue, which sometimes do not lend themselves well to deep exploration. I also had to walk a fairly thin line where my editor was concerned. He would have *vastly* preferred your version — humanocentric, monsters in name only; Orcs by association to violence and unsavory deeds rather than Orcs in truth, cribbed from JRRT. Knowing what he wanted to see versus what I wanted to write forced me to tone back some of his more Orcish behaviors between first and final drafts — originally, he had no redeeming features, no rough code of honor, and no compunction about using Etain and tossing her aside. It was difficult to read, though more honest to what I’d wanted. I compromised between drafts, patterned him after an immortal version of Conan of Cimmeria rather than a version of Shagrat with Agency, and here we are.

    You outline an extremely good book (and with Brian being a “public domain” figure, you should write it), but a book that runs contrary to what I was trying to do with A Gathering of Ravens. I did not pull it off as well as I should have — writing non-humans who are viewed sympathetically by human readers is rather hard to do right, especially if your non-humans have a long pedigree of being the iron toes on the Boot of Evil.

    Thank you for your review, Gabe! Writers live for this sort of critical dissection.

    Comment by ScottOden - October 2, 2017 7:18 pm

  2. Ha! As has become clear, Scott and I conversed before I posted this review. In that conversation Scott asked about the alternative novel that I had in mind for his characters. In replying to this review, Scott went ahead and referred to that conversation as well. Here’s what I said about that! But be warned, it contains novel spoilers.

    [original message to Scott]

    First I would say that my difficulty with the characters you selected was that they weren’t dynamic. Critics on Goodreads already have pointed to this. Grimnir has no other goal than revenge. You’ve recently outlined for me his shallow arc: his interior weather changes from black tempest to gray rain. But this isn’t enough for me. Etain is almost incomprehensible. One would think that what she wants is to get away from all these evil men and find prayerful contemplation in an abbey somewhere. But when she finds opportunities for the first part, she rejects them, now believing that she must “witness” Grimnir’s outrages. O…kay. Not only do I have difficulty believing this (Stockholm syndrome, I suppose), but the glimmer-eyed confession of this to Grimnir felt artificial. Furthermore, this motivation makes Etain’s only purpose, outside of those times when she inscrutably helps Grimnir, to be that of a spectator or observer. Not a very compelling character. Nobody wants to watch somebody watching. We want to see doing.

    For this reason Njall and Brian strike me as much more dynamic. Njall ostensibly would have the same motivation of revenge as Grimnir, yet his need seems more compelling. Grimnir has lost kin, and he is fulfilling his feudal duty, but Njall has failed in a sacred duty or vow. Moreover, it appears that Grimnir’s violence has despoiled Njall of his new, Christian worldview.

    Njall’s narrative, then, is so much more interesting. Or would be. To get what he wants, Njall has to sacrifice the very reason why he wants his revenge. To get close to Grimnir’s target, Njall has to make himself the opposite of what he was and (presumably) wants to be. Moreover, this situation is rich in theme. Is revenge worth it when Njall must make himself as much of a monster as his enemy? What’s the distinction? Once a monster, is it even possible to care about what’s right, particularly after enacting or passively standing aside to multitudes of brutalities? Most simply and obviously, is this what Etain would want? No. So how does he justify this? Njall’s new name is powerful to this effect: it is not Njall doing these things but a dead man, and can an animated corpse be held accountable for its actions? But where does Njall believe his inviolate or justified soul has been all this time? Or is he like a terrorist who believes that all sin is holy as long as it is performed in service to a worthy goal?

    King Brian then serves as a fascinating double. He is tasked with waging a just war, on Christian principles, against an unscrupulous foe with his own unscrupulous soldiers. How does he tread the line between tactical necessity and sacrilege? How does he win a war while remaining a good person? Here Tolkien’s talk about “captains” and “believing one is right “ come to mind.

    With both these characters we have actual tensions between the old world and the new, between wrong and right, between orcs and angels. And tension is the soul of plot.

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - October 2, 2017 8:29 pm

  3. Hmm…Grimdark this, Grimdark that…I have no freaking idea what the hell Grimdark even is! But I know what A Gathering of Ravens is; damn good S&S/Dark Fantasy, and damn good entertainment. I’m simple, and as a reader my demands are simple; give me an interesting protagonist, an action-oriented plot and gritty, realistic details and I’m happy. I don’t need a cast of dozens with viewpoints to match. I don’t need 1000+ pages of over-stuffed filler there only to meet an ‘epic’ page count. Keep it simple, direct and fast moving. I’m not looking for the answer to the meaning of life; I want a story. Told with vigor, violence and heart, by a true storyteller. Like Robert E Howard. Or Scott Oden. Storytellers. And the story of Grimner is right up my alley, and hopefully, far from over.

    Comment by thedarkman - October 2, 2017 10:02 pm

  4. The concept of Grimdark started as a satire on dark and violent fiction. When the space fantasy game Warhammer 40,000 was created, it consisted of nothing but jokes about what was considered cool and edgy at the time. “In the grim and dark future of the 41st milennium there is only war.” It’s misery and violence and endless attrocities ALL THE TIME and EVERYWHERE. There is no concept of good, only endless attempts to out-evil each other. It was stupid and it was supposed to be stupid.
    But making fun of something that some people think is cool often goes over the head of the people who are being made fun of. Especially when they are 12 year old boys. And as time went on and those kids got older, some of them joined up to become writers for that setting and taking it’s deliberate ludicrousness serious. And then you got the modern Grimdark phenomenon.

    Martin and Erikson aren’t writing Grimdark. The just write fantasy with dark elements and frequent deaths. Evil is promient, but the concept of good also exists.

    Comment by Martin Kallies - October 3, 2017 4:26 am

  5. Thank YOU, Martin. Every fiber of my core cries exactly what you write of this grimdark bull. I roar in defiance of it and all its greedy grasping claims.

    Also a wonderfully thorough analysis, Gabe, thank you. Great Chesterton quote appropriately utilized as well. Wonderful excerpt from JRRT’s letter to his son as well, greatly brackets your observations. Beautifully eloquent good sir! I also admire your admission as to why you pursued this review and find it very cool you fleshed out your thoughts by engaging in discussion with author Oden himself.

    Comment by Jason M 'RBE' Waltz - October 3, 2017 4:03 pm

  6. When I was writing reviews, I often struggled with the knot of ethics and sympathies for writers whose books I hadn’t especially admired but whose professional struggles I shared. Often I put aside books, finished or not, unless I was pretty sure the critique I had to give would be interesting in itself even to a BG reader who never went on to read the book. Every book is flawed — not all of them are interestingly flawed.

    It sounds like AGoR is too dark to hit my personal readerly sweet spots, but I’m glad I took the time to read this review and its conversation. It’s a fine review that reaches beyond the book at hand and connects with whole traditions.

    I don’t know if I could have made it through reading the darkness of Oden’s original notion of a Shagrat-with-agency kind of story, but I can absolutely see things about that idea that would be fascinating to write. For a class I taught last spring, I had occasion to reread all of LoTR, and Shagrat’s presence is so rich in untold — but perhaps not, for Tolkien, unexplored — story.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - October 4, 2017 11:38 am

  7. Martin and Jason, I’m a bit doubtful that the appellation of Grimdark as a sub-genre is at all different from other sub-genre labels like Sword and Sorcery. They are labels intending to summarize and categorize a particular style or typical focus of content. Labels are useful to us as they help to simplify a complex world. If I know I like certain Grimdark books, then I may like other Grimdark books (replace genre label with any other).

    The review by Gabe makes me want to read Oden’s book (I was already interested when I first heard about the book and after I heard Oden on The Literary Wonder and Adventure Show). Why? Because I’m deeply skeptical of concerns about depictions of violence in media. I’m a professor of psychology and teach and do research in cognitive and social psychology. Much has been made about the supposed effects of media violence on behavior, but when you look at the data, the evidence is far from clear about what precisely those effects are, how strong they are, and exactly how they generalize.

    Much of these claims about media’s supposed effects on attitudes and actual behavior are typically made by scholars, critics, and scientists with embedded political values (i.e., typically progressive liberals). The conclusions they reach are likely affected by their socio-political values (i.e., bias).

    Comment by NOLAbert - October 4, 2017 11:46 am

  8. Thanks for the great discussion here, everyone!

    NOLAbert, I’m happy to hear you are encouraged to check out Oden’s book. I figured my criticisms might help the author, since any amount of controversy is sure to gain some attention!

    As far as your other comments, I know you most likely are extending the conversation and not commenting on my ideas in particular. However, I want to comment on this extension of the conversation and also prevent myself from being misunderstood. I myself teach college freshman English, and I’ve read enough student papers now to know that, as you suggest, the research doesn’t support much correlation between violence in the media and one’s tendency to commit “real-life” violence. Fictive forms of violence, on the other hand, potentially contribute to the opposite. Perhaps subversion-containment theory here is at work: engaging in violence in a “safe” and fictive environment might help relieve “real-life” tensions. Moreover, my friend Nick Ozment has told me that, despite what might be the impression currently being given us by our media, over the last century our culture — even our global culture — has become significantly less violent overall.

    Over the last few years I’ve noticed that, when I, as a critic, approach literature, I tend to do so from an ideological perspective. I’m interested in what an author might be saying about “reality,” be it overtly or latently, usually through word choice or social assumptions through representation. I’m also conscious that, while doing so, my own readings usually are informed by my own ideas as liberal-leaning and theistic along the lines of Catholicism.

    I don’t object to the violence — even the sexual violence, which is particularly “triggerish” for me — in Oden’s work but in the unmitigated volume of it. Kallies, in describing the genre of grimdark as satire, demonstrates exactly what I mean. When I approach literature from an ideological perspective, I find that, in this case, Oden’s ideas don’t hold up simply because, as Chesterton might say, he doesn’t allow any cheerfulness to creep in. As literature, then, Oden’s narrative (for me, at least) cannot suspend disbelief: his world is not “real.” Moreover, to deepen the interaction between reader and author perhaps farther than it should go, without any moments of relief I find myself psychically assaulted by violence and rape that becomes all the more gruesome with each succeeding representation, perhaps, I suppose, because, without escalation, the descriptions would lose the power to have any effect.

    Here’s a point of comparison. I recently read and enjoyed Wagner’s _Dark Crusade_ starring Kane. There is a chapter in there that ends with a vignette of a little girl using a human head as a soccer ball in a game with her friends. To add to the gruesomeness of it all, Kane learns that the head is in fact that of the little girl’s mother! I found this artful and interesting — as a vignette. Pages and chapters and books of this stuff, unremittingly, however, would become a psychic brown note. Again, as Kallies might say, darkness in my literature is just fine. But darkness to a bathetic effect indicates a worldview or ideology that fails to suspend disbelief.

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - October 4, 2017 3:38 pm

  9. I seem to recall reading a far more positive review of the book some time ago. I think it may have been here.

    Regardless, I’m actually grateful to read a review that is actually critical. I’m not saying that all reviews on this site are universally positive. However, many of the more negative reviews are aimed at works now decades out of date, written by authors who may well be deceased.

    I imagine it is very difficult to write a critical review of work by an active modern author, with whom you may have corresponded by email, met at a convention, etc. However, writing a review is not about feeling comfortable and being on good terms with people you know. A good, published review serves two purposes: it informs the reader and gives them some basis on which to decide whether to seek out or avoid a particular work; and it helps the author understand how his or her work is perceived and how it might be improved or changed.

    Black Gate, as a website, would be less valuable to me, as a reader, if I felt that every review on the site was just going to be a fluff piece. On that basis, I applaud you. Bravo! And thank you!

    Comment by R_Saunders - October 5, 2017 1:12 pm

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