Grimdark Defined

The Iliad
The Count of Monte Cristo
Grimdark fantasy has been heavily discussed across the internet (I provide links at the bottom of this page to articles I agree with and ones I don't), especially in 2013 when a bunch of essays for and against it came out. My purpose here is not to "defend" grimdark fantasy. Does grimdark need defenders? Possibly (not because there is something wrong with it; rather because in this age of mass information, it has come under heavy criticism and although I can understand it, I strongly disagree). But that has been done, most brilliantly by Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie, in his essay, The Value of Grit, which should be read by anyone considering a foray into this genre or an understanding of it. I simply want to write about why I love reading grimdark and how I understand it. I'm not really sure if there is any consensus on what exactly grimdark is. I will add my two cents here because just as I have gained understanding through some writers and not others, there will certainly be readers who will come to a better understanding through this. Will everyone enjoy reading grimdark fantasy books? Of course not. Just as everyone doesn't like to read about politics, or classic Russian literature, or cooking, or hundreds of other genres/topics. Should everyone appreciate grimdark fantasy. I would like to think so. Hopefully, the critical reader will be able to extrapolate what I believe grimdark fantasy to be without an explicit "definition". I didn't invent the term, I'm rather late to the party, and I'm not (yet) an expert of what grimdark fantasy is so I hesitate to make any definitive "definition".

The first thing I have noticed after reading several grimdark books is that most have various themes found throughout classic literature. One of the reasons classic literature like The IliadThe OdysseyThe Aeneid, and the hundreds of other enduring works resonate so strongly yet today, some dating back thousands of years, is because they tell real stories about the human condition. When I think of the many classic literature books I have read, most touch on or involve major themes about the worst sides of human nature; jealousy (Othello, Persuasion, Tess of the D'urbervilles), murder (Crime and Punishment, Macbeth, Agamemnon), adultery (The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary), pride (The Illiad, Pride and Prejudice, The Crucible, Faust, Antigone), human suffering (Crime and Punishment, The Odyssey), warfare (The Illiad, The Aeneid), temptation (Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, Great Expectations, Lord of the Rings) and the big one, revenge, which I am most familiar with The Count of Monte Cristo, Hamlet, The Illiad, and Wuthering Heights. Many grimdark works I have read have major revenge themes including the apt title Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martins series, A Song of Fire and Ice, has many revenge story lines, (Arya Stark's revenge list prayer- "Weese," she would whisper, first of all. "Dunsen, Chiswyck, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling. The Tickler and the Hound. Ser Gregor, Ser Armory, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei.") and my favorite series ever written, The Broken Empire (Prince of Thorns), by Mark Lawrence, is largely about Jorg's revenge. The Illiad, FaustRomeo and Juliet, Oedipus Rex, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Shakespeare's whole catalog, are about as dark as you can get. Most of these works are considered "tragedies" and most grimdark books are very, very tragic. Really, if you made up a world and put the story of Hamlet in it, I think you would have grimdark fantasy. All the other themes I mentioned above and many more are woven thickly in grimdark. Grimdark gives fantasy the themes of classic literature tragedies but sets them in fantastical worlds.


Game Thrones Song Ice Fire
Gunslinger Dark Tower I love the focus on character rather than world building. Most grimdark books I have read focus much more on the character; their likes, dislikes, motivations, past, and most notably to me, how they see themselves. Off the top of my head, I vividly remember many grimdark characters; from Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire I remember most Jorg, The Nuban, Gorgoth, and Sir Makin; from Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie there is Nicomo Cosca and Monza Murcatto and from his The First Law Trilogy (The Blade Itself), I clearly remember Logan Ninefingers, Glokta, Black Dow, and Dogman; from Glen Cook's The Black Company, I remember Croaker and Silent; from Gardens of the Moon, I remember Whiskeyjack and Quick Ben; Roland from Stephen King's Dark Tower Series (The Gunslinger); many from A Song of Fire and Ice (A Game of Thrones) most notably Sansa, Arya, Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Robert Baretheon, Tyrion Lannister, Jamie Lannister, Sandor (The Hound) and Gregor Clegane, Littlefinger, Daenerys; from David Gemmell, there is Waylander and Druss (Legend); Michael Moorcock gave us Corum (The Knight of the Swords) and Elric, and Conan is a very dark series of books and he is a very memorable character to me. Of the thousands of books I have read, I can't remember names or traits of many characters, especially outside of classic literature. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games, The Alchemist and many other good books I have no idea what the names were and I don't recall many details at all about these books. They were largely plot driven and I just flew through them, was entertained, but didn't really give it any thought afterwards and I don't recall really caring about any of the characters much or at all. And if a main character happened to die, it didn't really affect me. But with grimdark characters, I became heavily emotionally and intellectually involved. And that is a real hook for me.

When reading grimdark, I have hope for a characters redemption. Because I begin to care about them, even if not identifying with their murderous actions but with them as fallible humans who have a choice to do good or evil. When they go to a village and have to make a decision on how to treat the people I expect it may end in a violent, bloody massacre but I still hope it won't. That compassion will be shown. In most of the grimdark I have read, there is some indication of a character wanting to change and knowing he is evil, even if he thinks he can't or won't change. Caul Shivers, Logan Ninefingers ,Waylander, and Jorg come immediately to mind although there are many others. After s/he falls short again, it reminds me of all the times I have wanted to make a change and couldn't do it. And I am not coming from a background of a lifetime of inflicting pain on others and having it inflicted on me. How hard must it be for these characters to do what's right when you have the power and authority to do whatever you want. When a character meets his ultimate end unreedemed, it resonates with me because its so real and possible. Grimdark stands out to me because of the shocking ends of many major characters, many passing on unredeemed. I have felt overwhelming emotions upon many of these situations. As mentioned earlier about not remembering the characters from many popular books, I also can't remember how many of them end except in very vague and general terms. I enjoyed reading Dan Brown's books, especially Angels & Demons and The Davinci Code but really all I remember is that the hero scientist saved the world both times from evil forces. But with grimdark, I remember very specific scenes and situations which occurred and I remember how I felt when reading them. Some that come to mind are ****Spoiler Alert****do not read if you have not read A Song of Fire and Ice, The Broken Empire Trilogy, and The First Law Trilogy.
Ned Stark's killing, the bloody wedding scene in ASoIaF, the terrible agonizing death of The Nuban in The Broken Empire, and Rudd Threetrees killed by Fenris the Feared in The First Law Trilogy.


So often in traditional coming-of-age and quest epic fantasy, the hero character completes his quest and goes on to live a wonderful life. If he dies, it's honorable and usually after completing his duty. But not in grimdark. Just as in life, anyone can die at any time, regardless of being redeemed or completing their mission. And I like that. I like reading books where anything can happen; where everyone is at risk. Where characters I hope for can unexpectedly die. Not that I want them to die but there's a suspense reading novels where you know a character can die regardless of completing their mission or being redeemed.

Another reason I read grimdark is because to me, it resonates with the view of humans that I have that they are fallible and human nature is corruptible as in Lord Acton's brilliant quote, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". I find a huge underlying moral philosophy in grimdark that I don't often find in other books of fantasy or other genres. Furthermore I have come across so many aphorisms and other philosophical bites that it reminds me of my philosophy addiction days reading Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Marcus Aurelius. A few grimdark authors I have found to be particularly insightful have said these things;

“Nothing of real worth can ever be bought. Love, friendship, honour, valour, respect. All these things have to be earned.” David Gemmell
"Warriors fear surrender. They are proud and defiant. They will fight to the death for what they believe in. They will struggle to conquer. Love is not about conquest. The truth is a man can only find true love when he surrenders to it. When he opens his heart to the partner of his soul and says: 'here it is! the very essence of me! It is yours to nurture or destroy." David Gemmell
"Man is capable of greatness, love, nobility, compassion. Yet never forget that his capacity for evil is infinite. It is a sad truth, boy, that if you sit now and think of the worst tortures that could ever be inflicted on another human being, they will already have been practiced somewhere. If there is one sound that follows the march of humanity, it is the scream" David Gemmell
"Memories are dangerous things. You turn them over and over, until you know every touch and corner, but still you'll find an edge to cut you." Mark lawrence
"This is where the wise man turns away. This is where the holy kneel and call on God. These are the last miles, my brothers. Don't look to me to save you. Don't think I will not spend you. Run if you have the wit. Pray if you have the soul. Stand your ground if courage is yours. But don't follow me. Follow me, and I will break your heart." Mark Lawrence
"There is no sound more annoying than the chatter of a child, and none more sad than the silence they leave when they are gone." Mark Lawrence
"I have learned all kinds of things from my many mistakes. The one thing I never learn is to stop making them." Joe Abercrombie
"The truth is like salt. Men want to taste a little, but too much makes everyone sick." Joe Abercrombie
This is but a tiny sample. There are hundreds, even thousands of these gems throughout the grimdark books I have read.  I have hundreds of bookmarked pages on my tablet because there are so many amazing passages. I like to stop reading when I come across something like the above and relate it to my life. Through grimdark, I learn more not only about fellow humans, but about myself.

Another grimdark element I love is magic. It's so subtle (usually, not always). It is kind of like intermittent reinforcement for my taste in magic.  There are just small samples that make me crave to find out more as does my other favorite element, lore. I love world background information and in the grimdark I have read, there is lots of character background information woven into the story through reminiscing and chapter flashbacks. We learn to understand the characters through this device and why they act in the ways they do. This not only relates to character building but it helps create a rich, imaginative world, which grimdark certainly does, even if the heavier focus is on character development.

The Black Company The prose I have read in grimdark is as good and sometimes better than any I have read in any other genre. Mark Lawrence has the strongest and most elegant prose I have ever read. Joe Abercrombie is amazing with wordplay. Aaron Dembski-Bowden writes wonderfully. George R.R. Martin is a wizard with a pen. David Gemmell, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock are all so fun to read. I think these three have a similar style, very succinct. For pure literary value, I have found that grimdark authors lead the way.

As for violence, misogyny, racism, and the other negative and politically incorrect behaviors characters sometimes exhibit in grimdark, I say so what. Those things are also part of life and they happen. I don't read grimdark because they have these elements but I certainly would find it odd if in the middle of a war, a character who lacks moral courage would not be tempted to rape and pillage. I don't believe that authors who write grimdark set out to use shock for its own sake. In reading these disturbing scenes, I am able to experience some emotions I would not otherwise. I don't like to run and bury my head in the sand when anything disturbing happens. I like to take in the pain, focus on it, and release it. I think that experiencing some pain and discomfort helps me be a stronger person, better to empathize with those around me.


Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1) In closing, as perhaps it's not obvious to everyone, I am making generalizations and these points could be argued against one by one. In my own mind, I have many counter arguments; What about all crazy magic in Malazan's Gardens of the Moon? You said the magic in grimdark is subtle? Wasn't Ned Stark a "hero"? I thought you said grimdark is about flawed characters? Wasn't Romeo and Juliet a love story? Is Mark Lawrence really a better writer than Charlotte Bronte or F. Scott Fitzgerald? Obviously, the debate about grimdark can go on forever. As I mentioned in the beginning, its not my purpose to defend grimdark. I enjoy different aspects of it than others and view it through my own experience. I have not included every single element I enjoy about it either; that would be tedious and boring to read.  I hope some readers come to understand Grimdark a little better and understand why one reader enjoys these type of books. And for the record, I love many other fantasy books outside grimdark. I read all the Harry Potter books (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), the Twilight books, The Hunger Games, I very much enjoyed The golden Compass, I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Patricia Mckillip's beautiful book The Forgotten beasts of Eld. They all have much to offer readers. Just like Grimdark. Also, to help those new to the genre, as well as those familiar with it, I have used the books I believe best represent the genre. There are loads of other grimdark books out there to explore and hopefully soon I will be able to start making lists.

Lastly, and on a bit of a different note but still important, I believe the term grimdark should be embraced. I read that (I haven't verified this but it appears to be the case looking at Amazon's fantasy pages) novels falling in the grimdark category are by far the largest selling fantasy books now. When I started reading grimdark early in 2013 I had to do my own research to find books outside the most known ones like Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire books, Joe Abercrombie's books, and George R.R Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice. This included searching forums, Goodreads, and Google. I wonder if the millions of lovers of grimdark books would have an easier time if there was somewhere they could go and easily access a huge listing of books in this category. There are better lists out there since I started but there is a lot to be desired. That's the reason I started this blog. Until there is some general consensus on what the term means it would be difficult to have a grimdark category on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. But I think that there should be because people are searching for these books and a lot of authors could really blow up because of the thirst for these books. I think the tide will eventually turn against grimdark critics and they won't be able to use it against the authors and fans. It's been mentioned that the term grimdark is used pejoratively. Since when have words not been used this way? The terms liberal and conservative are used as pejoratives but most will proudly call themselves one or the other. The term Obamacare was once a pejorative until the tide slowly turned in 2012 when it became embraced by the laws supporters.  Perhaps the authors of these books feel that if they are classified grimdark, they will be losing a large potential audience of fantasy readers. I think that is why grimdark should be included in fantasy lists as well the sub-list grimdark fantasy. I think if someone is a reader and they love fantasy they will absolutely love many grimdark books. I also believe grimdark is a style that is not confined only to fantasy, it encompasses many genres, but for the sake of this essay, I have primarily explored grimdark in fantasy. Obviously I'm only one tiny voice among thousands or millions of voices who has an opinion on this. Most of the arguments against grimdark have appeared to me to be weak, out of touch, overly sensitive and emotional, and very shrill.

For more information

This is probably the best summation and defense of Grimdark or "gritty" fantasy available. By one of my favorite authors
The Value of grit

From author Daniel Abraham
Another World

A kind of crazy piece by Richard Morgan
Grim, Dark, And Straw

Several good articles about Grimdark here
Grimdark

Here is a blog that seems to condemn Grimdark fantasy on biblical grounds, I am going to read this again because I disagree with most of it and I also have a "Christian" worldview.
On Gritty Fantasy

A book review of Luke Scull's Excellent book The Grim Company which extrapolates about Grimdark
Review of The Grim Company-Luke Scull

Author Sam Sykes on Grmdark
Gritty People Gritty Problems

Lots about Grimdark here I haven't read the whole blog yet but it appears to be a condemnation
My Considered Contribution to Grit

What is Grimdark

This is kind of a lengthy post on Grimdark, I'm not sure yet how I like it. I only just skimmed it
Grimmy Grimmy Dark Dark

Last one for now
You Got Grit in My Fantasy Story

this is a brief but great article by popular author Elizabeth Bear
I Love a Good Tragedy As Much As the Next Guy


9 comments:

Davieboy said...

Thanks, just found your excellent blog! Like you I'm a Grimdark lover; it's proving a costly hobby as I can't stop buying both the audiobooks and the printed hard-covers. Have recently enjoyed "The Herald of the Storm" and "The Grim Company" but of course Martin, Abercrombie & Lawrence are the masters. Will watch your blog with interest (I find the white on black a bit hard to read BTW).
Best wishes,
Davieboy (London)

philip witvliet said...

Thanks Davieboy! I go through a lot of books also and my hours were cut at work so I try libraries, Amazon used books, and mostly these days ebooks from wherever is cheapest. I also request a lot of Advance Reader Copies from Edelweiss, Netgalley, and publishers. Sometimes if it comes down to it I have to prioritize my reading and will read older books because they are cheaper. That works out because I have a lot of catching up to do in fantasy and there are so many great books! Have you tried ebooks? I resisted for a few years after the Kindle came out but now it's been about 2 years and most of my reading is on a tablet. I have hundreds of books and tons and tons of classics that are free through Amazon and Project Gutenburg. I like to travel with my library.

I loved Grim Company, I plan a second try of Herald of the Storm very soon. Martin, Lawrence, and Abercrombie are 3 of the best for sure. Have you tried David Gemmell and Glen Cook? They are both superb!

The color was actually a gray on black and after looking I made it whiter and I find it easier to read now. Thanks for letting me know; it's much appreciated and I hope you find it easier to read as well! Any other questions or comments let me know. Nice hearing from you. Take care.

Davieboy said...

Thanks for your reply - I do occasionally read ebooks, but my usual method is to listen to the audiobook version, whilst often buying the hardback to adorn my shelf. Currently listening to "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson, not really Grimdark, more epic fantasy. At 45 hours it's a long-haul trip! Found the first few hours confusing, but now I'm at that sweet-spot where I know roughly where we are, what's going on and who's who, so can relax into the story. Have been disappointed with a couple of fantasy novels recently but have hopes for "Traitor's Blade" by Sebastien de Castell, a debut coming out soon. Of course what we all want is the next GRRM novel!

philip witvliet said...

I loved Way of Kings! One of my all time favorites. The second in that series comes out March 4 I believe. At this point, I'm not sure I will pick it up right away but it's my second most anticipated book of the year. Reading Herald of the Storm right now and loving it! Traitor's Blade looks great also comes out March 4. Which books were you disappointed about lately?

Davieboy said...

The 2 books I was disappointed in recently were "Promise of blood" by Brian McClellan (uninteresting characters) and "The Emperor's Blades" by Brian Stavely (what is it about Brians?) which I found slow and generic. It might have been the fault of the readers in both cases, they were each very uninspiring. I gave up on both, probably too soon; I would welcome other opinions. Most looking forward to Joe Abercrombie's and Mark Lawrence's new titles this year. Before "Way of Kings" I finished Scott Lynch's "Republic of Thieves" which was a sheer delight.

philip witvliet said...

I reviewed Emperors blades it started a bit slow but I liked it. Promise of Blood I also loved, especially the character Tamas. But not all books work for everyone :) I always give books 2 tries, this year I have loved 3 books on my second try with them. A few others got put in the permanent "not interested in" category after a second try so you never know. Herald of the Storm was one I couldn't get into the first try but loved it the second time. I just reviewed it. Have you tried Stephen King's Dark Tower series or the Malazan books?

Davieboy said...

I will probably give Emperor's Blades another chance based on your recommendation, but not Promise of blood. If I want to read a novel about flintlocks I'd rather read Sharpe. Speaking of which, the Sharpe author Bernard cornwell wrote a magnificent trilogy on King Arthur, with hints of fantasy. It was so good I was desperately looking around for anything similar when I found a recommendation for A Game of Thrones! That was maybe 10 years ago now; the rest is history.
Re Stephen King I've read almost everything he's written and I consider him a master. His last few books (Duma Key/22/11/63/Joyland/Under the Dome/Doctor Sleep) have been back to his brilliant best. The Dark Tower series was awesome for the first 4 books but unfortunately the remainder were written during King's lost years and were pretty poor, apart from the stand-out scene of Roland's dancing and the actual ending which i thought was perfect. Not read Malazan or Brent Weeks yet. Still progressing strongly on Way of Kings, should be finishing just in time for book 2!

philip witvliet said...

Glad you enjoy Way of Kings! I really loved all the Dark Tower books, I was so into the world and story I craved more. I am on a reread now, slowly in between other books. I read the first 3 about 20 years ago then read all 7 about ten. I read The Gunslinger about 6 months ago and was so blown away I couldn't pick up another book for a week! I'll have to look into Sharpe. As for Cornwell, I read Archer's Tale but it was a DNF but I will try it again. The Winter King looks GREAT, I just added it to my next to read list. Right now, I am reading The Whale Road by Rob Low. It is phenomenal so far. A gritty viking saga, there are several other books in this series called Oathsworn. Give it a look. As for Malazan, I read the first one, loved it, and stopped the second, and plan to go onto the third, but a large time commitment.

cblink said...

May I recommend a book?

Steel, Blood & Fire, by Allan Batchelder