Grimdark has been around since the 1990's. Is it really all that new? And is it here to stay? I think aloud about the currently dominant mode of Epic Fantasy being published today.
There have been tendencies and trends in epic fantasy fiction ever since it became a mass market genre in it’s own right in the 1970’s. Waves of authors have come into the subgenre, falling into various schools of thought. While it is Science Fiction that is the literature that emphasizes the “genre conversation”, with books reacting and responding directly to each other, in fantasy it is somewhat different.
The fantasy genres, and subgenres like epic fantasy are more like a fugue. A fugue is a type of classical music composition which is composed of various musical melodies which appear in the course of the piece, and get emphasized, deemphasized, changed, and otherwise are in dialogue with each other in the overall composition. The fantasy genre can be thought of as an complex fugue, with various voices rising, falling and reacting to each other as the music of fantasy progresses over the years. The music of Fantasy continues on and on, even as the voices change.
In the history of epic fantasy, following this analogy and paradigm, there has always been a voice in a minor key, a strain of fantasy with antiheroes, shades of dark grey and darkness, worlds where hope and optimism are not valued or are even punished. Violence is the name of the game, dystopic amorality the norm and the worlds are often the successor states or the ruins of another, brighter time. The classical Western European model of the first few centuries after Rome fell is the historical ur-model, and indeed, many novels use thinly disguised or even explicitly set in that time period. The latest iteration of this minor-key fantasy, which had in recent years become a dominant theme in epic fantasy, is what we call Grimdark.
Grimdark and its earlier iterations of dark fantasy first arose in the late 1970’s with Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen Donaldson. Lord Foul Bane’s featured a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist (who commits a rape against an innocent girl), a fantasy world under threat, and a definite reaction to the Tolkenian model of epic fantasy. That model, at the same time, was being voiced by books that explicitly were replications of that model, such as Sword of Shannara. That voice, and more particularly the grimdark voice in the fugue of fantasy both gave way to an optimistic strain of epic fantasy. Authors like David Eddings, Judith Tarr, Raymond Feist and Margaret Weis defined epic fantasy for over a decade, ringing changes and variations on that voice in the fugue. In the 1980’s and early 90’s, this could be seen as a reaction to Reaganism, Thatcherism, the last gasps of the Cold War, and other such political strains in the Western World.
This is not to say that there was no strains of the darker material. Just as a voice in a fugue can go quiet but not silent, authors like Glen Cook and Michael Moorcock continued the dark theme that would become grimdark in later years. There has always been that dark theme, even when fantasy has been dominated by the more optimistic theme.
In the 90’s, external politics changed, a relative period of peace and calm in the Western World came to the fore. The “end of history” was bandied about. The Wall had fallen, the United States was considered to be the only superpower in the world. It was in this environment that Dark epic fantasy rose again in series like Martin’s A Game of Thrones and Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series. In the early 2000’s, authors like Joe Abercrombie, R Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson took up this mantle and created the modern Grimdark voice in Epic Fantasy, although it was not called that at first. Grimdark as a term was a word borrowed from the dark space fantasy universe of Warhammer 40000, around 2008 ,and applied to the dark fantasy being written. Even before it was formally named as such, though, Grimdark became the dominant strain in epic fantasy. The epic fantasy bookshelves became as dominated with dark antiheroes and terrible amoral worlds. Press releases from publishers breathlessly would tell of how dark and gritty the newest grimdark was, just how gritty and dark the newest generation, the newest author was. Modern publishing releases combined with this dominant strange in the fantasy fugue to create an arms race of books exploring this theme.
I call this the Grimdark Interregnum.
Grimdark was not just limited to fantasy novels, either. A parallel descent into dark and gritty themes in comic books occurred in the late 1980’s and 1990’s as well, suggesting that the external social and societal pressures affected both mediums. The idea of “fridging” female characters was first made manifest, for example, in a 1994 Green Lantern comic strip.
Mixed in with it’s realism and focus on amoral anti hero protagonists, however, it must be said, that a lot of Grimdark featured elements that fantasy today is reacting to--issues of misogyny, erasure of women authors and representation of diverse characters. It is not unreasonable, to my view, to see a lot of , but not all, grimdark fantasy as appealing to a single demographic: young white men. Given that the majority of readers, including fantasy readers, are women, this has turned out to be an inherently self-limiting practice.
And with that increasing awareness and attempts to address these issues, as well as a reaction to the current politics, climate change and other world problems extant today, the environment in which authors are writing in has once again changed. Grimdark is no longer quite a dark mirror for our times, and no longer needs to, or perhaps should be, the dominant theme. And given the slow cargo ship turn that is the publishing world, things are changing, but only gradually.
But after years in the ascendancy, I think that Grimdark wave is starting to recede, and new forms are coming forward. I am seeing more and more novels being described as hopeful (or even hopeful grimdark, which sounded weird the first time I heard the phrase, but not the second or third).. I attended a panel at 4th Street Fantasy which discussed Hopepunk, a term coined by Alexandra Rowland, as a reaction to Grimdark.
If one wants a visual representation of this, compare how well the DC movies, very much in a Grimdark mode have been reacted to as compared to Marvel movies, especially movies like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. The latter movie is most definitely Hopepunk. It's what characters do with their agency, their power in a sometimes very dark world. Trying to build something better, on small or large scale, IS a hopeful act.
But make no mistake. Grimdark and dark fantasy are not going away, or going to go away. II do not see a return to 80’s style fantasy, either. I do think I hear a new voice in the fugue, one where the worlds may still be dark and gritty, or have elements of same, and yet the stories are not of antiheroes, nihilistic and brooding and without optimism. The green shoots of hope can now be seen. Even dark characters can find redemption and change. The lessons learned during the Grimdark Interregnum, in the exploration of that theme in the fugue, is producing a new voice in the fugue.
Will this newest trend hold and grow to dominate epic fantasy? We shall read and see.