Author Marc Turner wonders if epic fantasy is becoming too gritty
Iread an article a while back about George RR Martin’s fantasy epic, Game Of Thrones. The author was complaining about how dark the story was. “Where were all the heroes?” she asked. And couldn’t the good guys – or, rather, the least bad ones – win sometimes?
The move towards fantasy with a grittier edge has to be seen in the context of what came before. The first fantasy novel I read was Pawn
Of Prophecy by David Eddings. I loved that book, but looking back, I’d have to say it offered an idealised view of the subject matter. In many fantasy series of the ’ 70s and ’ 80s, the heroes wore white, the villains wore black, and the protagonist could cut his way through a legion of enemies without getting even a spot of blood on his cloak.
Fantasy epics typically deal with high stakes and momentous events. Most likely they will feature armed conflict, and if you’re going to write about war, you shouldn’t romanticise it. You’ve got to include a sprinkling of savagery and horror, because if you don’t, you’re not depicting it accurately. History provides plenty of examples of such brutality.
I have seen it argued, though, that fantasy writers are taking grittiness too far. Apparently some of them are engaged in a “race to the bottom”, with more and more brutality being included for shock value alone. That is not a phenomenon I have witnessed myself, but I do think it is something to be wary of. If it is wrong to romanticise war, it is surely also wrong to romanticise violence. Horror should always be presented as horrible, rather than as “cool”. Nor should brutality be used as a substitute for theme or character development.
If you’re going to include brutality, arguably it should be to a purpose. It could be used, for example, to examine the impact of violence on its victims or its perpetrators. As in most things, a balance is called for. To my mind, epic fantasy should contain elements of both light and dark. But as to what the “right” balance of those elements is… Well, everyone will have their own opinion on the matter.
Marc Turner is the author of The Dragon Hunters, book two of The Chronicles Of The Exile series, out now from Titan Books.
So is Game Of Thrones too dark and violent?