Monday 14 February 2011

Missing the Point

I was directed to this essay yesterday, entitled 'The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists', in which the state of 'nihilistic' modern fantasy is bemoaned and a call for a return to the non-profanity-strewn 'heroic' and 'mythic' fantasies of the past is made. I think the author is conflating two separate issues here, the nihilistic/gritty/realistic 'New Fantasy' of the last two decades or so (a sweeping generalisation), which isn't really that new, and the proliferation of overt sex/violence/swearing in recent fantasy books.

Dealing with the first issue, it's an odd point to make. The problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard.

In Tolkien, Middle-earth and the world of Arda are in a state of perpetual Fall, from the very moment it is sung into existence when Melkor/Morgoth starts trying to cast it into darkness. The Silmarillion is a nihilistic work: almost every character of note is slaughtered in its pages, armies of balrogs and orcs obliterate everything that is good and heroic in Beleriand, good men are corrupted and slain and victory comes only through a desperate gambit at the very end. Even that has its consequences: Beleriand is destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people are drowned and it is made clear that Morgoth's defeat is only temporary, as he is prophesied to return and his lieutenant, Sauron, remains behind to continue causing problems.

The Lord of the Rings is much-reduced or thinned re-enactment of this tale on a far smaller, less impressive scale, but even on its own terms is an inherently melancholy work: Middle-earth is saved and Sauron destroyed, but at the cost of more blood. Frodo is corrupted by the Ring and fails in his quest, and victory only comes through the unwitting intervention of Gollum (though the point is made that it was a single act of charity, Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum in The Hobbit, that ultimately saved the day). Boromir is corrupted by the Ring, though he has a redemptive moment. Frodo is emotionally wrecked by events and cannot enjoy the fruits of his struggle: eventually he must leave his home behind forever. Even the victory comes at the cost of myth itself: the elves depart Middle-earth, the hobbits are absorbed into the race of man, and magic vanishes from the world. After the events of Rings, the world becomes mundane and less heroic (in fact, it becomes our world). Tolkien even foresaw that after the events of Rings Gondor would become a divided nation of petty politics, and abandoned work on a projected sequel, The New Shadow, because he felt it undercut the victory of Rings.

Of course, there is heroism in Lord of the Rings, moments of triumph and light, and Middle-earth is saved from destruction or dominion. But it's not a happy ending, and Tolkien makes it clear that whilst the world survives, it is also much less than what it was before. The Silmarillion is even bleaker, with very few characters (perhaps only Tuor and Earendil) surviving unscathed or not having committed heinous acts of violence or, in one case, incest.

As for Howard, his worldview was inherently nihilistic: the natural state of the world is barbarism and anarchy, with civilisation only a passing fad which will soon destroy itself and restore things to the natural order. Conan gets involved in most of his adventures out of a desire for varying combinations of riches, sex or violence. He has his moments of true heroism, but the impression Howard gives is that Conan is an inherently violent character who cannot abide defeat and who is primarily motivated by his own desires. Conan is capable of heroism but his motives are rarely pure.

Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.

The other point, about fantasy being overloaded by graphic imagery and swearing, is better-taken. Sometimes the feeling in modern fantasy is that 'adult' has translated as 'shagging, crapping and disemboweling' in all their glory, which after a while can be tiresome. Brandon Sanderson has shown it's possible to write entertaining and somewhat original secondary world fantasy without resorting to these steps, whilst Patrick Rothfuss pushes the less-savoury aspects of his world (there is an intimation that Kvothe suffered sexual abuse whilst living rough on the streets of a city, but it isn't pushed into the reader's face) into the background.

But at the same time being able to address such issues freely is useful. I certainly don't doubt that Howard would have employed them if he hadn't been restricted by the publishing mores of the time, whilst Tolkien certainly wouldn't have, though he didn't skimp away from darker elements where necessary (particularly in his darkest story, that of of Turin). Amongst modern authors many still have their heroes, but are less interested in displaying them as unmotivated do-gooders. In A Song of Ice and Fire the single most heroic moment in the series is probably when a character jumps into a pit to fight a bear one-handed. The character doing that is someone who was previously presented as a heinous villain, but as we get into his story we learn that his motivations are understandable and he is the hero of his own story, though as events progress Martin doesn't let us or the character forget the darker things he has done. Outside of that, we have characters like Jon Snow who are more obviously heroic (though I suspect that his story will get more complex in the future).

It is interesting that the article roundly dismisses The Wheel of Time, a work that is more closely following in the tradition of Tolkien with more overt 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. Heroism, people putting their lives at risk to save people who frequently hate them (Perrin saving a Whitecloak army which has sworn to kill him), is found there in plenty.

The problem with the essay is that its author has fundamentally misread Tolkien and Howard. The age he bemoans the passing of, that of heroic and mythic fantasy entirely lacking in moral complexity or darker elements, has never existed in the form that is set out.


jamie said...

I almost wanted to forward that article to you, if only because the author quoted your review of Heroes, which I found amusing in it's own way.

On the other hand your post is very informative and interesting, which is always good, thank you!

Kevin S. said...

It's a post on an Andrew Breitbart site. Missing the point is their specialty, especially if doing so allows them to craft a narrative about how liberals are dragging the world to hell in a handbasket.

James Enge said...

Good points about REH & JRRT, though I guess I'd call them pessimists rather than nihilists. But I wouldn't call the tag as nihilists the people writing darker fantasy on the S&S side of the spectrum, either.

LG did pick an odd pair of examples to make his critique with.

Maurice said...

I remember also thinking about characters like Conan being chivalrous until a friend of mine told me to actually read an original Howard, The Frost Giant's daughter, where he basically chases and kills a woman's family of giants just so he can rape her.

The guy who wrote the article must have never read one of Howard's works.

James Enge said...

"call the tag as nihilists"

This odd artifact results from my inability to decide between "call" and "tag as". Sorry about the gibberish.

Jared said...

Really nice rebuttal. Completely agree with your REH points (not so up on JRRT, but suspect I'd agree with you there as well).

Jack Eason said...

Careful here people, you're talking about one of my literary gods in J.R.R. :) I never understood the need for sex in a fantasy tale. Thank god Tolkien left the subject well alone...

Andy said...

"The guy who wrote the article must have never read one of Howard's works."


Anonymous said...

What else do you expect from an Andrew Breitbart website? The review Werthead responded to was a conservative man-child's furious rant against "college-educated liberals". I swear, there was even an undercurrent of Christian fundamentalism there.

Brett said...

Excellent post. I particularly liked the section on LOTR, plus this bit:

Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.

The Norse mythology is pretty damn depressing. Only deceased warriors get a decent afterlife, and even that's temporary - just a respite before everything ends up destroyed in Ragnarok.

Anonymous said...

I think you're confusing nihilism with tragedy. You can have a tragic ending to a story and not be nihilist. Tolkien's Middle Earth obviously believes in Gods like the Valar, there's obvious good over evil themes, Frodo even gets to go to the Grey Havens at the end which is slang for Heaven. The story is tragic but at it's core it believes in the societal and religious constructs which Tolkien himself believed. That there is a god, that there is good and evil, that there is a Heaven, that friendship exists and is important, etc. None of that is nihilism. Modern fantasy isn't really either, though it might be more so. Sanderson is obviously not a nihilist, neither is Robert Jordan. From what I understand (I haven't read it) Prince of Nothing is probably the most nihilist series out there now. GRRM I don't think of as a nihilist either. Even though bad things happen to good people, and we learn that no one is wholly good or evil, there's still a lot about belief, friendship, loyalty, family, and destiny. None of which would be nihilist.


Dave Cesarano said...

I wouldn't characterize Tolkien as "nihilistic." His works are pessimistic in a very definite sense, but it's a kind of lost innocence yearning for romanticism, I'd think. Lacrimae rerum would best describe this aspect of his works, especially when you compare them to the writings of Lord Dunsany.

"Nihilism" is, in a sense, a sort of throwing your hands up and saying, "it is all pointless."

Brian Murphy over at "The Silver Key" did a piece on this last week and a follow-up on it a few days ago, and it was honestly better. I'm surprised Breitbart even jumped on this bandwagon--the discussion is a week old on the blogosphere, and in internet terms that means it's all but fossilized, I'd say. Murphy's point isn't about nihilism so much as what is considered "adult" or "mature."

Regardless, Tolkien's world was definitely worth fighting for, and the heroes' sacrifices weren't always in vain. There's a definite difference between pessimism and lacrimae rerum. There's a sad beauty to the fading of Middle-Earth--a nihilistic work would reject that any beauty had existed in the first place.

Howard, on the other hand, has a far more nihilistic streak, but even he finds things worthwhile. Evil is very real, good maybe not so much, but the Howardian hero is a man who lives and dies by his own code and being true to himself. Therefore, if anything, I'd suggest Howard's work isn't nihilist so much as, maybe, Nietzschian. (Nietzsche never did agree with accusations that he was nihilist, and argued intensely against Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy.)

Kike said...


In "FROST GIANT'S DAUGHTER" Conan pursues a woman that seduces him in order to feed their monstrous brothers. She is NOT the victim here. The barbarian actually fights for his life, not because he is an evil rapist.

In NO ONE of the twenty Conan stories, the main character shows any kind of inmoral behavior. He only tries to survive in a chaotic world but his code of honor is unbreakable.

Unfortunately Leo Grin is a right-wing guy with political ideas very far away from my own. But he have read ALL Howard's stories. You, sir, have read only one. And, actually, you completely missed the point of it.

Taranaich said...

The problem with the essay is that its author has fundamentally misread Tolkien and Howard.

On the contrary, I feel that the problem here is that you have misread his position.

For one thing, you are missing one extremely salient point: that both Tolkien and Howard differ from the nihilists Grin mentioned because there is genuine heroism, hope and exultation in their works.

Tolkien is full of loss, sorrow and decline, but it's also full of great men doing great things, be they humble Hobbits, or heroic Kings of Men. Howard's stories are full to the brim of similar examples.

THAT is what Leo is talking about which is missing in the stories of which he speaks. There are no heroes, no beacons of humanity to show that while the universe is a dark, cruel, unforgiving place, there are those who defy it with shining beacons of optimism, altruism, and bravery. How can anyone describe anything like that as Nihilistic? Surely if a work is nihilistic, then there would be no victories, no heroism, no hope?

There are no Frodos, Aragorns, Theodens, Balthuses, Solomon Kanes or Kulls in the works Leo is decrying. In short, there are no heroes in these particular works. You say The Lord of the Rings isn't a happy ending: true, but vastly preferable to the alternative. It is an ending I can happily call bittersweet: victory and peace at great cost. Nihilistic? Certainly not.

Your mention of Grin's dismissal of Wheel of Time, and your similar argument that Grin seeks a more "black versus white" approach, is also inaccurate, in my opinion. I read his argument as being that there should be more distinction between the shades of grey going on. Black, white and grey, not just lighter and darker shades of grey.

I remember also thinking about characters like Conan being chivalrous until a friend of mine told me to actually read an original Howard, The Frost Giant's daughter, where he basically chases and kills a woman's family of giants just so he can rape her.

I'm impressed with how easily you colour that story by the choice omission of several extremely important details to give a completely fallacious and disingenuous impression of the plot in order to make Atali and her brothers out to be the helpless, innocent victims of a brutish Conan.

You miss out the extremely important detail that the woman in question was hypnotically compelling Conan to follow him to his death. She has done this to unnumbered men through the millennia, appearing to dying men on the battlefield, luring them to their doom through sexual manipulation and supernatural compulsion. Men may be bleeding to death and exhausted, but a "strange madness" forces them to walk leagues upon leagues far from civilization in pursuit of a mocking, taunting goddess. Said family of giants, by the way, were lying in wait in preparation to murder him - once again, as they have done to COUNTLESS others - and sacrifice his heart to their father-god.

The guy who wrote the article must have never read one of Howard's works.

Leo Grin is one of the most respected Robert E. Howard scholars out there. His journal, The Cimmerian, is highly regarded, and twice nominated for the World Fantasy Award. He most certainly has controversial opinions not all Howardists agree with - many Howardists disagree on multiple subjects - but to allege he has never read Howard's work, or that he has misread them, is simply preposterous.

Given your grotesque misreading/misrepresentation of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," I have to question how on earth you came to such a conclusion - or even if you've read the story at all.

About Yea High said...

There's absolutely nothing I can add. Bravo, ser. I read Grin's article early last night, directed toward it by a fellow Tolkien fan, and was also (like jamie) going to direct you to it, since he dropped your name.

You're already on it though, Wert! Guns of logic blazing. My Wertzone brunch breaks are rarely so pointed.

Keep doing what you do.

Unknown said...

Author of the original essay seems rather boring, and only wants the exact same thing over and over again without ever breaking the mold. I guess that is okay if you don't get bored with that sort of thing.
Personally, I will take my flawed characters and edgy dialogue. Not everything we read can be approved by Disney.

Adam Whitehead said...

The Grey Havens aren't 'slang for heaven', they're just a port (also called Mithlond), one of three on the Gulf of Lhun. The Undying Lands which Frodo sails to from there are more akin to heaven, as they're the home of the higher powers (the Valar) and the angelic powers (the Maiar), though they were also once part of the mortal world.

"There are no Frodos, Aragorns, Theodens, Balthuses, Solomon Kanes or Kulls in the works Leo is decrying. In short, there are no heroes in these particular works."

Except there are quite a lot. Not so much in Abercrombie (though the merry band of adventurers did succeed in saving the world, or at least the Union, even if Bayaz's motives were highly dubious), but certainly in Jordan, Sanderson, Rothfuss, Erikson and Martin there are characters who possess heroic characteristics. Even Bakker, arguably, has Achamian, whose actions may eventually prove heroic (or he may die cold and alone five pages into the next book, it's hard to say).

The problem with the original article is that is full of sweeping generalisations and nostalgic tear-wiping for something that never really existed in the first place. Fantasy and SF have become more explicit over the years, as public mores have become more tolerant of such things, and certainly there's an argument to say that there is occasional overuse of swearing, sex, blood and so forth in modern fantasy which itself is juvenile (Goodkind is example #1 of this). However, saying there is no mythic resonance in the genre any more is patently false, almost as much as saying that darkness and nihilism in fantasy are modern inventions.

THE QUENTA SILMARILLION ends with virtually everyone dead and the entire setting for the book obliterated. It recovers, eventually (only to suffer a second cataclysm in the Fall of Numenor), so Middle-earth and Tolkien in general don't suffer a nihilistic fate, but that part certainly does.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I got the link from westeros, and I'm glad I read it after reading the original article.

I don't understand the anger and dislike aimed at characters who are more complex and layered, and hence more human. Just like the real world. People aren't good or bad, and such a definition is inherently simplistic and unfair. It's far more enriching, in my experience, to develop characters realistically, to show us their weaknesses and their flaws, and then depict them rising above such things to do what is right.

And yes, oftentimes in the real world, 'good' people suffer, and 'bad' people are rewarded. That's life and I for one applaud authors with the courage to face such realities and take us on a journey that is relatable and involving. I don't envision Martin as gleefully stomping all over tropes and characters and flinging them into the fire for shock value. That's absurd. Just reading the care and attention he puts in is enough to convince me that he's as invested in the universe as his fans are.

Mr. Grin's comments about Martin's 'mundane' prose compared to REH's is, imo, ludicrous. The latter reads highly dramatic, needlessly flowery and dare I say it, purple. Perhaps a reflection of the times, I don't know. Personally, it's cringe-worthy.

Kike said...

The problem is not that fantasy is "darker". The problem is that some works made fantasy a "mundane thing".

Imagine that you want to create a new legend. Fine. You can kill your main character. You can transform a good guy into an evil villain. You can ruin an entire kingdom. But you cannot use "real world logics" to made it. You cannot use "modern" language. You cannot use "magic" as a plot device.

Excalibur is legendary. And is dark. Harry Potter is mundane. And is much more a "good vs evil" thing.

Sex, violence and decay is always needed. But must be glorious. Must be THE BEST sex, the MOST horrifying violence and THE WORST decays.

This is the difference between, for example, "The broken sword" by Anderson and "Clash of kings" by Martin. Both are depressing. But the first one is based on myth. The second one, in the history of England. Anderson wrote an "old tragedy", while Martin is writing a "modern drama".

This is the difference between "The Hobbit" and "Wheel of time". The fist one is a modern vision of old tales. The second one is a rehash of a novel based in the modern vision of old tales.

I don't know if I explain myself correctly...

Anonymous said...

so Leo grin wants to take fantasy back to its Disney days of what Scott lynch calls "bloodless, turgid fantasy with characters as thin as newspapers and as boring as plaster saints."

there's PLENTY of that in the YA section and in the D&D/WOTC/tie-in section.

smeej said...

"In NO ONE of the twenty Conan stories, the main character shows any kind of inmoral behavior. He only tries to survive in a chaotic world but his code of honor is unbreakable."

Off the top of my head, Conan breaks into a temple-tower to rob the priest that lives in it because he has too much pride not to. Any information about the priest being a baddie is hearsay.

And as a general thing, having a consistent way of living doesn't mean it is justified. Conan's purpose for his heroism is usually a result of his pride and greed. His ethics seem to boil down to "might makes right" and he laments being in cities with laws that prevent him from cleaving open the skulls of people who try to boast more than he does.

He never set out to be or wanted to be a hero but people turned him into one. He isn't dissimilar from many of these "nihilistic" characters in that regard

Anonymous said...

Regrettably, I've got to side with the lamenters here, to some extent, precisely for the reasons Wert disagrees with them for. Wert, I don't think you're using the word "nihilist" in the right way. I haven't read any Howard, but there's nothing in Tolkien that could be called nihilistic. The very fact that so much of it is tragedy is proof that it isn't nihilistic! Tragedy implies the attribution of values.

I disagree with the commentator who identifies value solely with character, however. Even with grey characters, it is possible to gesture in the direction of something transcendent; indeed, it's probably easier. One of the most powerful Tolkienian myths, for instance, is the myth of Feanor and his children - driven by their flaws, certainly, but Tolkien is careful always to emphasise that they are not simply villains. In fact, they're pretty straightforward classic mythic heroes, if viewed from a different perspective. Their character drives the narrative, yes, but their character only illuminates the presence of transcendent values, rather than being the source of them.

I do think that one problem with fantasy is that it has become cynical; and another problem is that it has become optimistic. I think the two are related. It's a lot easier to write a nihilistic story when you've got an optimistic world - its when you have to try to show the beauty in tragedy that the idea of beauty (love, hope) as something distinct from pain and pleasure, convenience and inconvenience, becomes essential.

I think WoT is fairly nihilistic. There is, for instance, no real reason why Rand's power is merited - but at the same time there is no real unrest at the fact that it isn't merited. Nihilism isn't about whether things are going well or badly, but whether the author cares! WoT has quite a strong sense of "if it makes the heroes happy, don't question it".

[No, I'm not talking about traditional morality. Non-nihilism requires morality, or at least the ability to entertain morality, but it needn't be Victorian morality - it can even be repulsive morality].

What is nihilism in fiction? Iris Murdoch once described the philosophy of Gilbert Ryle as describing a world where it was impossible to imagine people falling truly in love or joining the communist party. I get a similar feeling from some modern fantasy.

Anonymous said...

He's right in so far about Tolkien that notwithstanding the state of the world, there is a clear moral code at the base of his fiction. Also, despite all darkness and dead-ends, at the heart of Conan might be a kind of clearcut Nietzschean idealism as interpreted by a conservative.
What makes dark fantasy of the modern day outstanding is that it doesn't decide for some kind of idealism, but lets several worldviews stand against each other or sometimes complement each other. It also acknowledges psychological and moral complexity, and that any factor can be contributing to any outcome. There's something seemingly nihilistic in the idea that eventually anything will go wrong, but there's also a clearheadedness and soberness that is somewhat lacking in the ideological melancholy over a failing world of old fantasy. In effect, they are anti-fatalistic, democratic, skeptical works.

Aaron said...

Well stated and intelligent. You put into words my feelings almost exactly.

Maurice said...

I apologize for the late replies:

Touche, but this was in agreement to to Conan not being a pure character, using an example of The Frost Giant's daughter, where he is driven by sex.

I wrote that a friend recommended this story, but did not write that it was the *last* Howard piece I've read. I've read all of his Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn stories.
If morals are subjective and everyone lives to their own code of what is right and wrong, then everyone decides for themselves what is good and evil, regardless of what society thinks. Conan is usually interested in himself, Kull is the selfless character.

I apologize for over simplifying the events. Yes the giants lie in wait, but Howard does not openly state (I don't have a copy with me, I will leave the quotations up to you) that Conan is fully entranced. Would he not have still been under her spell when surrounded and attacked? Her motivations and deception do not justify his actions and Conan is by no means a gentleman. He takes what he wants.
I will apologize on the comments I made about Leo as they are unfair, but I will stand by my interpretation of the story

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a screwed up view on Tolkien Wert sports here. That is as narrow a view as mister grinn has on the fantasy topic.
I'd have expected a bit more from a known fantasy least some diversification.

Anonymous said...

Please buy a dictionary; nihilism and tragedy are not synonymous. The Silmarillion may resemble the tragic heroism of the Sagas, but only a fool, or someone striving to defend an indefensible position, would define the fate of a hero like Túrin Turambar, for example, as nihlistic. It isn't death and tragedy that makes the post-modern (read predictable and pretentious) fantastist nihilistic, but that his or her works actively deny any primordial truth... still, nihilism, and the mere rhetoric of edginess, much like sex, sells. The depiction of sex in a lot of post-modern fantasy demonstrates that it isn't realism that is replacing the mythopoeic, just more mostly male delusions about sex. Liberals often lament the apparent sexism of Tolkien only to praise the misogynist drivel of other writers and this follows an emerging paradigm in culture at large and not just fantasy.

Adam Whitehead said...

Ha, the argument over Turin's story being nihilistic or tragic is certainly one that's been made before. Was Turin's life and existence pointless? He inspired some resistance to Morgoth, slew one of his most powerful servants and was a great warrior, but he also (though inadvertantly) brought about the destruction of Nargothrond and untold misery upon many lives. Tuor and Beren's lives had lasting, positive impacts but the same is harder to argue with Turin.

With regards to the whole idea of nihilism in Tolkien, Tolkien himself did not have a nihilistic worldview (as a devout Catholic, it would be impossible for this to be the case), unlike Howard's views on civilisation, so any such discussion is more rooted in what the reader takes away from the text than what the author intended.