Darkness Rising: The Grim Growth of Fantasy
I love Fantasy, always have and always will. There’s just something about worlds where literally everything is possible and all problems can be solved with a flurry of axes and spells that has always enthralled me.
Except that lately the genre hasn’t really been rewarding my love. If anything, I’m beginning to think I might be in a bad relationship because things around here have started getting pretty Dark; very much with the capital ‘D’.
Between the blood soaked pages of Game of Thrones, the bleak dead worlds of Dark Souls and even the sudden surge of Warhammer titles, it seems like every new release has added another layer to the fresh black paint. These are all worlds where there is little to differentiate good from evil. In those that do have such a distinction, there seems increasingly little chance of the forces of good prevailing.
Even the recent growth of games, books, and films around Vikings and Norse settings (which I love) often have this darker tinge; often by embracing the Viking obsession with death and Ragnarok, the end of all things.
Worse, those titles are at least (largely) of a high quality. The last time I went to a book store and picked up a random title from the shelf, it took less than three pages for a castle full of innocent people to be turned to ice and killed. Putting aside the possibility this was some kind of gritty Frozen reboot, it was Dark as hell.
“But it’s so much more realistic!” I hear at least some of you cry to which I respond; “You’re right! That moral grey is much closer to the real world! Good thing too, wouldn’t want all these Dragons, Dwarves, Wizards and Goblins to be running around an unrealistic setting!”.
Seriously, Fantasy has always been an escape for me and for alot of my friends too. I don’t need it to remind me that people are pretty crappy to one another. The real world provides all the experience of that I could ever want. Just give me some evil to fight, point a barbarian, a thief, a wizard and a cleric at it and I’m happy as Tom Bombadil.
Still, that’s personal opinion and there will be other people out there who always preferred a more realistic slant on their Fantasy. I don’t have a problem with that, what started to make me curious about all of this is why it’s suddenly dominating the marketplace in such a big way.
Unfortunately, I think it says less about the consumers who are buying it and much more about the world they’re living in. After all, while I may not want too much reality in my Swords ‘n Sorcery, both Fantasy and Science Fiction have always acted as a reflecting glass on the society that creates them.
You can see the hopelessness of WWI’s trenches in the work of Tolkien, and the Thatcher-era fear of Authoritarianism in Judge Dredd and V for Vendetta. One of the biggest explosions in the kind of Dark Fantasy we’re talking about happened at the start of the 1930s when Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft both started publishing their stories in the pulp magazines of the era.
While Lovecraft’s stories are obviously dark, most being firmly in the ‘Horror’ camp after all, it’s easy to forget that Conan, Howard’s most famous character, and the world he inhabits are just as grim as anything from Warhammer or Westeros. Far from the goofy Arnold movies and many of the stories published after his death, Howard envisioned Conan as a sullen, dark and savage figure with a calculating mind and incredible ambitions. While Howard had his own reasons for making his creation this way, the result was lapped up by an audience locked in the throes of the Great Depression.
So what is being reflected in our generation? The Recession, Austerity, Climate Change, Crises in Syria and the Ukraine and over a decade of constant conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan certainly makes for a pretty grim visage. Throw in growing tensions between races and cultures and (in the US at least) what often seems to be a worryingly militarized police and maybe we start to get a feeling of where this new Darkness comes from.
It’s also not just in Fantasy; You can see the same thing happening in Science Fiction, where lofty and ambitious utopias like Star Treks Federation have been replaced by Dystopia after Dystopia who invent ever more convoluted ways to murder their (usually) teenage inhabitants.
I don’t want to end on a down note, though realising just how crazy the last couple decades have been is kind of a downer, so to wrap up I want to show that things don’t have to be this way just check out this classic Terry Brooks cover and see if you can figure out why Rambo, the angel of death and a stoned teenager burnt down that castle.
Know a good Fantasy Novel I should be reading? Hit me up on Twitter or in the comments!
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