Epic Grit Gives Epic Character

The epic fantasy realm of the blogosphere is lately agog over a screed from Leo Grin, a Robert E. Howard scholar and Tolkien devotee who recently derided the modern wave of darker or gritty epic fantasy as “bankrupt nihilism.” Several epic fantasy authors have countered, rightly rejecting this shallow criticism of their approach, but none have noted what I see as the key value of this grittier or more visceral feel.

The boom in more visceral epic fantasy coincided with the late-90s success of George R.R. Martin, its first major practitioner, and its subsequent proliferation can seem mercenary.  In cases where bereft of any purpose or handled with callow ineptitude, it can be gratuitous if not exploitative.

But in the hands of an award-winning master like Martin, it can illumine universal insights.  When one of his characters has his hand brutally lopped off, thereby losing the expertise and persona that formed his entire self, the change forced onto him and the inner journey he takes to try to overcome it result in one of the most profound explorations of the human condition ever achieved in fantasy literature.  That grit isn’t nihilist.  It’s a poignant literary example of how even a despicable person can have humanity at their core, and even the ripping away of all that a person values most can inspire them onto a path toward redemption.

This visceral realism, including the sexual and scatalogical, is the most powerful vehicle for placing the reader into a fantasy world and into the shoes of the characters inhabiting it–in short, for making epic fantasy evoke the human condition.

Yet Grin posits that “Realism isn’t a primary concern in great literature.” That’s where he’s most wrong.  Realism isn’t important in escapist entertainment, such as Howard (yes, Howard was and is just that, although uniquely original and very very good).  But if discussing true literature in any period since the mid-20th century, the foundation is Faulkner’s comment in his 1950 Nobel acceptance speech:  “the human heart in conflict with itself… only that is worth writing about.”

Which is the human condition–what it means to be who we are.  Without that, epic fantasy–indeed, any fiction–becomes just more escapist entertainment.

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2 Responses to “Epic Grit Gives Epic Character”

  1. Al Harron Says:

    Since Leo’s post has become monstrously politicized (and was from the beginning, considering it was posted on a conservative website), I’ve become somewhat burned out on it, and I lament how it has devolved in some arenas into the depressingly inevitable debate exemplified by rival primates as they fling unmentionable missiles at each other.

    P.S., I wouldn’t say Howard’s work was escapist entertainment, or at least, not all of it. It’s hard to consider something as bleak as “Beyond the Black River” or “The Grey God Passes” as mere escapism, for example. Sure, one can see the escapist elements in the mediocre Conans, but there are just as many which deal amply with the human heart in conflict with itself. I’m not sure what Leo meant by “realism,” necessarily, but I doubt he meant that there’s no need for that timeless truth exemplified by Faulkner.

    The debate has lit the internet fairly afire, but even if I disagree with some of the arguments on both sides, it’s good to know that the likes of Abercrombie, Bakker and yourself are being erudite and mature about it, despite Leo’s (doubtlessly hyperbolic) belligerence.

  2. scott Says:

    Thank you very much, and thanks very much for posting. I deliberately did not address any of his political concerns–they didn’t feel relevant to my points about the genre and I knew I wanted no part of the inevitable firestorm of unmentionable missiles. :)

    There are definitely differing opinions of how Realist or “deep” many genre writers or works are, and I think that’s a testament to how profound genre fiction can be. That’s where academics or snobs who dismiss all genre fiction are missing some really great stuff that provides both awe and meaning.