It’s Getting Dark in Here…
Open up a new google search tab and insert the words “medieval fantasy” into the bar: you’re almost guaranteed to pull up thousands of pages and links to Game of Thrones, the current standard for medieval fantasy by far and large. And if you peruse a few reviews on the subject, you’ll see some common words pop up over and over. Reviews, both professional and fan-made, tend to use the words “dark”, “grim”, “realistic” and “mature” (not necessarily in that order, mind you) to describe the books and series. Inarguably, George RR Martin has created a fictional universe where classic, clean fantasy tropes and ideologies are debunked and the pettiness and cruelty of the human condition is much more prevalent. A general philosophy that modern audiences are much more receptive to in the twenty-first century where it feels like gigantic corporations wage wars amongst themselves to crush their competition at the peril of the “smaller guy”, or where politicians continually use and abuse protections that are not afforded to the “everyman” in a never ending cycle of corruption.
And while this above philosophy would certainly be an interesting investigation, I’m more interested on how the idea that Martin’s “dark, grim, realistic and mature” world has sparked audiences and, more importantly, other writers to swing too deeply into the world of cynical narratives and into grimdark facsimiles. And when writers begin to unironically believe that their material is realistic, then less informed readers and/or viewers begin to cite these examples as fact.
The largest issue at play is the disconcerting idea that “if it feels realistic, then it must be factual”. And because Game of Thrones, on the whole, tends to validate people’s beliefs in a more brutal, loveless and unforgiving past, it only perpetuates the illusion that the medieval world was as bleak as we like to imagine it as. This creates a cycle where the medieval world becomes more brutal to more extreme degrees, and people point to these fictional settings as proof for how the fantasy genre “really was.” Like a snowball rolling down a hill to swell to the size of a house, it gets egregiously out of hand as the examples go on.
The Roadmap to Hopelessness
Classic examples of fantasy hold the past as a sort of idealized golden age of humanity. Kings were benevolent and ruled with their people with compassion, the meek peasant could rise to become the shining knight on the battlefield, evil and wickedness was always defeated in the end (and conveniently dressed in exceedingly ineffective, and spooky, costumes to help make them more obvious) and all that good stuff. By far and large, this is attributed to Tolkien’s work in creating Middle Earth, but even before then the mythos of King Arthur and the entirety of the Pre-Raphaelite movement established that glistening example.
More recently, however, Western society on the whole has become increasingly disillusioned with the whole ordeal. Economic collapses, grotesque planetary over-population, morally-absent war crimes abroad and news sources endlessly espousing the terrible events day after day make it impossible to believe that anything vaguely resembling good will or hope exist in the world anymore. And contrary to an abundance of factual information to the contrary, everyone seems more than pleased to revel in the negativity of our times. And if the current times are overwhelmingly terrible, societies tend to look back for either reassurance that times were better, or with a mentality of “at least it wasn’t as bad as then”.
Presently, fantasy writers seem to be swinging the pendulum of influence towards the latter ideology. Things are bad now, but not as terrible as it was then. Or, perhaps: things are bad now, but they’ve always been this way, so get over it. While personal belief on either matter is a point of debate, the issue is when that same pendulum swings too far to either side. Presently, this is becoming an issue where fantasy writers are writing things as being so bleak that it becomes “GRIMDARK”.
When it Becomes so Bleak it’s Comical
What separates a grim and dark experience from “GRIMDARK” is generally the underlying philosophy beneath things. In a similar vein, it can also be the difference between what is a scene of torture meant to highlight a specific plot point, or when things become torture-porn. In my efforts to find some suitable examples of comical levels of “GRIMDARK”, a huge list of fan-fiction videos appeared, where the topic was horrifyingly edgy teen fiction involving the My Little Pony universe. Even mentioning the IP of My Little Pony should easily conjure up the intended image of the ideology of the product: small children playing with brightly coloured horses of various types (horse, unicorn, winged-horse, and so forth) and an overall positive experience. The television series was also written with this age demographic in mind, and so the foundations are low-stakes “friendship saves the day” sort of plot points (mind you, this was the initial idea behind the series; what the show developed into and where it is now marketed at is another matter entirely) that just screams optimism.
What’s to be taken when fans of the product grow up writing their own versions and comment on the world around them by adding darker elements, but to such a degree that it’s entirely comical? Speaking as a writer myself, it’d be entirely my hope that this extremism of “GRIMDARK” was done deliberately as a commentary on how oversaturation of bleak elements solely undermines the overall intention. This seems to be overwhelmingly not the case.
Rather, it seems that in a quick vie for the spotlight, for a few minutes of fame, people take some of the surface level concepts of popular “mature” fiction and slather it on their ideas in the hope that it’ll make their content just as, if not more-so, popular. And the largest perpetrator of this in our current generation of media is none other than master of character execution himself: George RR Martin.
A Game of Perspective
This is not to say that Martin is guilty of unnecessarily adding dark elements to his narratives in an effort to create a fascinating commentary on modern issues; rather it becomes a concern when that commentary is directed at a common misunderstanding of history. While medieval life certainly was more dangerous and lethal than it is to this day, it’d be inaccurate to evaluate their mentalities based on our modern ideologies and societal expectations. Life was hard, true; but there was joy to be had in many things. Religion, now under the scrutiny of a modern secular Western world, was a great source of comfort and joy to the peoples of the ages.
For example, Christianity insisted upon a seventh day of rest: a day off from many of the traditional obligations and duties that most peasants were required to. These days of rest, after a morning spent at the local abbey in prayer and devotion, would be open to everyone to enjoy some time off. Hobbies like shopping at the local market, playing sports not unlike modern rugby, watching travelling minstrels and actors put on plays that could be either raucous or inspiring (or somewhere between) and so much more. Food could also be exciting and exhilarating: not only in the royal halls but days of common feasting allowed for hearty bread, rich stews and flavourful beers to be enjoyed within a village, creating a bonding experience with your fellow kin not unlike what we experience today when we bring friends over for a relaxing dinner and movie.
Examples of how there was joy, mirth, and purpose in the medieval ages goes on and on, but in its most fundamental levels, many people assume that life must have been dreary, bleak and without hope. Even in modern slang: calling someone or something “medieval” is attributed to backward thinking, or barbaric practice. These ideas persist into all aspects of not only historical misunderstandings, but to the stories fantasy writers wish to tell.
The Break Away, the Take Away
The modern world seems dark and full of terrors; and while it’d be a little too optimistic to say this is completely false, it is not completely true either. When modern writers hyper-focus on pessimistic modern ideas and become cynical about all things, it reflects in our understandings of greatly more complex histories. The greatest victim in this is that of the “barbaric, ruthless, unforgiving” middle ages. And so long as people continue to believe that this is the case, we will forever be living under the shadow of cynicism and hopelessness.
Good people and all those wonderful things exist now just as they did back then. There’s no need to paint exclusively with the colour black: introduce some complex, bright tones to your pallet and explore how rich the world truly is.