Grimdark fantasy and Moral Reprecussions

(Warning, contains GoT spoilers)

I quite enjoy a genre of fantasy that has acquired the name Grimdark Fantasy.  Before the success of Game of Thrones I would have said that I was somewhat unusual in this respect, but the TV show has proven that a Grimdark story can become one of the most popular shows on television.  Grimdark is a rather fuzzily defined genre that differs from traditional fantasy in that its grittier.  Basically heroes are less heroic, people are less nice, good guys often don’t win, and there’s more bad stuff going on. 

So, today’s subject.  I was inspired to write this post when I saw a comment a friend had made on Facebook about how he was done with Game of Thrones because of the death of Oberyn.  He said that he felt the death was meaningless and unnecessary, and that the show just wasn’t fun anymore.  The fun of the show is a matter of taste, so I won’t dispute him on that matter; but on reflection I think that Oberyn’s death is an interesting gateway into some philosophical issues which are often highlighted in ‘grimdark’ fantasy.

For those of you who don’t watch the show, go watch it.  If you don’t want to heed my advice, I’ll set the stage for you.  Oberyn is a prince on a quest for vengeance.  He wants to bring justice upon those responsible for the rape and murder of his sister and the murder of her children.  This came to a head in the last episode of GoT’s when he fights a trial by combat against the perpetrator of said heinous acts, the Mountain.  Oberyn handily beats his opponent, but instead of finishing the Mountain off he instead toys with the other man, trying to draw out a confession.  A moment of inattention, however, and the mountain manages to get a hold of Oberyn, at which point the prince suffers a grisly demise.

My philosophical notion is that this story highlights how often we conflate being good with success and fulfillment.  My research on the subject suggests that this is a deep seated aspect of our psychology – for example, we are inclined to blame people for their circumstance as if they did wrong to earn their misfortune.  It is certainly deeply rooted in our fiction, given that the good guys win 99% of the time (by the end of the book or story, anyway).  This is in contrast to the reality that acting in a good and honorable fashion can sometimes be quite risky in dangerous situations.  I do think that being a good person has many social benefits, that is probably the reason that we evolved to have a sense of morality in the first place, but I find the outcomes of altercations between ‘good/honor’ and ‘ruthless’ in GoT’s quite believable.  Oberyn died because he was caught up in his own righteousness – he was, in a sense, so caught up in how stories are supposed to go that he neglected the real danger of fighting.

Another author that I love and hate to read is Joe Abercrombie, an author frequently sighted as the poster-child of Grimdark fantasy.  Abercrombie’s stories are about war, and war in Abercrombie’s books is a horrible and terrifying affair filled with pain and suffering.  I usually find in his stories that I don’t care who wins the war, because the war is usually pointless.  The true battle in Abercrombie’s books is usually within the characters themselves – they struggle to be good/feel good about themselves in a terrible world.  They are driven to do terrible things in the name of survival, in response to anger, in response to their fear.  In the end most fail, but maybe one succeeds just a little bit, and it is in succeeding to be good that the reader receives an emotional return.

So, I like Grimdark.  Depending on the work I usually buy the grimdark notion that goodness is a handicap in war.  In a sense I think this is a better way to portray war – war is pretty damn awful.  Grimdark usually does away with black and white morality in favour of what I am inclined to call a more realistic picture of moral struggle.

Thanks for reading, let me know what you think,


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