Painting With Grey: The Development and Popularity of “Gritty Fantasy”
In the last ten years, the fantasy community has seen an upsurge in the popularity of so-called “gritty fantasy”. However, this sub-genre of fantasy is evident even earlier than this. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has been ongoing since the mid 90s. Glen Cook’s Black Company series arguably pioneered the way for authors such as Martin in the mid 80s. But it is only in the last 10-12 years that this genre has really “kicked off”.
The emergence and subsequent popularity of authors like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, K. J. Parker, Mark Lawrence and Steven Erikson has shown the increased popularity in both reading and writing for this genre. The enormous surge in demand for fantasy as a whole in the last 18 months can mostly be attributed to the popularity of the hit TV show, Game of Thrones – based on George R. R. Martin’s series of epic novels. But this grim, reality rooted fantasy sub-genre has seen a large popularity boost in the wider fantasy reader’s community in the last decade.
Well, people have changed. Society has changed. The turbulent events across the world at the start of the last decade can arguably be attributed to this; the world is more serious. We want entertainment that speaks to us on more than one level. Although it may not always be the case, we want to enjoy something that is multi-layered, which contains characters that we can empathise with. We want worlds that face similar challenges to the ones we do. Of course, it could certainly be argued that this was always the case. But the feel of entertainment seems to have changed in the last 10 years.
For example, in television we have (mostly) moved on from the police procedural; from the soap opera. The most popular shows are the ones where we become invested in the characters; in the setting; in the story as a whole. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Wire. Although it wasn’t the most popular show on television at the time, it has become hailed universally as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) TV show of all time. It shows us that people want something to become invested in. Great characters who can’t be painted with anything but shades of grey. Vast landscapes that feel lived in. Stories that require a significant investment on the part of the viewer/reader.
Shows like Breaking Bad, where we follow the downfall of an ordinary man into the very pits of despair, self-loathing and (eventually) outright villainy. But we come back every week. We want that sense of investment, and that pay-off in the end.
The same is evident in film – although there are several examples I could go into, I am going to touch on one that is particularly relevant at the moment. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. This take on Batman is significantly different from any previous iterations (although partly based on many storylines from the comics). Nolan has stripped Batman (and his villains) of his glamour; the camp, fairground style of the 90s versions, and taken the story of Bruce Wayne down to its most human roots. We love these films so much because of the deep human investment we have in the characters, and the grounded realism of the setting. Nolan’s Gotham City is terrorised in ways that seem (if not familiar) certainly possible in the grand scheme of things. And it seems that gritty fantasy is popular for much of the same reasons.
Yes we still want escapism. Sometimes there is nothing better than picking up the latest Pratchett book, or going to see something where we can switch our brains off for two hours. But in fantasy, so many of us come back to the grittier authors time and time again. We want to attach ourselves to characters – to have the feeling that a character is like us; that he or she has the same emotions and reactions that we would. That no one is safe. Gandalf came back from the dead, but when George R. R. Martin kills off our most beloved character, we have to deal with the fact that they are not coming back.
Not only is Martin now one of the biggest selling authors in the world, but British authors like Joe Abercrombie are starting to prove themselves a force to be reckoned; not only in the world of fantasy but in the mainstream charts too. Joe’s last book, The Heroes, went to the top of the Sunday Times bestsellers list when it was released. If this is the beginning of a trend, then long may it continue, for fantasy authors all over the world.
I personally read all kinds of fantasy – the “Farm boy versus Dark Lord”, the “bunch of heroes on a quest”. But I am consistently drawn back to the “Shades of Grey” approach. I don’t expect these stories to drop the classic concepts in fantasy, but rather take them and put a new spin on them. For me, these authors are keeping the fantasy genre fresh and exciting – they are touching on concepts which are important in a real-world way. Just like The Wire, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire takes in the politics, inter-house (gang) relationships and shows them to us at a personal level. Joe Abercrombie consistently presents us with characters so deep, we could be half-expected to see them turn up at our door (albeit wielding an axe coated in blood).
It seems to me that the more casual reader of fantasy looks for something that is more grounded in a sense of reality. Something that they can connect with on a level that is similar to their typical reading fare. Something less reliant on complicated magic systems and outrageously strange monsters. The characters, the stories and the worlds in gritty fantasy are what keeps them, and the wider fantasy readership (us!), coming back for more.
We seem to have entered a second “Golden Age” for fantasy. Reading fantasy is what the cool kids do once again. We have the names of Martin, Abercrombie, Cook, Erikson, Lawrence, Brett et al to thank for that. They have created characters that we used to think of simply as brave knights, bad witches, good carpenters and evil wizards and turned each concept on its head, painting each one with an endless supply of the colour grey.
In the words of Joe Abercrombie in Best Served Cold:
“That was the difference between a hero and a villain, a soldier and a murderer, a victory and a crime. Which side of a river you called home.”