Is Violence In Fantasy Less Confronting?
The fantasy genre is no stranger to violence. High fantasies are known for their epic battles, sword fights, warrior heroes, merciless villains and clashing forces of good and evil. Many low fantasies are populated by supernatural beings hungry for blood or conquest. While not all stories involve a multitude of violent scenes, it’s a rare example that won’t have any at all.
Nonetheless, violence in fantasy is often considered to be less confronting than violence portrayed in more ‘realistic’ contexts in other genres. Some film and television rating systems make a distinction between ‘fantasy violence’ or ‘fantasy horror’ and the ordinary kind, allowing it in ratings for younger age groups. To be fair, this definition likely refers to the violence itself being more stylized and less realistic, but it still indicates an association of the genre with less confronting displays of cruelty and conflict.
To some degree, this makes sense: fantasy worlds are so removed from our own reality that it’s easier to distance ourselves from their content. People will say “I can’t handle violence in films” without a thought for all the battles and stabbings they’ve watched in fantasy movies. However, the subject is a more complex one, especially when examining modern examples.
THE DISTANCE OF TRADITIONAL HEROIC FANTASY
If you take a look at traditional epic fantasy, it’s easy to see why the violence might appear less disturbing. Larger-than-life characters populate wondrous imagined worlds of heroes and magic, and the violence they engage in is only truly important in its symbolic and dramatic effect. It is not the cruelty or blood or gore that is lingered on, but the tragedy or triumph of a friend or foe slain.
To use the archetypal example of Lord of the Rings: as Boromir falls, it is not his suffering we focus on, but his noble sacrifice. As our heroes slay the inhuman Uruk-hai left, right, and centre, we think only of the glorious defeat. Deaths are measures of skill to be counted out by Gimli and Legolas. Other heroic fantasy books, films and TV series like The Riftwar Saga, The Wheel of Time, The Narnia Chronicles, Harry Potter, Merlin and Xena provide a similar distance.
Don’t get me wrong, many of these fantasies do contain truly violent scenes, with people dying in pain – these worlds are not happy, trouble-free places. However, they don’t seem to horrify us in the way a war film or a crime novel might, when the context is much closer to home.
Even urban fantasies like Underworld and Van Helsing, which are full of blood and gore, seem to somewhat disconnect us from the violence – perhaps due to the supernatural or evil nature of the characters, the fictional scenarios, and their relatively black-and-white heroism.
Other sub-genres and types of fantasy, however, tell a different story.
GRITTY REALISM AND GRIMDARK FANTASY
The last couple of decades have seen more fantasy books and films set in grimmer worlds, often called grimdark fantasies. Many of these offer gritty, unappealing settings and less black-and-white moral divisions, aiming for a more ‘realistic’ feel. They often put brutality and cruelty centre stage.
In these stories, we witness violence for its own sake: a twisted villain torturing for the simple pleasure of it, a warrior taking his time to cut up his enemy, a brutal rape. These scenes may have no higher meaning or symbolism for us to cling to, and the characters that suffer are not always inhuman beasts, or noble heroes and heroines that die with dignity. Even current examples of more traditional heroic fantasy are often tinged with a slightly grimmer, bleak note – perhaps in line with a modern trend.
The most famous example of this style of fantasy violence is Game of Thrones. Several scenes in Game of Thrones are truly disturbing, and I don’t think I would have found them any more or less chilling if portrayed in a real world modern-day context. Other grim stories, such as the The Broken Empire and The First Law trilogies, or the TV series Spartacus, show equal readiness to linger on violence and gore. These styles of fantasy challenge the notion that violence is somehow less hard-hitting and ‘real’ because of its fantasy context.
IMAGINING NEW WAYS TO SHOCK AND DISTURB
There is another interesting question in all of this: can fantasy violence be more disturbing than the violence of a story that sticks to the laws of reality? The genre allows writers to explore things that would be impossible in the real world – occasionally, that entails finding new forms of cruelty.
Science fiction is perhaps more practised in this (some of the most disturbing scenes I can remember are those I’ve encountered in science fiction novels or films, e.g. 1984, Hyperion, District 9), but there are also fantasy novels where the magic of the world allows for a special kind of cruelty not possible in our own. For example, a gift of eternal life can easily be turned into a curse of eternal suffering. A character that can magically heal can be tortured endlessly and creatively.
Some scenes in Kim Wilkins’s The Veil of Gold and The Autumn Castle haunted me for days after I read them (the author also writes horror so she is good at these chilling moments), and there are acts of sexual violence in Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels series that, while only alluded to, were truly horrifying to contemplate. These unsettling scenes were actually made possible by the fantasy elements of the novels, which makes you wonder how the genre can be seen as wholly at odds with a ‘confronting’ breed of violence.
Are violent scenes in fantasy tales easier to stomach than those in other genres?
I think the inherent distance from reality that the fantasy genre provides does insulate us from what we are seeing or reading to some degree. However, it’s too simplistic to say that all such violence is less disturbing than more ‘realistic’ portrayals of violence in a real-world context. With the grimmer kinds of fantasy that have been gaining in popularity, and the use of magic to explore new forms of cruelty, it’s not necessarily safe to assume the fantasy you’ve just settled into enjoy isn’t going to confront or shock you.