Saturday, April 4, 2015

We Were Badass Too, Back in the Day

Grimdark is definitely flavour of the month (or the decade) in fantasy. Wherever you look, fantasy worlds are populated by characters who range from cynical jerks to psychopaths — and those are the good guys. In the words of a section-header quote from Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, it's "a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse".

I've read and enjoyed both Abercrombie and Peter V. Brett, and I intend to read more Grimdark, but I do have a couple of quibbles with their attitude. For one thing, I don't see that having everyone a cynical bastard who cares nothing for others is any more "realistic" (as they claim) than having noble, virtuous heroes. For me, realism is a broad range of characters, including some at least trying to do the right thing.

For another, like most "new waves", they seem to be under the impression that no-one's done this before, and every work of fantasy before Martin introduced his "knights who say fuck a lot" uniformly offered us the variety of knights decked out in shining armour.

While I'm not saying there was necessarily anything quite as bleak as Prince of Thorns, or "sympathetic" characters working as torturers like Glokta, it certainly wasn't all honour and virtue. Below, I've picked out a few dark heroes or rogue heroes from classic fantasy.

Vathek — Arguably* the first fantasy novel in the modern sense was Vathek by William Beckford (1786), in which case the genre starts with a hero as dark as midnight. Set in an Arabian Nights version of the classical Islamic Empire, it tells the tale of the Caliph Vathek (very loosely based on the historical Al-Wathiq, 842-847, grandson of Harun al-Rashid) who practices black magic and sacrifices children to a demon in order to gain immense supernatural powers. He eventually gets what's coming to him, but not before he's corrupted a naïve young girl into sharing his quest and his punishment.

Jurgen — The eponymous hero of James Branch Cabell's best-known novel (1919) isn't particularly dark, but he's something of a rogue, living on his wits and abandoning without regret his succession of female conquests when he gets tired of them. Ostensibly on a quest to find and recover his kidnapped wife — kidnapped, he thinks, by the Devil, although it turns out not to be quite that simple — he makes little effort to advance his quest, preferring instead to have fun with a succession of beautiful women. Jurgen has a very inflated idea of his own cleverness and frequently demonstrates it by outwitting his opponents — though this tactic doesn't always succeed, and once results in him being consigned to Hell. Even here, though, he outwitted "Grandfather Satan" and finds a way out.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser — One of the three key series of classic sword & sorcery (written by the man who coined the phrase) began in 1939 when Fritz Leiber's story Two Sought Adventure (later retitled The Jewels in the Forest) introduced the giant barbarian Fafhrd and the diminutive, sophisticated thief and swordsman the Gray Mouser. Like Jurgen, they're rogues more than dark heroes, but are willing to sell their swords to anyone who pays well enough. Though they're usually on the better side of any conflict, they're not generally motivated by altruism. Leiber continued working on the series, on and off, until 1988, four years before his death. Fafhrd and the Mouser grow noticeably older in the course of the stories, though their characters don't greatly change.

Skafloc — "The other" fantasy novel about elves published in 1954 was The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson, a bloodthirsty saga combining the Viking age and Norse mythology. Skafloc is a mortal taken as a changeling by the Elf-King and raised as an elven warrior. Anderson's elves, though beautiful and magical, are a far cry from their noble namesakes of Middle Earth. They're no-holds-barred warriors with no conscience whatsoever, and Skafloc, in his personal feud against the trolls, arguably commits more atrocities than his foes with his demonic Black Sword that must drink blood before it's sheathed. He also has an affair with his sister and makes her pregnant — though, in his defence, neither is aware of who the other is.

Túrin Turambar — Hang on, Tolkien appearing in a list of dark heroes? Well, Túrin, from the Silmarillion, is certainly his darkest, and actually has striking similarities with Skafloc. There's no possibility of either influencing the other — Tolkien wrote his first version of Túrin's story in 1917, but nothing was published till 1977 — but they were drawing on the same ancient influences, particularly the Finnish Kalevala and the Norse Volsunga Saga. Like Skafloc, Túrin is a grim warrior with a Black Sword that has a mind of its own, especially when it comes to drinking the blood of his friends, as well as having an unwitting affair with his sister. Túrin perhaps has a little more sense of morality than Skafloc, but he's not always particular about who he kills. The fullest version of Túrin's story, illustrated here, was The Children of Húrin (2007). 

Elric — Completing a trio of Black Sword wielders, Michael Moorcock's Elric stories are another of the essential S&S series (the third being, of course, Conan). Moorcock's acknowledged his indebtedness to The Broken Sword in creating his tortured albino prince and the demon sword Stormbringer. Aside from physical colouring, Elric's about as dark as they get. A vassal of Arioch, a lord of Hell, his first action in print (1961) was to betray his people by leading enemies to sack his home city — and then make his escape, leaving his allies to perish. Stormbringer, in common with other Black Swords, likes nothing better than to drink the blood of those its user loves, and Elric, though against his will, ends up slaughtering pretty much everyone close to him.

Cugel — Many of the protagonists in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series — even the nice ones — display dubious morality, and that's certainly true of the most ubiquitous of them. Thief and swindler Cugel the Clever is the hero of both The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) and Cugel's Saga (1983), and one of the tricksiest. Vance is said to have been strongly influenced by Cabell, and there's a distinct similarity between Cugel and Jurgen — even Cugel's favourite epithet reflects Jurgen's repeated assertion that he's "a monstrous clever fellow". Like Jurgen, many of Cugel's deceits are to seduce women, but with much darker overtones — in one or two cases, his conquests are closer to "seduction with a capital R". Similarly, he ruins lives for his own advantage, and once actually kills an innocent creature merely for playing a childish prank. Cugel is fascinating, but definitely not a nice person.

Kane — Possibly the least-known of the dark heroes listed here, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane (original publications 1973-1985) is perhaps one of the most intriguing (and, on a personal note, an important influence on my character the Traveller, though partly by contrast). Literally meant as the biblical Cain, wandering through prediluvian civilisations, Kane is an immortal swordsman and sorcerer who's sometimes the hero of his stories and sometimes the villain. Weary of his undying existence, he has little time to spare for conventional morality and kills without conscience. He's not entirely immune to pity, but tends to fight destruction with destruction. On one occasion, disgusted with a terrible siege causing untold suffering, he ends the war and brings a kind of peace by opening the gates of the city he's supposed to be defending and allows it to finish in a bloodbath.

These are just a few examples of the more obvious dark heroes from classic fantasy, but others come in all shades of grey. The thief as hero goes back as far as Lord Dunsany (and a lot further if you include traditional legend); E. R. Eddison's characters, on both sides, are schemers who'd make Machiavelli proud; and classic S&S was full of heroes, including Conan, who were mainly out for what they could get, even if they ended up protecting the world from evil. Even the genuine heroes often needed their armour polished before it was shining, like Simon Tregarth, hero of Andre Norton's Witch World, a disgraced soldier who finds his salvation in a new world.

And yes, I admit that I do love the occasional Aragorn in among all this. Humanity is a complex mixture of every shade from heroic to despicable, and it all deserves to come out to play in fantasy. Eventually, I suspect, the pendulum will swing away from Grimdark to a more middle ground. In the meantime, excellent though many of its works are, they're really just riffing rather heavily on a theme that's as old as fantasy.

* Or arguably not. It isn't important.

 Note: All book covers are copyright by the individual artists or publishers, and are reproduced on the principle of "fair use" as subjects of this article.

1 comment:

  1. Nodding as I read this. Funny how every generation seems to think they invented everything themselves. What's more frustrating is when a writer who actually did do something first is erased, and the technique is credited to someone else by people who should know better.