Grimdark’s odd isn’t it? Is it a genre? A subgenre? Ask any two readers of Grimdark fiction what the word actually means, and you’ll get two different answers (I tried this in a Facebook group recently, and it was quite an eye-opener). Hell, ask two writers what Grimdark means, and you’ll likely get three different answers.
So how best to sum it up? I’ll have a go. Grimdark is choice with consequences. Historical parallels without rose-tinted glasses. It doesn’t stint on the grime, squalor and nastiness of the human condition. It doesn’t shirk from graphic violence. And above all, it doesn’t deal in absolutes of good and evil. Of course, there are then the degrees to which the above are pursued – personally, I prefer emotional conflict to the wobbly waving of severed body parts to prove a point, but to each their own.
There are those who’ll argue ’till they’re blue in the face that Grimdark is unique to speculative fiction – the broad umbrella of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to whom Horror sometimes is and is sometimes not a sibling). And it’s sort of true, in that speculative fiction is where Grimdark rose to prominence – its popular flagbearers being Game of Thrones and Warhammer 40,000 (in fact, depending on who you ask, the name itself comes from the latter’s ‘Grim Darkness of the Far Future’ tagline). Why that strong association with Fantasy and Sci-fi? Well, that’s the shadow of Mordor for you.
The perception of Tolkien’s works has always been of an unambiguous good-versus-evil setting, where victory is pre-destined, and heroes are unconflicted. It’s nonsense, especially when you get into the murky depths of the Silmarillion. Granted, Tolkien doesn’t go much into visceral thrills – you don’t see Aragorn eviscerate fifteen Uruk-hai in slow motion, or see exactly what tortures the orcs of Cirith Ungol inflict on Frodo Baggins. Doubtless the George R R Martin retelling wouldn’t hold back, and involve the aforementioned wobbly body parts.
Nonetheless, there are hard choices and tragedies. Hell, the whole theme of The Lord of The Rings is that everything great and beautiful is destined to be supplanted by lesser imitations. Or, in other words, it doesn’t matter if you win, it’ll still go to shit. Tolkien drew heavily from mythology, and mythology isn’t kind to its protagonists, what with all the fratricide, patricide, massacre, hilarious accidental incest, poisoning and madness that goes with it. However, a succession of The Hobbit adaptations (the Hobbit is pretty saccharine –it’s a kid’s book), comic-relief dwarfs, and an endless chain of The Lord of The Rings knock-offs in the 70s and 80s that missed the subtleties of tone, created a weird pseudo-legacy that continues to this day. Grimdark reportedly began as rebellion against Tolkien, but I think the truth is it grew out of opposition to Tolkien imitators.
(I’m not arguing that Tolkien is Grimdark, by the way, just that neither is it the magical paradise of unicorns and rainbows it’s sometimes portrayed as).
But even with its ‘official’ origins in speculative fiction, I’m not sure Grimdark is genre, or even a subgenre. If it’s anything, it’s a style – tone and convention that can be applied to any genre, rather than a genre itself. And like all styles, it can be done poorly or well, or wielded in almost any context. Depending on how generous you’re feeling, The Godfather is Grimdark. So is Hamlet. So is any tale where the protagonist takes a wending moral path, rather than one that heads straight into the light (almost every bestseller thriller published in the last forty years). No, Grimdark themes have existed in storytelling for as long as storytelling has itself existed; they’re tragedy, ambiguity – maybe even realism (although that’s often a tricky word itself).
(Then again, genre itself is a strange concept. I’m not going to get into the official difference between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’, largely because I’ll start throwing around words like ‘pretentious’, ‘elitist’ and ‘twaddle’. I’ll also likely resort to an outrageous example of a struggling Bulgarian housepainter who falls in love with an aspidistra because it reminds him of his dead wife. She loved ballet, but couldn’t dance, and her presence is always implied when the novel references the colour orange, which was the hue of the sky the day she was buried, and… Wait… Where was I?)
Ultimately, does it matter if Grimdark’s a genre, a subgenre or simply a flavour? Well, not really. Leaving aside pretentiousness, genres only really exist to help consumers find the art they want to consume. If tagging appropriate stories as Grimdark helps that process, everybody wins.
Apart from hobbits. But I can live with that. Stupid fat hobbits.