Absolutism vs. Ambiguity in Fantasy

This article is by Matthew R. Bishop.

good evilIn a recent article featured on Mythic Scribes, Christian Madera explored the strengths and limitations of “black and white” fantasy, while defending the rise of “grey” fantasy as something that can overcome the drawbacks of black and white.

Let me clarify that I am an author of grey fantasy myself, so I do not take issue with this defense. For the purposes of fully understanding these disparate ways of writing fantasy, however, I want to expand on the strengths and limitations of both, and on the downfall of thinking one is exclusive of another. I hope this effort will lead to a greater appreciation for fantasy of all colors.

Pros or Cons of Absolutism?

First, I want to elaborate on the strengths of black and white fantasy. Black and white fantasy — where good and evil are absolutes and obvious opposites — is a profound and meaningful genre as long as we read it as such. Tolkien-style black and white fantasy, as Madera notes, includes notions of racialism, pure evils, and the mythical hero. A person’s character can be predicted sometimes by their race or blood. This alone can set a person up for perpetual war with another race, which, in turn, is either morally higher or morally lower than that person’s own race. Unfailing heroes and thoughtless villains serve as the highest authorities of separate warring races, with one being purely good and another being purely evil.

So far, this sounds like a list of weaknesses. But the fact of the matter is that a huge number of individuals, perhaps the vast majority, conceive of our own real world in much the same terms.

Tolkien-style black and white fantasy expresses in writing what men and women believe in our own world: That where one group is good, lawful, human, and righteous, their opposition must be evil, lawless, inhuman, and wicked. It is because of such beliefs that wars occur between two peoples. An author’s alluding to this has nothing to do with his or her own prejudices; on the contrary, it gives form to just how unrealistic and absurd our prejudices really are, and how far removed from reality they must be to make any real sense. Racism, dehumanization, or any form of delegitimization primes one society to wage war against another, and demonstrating that fact through metaphor or allegory can help separate primed societies from their dualistic foundations.

Absolutism and the Real World

Black and white fantasy takes one strength away from this, and that is that it shows us just how far apart our conceived reality and our actual reality lie. Our conceived reality, whether in this world or Tolkien’s, is where good and evil exist as absolutes. Our actual reality, in which so many people in our own world refuse to live, is where otherwise good or even heroic men can commit horrible atrocities against innocent people and wage fully senseless wars without any real accomplishments to show for them. Earthlings and Middle Earthlings all alike refuse to accept that they live in such a world, and instead imagine that they live in a world of absolutes. Black and white fantasy, then, is the revelation of our imagination’s violent absurdity.

The genre is a dramatization of the conceived reality that people like to think they live in, where they can choose sides without doubt, where they can obey directions without questions, and where they can believe that they are good people who do not unduly harm innocents. In this world, people make the deliberate choice either to be evil or to be good, and they understand the choice in such simple and straightforward terms. As such, black and white fantasy has a very clear political purpose and serves an important role in society, so long as we are able to realize just how far apart this conception is from the situation in which we must live, and against which we must struggle.

Evil in Black and Grey

There is one additional plus to the genre— black and white fantasy teaches us to strive ever for nobility and greatness of character, toward courage and vigilance against evil. These lessons, come out to us from the ashes of two world wars and history’s most horrible genocide, are extremely real and down to earth. We cannot imagine that evils do not exist in our world. They do. The heroic myth inspires us to stand up against such evils.

But it is important that, in doing so, we do not ourselves become evil. Black and white fantasy does not make room for this transition to be possible. Reality always does.

Revealing this potential is “grey” fantasy’s most obvious and visible strength.

Ambiguous Fantasy and Ambiguous People

“Grey” fantasy, generally without absolutes (or with more realistic absolutes), can follow a morally correct individual down the road toward moral perversion. Grey fantasy can show us how petty war really is, in addition to just how brutal it can be. Grey fantasy includes a wider and more realistic cast of heroes, villains, neutrals, and those who go between. It touches on the plight of the common man rather than following the tradition of the mythical hero. The lessons of a good grey fantasy are more easily applied to the situations we face in real life in operational terms. The list of moral questions that grey fantasy presents is longer, and those questions are usually more difficult to answer. All of these are strengths of the genre, and with these strengths grey fantasy can overcome the pitfalls of black and white absolutism. The bottom line is that good and evil both exist inside of every person. This is a fact of vital importance for society. Grey fantasy — ambiguity — can teach us this. Black and white fantasy — absolutism — cannot.

The downfall of ambiguous fantasy is that it is often less popular than its absolutist counterpart. An important exception may be George R.R. Martin, but even similarly “gritty” fantasists tend to err on the side of absolutism and end up avoiding ambiguity (think Raymond E. Feist). Grey is more realistic at the cost of being less inspirational.

I am exploring this problem because, as a politically conscious individual who also writes fantasy in all colors, I am personally invested in finding its solution.

Developing Humanist Themes in Grey War Fantasy

I believe that the solution is to emphasize the human significance of events that occur in grey fantasies. If we do this, we can make grey fantasy more profound in its emotional depth and more salient in its modern-day cultural relevance. In war, for instance, we should:

  1. Stress that peoples’ lives are forever changed, almost universally for the worse, and very, very seldom for the better.
  2. Examine the plight of those who experience permanent mental trauma as a result of combat.
  3. Delve into the heart of the man who has been brought up to respect human life, but then is ordered to commit murder for his country.
  4. See through the eyes of the man or woman whose world is turned into waste, and who, at the final end of that waste, realizes that no accomplishment, no triumph of any sort, will ever come (recent clinical studies suggest that these “dark revelation” experiences are even more lasting and impactful than the witnessing of mass atrocities and death in large numbers).
  5. Show the popularity and rationale of arch villains that commit horrible crimes, and likewise show that characters we initially understand to be heroes can inflict irreparable harm to innocent families.
  6. Explore the emotions of regret, insanity, berserk, and compassion that define men’s actions in and after war.
  7. Likewise, explore the emotions of carelessness and dehumanization that can follow people all through their lives. These emotions permit the individual to accept as “right” any number of terrible crimes they may have committed.
  8. Reveal motives as they truly are, not as they are propagated to be. Decisionmakers start wars for a certain set of reasons, but the men who fight in wars rarely do so for these same reasons and often have reasons of their own.

This is war as it exists in the history of our own world. If we are to bring its importance to life for readers, we must acknowledge this — not by becoming more absolutist, but by becoming more ambiguous. Our world is ambiguous. We, as real people, are ambiguous. We are capable of the most heroic feats, but also of the most heinous crimes against humanity. To deny this dual capacity is to say we are something other than human. Grey fantasy can align our self-identity properly, so that we can be always aware of just how close to evil we truly are. Only with that recognition can we be sure that we are not doing evil ourselves. Only by sharing this recognition can we make grey fantasy more emotional, more salient, and more important for society than its absolutist counterpart.

For Further Thought

Do you believe that black and white fantasy serves an important role in society? Or is it too far removed from reality, and too potentially dangerous?

To what extent are we able to apply the lessons we learn from the real world to what we write in fantasy, and to what extent can we apply that writing to the real world?

About the Author:

Matthew R. Bishop is the author of The Kingdom of the Free series (A Land of Our Own, August 2013, and In the Shadows of Laeolin, July-August 2014). He used to manage a world news company and recently received his M.A. from The George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs. Visit his website at MatthewRBishop.com or contact him directly at [email protected]

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8 years ago

Meant to say I agreed with Margaret H’s comment. And I wish you the best in the recent publication of your latest book!

8 years ago

When you list 8 things “Grey” fantasy writers must do aren’t you being “black and white?”

I enjoyed your article but I agreed with the first comment.

For me there never will be a utopia. I believe life is full of imperfection and trade-offs and yet I believe there is absolute good and evil…and the ambiguity in between.

Margaret H
8 years ago

I agree wholeheartedly with the reality that humans are not good, cannot eradicate the evil within ourselves, and must be incredibly vigilant not to fall into evil deeds in an attempt to “destroy evil”. I agree that we must be aware of our evil capabilities and not pretend that we can attain perfection by efforts to become good.
But I do not believe that Tolkien’s Middle-earth embodies the “black and white” viewpoint you describe. The heroes are clearly aware that they are capable of evil. Gandalf and Galadriel are both tempted to take the Ring and use its evil to conquer the world. Tolkien once noted in a letter that it is the unselfish Samwise who is responsible, in a moment of thoughtless grumpiness, for destroying Gollum’s last thoughts of repentance. This is hardly a false reality.
Tolkien never denies the presence of evil (and its destructive consequences) in any race, even the Valar. The Silmarillion is full of sinful Elves and Men who destroy themselves and others through supposedly good motives gone wrong. It also suggests that Orcs are the descendants of tortured Elves, and therefore not by nature utterly evil. The very name Middle-earth (from Old Norse Miðgarðr or Anglo-Saxon Middangeard) carries the implication that our world is the middle-place, between High Heaven (or absolute good, if you will) and Deep Hell (absolute evil). We are by nature creatures of struggle, with the capacity to do both good and evil.
We do not have to be absolutely good or evil ourselves to believe that there are such things as absolute good and absolute evil. Belief in moral absolutes is not belief in every man being either one or the other.

Reply to  Margaret H
8 years ago

Brilliant response. I was thinking the same thing.

Chad Lynch
8 years ago

Yes, the orc is always bad, elves are always good story would be a silly and boring one. Yet I find so much of ‘grey’ ficiton to be unenjoyable, if not down right repellent. This is because a morally ambiguous story will, if spun out to it’s logical conclusion, end in nihlism. If good and evil is whatever an individual decides it to be, not only can there be no consensus on what is a virtue and what is a crime, one can not even denounce or stand up to evil, whether done by an single criminal or an invading army. If ethics are situational how can a person truely say getting mugged or witnessing a genocide is wrong? You may dislike such things, but without an authoritative moral code you can’t logically call such things a crime.

G.R.R.M is a great example of what I mean. His writing is exellent. His world building, characters, everything. I can only dream of one day writing as well, although I hope that my stories don’t end up suffering from the bloat his last two books have. Yet dispite all his skill as a writer, I hate Westeros. His ‘realistic’ people and politics are nihlism made manifest. The good fail and die right along with the bad, though people who try to do the right thing die sooner and seem to be shown to be foolish for even trying. Only the most vile seem to accomplish anything for any length of time.

As one character said in a commercial for the TV version of the story “There is only the ladder of power and the climb up it. That is all there is.” Or, as another man once wrote, “God is dead, and with Him all his outdated notions of good and evil. All that really exists is the will to power.”

It is also a nihlistic view to think all war is pointless and petty. If everything is relative and nothing has meaning, unless you assign meaning to it, then yes, war, like everything else, is pointless. While examples of petty and pointless conflicts certainly exist – Alexander’s ego driven conquests come to mind – conflicts generally have deeper, more complex issues driving them.

An easy example would be khengis khan. He lead the Golden Horde out of the steppes because, ultimately, he had to. After uniting the Mongol tribes he had to keep the different tribes under his command happy. If he didn’t he’d fall from power, and most likely end up dead. To keep them happy he had to provide them treasure. Best way to do that is take it from the soft city dwellers. That was all made easier because the Mongols saw non-Mongols as being subhumans. How can you call them creating mountains of corpses from captives to make a ramp to get over a city wall evil if ethics are situational? How can you call oppossing such massive slaughter good if all war, even one for freedom or survival, is petty?

A world of moral absolutes need not be flat or simple. Truth is the right thing is usually the easiest thing to say, but the hardest thing to do. Acting in a world without moral absolutes seems to me to be easier, but pointless. Without consequenses for immoral behaviour why not just do whatever you have to do to make sure you can do whatever you want to do? That results in a world dominated by sadists, perverts, theives, and aimless cynics,… making for a dam ugly shaggy dog story.

And a story of an orc searching for redemtion and grace sounds like something I’d like to read.

Reply to  Chad Lynch
8 years ago

I’d like to read that too 😛

I don’t think a sense of meaninglessness and nothingness is a problem for ambiguity if ambiguity is done well. I’ve seldom, if ever, encountered a story that is so ambiguous it ends up being senseless. A good ambiguous fantasy borrows some aspects of absolutism, hopefully the best aspects– we borrow absolutist aspects for our own ambiguous lives, after all, because we refuse to see life as totally senseless. But the same effort can be made from the opposite end– that is, absolutist writers can and should learn to borrow strong ambiguous elements to help develop the genre. Right now, I see the two ends as divided, and writers will often follow one with much greater loyalty, not realizing that they can be a better writer, and tell better stories, if they are able to navigate between ambiguity and absolutism within the same narrative.

8 years ago

In Superhero fantasies, the grey Superhero is always the most interesting. Graphic novels and the movies (the good ones) that came from the fight within these character driven fantasies are by far the most interesting of any B&W counterpart. i.e. Spiderman…

8 years ago

Actually, Matthew, Tolkien himself said that the Orcs were redeemable. True, he didn’t say it in the text of LOTR, but he reasoned that due to the nature of the world and the nature of the Orcs they MUST be redeemable. Keep in mind that most of the Orcs in LOTR are acting under the control of the Ring and that as soon as the Ring they all run away. The Orcs aren’t at the Black Gate because they’re just really, really evil and want to kill everyone. They’re there because Sauron controls them with his power. Many fans have speculated about what Orcs do when Dark Lords like Morgoth and Sauron are not controlling them and it seems highly likely that somewhere in the east or South of Middle-earth they DO create their own societies. Remember, they procreate after the fashion of men and elves, which implies some sort of society that allows for the raising of children.

If you judge LOTR just by what’s on the surface I can see how you might think it’s a dualistic world. But if you dig into it just a little, you’ll see that it’s not. Not by a long shot. Men, Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves and even Maiar have plenty of good and bad among them. It’s true that we don’t know much about the Orcs, because the story isn’t about them, but if you give it some thought you can see how they aren’t as simple as they seem either. Even Sauron was once a very different kind of being, one who served the Valar in Valinor, until he was corrupted by Morgoth. Even Morgoth started out as a being created good.

There is no dualism in Middle-earth. There is no black and white. It would have gone against Tolkien’s religion and philosophy.

I cannot think of a single fantasy book that really portrays a strictly dualistic world.

Reply to  Sarah McCabe
8 years ago

As soon as *the Ring is destroyed* it should say.

Reply to  Sarah McCabe
8 years ago

That’s quite interesting– but you would not say that an Orc has the same emotional and intellectual capacities as the human or hobbit, would you? What of Jordan’s world, where the absolute evil, bent on world annihilation, moves in from the north in what amounts to a battle against the Creator? Is that not an absolute evil? I am not disbelieving– I just had considered Jordan’s and Tolkien’s evils, both, as absolutes.

Reply to  Matthew R. Bishop
8 years ago

It’s quite clear in LOTR that an Orc’s intellectual capacity is just as great as a human’s or an Elf’s. We don’t get an opportunity to see an Orc’s emotional capacity explored, but reason tells us that it must also be the same. Tolkien’s Orcs, if one pays attention to the evidence and uses reason to further speculate, are not cookie cutter evil and are not absolutes.

I can’t comment on Jordan. I only read his first Wheel of Time book and hated it. I’m willing to grant the possibility that his Orcs(?) are absolutely evil, however I would caution that this cannot be determined most of the time just based on how they appear in a story that focuses on the heroes and not the grunts on the opposing team. One cannot theorize that a race is absolutely evil just because one never sees them do anything good if they aren’t actually the focus of the tale.

8 years ago

Wonderful article! I love the exploration of this topic.

There are no absolutes in this universe, only theoretical absolutes (as alluded to in mathematics). The fact that so many think in absolutes (or blame others so absolutely) is a fault of our educational system as much as contemporary literature and (dare I say it?) the western religions, which propose that same dichotomy. And for decades, fantasy focused on those ultimates of good and evil. That modern times have seen a rise of stories written in shades of grey is, I think, important to the culture overall.

You mention valuable humanist themes in your article above, stressing the ability of grey fantasy to show the horrors of war, the true nature of evil men, and the degradation of the spirit of man.

But grey fantasy also has the capability of exploring viewpoints – because like it or not, all of those people we’ve elected out as “evil” in our everyday lives do in fact fully think that what they’re doing is right. No one sets out to become the villain.

Grey fantasy has a unique ability to wake us all to a multitude of varying viewpoints and bring about, ultimately, and if done well, a greater understanding and tolerance for our fellow man.

8 years ago

Thanks Catie 🙂 It’s good to hear that.

Sarah, can’t the same be said of our own morals– that they are fuzzy, at best, if we really examine them objectively compared to our actions? I might agree with you on some points concerning absolutism, but could you develop your argument a bit further and explain it perhaps with an example?

Reply to  Matthew R. Bishop
8 years ago

Well, its hard to give a counterexample since you didn’t really give any concrete examples of how in Tolkien’s work “where one group is good, lawful, human, and righteous, their opposition must be evil, lawless, inhuman, and wicked.” I believe this statement of yours is clearly and obviously false and I wonder that anyone who has read LOTR could believe it. I’m not trying to insult you. It really just boggles my mind when people say things like this. Were we reading different novels?

I could probably write a whole essay on this subject alone. Perhaps I will at some point.

Reply to  Sarah McCabe
8 years ago

I’m quite sure we were reading the same novels……the dualism of good versus evil is a cornerstone of absolutist thinking both in literature and in life, and it is absolutely true of most wars. Would you say, for example, that an orc has redeemable or noble qualities, that the orc is capable of compassion and civilized society-building? Absolutely not. But the orc is fictional, and can be read as a representation of nothing that is real, a representation only of some violent, ignorant, conjured reality fitting for no actual society.

In life, people apply the same sort of dehumanization to wage war. A race is conceived of as lesser than oneself, or a political opinion is dismissed as absurd and irrational instead of the product of some or another element of an equal but different society. War would be impossible without this kind of thinking. An individual must dehumanize, delegitimize, or in some way seriously slander another population in order to continuously commit murder. The only other trigger I know of that can cause a person to commit murder is fear– which the “enemy” in LOTR can also be read to represent. In such a way the enemy captures every motive for man to kill, and the enemy might even be read as those motives themselves.

You could argue, if you found a way to, that LOTR is not absolutist fantasy, but you cannot simply dismiss the actual meaning of absolutist fantasy in general, which is defined primarily by a dualistic separation of good and evil.

Reply to  Sarah McCabe
8 years ago

Just to elaborate further– black and white does not conclude that something is morally shallow or insignificant. As I stated in the article, good absolutist fantasy can challenge us to improve as people and to improve our societies and our world. I do think, however, that ambiguous fantasy, with a limited insertion of absolutist elements, can do a finer job of it.

8 years ago

The fact is that “black and white”, “absolutist” fantasy is a myth. It doesn’t exist. The Lord of the Rings is NOT “black and white” in any way. I have never encountered a fantasy that was. When people point out such stories as being “black and white” or “absolutist” or “morally simplistic” they either have a fundamental misunderstanding of the work its self, or what constitutes such “absolutism”. More often than not, they have little understanding of the philosophy of morality.

It is equally a myth that so called “grey” fantasy represents a more complex morality or philosophy. More often than not in my experience of such books the morality and philosophy is fuzzy and confused and meaningless.

Reply to  Sarah McCabe
8 years ago

The impression of black and white in LOTR is mostly caused by the omniscient point of view – you don’t see anything from any of the characters’ POV, like, for example, in Martin’s Game of Thrones. But there are very few “white” characters there. Frodo constantly fights with the ring’s influence, and almost losses in the end. Boromir falls under, but redeems himself. His brother, in contrast, doesn’t fall. Saruman turns evil. Galadriel was tempted, but managed to resist. Gollum was once good, but corrupted by the ring. And even he almost manages to regain some good inside himself, if only temporary.

If anything, it’s “black and gray”, but only because we don’t see the other side’s POV.

8 years ago

Thanks Ashana 🙂 I’m glad it was helpful.

Yeah, any color of fantasy can be of high quality, for sure– thematically, I think grey generally instills a very particular kind of self-awareness and awareness of others that absolutism lacks.

I agree Aderyn– I think grey fantasy has the greater potential, as long as we are able to develop the genre. I think you are hinting at the same thing, Zuri– that if we can make grey more appealing in the mass market than black and white, we’ll have a stronger and more positive impact on readers and the public as a whole.

8 years ago

I guess black and white fantasy does have an important role in an allegorical sense. It wasn’t fantasy, but Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ springs to mind – evil, sprung from greed and corruption. But, grey fantasy is certainly more applicable to our every day world, and I think the characters are ultimately more three dimensional.

This was an interesting article. Thank you!

8 years ago

Copied the list to my writing folder to be used as an inspiration for either standalone stories or when I come to the war part in my series. Many thanks.

Zuri Amma
8 years ago

Great post.

Yes, fairy tales and nursery rhymes are essentially the first black and white fantasy stories we come across growing up and many people want that reassurance that life is that simple and easy. They stem from myths, legends etc told to children and congregations to keep them in line and afraid. Greys cause too much doubt and risk.

I don’t believe that black and white fantasy serves an important role in society because I don’t believe that it is important for people to think in that way. Ashana Lian says that it is ingrained into our understanding of morality but what if our understanding of morality distorted by it? How can we understand that we will sometimes make mistakes and that not everyone that is “good” is some unrealistic Mary Sue type person? Politically it serves a purpose, yes; for people to be afraid of what is different by reinforcing prejudicial notions and for them to do as they are told. If fairy tales were told in greys with the audience forced to question what they would do, there could be a lot more free-thinkers and open-mindedness I reckon.

I think the popularity of Martin, Tolkien and Feist’s work suggest that absolutism has a firm place in adult fantasy and that this kind of work is what the mainstream audience strive for. What I like about Martin is that although his characters have their roles (hero, villain etc) this does not guarantee a ‘happy ever after’and think that is the appeal. (It is for me!)

I think it’s possible to apply everything from real world situations to fantasy and vice versa. It’s just about making it interesting and readable.

8 years ago

It can depend on the quality of execution, but I generally lean towards stories where at least one side is a lighter shade of gray (i.e. more sympathetic, or less unsympathetic) than the other.

That said, any story that gives both its protagonists and antagonists depth will probably have some grayness on both sides. Every hero needs vulnerable points that makes the conflict they face all the more challenging. Every villain needs a motivation that animates their actions. Any story that pits pure white against pitch black is in need of deeper characterization.

8 years ago

The list of Humanist Themes was just GREAT. I’ve thought a lot about some of those aspects myself.

I think Black and White Fantasy is important because it is so heavily ingrained into our understanding of morality, even though we KNOW that moral issues are much more complex. Fairy tales helped us as children to quickly grasp the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and using that as a basis we could make more complicated moral judgements. Sometimes the wrong ones. But in fantasy writing, that’s exactly where I would expect black and white fantasy – in children’s tales. It’s harder to imagine absolutism having a rightful place in adult/mainstream fantasy that deal with much larger/wider/more grown-up issues.

But also, too much of one or the other doesn’t leave you feeling very satisfied at the end of the story.

This was so interesting. I loved the mention of Tolkien.