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Is Modern Fantasy "Bankrupt Nihilism?"

Black Dragon

I stumbled upon a recent article which laments the lack of moral clarity in modern fantasy novels:

Big Hollywood » Blog Archive » The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists

I do think that the author makes some valid points, although I do think that he paints modern fantasy with too wide of a brush. There are just as many successful fantasy novelists today who do retain the "mythopoeic splendor" of Tolkien and Howard.

What are your thoughts on this article? Has modern fantasy really degenerated into nihilism?

Philip Overby

Article Team
Seems like I read this before. He is basically saying writers like Abercrombie, Martin, and Erikson, a so called "new wave" of fantasy writers rather have this nihilistic, gray world rather than have the dragon-slaying and princess-saving of the earlier generation. In a sense, taking the fantasy out of fantasy.

I don't think it's nihilism, but more like realism. Modern fantasy borrows more and more from reality, which may put a lot of people off who want to escape from reality. I happen to like these authors. I happen to like Tolkien and Howard too. I happen to like good writing, honestly. I don't care really if it's full of "myth and wonder" or full of "doom and gloom." Either way, if it's well-written and interesting, then I'm all for it, regardless of the genre.

I kind of compare this newer wave of fantasy writers like the "grunge" era of rock music. Tolkien-esque stories were like hair metal and then the darker, realistic stuff "Nirvana-ed" the hell out of them.

But that's just how I see it.


It seems to me that he makes a good point in the end sentence, that Tolkien had a better idea of war that author's today. This also helps to explain why warfare in LOTR is sanitized and clear-cut, for the most part. Tolkien didn't want to portray it realistically - he'd had enough of it.

The author of the article seems to want to read the same stuff over and over again, and more power to him. Most of the best-selling modern fantasy isn't as simple as Tolkien or Howard, because most people today have a much larger picture of the world, and want their fantasy to be more complex to match. I think that some modern fantasy swings back away from realism and just becomes dystopian. A bit depressing - the guy Stover sounded especially dark. I think I'll pass on him.

Good music analogy, Phil. That's pretty accurate.

It all has its place, in any case. This guy loves one half, no doubt some people love the other half. The big sellers these days seem to be from the realism/nihilism camp, and I won't speculate why here. I'm sure that examples of the mythic simplicity sort are still around.


I think he's the sort of person who grew up on Tolkien, Lewis, and the early authors getting published in scientifiction magazines and Weird Tales, and he doesn't like change. I say this as someone who would call some authors older than that, even, my favorites. Dunsany, Eddison, hell even Edmund Spenser. But I also love China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, and Martin and Abercrombie are growing on me. Fantasy has just become a far broader genre than it used to be, where the only distinction that could be made was "is this more about the world and the magic, or the people fighting in it/with it?" Now we have eighty subgenres and a lot of great books in each. It's the evolution of the genre. If you want to read something more like the early authors, there's still plenty of it out there. We haven't shook off our Tolkienian roots; frankly, I wish we could, I'm not really a fan.

Really, this comes back to an argument that was going on even as Tolkien was writing. Should fantasy be escapist? And in his time, many people thought this was the case, and many of their works became the basis of the modern genre. But even among them, there were some who wrote to show a world as real as ours, with all the bad that comes with it, and for one reason or another, that's become popular these days, too.


The article was painful to read for me due to the author's use of hyperbole throughout the entire thing. For example:
"Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces."

Surely Tolkein could be said to be doing the same thing to myths and fairytales (using the building blocks and well-known tropes in different ways, rather than the whole crucifix thing).

It seems like the author really hates nihilism (and realism too, to a point) and feels the need to yell this at whoever will read (which unfortunately includes me now). It's odd he feels the need to rail against this 'new wave' of fantasy, but he's really just playing a role which has always been played, and will be played as long as humanity progresses and develops.

He talks a lot about Abercrombie, and while I find Abercrombie's work can drag on at times, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought that the ending was one of the better endings of any story I've experienced. The author seems to think that the bleakness was somehow sprung upon him at the end, as if Abercrombie's novel was pointing towards happily ever after. The twist is only a twist until you realise that the only reason you assumed the characters were good to begin with was because they filled in certain usual parts in fantasy.

Joe Abercrombie has a great rebuttal to this at his own website which I generally agree with.


I don't particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.

Clearly, the author of this article has neglected to read some of the older epics. I recently finished the Volsung saga and can honestly say that there was more incest, bloodshed, betrayal and mindless violence there than in many modern fantasy books (unless I'm just reading the wrong ones :D). Pretty much everyone dies at the end - how's that for nihilism? Not to mention the Niebelungs, the Norse myths, the Mabinogion...mythology isn't pretty, when you get down to it. It was only when the medieval writers came along with their ideas about chivalry and their white and black knights that a lot of the morality came into fantasy. For those who prefer this form of escapism, there's plenty to be read. Personally, I prefer fantasy that acknowledges the grit and suffering of reality while blending it with just enough fantasy to make it palatable.
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Honestly, the kind of attitude this blogger shows scares me.
Books that poison the minds of people and the culture of a nation? Biblical referrences to people who can't tell good from evil and comparing them to writers who don't use black and white morality? This is obviously someone who doesn't think that the right of free speech is worth much at least not if the contest of the things said goes against their belief. He reminds me a bit of those fanatics who burned the Harry Potter-books for seducing children to witchcraft.
And, as Digital Fey has already pointed out, he also seems to try and make the world fit his views. Germanic and Norse mythology is so full of mindless violence, rape and killing that I never read most of it more than once and I had a sanitized children's version back than. But even the relatively tame Greek mythology is full of rape, cruel war, adultery and even things such as cannibalism. The mythology some people of a certain Christian mind set seem to believe in doesn't exist, not even in the Bible itself.
And where exactly do these people get the idea from that people used to be more moral and virtuous in earlier times?

Okay, so much about this writer, now on the subject itself which really interests me. I actually wanted to open a thread about "morality in fantasy" myself but it might fit here as well.
Personally, I'm not much of a fan of fantasy books with long descriptions of bloody violence in pre-industrial times, having heard a few lectures on the Middle Ages, I'm not really comfortable with calling many fantasy stories "medieval" anymore.
I prefer stories that focus on magical or fantastical events or things influenced by them (such as magic schools ;)) and not on battles, plundering soldiers, torturers and so on.
For some reason, more modern war settings interest me more, but this isn't the question here and doesn't have anything to do with morality.
Coming back to that, I do like people who belief in a good cause and are prepared to fight and make sacrifices for it. I prefer stories where there is some moral difference between the hero and his opponent, if it's that kind of story and where the hero might be forced to do terrible things as well, but only does them when the alternative would be much worse, or where he at least has good reasons to think so.

There are some things that to me are so disgusting, that I wouldn't want to read a book, where the hero does them without strongly changing his mind about it at some time. These include but are not limited to: Believing in "slave races" and acting that way, extremely bad treatment of slaves aquired any other way, human sacrifice, sexual abuse of children, or extreme sexism leading to rape as punishment or throwing poison gas into girls' schools (or any equivalent of that fitting the world in question) because the person believes girls shouldn't leave the house. Something else, most people probably wouldn't put in one line with the rest is having harems and there are surely other things I can't think off at the moment.
Torture might fall under this as well but doesn't necessarily have to if it makes sense in the setting, the same goes for many other things. I'd have trouble understanding authors who write heros doing any of the things mentioned above but I wouldn't blame them of destroying our culture.
But if the story contains a hero and a villain I'd like the hero to be more moral than the villain is and to refrain from random acts of cruelty as well. (Such as Eragon threatening a soldier with forcing him to eat sand and make it burn its way out of his body. And a few chapters later, Eragon keeps fretting about having to kill someone again...)
I don't ask everyone to feel that way however and I would dig as deeply into the fecal metaphors to get my point across... ;)
I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Personally I don't agree with much, if anything this guy has said. About the only thing that springs to mind is that in Heroes Bremer dan Gorst's personal depression and doom and gloom mindset got to be more than a bit much.

This is yet another example of people complaining about the world and trying to force their views on others. The same people that claim violent video games/movies/tv is what is wrong with the world today. They seem to think it has nothing to do with the steadily declining standards of acceptable parenting, or the fact that most children see more media-based entertainment than they do of their parents; who are too busy working to take responsibility for the life they have created.

Howard is a genius? No. In fact Hell no. I've read his Conan shorts, and they fall light years short of genius. Are they influential? Absolutely. They are part of the building blocks that built the genre, just as Tolkien is. Personally I found Howard to be a little too fond of the 'Conan arrived and saved the day through the sheer strength of his fighting abilities' ending. Reeks of Deus ex machina to me.

Fantasy has become too broad of a category to be held up to the standards of Tolkien, Howard, and Co. Modern fantasy has, as many before me have stated, begun to trend toward the more realistic views of the world imposed on a fantasy template. It is an attempt to paint a fantasy picture using elements of the real world. In the process, that fantasy world becomes more recognizable to the reader, and perhaps more 'real'.

The 'downside' is of course you lose the classic 'white vs black' mindset that this guy seems to define as fantasy. I've read through Abercrombie's response to this particular whine-fest, and I agree with his view on the subject. If you read down to my signature, I swiped the closing line from the Desiderata for a reason. The fact that the world includes unfavorable elements does nothing to detract from its beauty; and that is as true of a fantasy world as of the real one.

Now I just need to work on getting myself a reservation in that bunker...


Its reading a bit much into his blog to say he wants to ban or burn modern fantasy. Sure he draws a clear disdain for the subject matter, it is an opinion piece after all. His loss if he can't accept or find enjoyment in modern fantasy.

It all comes down to preference no matter how complicated you want to make it.

I have to disagree with the whole nihilism/grit equals realism. Perhaps reading realism as nihilism/grit could be a misconception, but when an author is clearly deciding the most negative, gritty, torturous betrayals and twists and political outcomes that is nihilistic, not realistic. I don't care if we see it in the news every day. There are billions of people and a couple hundred countries on this planet, seeing 1000 people do some of the sickest things every day is a handful of sand on the beach.

I enjoy a good gritty realism just as much as the next person, but I also have a special place for the so-called black vs white.
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Philip Overby

Article Team
I don't think of all realistic fantasy as nihilistic. I don't even really see the ones he has issue with as nihilistic. Sure, bad things happen and people do lots of awful things to each other. But if you read Martin, Abercrombie, or some of the others, there are lots of good moments too. They're not all about murdering each other. They're about redemption, sacrifice, duty, honor, lots of attributes we hold dear in real life, which are definately not nihilistic.

I think the chief complaint he has is that fantasy has lost its "sense of wonder." If fantasy veers to far into reality, then fantasy may begin to lose what made people like it to begin with.
I think the chief complaint he has is that fantasy has lost its "sense of wonder." If fantasy veers to far into reality, then fantasy may begin to lose what made people like it to begin with.

I think that's a valid point, and probably the genesis of his gripe with modern fantasy authors. I noticed he didn't have the fortitude to go after Martin directly, lol. I suspect even he knows Martin's fan base is big enough to have him swinging from a tree by noon the next day.

In the end it's a matter of what people prefer. Personally I prefer my heroes to not be from the cookie cutter mold that spawned Aragorn, Sparhawk, Richard Rahl, Nolan, Tarrant.... the list goes on and on. I feel that making the hero fall far short of perfect and the villain far short of evil makes the characters more accurate to reality. The story and setting can still provide sufficient fantastical elements to satisfy me while making the characters, the driving force of the story, more real.
Hmm. I'm not sure how to take that article. I sympathise with the general thrust, but the tone is a tad overblown...then again, as someone who frequently exaggerates for effect I probably shouldn't throw too many stones.

As I'm sure I've mentioned in another thread I'm no fan of nihilistic philosophies. I'm quite old-fashioned in that regard. Unlike Mr. Grin, however, I don't feel the sky is going to fall just because others don't share my personal preferences. Diversity is good, in the gene pool, in fiction. I don't want to live in a 1950s world where everyone has the same crewcut, the same smile, believes the same thing, reads the same books. Society isn't static. The Taliban tried to make it so and even they couldn't eliminate dissent. Humans are tricksy buggers: that's our glory.

Having said all that, I do like heroes I can believe in.

Sadly, the Lord of the Rings fails me in this regard. Don't get me wrong, I love the book to pieces and have read it dozens of times over the years, but as far as I'm concerned Frodo and company could throw themselves into Mount Doom and I wouldn't shed a single tear. They mean nothing to me. They exist only to give the landscape a reason to be.

I care about Waylander. I care about Thomas Covenant. I care about Vimes. Frodo and Gandalf can go leap. They don't seem real to me.

I don't want one-dimensional characters. I want them to do the right thing, sure, but it doesn't matter if they stumble along the way - we all bruise our knees as we journey through life. I can even live with characters who avoid the righteous path altogether as long as I'm given some insight as to why they've chosen that route.

'Pure' characters, good or evil, are dull. They may be great at conveying a religious/political message, but I don't read books to be preached at. I expect subtlety of thought if not of diction.

Fiction should be a voyage of exploration both for the person writing and the person reading. At its best it sets off in a new direction, not those well-trodden byways Tolkien and his imitators have already been down. There's nothing debasing about being dragged out of your comfort zone and pulled through the undergrowth – who knows what sights you'll see?

Some modern fantasy books may well, to use Mr. Grin's phrase, “shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.” That's hardly the point, though. A toaster may give an electric shock but that's not why it was created. My favourite writers use their fiction to explore ideas, investigate social convention, subvert common wisdom to see just how common it is and how wise. Some may deliberately choose to outrage but I doubt very much there's a single work of fiction which could truly dishearten a well-balanced individual.

Ultimately, if Western society finally commits suicide it won't be down to the humble writer. He's just the canary in the mineshaft.
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Heavy Thorn

The only thing that article did for me was get me excited to read Joe Abercrombie's works. From the plot summaries on his site, I think I might have found my kind of author...