by Grant Smuts
“The night is dark and full of terrors.”
-George RR Martin, describing Dark Fantasy in a nutshell.
“We were king’s men, knights, and heroes . . . but some knights are dark and full of terror, my lady. War makes monsters of us all.”
“Are you saying you are monsters?”
“I am saying we are human. You are not the only one with wounds, Lady Brienne”
– George RR Martin, again, on the mindset on the sort of person who might survive in a Dark Fantasy.
..And when you gaze for long into an Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, whose quotes have inspired many a dark fantasy villain.
Long ago, in a far-off land, over the hills, and beyond the bonfires of the distant horizon…
The words evoke something, don’t they? The mystical introduction, with each successive word driving us farther and further (yes, both iterations of the word apply) from the ‘here’ and ‘now’. After all, the here and now is rather dull and unexciting isn’t it?
But… wait what’s happening?
Magic is evil and corrupting?
Devils and monsters are everywhere?
Cities are wretched hives?
There’s a genocidal, ever-expanding empire?
The gods are jerks?
Religions are like the Spanish Inquisition?
And worst of all…
the hero is a few shades removed from being a villain himself… he metaphorically kicks the dog every chance he gets, and everyone in the setting is paraphrasing Nietzsche.
Welcome to Dark Fantasy, where “those who fought monsters” have become monsters themselves, and oh good lord, I did it too.
To understand a bit of what Dark Fantasy is, we need to understand its place in the larger genre.
Let’s break down what we mean by fantasy a little further, shall we?
A high-magic setting, filled with different races (humans, elves, orcs, halflings, dwarves). There’s usually a dark lord who is responsible for most of the world’s evil. The Quest is usually what is needed to defeat the villain, who is often far too powerful to be confronted directly. What usually differentiates High Fantasy from other types is the sheer scope of it – the entire world is usually at stake, and the heroes usually spend the quest traversing dangerous wilderness or entering other cities, where they will be either hindered or helped in their journey.
The Lord of the Rings is the quintessential High Fantasy.
The Wheel of Time is a case of a High Fantasy integrating elements of Heroic Fantasy into the narrative.
May have all the trappings of high fantasy, but is usually focused on a single character, or a small ensemble of characters and their deeds in taking down their villains. Unlike High Fantasy, where the heroes are usually grossly outmatched in terms of power, (such as the Hobbits vs Sauron in the Lord of the Rings) the villain will either be just powerful enough to be a threat to the hero(es), or the hero will somehow find a way to ascend to the villain’s level of power. A final battle between the hero and the villain is usually how the story ends – and it led to one of fantasy’s favorite conventions – a final duel in the rain.
The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss and The Dark Elf Trilogy by RA Salvatore are examples of Heroic Fantasy.
Low Fantasy tends to be somewhat more realistic than High Fantasy. The protagonists won’t be the larger than life characters of Heroic Fantasy, though they may also be heroic. While Low Fantasy may employ the same scope as High Fantasy, it differentiates itself with a few aesthetic and narrative differences. There usually isn’t a Dark Lord – evil is disseminated in the world around them, rather than having a focal point. It’s your fellow man who might just be your worst enemy. Magic is usually treated as rare and special. It may be regarded with fear or respect, or both. Low Fantasy is a low-magic setting – the scenes in which magic takes place are usually pivotal, while in High Fantasy, magic may happen every chapter. For the most part, Low Fantasy doesn’t have the different races in it – there are usually only humans. Any elves, dwarves or other races alluded to in the setting are usually regarded and treated as fairy tales – or they might have existed once but were driven to extinction, before, or sometimes because humanity rose to power. The term is rather misleading – Low Fantasy is NOT a reference to quality. Low Fantasy simply means that, compared to High or Heroic Fantasy, it exhibits far fewer fantastic or supernatural elements.
Game of Thrones started out as Low Fantasy, though it has been very tentatively hinting over the course of all the novels that a (re)turn to High Fantasy is on the horizon.
The Gentlemen Bastards by Scott Lynch is a better example of a Low Fantasy that maintains its low magic stance throughout the story.
By the late 20th century, people were already tired of the traditional fantasy settings. The traditional quest tales, the so-called High Fantasy settings (think Tolkien and Robert Jordan), were falling out of fashion, due to a lack of skill and level of world-building required not being up to the standard set by a certain someone. Heroic Fantasy (think Conan the Barbarian and the Forgotten Realms novels) were falling to the wayside as well, due to bland characterization and cut-and-paste hero characters reappearing with different names in different titles.
Low Fantasy was about as successful as it had always been, which was roughly anywhere on the scale of where High Fantasy and Heroic Fantasy was anyway.
The fact is that people were losing interest, and they were doing so very, very quickly in the tried and true and tired genre of fantasy.
But wait! What’s this? What’s happening?
What is this weird epic theme music that suddenly subverts and averts my point?
Oh, Game of Thrones! You have revived the world’s interest in fantasy!
And despite its blend of High and Low Fantasy elements, Game of Thrones is very clearly a Dark Fantasy. Now then, step into the (relative) darkness with me!
Technically a subgenre, due to its rise in prominence in the 21st century, Dark Fantasy may use any of the three kinds of fantasy mentioned above, and put it in its darkest possible manner.
Dark Fantasy is the Yin to the Yang of the standard good vs evil narrative. Even if the hero wins in the end, expect the ending to be bittersweet, as he has often lost a lot of what he loved for victory (and sometimes losing the very reason for living as well). While in the original conventions of fantasy, it was expected for the villain to showcase their power early on and then have the heroes journey to reach or subvert that level of power, in Dark Fantasy, the villains take on a far more active role. The heroes are less concerned with gaining strength as they are with simply surviving.
But Dark Fantasy is also about subverting the elements of fantasy.
High fantasy goes from being a world you wish to live in to one you wish would change.
Elves are usually depicted in their most arrogant incarnations, disdainful of humanity. Sometimes this is flipped on its head, and elves are enslaved to men. Dwarves take their greed for gold to its logical extremes, not caring about the outside world or the needs of others. Orcs are, of course, always brutish, stupid and evil. And on and on it goes – we could go on this list for pages more.
Dark fantasy is a genre created for the age of cynicism and realism. While what it produces are distinct narratives of power, on claiming it, keeping it and losing it, it also attempts, with its black brush, to paint a picture of the world around us.
It’s hard to look at a magocracy of corrupt wizards who rule over cities and not think of politicians, who through obfuscations and illusions created by deception maintain power by withholding knowledge from those they rule.
And when the mentor of the hero misquotes Nietzsche on the fragility of man’s nature (and thus encourage the hero to become an unfettered Ubermensch) how many of us are quietly nodding our heads and thinking ‘this is cool’?
And, in those instances when the hero fails, it is a reminder to the reader that sometimes, no matter our efforts, the world will keep us down. What’s important is how we respond. Sometimes the hero gets up and keeps fighting, even if he’s losing. It’s about achieving the dream or to die trying.
Dark fantasy is about you and me in the fantasy world. The heroes are decidedly less heroic and more realistic, and they react to horrible events the way we expect people to.We recognize modern buzzwords embedded in text. An old soldier in a dark fantasy may have symptoms suspiciously similar to PTSD. An assassin who must complete a ritual before and after killing may have mild OCD. A character who’s a little loopy and weird, changing direction mid sentence must have ADHD. This will never be mentioned in-text, of course. This will just be the reader understanding, metatextually, what the author’s trying to say. And, perhaps the author’s trying to evoke that as well?
To get someone to nod and say ‘I see what you did there’. It’s a positive thing, to connect with your readers. But, and this cannot be emphasised enough… it’s not about ‘scoring points’. Sometimes a story should just be a story. Dark Fantasy – particularly the subversions of Low Fantasy, comes extremely close to reality. The trouble with that is that there might not be inspiration left in books if it becomes too realistic.
After all, if we see Joe Everyman donning armor and a rusted sword, running out and fighting a dragon, getting his ass roasted and then handed back to his family on a silver platter, we may have a story, but we also have darkness. A lot of it makes it realistic, too much of it makes us… well it makes us wonder why we’re reading at all? There’s darkness aplenty in the world around us.
Let’s face it… we need our Aragorns and our Samwise Gamgees. We need people like those to inspire us to true heroism.
We need our Rand al’Thors, to terrify us with their immense world-unraveling power, and know why the hero we want is the one that we’re afraid of.
We need our Severians, who twist the world around their version of the truth, until their lies become reality.
We need our Kvothes, whose songs can lull immortal beings, and whose quick thinking saves their hides from incredible danger.
We need our tales of derring-do, of charisma and heroism. Realism is well and good, and it can be executed brilliantly, but I think the best authors are those who realize, in the middle of them describing a horrific rape scene, that they’re writing a fantasy, and while we can cringe and then drown in gory and bloody description, that it’s okay to give us a little wonder too.
Dark Fantasy is a fantasy for the age of cynicism, which we now find ourselves living in, but the true test of the writer of fantasy – and indeed any genre – is to teach the world awe and wonder. And if that fails, then we can attempt, in the manner of the late great Terry Pratchett, to at least teach it how to smile again.
In conclusion, this is the age of Dark Fantasy, and those who write the ‘gritty and realistic’ tales which bear some reference to the world around them are no doubt going to be the ones who experience more success. The wild popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire, better known by those who havent read the books as ‘The Game of Thrones Series’ has showcased this.
But what I think is most interesting is this:
It’s almost an anecdotal reference, that George RR Martin never intended much in the way of the traditional fantasy element in his story. A Song of Ice and Fire was going to be his alternate universe rewrite of the historical Wars of the Roses (a series of dynastic wars for the throne of England). He debated the issue with one of his friends (noted writer Phyllis Eisenstein), and as he puts it:
“George, it’s a fantasy – you’ve got to put in the dragons.” She convinced me, and it was the right decision. Now that I’m deep into it, I can’t imagine the book without the dragons.”
Even Dark Fantasy needs its wonder.
For really exceptional works of Dark Fantasy beyond A Song of Ice and Fire, I strongly recommend the series written by Steven Erikson:
The Malazan Books of The Fallen.
The writers of Troll Magazine have begun their own forays into dark fantasy:
Read The Kill Sessions and the Tale of Tabbard Lark at