Reply to a Comment on the Previous Post

On Fairy StoriesCommenter ksterlingh has kindly offered constructive criticism of my previous post. Technical difficulties prevent me from responding in Superversive’s comments section, so I’ll post my reply here. Since the original reply approaches post length itself, I’ll address it point-by-point.

ksterlingh’s comments will appear in italics. My replies will appear in bold.

Hi Brian, this article left me a bit confused.

I’ll do my best to remedy that.

It seems you don’t enjoy many current epic fantasy series,

Correct. Because modern epic fantasy has suffered a total inversion from its original purpose. It’s the Holy Roman Empire of spec fic.

and I’m not going say you are wrong in not liking them. That’s personal taste.

De gustibus…

But the end of your article suggests these are “pure nihilism” (among other things which I disagree with but will leave alone).

Here’s one likely reason you were confused. My post was an examination of my estrangement from current fantasy. The impetus for my post was Leo Grin’s article, which finally explained why I (and, there’s good reason to believe, many others) have grown so disenchanted with the fantasy genre. I can’t take credit for identifying nihilism as a major flaw in contemporary fantasy. That was Leo. He makes a compelling case. If you didn’t read it before, take the time to do so here.

I can’t speak about the Belgariad, or the full series of Wheel of Time. But the first book of Wheel of Time and everything written in the Kingkiller Chronicle universe is hardly nihilistic.

I didn’t call any of those books nihilistic. Here’s the quote I used from Leo Grin:

The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210″). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.

Immediately after which I added:

Here, Grin crystallizes the source of my displeasure with contemporary epic fantasy…

I did mention those series, but in the context of fantasy that I tried reading and gave up on. At the time I didn’t know why. Leo Grin’s article illuminated several deficiencies that turned me off from current fantasy. Nihilism is his main culprit, but I quoted him calling out others, including:

  • Period soap operas with superficially fantastic trappings sold as epic fantasy
  • Excessively drawn-out plots with no endgame in sight, and probably not in mind
  • Postmodern deconstruction of myth (i.e. anti-fantasy) sold as fantasy
  • And, yeah, nihilism
Now, my list of contemporary fantasy series prefaced a train of thought where I pondered why I didn’t like them as much as Tolkien’s work and then pointed to Grin’s article as an answer. I didn’t get into a play-by-play account of what I disliked in each series, because I was making a general observation about the fantasy genre as a whole.
But in the interest of clarity, here you are:
I didn’t get around to The Belgariad until earlier this year. Friends told me they thought it was awesome when they were kids. I don’t think it holds up. It’s pretty derivative of Tolkien, right down to the War of Wrath style prologue. That’s no slight against Eddings. His work is the earliest on my list, and his perch on Tolkien’s shoulders wasn’t as crowded as it’s become since.
The Wheel of Time has a lot of good points–if only because there’s so much of it. I was a big fan of the series until one rather uneventful day got stretched over three or so books. I haven’t read Sanderson’s installments, but the prior volumes are based on an explicitly cyclical view of history and a pseudo-Hindu cosmology which, while not nihilistic, leaves little room for hope.
The Name of the Wind–the only Kingkiller Chronicle book I’ve read–isn’t overtly nihilistic, either. It is steeped in a self-congratulatory secularism that should be pretty obnoxious to anyone with even a basic understanding of Western history. ORGANIZED RELIGION BAD! SECULAR UNIVERSITY GOOD! Where, exactly, did the idea of the university come from, again?
I will argue that NotW’s protagonist conforms pretty well to the archetype of a Nietzschean superman.
I guess I can see ASOFAI seeming that way, since the world is grim and there are nihilists within it, but there are certainly moral characters to choose from.
Have you read Martin’s books, or have you just seen the TV show? I’ve read the whole series thus far. It’s not just a matter of the setting, mood, or characters. It’s how all of those elements interact to shout from the rooftops that the philosophy underlying ASoIaF is unadulterated nihilism. When I mentioned “a hollow veneer of fantasy trappings airbrushed onto a core of pure nihilism,” this series is what I had in mind.
The presence of moral characters doesn’t absolve a book of nihilism. Most nihilistic works that I’ve seen specifically include moral characters so they can be mocked and abused. ASoIaF is firmly in this camp. Name one moral character whose virtue is rewarded. Point out one instance where cynical Machiavellianism isn’t the winning behavior. If you can come up with any, I’ve got a dozen counterexamples for each.
The baffling part is that after criticizing these series you laud Robert E Howard? It may be true that current series do not work as heavily in mythic elements, but uhmmm… Conan is somehow not nihilistic?
No. Conan is not nihilistic. I’ve only read a couple of Howard’s Conan stories. That’s why I deferred to Leo Grin, who’s an acclaimed Howard scholar. Again, read his article.
Compared to WoT or KC? His unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle never came off to me as exactly moralistic in tone.
Not being moralistic isn’t sufficient cause to brand a character as nihilistic. Neither is mere evil behavior. Being (and I use the term loosely) a philosophy, Nihilism is an underlying context and reason for behavior. A nihilist could just as easily perform an intrinsically good act, but his reason for doing so would differ from, say, a Christian’s. It’s vital to keep in mind that presenting “nihilist” and “moral” as direct opposites is a false dichotomy.
One could argue he has Pagan virtues but then all of those you cited have that as well. And Howard’s sharp attacks on civilization while fetishizing the physically gnarled and fierce Picts (across his writing), don’t quite mesh with a heavy moralistic framework.
Yes. Conan practices pagan virtues–like courage and his earthy brand of wisdom. I’ll take your word for it that Howard attacked civilization. So? Bringing that up would only make sense if you were accusing Howard of being an anarchist; not trying to claim that Conan is a nihilist.
And here again, it’s assumed that a “moralistic framework” is antipodal to nihilism. A nihilist isn’t simply an amoral person. He’s someone who denies that objective truth exists. Remaining consistent in his nihilism would require admitting that all morality is false, but that’s a consequence of nihilism; not the philosophy itself. (And since he denies truth, he’s not obliged to be consistent, anyway.)
Conan doesn’t deny truth. He leaves the Big Questions to priests and philosophers, but according to Howard experts and the few stories of his I’ve read, Conan does acknowledge a fundamental order to the universe. It’s each man’s job to discover the truth for himself, but it’s clearly there. 
I disagree with Wright’s assessment of what fantasy is “meant” to satisfy. It can of course play the role he describes but it is a genre which can be used for many things.
“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
You’re right that fantasy can play a lot of roles. But that’s not the question I asked in my original post. I wanted to know what this “fantasy” thing is, and you can tell what something is by its true purpose. Tolkien and Wright don’t deny that fantasy is versatile. They assert that the glimpse it gives us of fairyland–what Tolkien called eucatastrophe; what we around here call the superversive–is definitive.
It’s interesting that you counter a statement of fantasy’s defining purpose with an observation that fantasy has many purposes. The two statements aren’t mutually exclusive unless you’re arguing that fantasy has no defining purpose, in which case it’s really nothing, which is a remarkably nihilistic claim.
The idea that Howard’s blood-soaked terrains were somehow pointing to a less disordered time, a golden age or paradise, is… questionable? Definitely simpler times, but not the rest.
“Disordered” in my original post didn’t mean “socially disorganized”. I meant it as, “not living according to authentic human nature”. Whether folks in the Hyborian Age lived more contrarily to human nature than we postmoderns do is a debate I’m willing to have.
I’m glad we agree that Howard’s work gives us a glimpse of simpler times. Thus, it satisfies that aspect of fantasy’s primary purpose.
And with regard to mythic elements, if I remember right Howard became tired of the same euro-tropes and was trying to shift into “pioneer”, basically old-west, style motifs.
How did we get on the subject of geography? So what if Howard switched to writing westerns? His fantasy is all that’s relevant here.
And I say this as a person who really likes Howard.
Another point of agreement!
If your “ages undreamed of” include unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle, then nihilism does not seem to be your biggest concern in fantasy fiction.
We’ve already dispensed with this conflating of general immorality and nihilism.
Next, I’m quoted saying:
“The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?”
Isn’t that ASOFAI all over the place? All of the major characters are doing the first part, and a fair yet dwindling number are doing the second as well (which underlines the impossible odds).
Reread that quote from me. I wasn’t giving two related elements of a story grounded in hope. I was contrasting a fundamentally nihilistic story with a fundamentally hopeful one. Indeed, most major characters in ASoIaF do the first part–which makes them nihilists. The fact that the few characters who persevere against impossible odds grow fewer all the time due to always having their hopes betrayed SHOWS THAT HOPE IS A LOSING BEHAVIOR in Westeros.
It occurs to me that this might be where the confusion over nihilism and morality came from. To clarify, nihilism is a metaphysic that denies objective truth. Therefore there are no moral truths. Consequently, to a nihilist, virtues (like hope) are stupid and for losers. That doesn’t mean that nihilism=immorality. Everyone behaves immorally from time to time, but not everyone is a nihilist.
Unless you mean stainless virtue, in which case I can go back to Howard and ask for examples.
Of course every character doesn’t have to be immaculate to qualify a story as fantasy. Look at Boromir.
And finally, you end by congratulating Leo Grin (with a link to a post titled “Leo Grin grins when he slays”) for induction into the Evil Legion of Evil.
That’s right. Think I’ll do it again. Congratulations, Leo!
Yes yes I get it’s all ironic,
I assume you’re referring to the organization’s name. I’m glad you get the irony, because the following suggests otherwise:
but that does seem to be sending mixed messages given the rest of the piece. Persevere in virtue?
A bunch of writers are “sending mixed messages” because their group’s name uses a literary device? That’s a bigger stretch than saying that J.K. Rowling advocates witchcraft.
Then there’s this:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Is. 45:7)
Since that verse doesn’t tempt me into the heretical belief that God actually creates evil, you can understand why a group of writers ironically calling themselves the Evil Legion of Evil doesn’t scandalize me.
Please take this as constructive criticism and not just running your post down. I really did feel confused about the message being delivered.
Thanks for your time and effort. Please consider this post a constructive critique of your comment constructively critiquing my previous post. Hopefully it cleared things up.
  • ksterlingh

    Hi Brian, I want to start by apologizing if anything in my previous reply seemed insulting or insincere. I did not mean to upset you. I honestly had a confusion with your message, which to some extent you have answered.

    By listing those series and heavily criticizing nihilism—compared to the other criteria—it suggested you might be applying that charge to all of them. Your expanded review clears that up.

    I did not get the message/feeling you did from Name of the Wind, but if it helps the second book spends more time away from the university.

    Regarding ASoIaF, I have read the whole series as well as his latest story in the Rogues anthology. I am not getting the message of moral characters having lost completely. There might very well be a message that being virtuous is not enough to survive in a world of people vying for power, but I’m not sure if that equals everyone having to give up their principles in their entirety. Of course the rogue was, well, rogue-y.

    Anyway, I would be one to say that a heroic character’s death, however grisly, does not undercut their heroism. As it is, the story is not finished. Have you read anything else by Martin? The benefit of those are the stories are complete. If this series ends promoting nihilism, by crushing all virtue into the ground as worthless, that would be the first I read from him.

    Regarding nihilism, people use nihilism in different ways so I wasn’t sure of your usage, and there was a question if you disliked texts/authors depicting worlds wrapped in nihilism—perhaps to demonstrate how ugly that option is—as well as those who are advocating nihilism.

    Many would not consider pagan virtues, human nature, or blank amorality in pursuit of finding one’s own truth as somehow different or better than nihilism. While I don’t fully agree with your allowances—beyond pagan virtues—it helps me understand what you meant.

    In that case Conan would not count as a nihilist. Of course then I am forced back to my quandary about ASoIaF. You said there is an order to Conan’s universe. Well, if one does exist it appears to be caught in the poem Cimmeria. It might be useful to compare that to the world GRRM is writing about. Then read Queen of the Black Coast and Rogues in the House and consider if with Howard the virtuous come off any better against Machiavellian—if somewhat less subtle—machinations.

    And where in any of Conan can one find “eucatastrophe”? I will leave aside whether Tolkien made this a defining trait or purpose of fantasy. But if he did I would disagree. And that’s not nihilism, it’s just recognizing authors must find their own paths to truth 🙂

    If simpler times is considered enough, and following one’s nature is enough, Conan and the rest of Howard’s writings would definitely fit those two criteria. But then I would argue so does ASoIaF.

    My mixed messages comment was largely based on an incorrect assumption of how you were defining nihilism, and what you were criticizing about its usage in literature.

    Hope that makes sense.


  • ksterlingh

    Hi Brian, in my reply above I totally forgot about one of Howard’s letters which gives an explicit account of the Hyborian Age (titled the same). That is a pretty necessary read — and eye opener– for anyone thinking Conan’s world was in any way founded on or bearing some objective moral truths.

    It reads as pure blood soaked history, even if mythic, blending past pre history of the earth through the Hyborian Age to connect with the modern world. If anything that last point sort of breaks one of Tolkien’s rules for fairy tales, but we can skip over that. The point is that there is no discussion of gods or morality within or driving this history. Well, except to run them down. The Hybori having had a god Bori, who was just a great ancient chief blown out of proportion by legend. And more pointedly, when a great priest of Mitra–with obvious allusions to a certain religion and bearer of objective moral truth– arrives on the scene. I won’t give spoilers and just say it is a good idea to pay close attention to lessons learned.

    I would agree with Wright that Howard’s use of magic could be defined as different from that in other fantasy stories. It is generally negative and “weird”, ala Lovecraft–side note, big fan of his work — I think suggesting it is alien to humans. This sort of makes sense since if I remember right the two of them wrote each other. But that is hardly an idea that the world contains a moral order or objective moral truths. And lets be honest–if this is a criteria for an ordered universe–GRRM’s use of magic appears to fall in this category.

    I really love REH’s writing. I would never call myself a scholar but I am a fan of his work. Solomon Kane and Kull show some conception of–or at least deliberation on–a moral order. But his most popular character series was a barbarian, from a grim barbarian society, in a bloody world where thieving, piracy, murder, and general greed are rewarded over virtues. Again and again. Until someone is killed by someone more cunning or strong. If you consider hope a virtue, pay close attention to Conan’s thoughts, after slaying a wicked priest and so victorious, on his inevitable future at the end of Rogues in the House.

    Conan was pure, unapologetic, visceral adventure. And I just do not see how this escapes any criticism regarding nihilism thrown at ASoIaF.