Sunday 11 August 2013

Violence in fantasy - the horror! THE HORROR!

Me versus The Strawman

People will say it so I'm saying it for them. I don't really understand what the debate's about. Or at least I assume I don't because it seems silly and yet clever people are having it. Because nobody has challenged me on the subject or invited me into the discussion I'm talking to Mr Straw about it.

(Note: I include examples of writing that contains sexual violence)

Strawman: It's a new plague I tell you, the world will drown in blood, the youth corrupted, old men hacking each other to death with swords!

Me: What is?

Strawman: Violence in fantasy. These new writers with their dark fantasy and grim societies. They're polluting everything that's good and bringing the world to its knees so they can kick it in the face. Terrible people!

Me: Well, Strawman, you raise a point. Not a good one, but definitely a point. Violence has been a part of literature since... well... since literature.

Strawman: But it's much worse now. So much worse. We're all going to die. And for the love of GOD will nobody think of the children?

Me: Worse? In The Knight of The Swords (1971) Moorcock gives us his hero strapped to a board and having an eye put out and a hand cut off.

Strawman: Yeah but... there wasn't the level of detail in those days. It was all very cartoony.

Me: So many things to say to that.

Firstly that 'the level of detail' isn't really what this is all about, surely? Isn't the important thing the fact a person died or was hurt or whatever, not how well it was described?

Secondly... isn't cartoon violence worse? Surely it's better to know that if you hit someone in the head with an iron bar THEY WILL BREAK rather than see them fall over accompanied by an amusing sound effect then bounce back up again?

Thirdly... BOLLOCKS!

Here's what is threatened against the hero, Corum in Moorcock's The Knight of The Swords (1971) and if you click on the text you can read a detailed account of it going down.

Strawman: Yeah but... it's all sexualized violence these days. That's much worse now.

Me: People seem to think it is - but that's not the same as it being true that it is.

I read a blogger saying that this (by me 2011):

The fat girl had a lot to say, just like her father. Screeched like a barn owl: hurt my ears with it. I liked the older one better. She was quiet enough. So quiet you'd give a twist here or there just to check she hadn't died of fright.


a) an example of Lawrence humiliating a female character about her weight
b) a scene of sexual violence that makes Stephen Donaldson seem MILD in comparison.

Here's a paragraph from the Donaldson scene (Lord Foul's Bane, 1977) - click on it to see the entire page worth.

A moment later, he dropped the burden of his weight on her chest, and her loins were stabbed with a wild, white fire that broke her silence, made her scream. But even as she cried out she knew that it was too late for her. Something that her people thought of as a gift had been torn from her. 

Strawman: Yeah... but it's all part of a thing. It didn't use to be like that in the good old days.

Me: Just how old are you? Never mind... the point is that YES IT DID.

In Shakespeare's King Lear Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes:

Out vile jelly. Where is thy lustre now?

An act repeated on stage time and again for countless thousands to witness. His work has plenty of violent scenes.

Strawman: But... the classics. The real good stuff. The foundations of civilized thought and philosophy... they didn't need all this unpleasantness! Shakespeare was just entertaining the unwashed masses. No literary intellectual would really take him seriously.

Me: uh...

The Iliad:

Menelaos struck him as he came onward, in the forehead over the base of the nose and smashed the bones, so that both eyes dropped, bloody, and lay in the dust at his feet before him.

Homer elsewhere:

‘So I spoke, but he in pitiless spirit answered/ Nothing, but sprang up and reached for my companions,/ Caught up two together and slapped them, like killing puppies,/ Against the ground, and the brains ran all over the floor, soaking/ The earth. Then he cut them up limb by limb and got supper ready,/ And like a lion reared in the hills, without leaving anything,/ Ate them, entrails, flesh and the marrowy bones alike…


But Meriones sent a bronze-tipped arrow at him as he retreated, and struck him in the right buttock: the arrow passed on through under the bone and into his bladder. He sank down where he was, in the arms of his dear companions, the life breathing from him, and lay there curled on the earth like a worm: and the dark blood left him, soaking the ground.

many more examples

Strawman: Look. Facts are all very well and dandy but it doesn't mean it's right does it? I mean... think of the children. We have a whole generation of desensitized violent thugs who want nothing more than to go out stabbing people and eating human flesh and it's all because they read it in the books that grim dark monsters like you write!

Me: Have you actually read my books?

Strawman: No. But I have strong opinions about them!

Me: The thing is - were society currently plunging into an abyss of violence (and statistics tell us that it isn't) then would it really be the people with the library cards leading the charge? Is it really the people sitting quietly reading a book that are going to snatch up their machetes and start laying about? It seems more credible (though still highly unlikely) that it would be the watchers of violent videos and the players of violent games. A touch more credible still it would be the fans of certain sports who gather weekly in tribal hordes and demonize the fans of opposing teams. More likely by far it will be governments driven by ideological, religious, and financial differences that haul us off to violent deaths...

But at the end of it all - I feel fairly confident that imagined brutality fictionalized on pages of a fantasy book in a tradition that was started before printing, ink, paper, the English language, or the birth of Christ, is not a major worry.

But yes, it's fun to talk about.


  1. The whole assumtion that there's a link between fictional violence in entertainment media and actual violence in real life is a fallacy. It assumes that ordinary people don't have the capacity to determine when something is real or not.

  2. Interesting.

    I would add a few points to this. First,violence is endemic to Literature. I'm in complete agreement Shakespeare is awash with violent scenes. The audience expected it. Children served up in a pie, murders of children ... but it is set in a moral framework. Macbeth bad, Duncan good. Admittedly this went by the way in later plays (Tis pitty she's a whore, duchess of malfi...) but by then the high points of Elizabethan play s had gone.

    Early literature (eighteenth century) novels had an absolute moral framework, pope was explicitly moral, as was Fielding ... nineteenth century more so. The blood and Gore became relegated to sensation novels, such as Lady Audleys secret or the woman in white.

    So we entered the twentieth century and meet Tolkien, who like it or not, starts the whole fantasy genre as we know it. Dwarves, elves, men. Also he carries on the nineteenth century moral relativism, there's a compass at work in there. Sauron bad, hobbits good. It's comforting.

    What seems to have happened, as we've moved on and novels have become more sophisticated is the overall moral compass has become skewed. If, for example, a rape science happens there is no counterbalance, no one reclaiming for the other side. In a very post modern way the reader is left to decide, and that can be unsettling.

    Macbeth murders children, Macduff cries to the heavens. The audience knows what's right.. Jorg rapes. There's silence and that's the unsettling bit.

    What makes me worry is that anyone thinks this is a child's book. It's not. It's an adults book. I wouldn't want any child to read it.

    1. I agree.

      I don't feel it my duty to explain to an adult audience that murder and rape and torture are wrong. I don't feel it necessary. I'm not attempting a moral education of my readers. It's unclear to me who the people who object are worried about...

      Do they simply not understand who the audience is and assume them to be idiots and moral vacuums who will take instruction from the pages of a story?

    2. a lot of people don't realize that Tolkien isn't the earliest example of the fantasy genre as we know it The Worm Ouroboros came out in 1922. Plus Robert E. Howard was writing about swords and sorcery as well.

  3. Strawmen are people, too. Way to marginalize and oppress them, Mr. Lawrence. Hope you're happy.

  4. I would rather see you debate when violence becomes gratuitous. When does describing violence in horrific detail cross the line to become something titillating, mere schadenfreude? At what point does an attempt to show the brutality of violence backfire?

    And upon rereading your own writing do you ever feel you've crossed that line, even unintentionally?

  5. 'Gratuitous' is a label to put on something with as much guidance from personal taste as 'beautiful' or 'good' when (for example) viewing an oil painting. I feel the idea that there is _a_ line is deeply flawed. Everyone has their own (movable) line and together they make a wide grey blur.

    It's impossible for me to cross my line unintentionally... I can see it.

  6. Yes I suppose it is relative, but no doubt there is some average-line based on how most people feel. Eg you write violence more explicitly than most. It stands to reason that it will be beyond the line for a bunch of people. Probably they wouldn't read your work, I suppose. Or some might read it for schadenfreude regardless of your intentions.

    So if you can see your line clearly, what would cross it?

  7. Great write up. Mostly what I got out of this is a nearly overwhelming desire to catch a mouse in a bear trap and take a hatchet to the poor little guy. You know, because your post "made me do it".

    I don't have much to add to the conversation, but I do want to express simply: Spot on.

  8. It amazes me how the "experts" (where do they come from anyway) will debate ANYTHING to give voice or more probably excuses for bad behavior. Wether it's gratuitous or otherwise an author is an artist and has the creative right to describe his world however he/she sees fit and it's up to the readers to make it a hit and decide just how far in the literature stratosphere it goes. Take for example Mark's example of Homer's works, it's a shame that they won't stand the test of time and where are the experts that blame the latest act of random violence on them.
    thanks Mark for the voice of reason
    Mr Strawman indeed

  9. "Is it really the people sitting quietly reading a book that are going to snatch up their machetes and start laying about? It seems more credible (though still highly unlikely) that it would be the watchers of violent videos and the players of violent games."

    Exactly. I read violence in literature that featured on my school's syllabus, for crying out loud.

    I'm a victim of sexual violence and trauma. My line for sexual violence in literature is simple: if rape is made to look like a nice experience for the victim, or the writer becomes confused between fetishist role-play and _true_ non-consent, I'm out. Done. The author is struck off my list. I've seen no evidence of this in Mark's writing, and I enjoy his books. In an odd way Jorg makes me feel better for the traumatic things that have happened in my own life—I could have dealt with what happened so differently, been a completely different person, but I didn't. I absorbed the trauma and I moved forward, let the scars heal.

    And Mark, I don't understand the argument, either. Literature isn't evil, media isn't evil, religions aren't evil—it's _people_ that are evil, and pinning the monstrosities of anti-socials on the 'big things' is a piss-poor—not to mention just plain lazy—thought process. I think the strawmen would do better to focus on the hook-briar memories of victims and antisocials—look at the _people_ in those memories—and therein find themselves closer to solving the true problems of the world. I think that'd be far more helpful than sounding off on the internet with completely pointless, circular and ultimately misled attacks on artists and writers.

  10. Great post, Mark. I agree with my whole heart.

    Of my own, I would just add that I believe there is no such thing as gratuitously describing a violent scene. Things happen as they do, and the author just puts them down as best as he knows how to transmit that fact to the reader. The moment an author comes up with some sort of violence such hasn't been outclassed in real life and erupted with all detail by the news I might (note the might) worry, but as it is, I find the debate to have no basis.

    Also, I think boss have many rules, but creating and cementing society's moral basis is not one of them. If some one goes into a fantasy book and needs it to tell them who to chert on and why, they probably shouldn't be reading it in the first place. Plus, I believe that in these days, it's more important to learn that there are no absolute heroes and no absolute monsters, , but melt people: that knowledge would make it more difficult to otherize the other side ... which would lead to less violence, not more.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for sharing

  11. I've read the first two books in the series, but do not take that as an opinion one way or another on this issue, I stay out of these type of debates and merely like to "shake things up" for the damn fun of it. So please no personal attacks. :D

    With that said, I had this debate with friends of mine, and they always point out a simple fact: Jorg is written as the "hero" of the series, and he is the one committing the violent atrocities - horrid ones every few pages. Not only that, but he shows very little remorse - if any - for his actions.

    I do not believe these particular "friends" are arguing that an artist has a duty to write a morality play. I did not get the sense they were saying murder or rape rates would go up because of these novels. I believe they just do not like "grimdark" - to use a label for simplicity sake - because the violence has "crossed the line" of what is acceptable from a "hero" in a novel.

    Don't know if that is really applicable to this debate, but I never know what answer to give them other than don't read it if you disagree. Thought Mr. Lawrence might have a better one. :D

    1. Don't read it if you don't like it seems both reasonable and redundant - as redundant as adding in 'don't do this at home' after Jorg sticks his sword through someone.

      Another answer would be to point out that seeing the protagonist as a hero is a rather unsophisticated way of looking at things and that fantasy is unlikely to grow up if we treat it as a child.

    2. Well put, Mr. Lawrence.

      Whilst reading the first two books I've never really thought of Jorg as a 'hero', but he's not quite an antihero either. I've taken them as simply 'the story of Jorg' who happens to be a thoroughly flawed and damaged individual - who I can relate to on at least some levels.

      Let's be honest though, most of us have at least some emotional scars gathered along the way, and it's likely those self-same scars that allow us to relate to Jorg. It's probably also the fact that we can in some ways identify with his emotions, if not his chosen course of action, that makes us feel some of the revulsion that we do toward his character. He reflects our own flaws back at us, amplified many times.

      While I agree that very few who read this book would ever seriously entertain the idea of acting out his behaviors, most of us at some time or other have felt the same deep sense of injustice and maybe even the rage that seem to drive Jorg. If we couldn't identify with him in even a small way, then we likely wouldn't have made it past chapter one.

      Perhaps this is partly why so many people are raising objections to books such as these? Because they see more of themselves than they are comfortable with in these protagonists and so rather than recognise the reflection they would instead break the mirror?

  12. Just a squeaky wheel looking for attention. I didn't realize your books were in the young readers section? It was a violent time and violent things happened, it's realistic and probably less violent then what it would really be like. I am not looking for books that talk about soldiers that fart rainbows while saving humanity. Life is violent even today. It is just hidden from you and packaged in nice little plastic wrapped container. I bet little Timmy of 8 would be skinning his own food for the dinner table. "So little Timmy chopped of the squirming bunnies head and then slid the knife down the creatures belly. This left him free to removed the skin from the still kicking body." Disturbing? Maybe, but not unrealistic for a time with no grocery stores. Anyway, keep up the entertaining stories where everyone is not a cardboard cutout.

  13. you have a way with words.. that I very much like. :} I must read your books now!
    I also totally agree with your point on violence.

    1. If you think he has a way with words from the blog then you're in for. A treat with the books.

  14. My first reading experience of anything violent was the Bible, I was made to read this at school as a child. Not trying to turn this into a religious debate or anything. My point I guess is that I have been reading fantasy fiction, the darker the better for the best part of 30 years and haven't killed or even maimed anyone.... yet ;)

    As I am halfway through king of Thorns, I don't relate to Jorg as a Hero. He is in my opinion an emotionally screwed up child who needs to grieve for the loss of his mother and his brother. He has his own morals, his own rights and wrongs. In a way we are all like that a bit on the inside.

  15. Don't explain; don't apologize

    I can't read the George books, although you are a fine writer. (The _Pere Lachaise_ story was gorgeous.) I will neither explain nor apologize. I can't stomach _Thomas Covenant the Disbeliever_ either.

    A point of information for another poster: William Morris (d. 1897) is generally considered the first of the modern fantasy writers.

    I think the problem is that one person's gratuitous is another's necessary.

  16. "No. But I have strong opinions about them!"

    And that about sums it up...

    Brilliant takedown.

  17. Brilliant essay Mark, I can't believe I am just reading this for the first time! I just published my article about grimdark fantasy. I wrote the article about why I love your type of fantasy and avoided the whole "debate" because Joe Abercrombie's article The Value of Grit was excellent. After reading this, I am even happier I avoided it. The first image I use is of The Illiad. My very brief reaction in my article about the violence in your and others fantasy is "so what"? Looking back on all of my reading, there have been many horrific scenes. I wonder if those who make so much noise about the violence in fantasy have read much classic literature.