Blackgate has a post up with a more cerebral discussion of morality in fantasy genres. Whilst it purports to be a piece with “no need to argue over whether the trajectory over time that Grin observes is desirable or not” it is titled “The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel” which doesn’t sound particularly positive. Regardless, Black Gate tries to dissect Leo Grin’s original argument and distil it down to four distinct (although I personally find the barriers confusingly blurred) points.
His first point is a neat dissection of my previous argument: “In heroic fantasy, good and evil are palpably distinct; the failure of the hero to act in a purely good manner does not change the observable fact of this distinction.” Hard to get away from that, Frodo and Sauron are distinctly different. I’m not sure this is a point that came across in Leo’s original article however. Even so, it’s not exactly pervasive to all of modern fantasy. The Wheel of Time’s Dark One fight against the forces of the Light sounds like two distinct entities who are pretty easy to distinguish. R. Scott Bakker’s No-God or Brandon Sanderson’s Lord Ruler, who has suppressed the Skaa people for generations, also seem pretty distinct in my mind from the good guys even if the people within are shades of grey. George R. R. Martin’s work might just be “another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing” but it’s also set against the backdrop that “Winter is Coming” and a developing evil that all of Westeros needs to rally against.
The second point that “there is no such thing as “good” or “evil” per se in most modern fantasy” is one I probably agree with. Outside of ““shocking” scenes of dead children and raped women” I’m not sure much is morally certain in this world, let alone fantasy. I’m sure you could find people in this world who’d even argue that killing children, provided it’s for some greater perceived good (e.g. overthrow of the West) is a gateway to heaven itself. Morality unless it’s from some absolute moral text is always going to be subjective isn’t it? Which brings us to the third point..
“When both morality and religion have been methodically excised from the beliefs of the characters and as well as from the environment in which they are found, especially in a quasi-medieval setting, the overall effect is bound to ring [as] false to the intelligent reader.” Absolutely. This is something I don’t like in a lot of fantasy. Like much of the early heroic fantasy such as Lord of the Rings for instance: in a world with absolute good such as literal angels like Gandalf and demons like Sauron why is there no strong religion? I never got a feeling that any of the people were particularly religious. I can’t recall the people of Middle Earth ever praying to some of the Ainulindalë before a tough battle. Which is one of the reasons why I enjoy so much modern fantasy. The work of R. Scott Bakker and Paul Kearney to name just a few do feature religion and characters acting in an emotionally credible manner based on those beliefs. Modern fantasy has even evolved to tackle issues like realistic economies! (What do elves live on? How do they make their elvish bread?) The work of R. Scott Bakker has characters who are extremely sexist and homophobic. Indeed, he has had much criticism of his work for this because, apparently, if you can write a world with sexism it must mean you’re sexist. This point definitely wasn’t in Leo’s article where a world of virtually pure honour, romance, glory and hope is praised.
Finally the most critical point:
“While today’s literary moral relativists write characters who enthusiastically embrace historically anti-social behaviors such as rape, murder, and torture, they uniformly fear to tackle current societal taboos. Their work isn’t the least bit daring or dangerous, it is entirely predictable as they only attack the targets of the past now deemed safe by modern sensibilities.”
The response to which is best left to R. Scott Bakker:
“Theo seems to be almost entirely blind to the irony of what he’s saying, since he himself was obviously ‘challenged’ or ‘provoked’ enough to write an entire essay in an attempt to make his unflattering evaluations stick.”