Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition

Apparently, we’re having yet another discussion about moral ambiguity and nihilism in (epic) fantasy. Well, it’s been almost a year since the last one, so the subject is probably due again. Plus, last year’s discussion coincided with a juicy political scandal in Germany and we’re having another one of those at the moment as well.

Epic fantasy writer James L. Sutter fired the opening volley in this essay at Suvudu, wherein he contrasts the black and white, good versus evil morality of Lord of the Rings with the shades of grey, everyone is a bastard morality of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and attributes the success of the Games of Thrones TV show to the fact that it does not offer clear-cut moral certainties. Though whenever I hear Tolkien trotted out as an example for black and white morality, I wonder whether the poster has read much Tolkien.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt replies at Adventures in SciFi Publishing and states that he prefers his heroes to have some kind of moral compass and dislikes outright nihilism and “everybody is a bastard” stories.

I’ve made it clear in these pages before, where I stand on this issue. In short, I’m more in line with Bryan Thomas Schmidt than James L. Sutter, because I prefer my protagonists to have a moral compass of some kind and I prefer there to be a difference between heroes and villains, however slight. Books, films, comics, etc… which make me fervently wish for an asteroid to hit the Earth/the Daleks to invade/a nuclear bomb to explode and wipe out all characters, because they’re just so loathsome, is not something I like to read or watch.

So I tend to avoid the overly dark forms of entertainment. But believing that fiction should have some kind of moral compass and that heroes should be better than villains puts you in a doubly unpleasant situation. First of all, it leaves you to attacks from those in the SFF community who believe that the nihilist stuff and superior and who are only too happy to accuse you of being too stupid and immature to grasp the wonderful shades of moral grey found in the bleak and dark and nihilist darling of the day. I left an online community where I’d been a member for years over this argument, because I was sick of defending myself against people whose tastes were obviously different.

On the other hand, wishing for some kind of moral compass in your fiction also gives you some strange bedfellows including conservative Christians, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket” political conservatives, anti-media violence crusaders, i.e. the sort of people I don’t have much in common with apart from not wanting to read books in which the protagonist murders and rapes dozens of people and that I quite often vehemently disagree with.

Besides, what does and does not constitute morally inacceptable behaviour is highly subjective. A lot of the time when this subject comes up, you get people who are okay with graphic torture scenes and have no problems with their kids reading them, but who get worked up over a single “fuck” or “shit” or about a consensual extramarital sex scene (double points if the sex is gay or lesbian). There was a TV show I used to watch where fandom liked a woman who was a serial killer, but despised another woman who cheated on her (unlikable) boyfriend but was otherwise a nice person and – most importantly – never killed anyone. I stopped watching when the writers killed off the likable characters, whose sole crime was having sex and enjoying it, and made the survivors increasingly less likable. Indeed, many of the advocates of morally ambiguous fiction only like their moral ambiguity in the realm of violence, while promiscuity is still viewed as the ultimate evil and the characters should preferably have no sex at all.

And even the defenders of morally sound fantasy have often no qualms with a piece of morally questionable fantasy, as long as they enjoy it. Remember Theo/Vox Day, who was involved in last year’s nihilism in epic fantasy debate and felt that morally ambiguous epic fantasy was not just fiction that was not to his taste, but apparently heralded the decline of the western world itself? Turns out he’s still blogging at Black Gate on occasion. What is more, he takes Mur Lafferty to task for not wanting to read supposed genre classics, because the racism and misogyny and the prevalence of violence against women puts her off. So Theo ranting against Joe Abercrombie and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a sign of his moral superiority, while Mur Lafferty ranting against The Stars My Destination and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a sign of her lack of education and moral flatness? Sorry, but this doesn’t work. If Theo enjoys Thomas Covenant, more power to him. But that doesn’t change the fact that Thomas Covenant is a rapist and no more moral than the protagonists of the Joe Abercrombie novels he singled out for destroying western civilization. But since Thomas Covenant is really sorry for what he did, spends much of the series wallowing in self-pity and finally apparently redeems himself, at least in the eyes of Theo (I can’t say if it would work for me, since I never got that far), that apparently makes The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant okay. Though I guess what really makes Thomas Covenant okay for Theo but not Joe Abercrombie is that he enjoyed Thomas Covenant but didn’t enjoy Joe Abercrombie. Which is a perfectly acceptable aesthetic judgement, but does not automatically make one book morally superior to the other.

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17 Responses to Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition

  1. Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » Amorality is not a moral position

  2. Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition: @ReadReactReview

  3. Appreciate your thoughts and our common ground. Ironically, I am a conservative Christian though not extremely conservative compared to some you may put under that category. My main issue is that all societies have overlying moral standards which have developed as consensus over time. Characters may individually violate or reject that. They may wrestle to live within those standards. But the standards still have to be reckoned with. I’ve traveled all over the world studying cultures and have yet to find any truly morally ambiguous one. The society’s moral code may not line up with Judeo-Christian ideas or even resemble the one in the U.S. But it exists. And everyone in the society has to wrestle with that in making decisions, etc. When characters operate with no seeming regard for those concerns, to me, it’s unrealistic. I do prefer the moral compass as well for some of the other reasons you stated, including a more hopeful message, etc. But above all, I struggle with believing a world can ever really be ambiguous.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting, Bryan. I don’t know why my spam filter keeps shunting you into the spam folder.

      Anyway, I agree with you that certain moral principles seem to be universal among humans regardless of culture and religion. For example, almost all societies agree that murder and rape are wrong, even if they make exceptions for people not deemed members of the in-group.

      • Thanks for your thoughts as well. You know, as I explained over at Adventures in SF Publishing in the comments, I’m not suggesting fantasy has to teach morality. And I’m not suggesting the society has to reflect our society’s values. But all societies have societal mores which people who live in the society must reconcile with in making decisions and acting. They may rebel, but they have to ask/answer questions when they do. And by leaving worlds morally ambiguous and skipping those questions it leaves me cold and feeling like the world represented isn’t realistic. It’s just richer when they admit those mores exist and examine them, whether their characters live by them or not. That’s why I think moral ambiguity becomes a problem.

        • Cora says:

          I don’t think we’re that far apart on this point, since I agree that fictional characters can only exist in the context of their society and its values. This is also why many morally ambiguous stories don’t work for me, because societies where constant murdering and raping and pillaging is going on and nobody does anything about it are not all that common in real life and mainly only exist in the context of failed states or extreme wartime conditions. I can sometimes buy that in a fantasy setting, but in a supposedly real world setting (e.g. the grittier sort of crime fiction) it often doesn’t work for me.

  4. Well, one way that Covenant “redeems” himself is by trying to also “get close to” the daughter of the woman he raped in the first round — who, given the clichés of the trope, naturally turns out to be his get.

    I can’t believe we’re having this conversation again (still). Then again, Republican presidential candidates in the US politicians are still arguing about the morality of contraception, non-procreative sex and non-heterosexuality and fully expect to be taken seriously.

    Yet there must be something in the air, indeed, because my essay on this issue, A Plague on Both Your Houses, is to reappear at the Heroines of Fantasy blog in two weeks. I would make the additional point that faux-edgy authors who conflate grittiness with grottiness are much closer to black-and-white crude depictions of reality. They just confuse the addition of red to authenticity and depth — plus, of course, the use of shock tactics to titillate jaded readers is the mark of the marginally talented.

    Theo VD (ironically appropriate acronym) is not a contender for deep thinking. As one example, he routinely considers western civilization co-equal with christianity.

    • Cora says:

      Like I said to Chrissa, Thomas Covenant was so offputting that even the preciousness and rarity of English language fantasy books in the late 1980s/early 1990s couldn’t make me finish it. Looks like I didn’t miss much.

      And the nihilism in fantasy debate seems to come around once a year or so along with “Science fiction is dying – again”, “The mainstream hates us” and “All those evil women/foreigners/gays/people not like us are ruining our genre”. I suspect that variations of these debates have been around since the New Wave if not before.

      Your A Plague on Both Your Houses essay is still great. And I agree that self-consciously gritty works are just as black and white as older non-gritty works. I have a long post in draft about the perils of noir, which also touches on Sin City (both film and comic) and how it is almost impossible to take seriously. And of course Sin City is almost exclusively black, white and red.

      Equating western civilization with christianity regularly drives me up the wall, because it displays such a lack of historical and geographical knowledge. But it seems as if conservatives of all stripes cannot look back much further than the Middle Ages.

  5. Chrissa Sandlin says:

    This was interesting–I also skipped Thomas Covenant in part because of the rape and don’t find that I am less literate because of it (or ethically elevated, either).

    As I read more, I find it more difficult to read fantasy that has an anti-utopian cast, which sometimes reads either as a heavy-handed moral fable (Do this Society or face the following finely detailed degradations!) or just an excuse to depict the dregs to which we are capable of sinking. However, this is an aesthetic judgment rather than an ethical one.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting, Chrissa.

      I didn’t get through Thomas Covenant at a time when English language fantasy was a lot harder to come by in Germany and so precious that a book had to be very bad for me not to finish it. Thomas Covenant had the distinction of me not finishing it, along with the second and third installment of Jean M. Auel’s stone age series.

      And I fully agree that the more depressing dystopian fiction with its heavy-handed morals is increasingly unpleasant to read. Bonus points if you can point out several flaws or outright in the author’s doom and gloom vision offhand, because it turns out that the author does not know very much about doomsday scenarios he’s describing.

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  7. Thomas Covenant is one of the first anti-hero stories I ever read. I really fell in love with those books when I first read them but the whole rape thing haunted me. It took a while for Covenant to redeem himself but the complications of his emotional journey and struggle for redemption did capture me. I found it a bold choice but one I am still questioning Donaldson about (I am interviewing him right now for my online interview series–and I met him once in person). I actually think it’s harder to reconcile with as an adult than it was at age 13. Back then I think it shocked me to read it and threw me off balance. But I was pretty innocent and sheltered and the realities of violence and the world hadn’t really broken through. It was just a not good thing the lead did for me then. It horrified me more when I reread it as an adult who has had friends raped and who has other family connections with rape incidents I won’t share. But nonetheless, the Covenant journey is fascinating as a redemption story and a story of total isolation of a person who didn’t deserve it really. He’s a victim of leprosy and that doesn’t excuse the rape, don’t get me wrong, but that struggle, throughout the story, and what it means as chaining him and how that fantasy world frees him, is a powerful one.

    • Cora says:

      I think the reaction to Thomas Covenant depends partly on gender (hardly any women like the series, but plenty of men do) and partly on when you read them. I don’t dispute that an anti-hero like Thomas Covenant would have been a breath of fresh air in the rather stale fantasy genre of the 1970s and 1980s. And it’s probably one of those books that are less troubling when you’re a younger teenager and don’t quite grasp the full extent of what is going on. I was around 16 when I tried to read the first one sometime in the late 1980s. English language books were expensive and hard to come by back then, so not finishing one was very rare indeed. But rape scenes were a nigh automatic dealbreaker (plenty of those in the romance genre back then, too), though I usually read on to see if the book got better. The fact that Thomas Covenant was suffering from leprosy probably made the whole scene worse for me, likely because I already was familiar with the story of Tristan and Isold at that time, including the version where King Marke has Isold raped by a group of lepers. Thomas Covenant tapped into my intense dislike of that version of the Tristan and Isold legend.

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