Authority, Heroism, and Linking

April 27th, 2011

Occasionally ideas come to me.  Diamond-edged insights into the nature of fantasy and the role of my own work within it.  Often in response to negative reviews about my work, as it happens…

But not very often.  Which is why it becomes necessary for me to link to other people’s.  In this case, BC Woods has an interesting essay up about Authority, Moral Absolutism and Heroism in Fantasy, with particular focus on the works of Goodkind, Sanderson, Pratchett, Martin, and some Abercrombie guy:

“The moral problems in Abercrombie’s and Martin’s work are the same as before: What is right? And who decides what is right?  Only in these works, no obvious answer presents itself at the end of the narrative and no signs or portents appear to hint one way or another.  This leaves us only with human authority … There is a lesson here, but it is not one of trust but of skepticism. These works (I would say indirectly) promote a worldview in which it is necessary to challenge and question those in power … rulership in Abercrombie and Martin’s work, as in our own world, in no way implies a divine mandate. Not only is supreme Authority absent, but all human authority is suspect.”

A fair assessment, I’d say.  I guess all literature (if I may be so bold as to place my sword-based rantings under that umbrella) reflects the times in which it’s written.  Probably that’s even more true of SF and Fantasy than of books set in our own world and time.  Nothing more dated than past visions of the future, after all.  For me, that skeptical vision of power is a reaction against the moral simplicity I’d seen in the epic fantasy I’d read as a kid, written in the aftermath of the world wars and during the cold war, in which the goodly wizard has everyone’s best interests at heart and the lost heir to the throne always ushers in a new age of monarchist glory once the big bad has been shuffled off and he’s regained his rightful throne.  Few doubts about which is the right side there, or what is the proper order of things.  Perhaps it was ever thus, really, but these days motives seem always murkier, right and wrong much harder to pin down.  Doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as right and wrong – that would be nihilism, after all, and we know how we all feel about that...

Posted in opinion by Joe Abercrombie on April 27th, 2011.

23 comments so far

  • Phil says:

    Ha ha please Joe remind me about certain views on nihilism…

    With you on everything here, i’ve often though the current writing from a number of authers is far darker or maybe murkier then we would be getting 40 years ago.

    Agree about Dragon Age as well, to me it seems a classic case of beating out a dumbed down copy to leach out as much money with as little effort as possible. Totaly counter productive, just like bringing out DC straight after the launch, why not put it in the full game?

  • Phil Norris says:

    Why does anyone have to decide who is right and why do novels have to be nicely rounded off with all the questions answered?

    In life you never get all the answers. When you die the world carries on and some of the questions remain unanswered.

    I like to read stories where the author leaves it up to me to decide what is right and wrong, who is good or bad. In the real world people like Logen and Glokta would be considered very bad people but because of the way they are written I like them. I made that decision, I wasn’t told by the author “look you have to like this guy because….” I decided from reading their stories that “Yes they’re nasty bastards but I kinda like them.”

  • Thaddeus says:

    “A fair assessment, I’d say. I guess all literature (if I may be so bold as to place my sword-based rantings under that umbrella) reflects the times in which it’s written. Probably that’s even more true of SF and Fantasy than of books set in our own world and time.”

    I think this is spot on. Tolkien’s stuff has a pretty black and white approach to morality, which is unsurprising given it was written partly during and after the Second World War.

    There’s generally a less absolutist view of morality now, which is reflected in your own stuff and Mr. Martin’s too.

  • Dan says:

    I agree with most of what he says but the following makes me wonder how much fantasy he has read.

    “a most brilliant twist in Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy”

    I’ll avoid detail so as not to spoil anyone, but that’s not a twist. That’s one of the most trite cliches in fantasy.

    Not that you have to read a certain amount of fantasy for your opinion to count. As I said I agree with most of what he says.

  • innokenti says:

    Unlike you, Joe, I am not the greatest fan of GRRM and for me part of it is the added dimension of difference between your works.

    Whereas the above from Woods seems to be a fair assessment overall, I feel that you always give much more in the way of thought and motivation for your characters. However strangely they see the situation, and however wrong they are, their actions – both logical and idiotic, are understandable.

    Not in the sense that they are laid bare before us, but that you give us a chance to try to understand the characters. Try to understand their encompassing whole (good, bad, stupid). And because of that, the actions of individuals and groups feel real. It’s not bad things happening for the sake of bad things happening and driving in a point (which is a little how I feel about Song of Ice and Fire) – it just that this is what people are like in your world. And probably in our world.

    And I think that you have a very vital element that seems mostly absent from Martin’s work – you always show the existence of humour, levity, goodness and kindness. These things do happen. Thing might turn out pretty unsatisfactory in the end, but the journey is a balance of all the good and bad things that happen to everyone. Martin’s stuff always felt like a bad journey to a bad place you didn’t want to go to.

    So yeah, we’re kind of beings asked to get more involved in the morality and the weighing up and not just take things at face value.

  • BC Woods says:


    Thanks for taking the time to read that. I know it was a bit long-winded.


    Thank you very much for taking the time to read that essay as well. It kind of got a bit blowhardy on me and I’m sure it dragged in certain respects.

    As to your criticism, you have a fair point. I’d like to think I’ve read a fair bit of Fantasy, although I’m sure I’m not so well read as some or even so much as I should be. I’m always happy to read more though, if I’m ignorant in an area.

    A question in that regard:


    The twist I was referring to in Sanderson’s work was that the prophecies themselves not only turned out to be incorrect, but had actually been altered to serve a different agenda.

    Although the “uncorrupted” versions of the prophecies turned out to be correct, I thought that was a very interesting twist. I may be wrong, but that was the first time I’d ever seen the “Authoritative Mandate” for a series turn out to be flat wrong and not only flat wrong, but actually co-opted to become a sort of propaganda.


    If there are other works where this happens, I’d be be very curious to read them.

  • Elena Nola says:

    nihilism is exhausting. *drops bottle into pool*

  • DrGonzo says:

    I think Tolkiens stuff was mainly a very idealised world telling you a typical saga with a bad guy and a bunch of friends trying to defend the mighty evil. Fits good when you see thet he lost most of his friends in WWI. Works fine and when you expect that its a great read.

    But during time I read more and more of this fantasy stuff and Sci Fi. It really got boring. Switched to a lot of modern stuff and when I returned to fantasy years later and I not finish most of the fantasy books I started.

    GRRM and Joe where the two exceptations. Does seem that my world view is not the optimistic one but I see this sad and depressive aspects as a way to get some depth into the story itself. Might be that it is a child of his time but honestly I think the whole genre is getting more comlex and in a way kind of grown up.

  • Sedulo says:

    What I have experienced is also a difference in worldbuilding. The books I do not finish these days are the stories where the first 100+ pages are filling me in on the back story, the political situation, all of the different folk, who the ruling class is, what they wear…blah blah blah…and then finally an event occurs to get the story rolling on page 150 or so. Very frustrating.

    I have become a fan of the style that throws the reader right into the story with what you need to know and one can pick up the details along the way. It has been around for some time but was not the favored method. I think that now it is what many are striving for but there are still the explanatory types, and I didn’t used to mind this but now I cannot tolerate it.

    Also, liking the new “Sword and Sorcery” types doesn’t means at all that my world view is bleak. I am actually a very sanguine person. Actually it is flat-out more interesting and fun to see both sides of things and have ambiguity. The unreliable narrator is irresistable. Of course this has been around in ‘literature’ for a long time, but not much in fantasy I do not think.

    I like the darkly comedic moments in Abercrombie…somehow it seems impossible for him NOT to do that. Everything would be so grim. Some of my friends still think ‘The First Law’ is too depressing. But they loved ‘Best Served Cold’. Probably ’cause the usual suspects were more familiar in BSC.

    However, I do not shave any points off of GRRM for not having the same sense of levity in the characters…Winter is Coming is very big serious business and Stark is more than a name.
    I love the foreboding that has grown to an almost suffocating level for the readers even if not for most of the characters. Also Tyrion has much humour, as does the Hound in my opinion. Actually the Lannisters are quite witty. And there are some surprising acts of kindness here and there…but enough about another’s books!

    Read what you like, like what you read.

  • Dan says:

    This whole post is by necessity spoilery. Do not read unless you have read or don’t mind being spoilt on Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy or another, undisclosed fantasy series. (unfortunately, just mentioning it here would be a spoiler in itself)

    BC Woods

    I may have been a little harsh about Mistborn.

    I was thinking of the more general villain tricks heroes into doing his will, all the while the heroes thinking they are doing the right thing. This is a staple of saturday morning cartoon show and videogame plots.

    With regard to using a false prophecy to achieve this end. I suppose this is a little bit slyer and harder to see coming as “prophecies are alway right ” see
    I can think of one example though, the appallingly titled Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Tad Williams.

    Also, “most trite”? Doh! That’s the most ridiculousest mistake ever.

  • brandon s. says:

    Oh great now i’m having bad memories of reading leo grin’s asshat article. I wonder if he’s read jesse bullington yet:)

    sidenote: hey joe, did you finally catch GAME OF THRONES on HBO.

  • n0f8r says:

    Since Innokenti started it – I’ll veer off topic as well and concur that I am emphatically not a fan of GRRM. Much has been made of the “groundbreaking” nature of his work, but frankly I found it a haphazard collage of utterly predictable tropes; The return of centuries/millenia dormant threat which few believe initially, stumbling on an orphan litter of family crest animals which turn out to be staunch protectors, the climbing child tragically seeing something he shouldn’t, the complex ambivalent cripple, the innocent princess dumped into a harsh world, yawn. All these threads and the others can be accurately extrapolated from the moment they’re introduced. From the moment that the litter is discovered you know that they are going to be companions that save lives and die tragically, from the moment that you discover Bran is an avid climber you know he’s going to find something he shouldn’t and likely get into trouble, and so on – tedious.

    Joe on the other hand I would never mention in the same breath as GRRM – I’d hate to be labelled a fanboi, but the First Law world and characters feel genuinely fresh – establishing a new canon. There are plenty of suprises – but no cheating – if you look back, the event/decision you couldn’t predict is consistent with what’s gone before.

    Back on topic; it’s fascinating to think that all the countless talking heads that said Tolkien wrote a contemporary allegory – despite his protestations to the contrary – may have been close to the mark (or at least a related one). Perhaps it wasn’t his intention – but the spirit of the times informed his writing nonetheless.

    Is that what happened to you Joe – is your writing a natural reflection of the embryonic bourgeois gestalt of personal reponsibility? or did you deliberately set out to challenge the old order? Your post seems to allow either interpretation. Although, come to think of it – Bayaz now almost seems like a kind of deliberate anti-Gandalf.

    Also – couldn’t agree more re:DA2

  • Tim H says:

    I’ve been following Leo Grin’s subsequent posts on Tolkien with some interest. The guy’s not an idiot, and his reverence for Tolkien is, dare I say, endearing. When he’s not tearing down our bankrupt modern fantatists, he’s kind of sweet.

    Didn’t Tolkien say somewhere along the line that LOTR was a new attempt at mythology for Britain since the Arthurian myth no longer worked? (I’m most likely wrong here, perhaps others claimed that for him.) At any rate, in the old myth, the hero is a king who *seeks* the grail, which is God’s mercy. In the new myth, the hero is any everyman who seeks to *discard* the grail/ring (technology, bankrupt nihilism?). But even in LOTR the darkness is never far away. Frodo can’t, of his own accord, destroy the ring. Only the pity of Bilbo for sparing Gollum saves the day. Corruption is the thing that ails us. We have to choose what to keep and what to discard, and only love and compassion can ultimately save us sinners.

    In Tolkien’s new myth, “realism” isn’t the point. The beauty of sacrifice, the beauty of love, the beauty of language, the beauty of meaning, and even the recognition of loss are what matters. It’s better to strive for what’s right than succumb to an ugly reality.

    And that’s the beauty of fiction. We get all kinds of things to think about. Red Beck could probably kick Frodo’s ass if he wanted to. But more likely, he’d walk away.

  • DrGonzo says:

    @brandon: The first two parts of GAME OF THRINES where great I think. I like most of the actors. Fit well into the pictures I had in mind.

  • BC Woods says:


    I hadn’t thought about Williams, but I see your point. It’s been a while since I read that but…


    … in that case the prophecies were just misinterpreted, correct? The words themselves were correct. There wasn’t a widely believed prophecy that was incorrect. Although I guess maybe I’m quibbling. You’re right in the ultimate analysis that the “true” prophecies were correct.

    However, I do think the role of authority in the course of the Mistborn series was more deftly handled than in some series. Particularly in the role of the Lord Ruler. But maybe I’m looking at this too close, as I know a lot of writers don’t set out to deal with this particular theme.

    I don’t want to get too specific about any particular work, as I don’t want to make Joe responsible for something I’ve said about someone else’s stuff (by virtue of this being his comment section).

    Not that I have anything particularly damning to say, this just might not be the right forum for it. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of it over on my website, I’d love to have you. I live in kind of a nerd vacuum so I really enjoy having these kinds of conversations.

    @Tim H
    I agree that what Tolkien did was groundbreaking, remarkable, and genre-defining. Probably even genre-creating. I have a very strong respect for his body of work.

    I don’t know if any of what you had to say in particular was aimed at what I wrote (so feel free to tell me I’m a dunce if I’m reacting to something that isn’t there) but what I was saying (or trying to say) was that there are valid reasons for every thematic approach.

    The reason I used Grin as a starting point was because he made a classification fallacy I like to call: “This pretzel is the worst lasagna I’ve ever had.” In other words, he seemed to be upset at Joe and GRRM not for what they had written, but not writing what they hadn’t written. It was just very confusing to me and I saw it pop up a whole bunch of places as Game of Thrones got closer and closer to coming out on HBO. Grin’s argument in particular just happened to have good geometry to start building the observation I wanted to make.

    I’ll admit I made some jokes at Grin’s expense, but the tone of my website is very irreverent. I also made some jokes in there at my own expense, and the masthead of my website reads “Socially Awkward, Sexually Incompetent” and the website itself is called “Dunce Upon A Time.”

    I don’t doubt that Grin is well read or that he’s passionate but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the works you like are the only true kind of work. That may just be him writing for his audience. I don’t know. But I think it’s plenty fair to react to the tone he used, whatever his ultimate intentions.

    Again, I don’t know how much of that was implied by your comment, so I could be going Lupis right now.

  • Jason says:

    As someone who has only recently returned to reading other-world fiction, as I prefer to call it, after a hiatus of over 20 years, I have to disagree with nof8r about GRRM being tiresome, although I think the points made against his work are very interesting.

    Firstly, there is far more to A Song of Ice and Fire than “a haphazard collage of utterly predictable tropes”. Who, for example, would expect that Ned, Rob and Catelyn Stark would all be killed long before the saga has ended? (Ned, maybe; but all three? Although Catelyn is still in the story thus far.)

    Secondly, while I haven’t read much in this genre since Tolkien, Le Guin and The Sword of Shannara (JA, GRRM, Tad Williams, Lois Masters Bujold, Brent Weeks thus far), it’s not clear to me that all “these threads and the others can be accurately extrapolated from the moment they’re introduced”. Do we really expect that Bran will be crippled after his discovery? Do we know that all the wolves are going to “save lives and die tragically”? Sansa’s and Rob’s die tragically but without saving anyone; Arya is separated from hers – despite the possibility that Martin could have done the obvious and predictable by having her wolf save her during her months as a fugitive; we don’t know what is going to happen with Shaggy-dog, which seems to be wilder and more vicious than the others; and there is scope for the unpredictable to happen with Ghost and Summer. The bond between a human character and an animal has, of course, been done before (e.g. Bran and his dog in Susan Cooper’s The Grey King), but the expansion of this “trope” six times allows for the story to explore variations, some of which may turn out to be not as predictable as first imagined. So I’d hold fire on this.

    Thirdly, my real problem with condemning the story as predictable is the possible implication that a work of fiction/art has to be new in all or most of its aspects in order to be good, or, at least, that its value is determined by its degree of novelty or innovation. I see no reason why a work cannot be well regarded and even esteemed simply because it is an excellent example of an existing genre – or makes good use of established or familiar elements. If a painter working today were a brilliant impressionist or cubist, would it be right to dismiss her/his work just because it has all been done before? If a writer uses plot elements that have been used before (e.g. the innocent person (e.g. a princess) dumped into a harsh world), but uses them well and produces an excellent variation on an old theme, can’t his/her work be valued for this reason? Hence, for example, in the First Law trilogy and The Heroes we find a grumpy old wizard working to co-ordinate the actions of others, but one who is a brilliant character not simply because of the way he differs from others, but because he is drawn in such convincing detail. Indeed, I think it’s fine to employ some tropes if they are put to better effect than in previous works.

    Actually, that also makes me wonder whether all of the tropes listed have as many precedents as the criticism seems to suggest. The “complex ambivalent cripple” (tho I wouldn’t refer to someone with dwarfism as crippled) occurs both in Westeros and in Midderland (though not in Middle Earth); but each case is so different from the other that dismissing either as a trope would be an objection so spurious as to be itself a trope of literary criticism.

    Also, I’d question whether some such elements are merely “tropes” that are used or, rather, themes that are explored over and again because they focus on general and common aspects of human experience(e.g. youthful naivety). If we’re going to start assessing characters on the basis of such generalizations, then we may begin to find a lot of literature more tedious than we would like.

    Perhaps it’s just because I haven’t read much fantasy fiction that I don’t find ASOIAF tiresome; but in that case I’m glad I returned to the genre with one the best it has to offer (as also with The First Law trilogy, etc.).

  • Al says:

    The “divine authority” model for a story’s moral compass is only “extra-human” to the extent that the divine authority is all powerful and effective on the story world. A good example of what happens when these conditions are breached is in the ending of the Mistborn series

    when one of the characters turns into god. The reader realizes that the god is still the same judgeable creature, just souped up and given cosmic awareness or whathaveyou.

    If the divine authority is an unquestionable source of moral authority, then it must be supported by overwhelming incentives to not question said characteristic. Otherwise, the divine authority would simply be judgeable as morally right, and “unquestionable” would be a turn of phrase implying that it had been questioned and found to be moral.

  • Tim H says:

    @BCWoods, I just went on a riff on Tolkien and what his work means to me. What you have to say is right on target and very well put.

  • Jason (II) says:

    Great topic!

    I agree with Jason concerning GRRM / ASOIAF.
    I’ve taken the series up in 2004 and practically devoured it because it is predictable…not.
    GRRM practically alludes to certain tropes, actually seeming to lull the reader into familiar territory only to sucker-punch him,


    I still remember reading up on the end of ‘Game of Thrones’ and expecting some sort of last-minute intervention to save Ned.


    In a world where people try to reconcile real world ethics with the romanticised nonsense conveyed via silly entertainment (clichés and tropes of honour, valour etc.), I welcomed GRRM’s take on things. Especially in the fantasy genre.
    Also of note: the way magic features in this series or near lack thereof. It’s treated in a rather secretive and vague manner.

    I gotta admit, though, that reading ASOIAF was kinda bleak at times. Sure, I wanted to read on, but, well, let me put it this way: a friend of mine whom I’d describe as rather laid-back and grounded had once thrown his copy of ‘A Storm of Swords’ against the wall. To say he was frustrated about some of the characters and how they got away with a lot of stuff (Cersei, for instance), would be an understatement.

    That’s where Abercrombie’s books become really interesting: they convey a similar message as ASOIAF, but with a lot more levity. I can’t count how often I burst out laughing my ass off about funny, sad and even tragic turns of events (SPOILERS:
    Logen and Ferro, anyone?
    What about Bayaz and Master Sulfur?


  • Phil Norris says:

    @ Jason

    SPOILERS have been discussed here and you post a massive one for anyone who has not read A Game Of Thrones or who are watching the TV series in your second paragraph.

  • Jason says:

    @ Phil Norris

    Ah, sorry folks. Forgot the ‘SPOILER ALERT’. (Too busy thinking about the issue.) Perhaps my post could be censored…

  • MattB says:

    @ Tim H

    Interesting that you mention Arthurian legend in your analysis of LOTR. One series of books that springs to mind that in my opinion brings the myth of Arthurian Britain to gritty and human dark age ‘reality’ is the Warlord Chronicles (starting with The Winter King) by Bernard Cornwell.

  • Max says:

    After reading GRRM’s works your books were the only other fantasy books I enjoyed enough to come back to more than once (and buy on audiobook!). I guess I’m a cynic but I find clear cut characters really boring now, these books actually make me think about who I think is right or wrong.

    Case and point (SPOILERS FOR First Law and A Game of thrones)

    Jamie Lannister, I cannot hate him in latter books, even though he is a monsterous sh*t earlier on, same with Sandor. And Ninefingers is probably my fave character ever, even though he kills a child.

    You two scamps have messed me up big time o.o

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