At Edge-Lit 4, my publisher, Adele Wearing of Fox Spirit Books, was on a panel about Grimdark. What is ‘grim dark?’ Well, that was the first topic. It seems that ‘grimdark’ is fantasy done in the style of post-Watchmen, Dark Knight comics: urban, gritty, violent—in short, everything that anxious males these days consider manly. It’s considered ‘realistic’ whereas typical fantasy happens in ‘Medieval Land’ where nothing is real—never mind that the Middle Ages was in fact a real time period while manly land is a fictional construct.
There’s a peculiarly ‘masculine’ romanticism that equates dark grimness as ‘realism’ somehow. It’s what’s behind the defensive avowals of ‘realism’ from the creators of Game of Thrones for the rapes they feature (never mind that they never show the ‘realism’ of male rape or a host of other ‘real’ events in their fantasy narrative). As Elaine Viets recognized, male romance is a category:
You’ve read them. You just didn’t realize it. That’s because the critics call these books ‘gritty realism,’ ‘hard-boiled,’ or ‘scathing social satire’…There are lots of guns and gore in the male romance novels, but they’re as sentimental as a royal wedding.
Viets is also right that they’re credited with more weight and ‘seriousness’ from critics, so everything has become gritty, almost relentlessly so. So Hollywood churns out gritty superhero films and gritty crime dramas and gritty bromances, no surprise. Perhaps slightly less expected is the grimdark-veneer fantasy produced by the BBC, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The Beeb has been knee-deep in borrowed Scandinavian noir and now creating their own similar series like the contemporary Happy Valley or the historical Peaky Blinders to move away from cozy tradition associated with the more genteel world associated with Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.
Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name, the program provides a mash-up of two of the most tradionally ‘feminine’ genres: Regency and Gothic. Both have become commercial romance genres, never mind the historical meanings. The violence of mashing them together in this series provides the heart of the grimness. And not just any grimness: this is the North, so it’s a windblown, moor-blasted gritty land. For American audiences, this might seem a bit upside down, but the south (read: London) is considered the cultural centre while the North (and the West and the east when it’s Essex) are considered the lands yokels, farmers and worse.
The tale begins in York, but this is not the Yorkshire of tourist brochures. This is the Yorkshire ravaged by vikings, of Guy Fawkes, of the Red Riding series, of the Yorkshire Ripper. But with magic! Magic is serious business though—serious manly business. The novel hints at women who practice magic, a suppressed minority who mostly work underground and bend all the known rules even when they are lynchpins in its history (I see there are more women in her follow up, The Ladies of Grace Adieu—if I’d noticed that Charles Vess illustrated it, I would have bought it much sooner!). In the television series just two figure as more than plot devices: Arabella Strange (Charlotte Riley) and Lady Pole (Alice Englert), both of whom become victims before long, though they are not completely without agency. Englert and Riley make the two completely captivating and fully alive, which mitigates the somewhat passive nature of their roles.
Mostly we have a lot of men in wigs being very serious. Mr Norrell offers a portrait of the geek magique nonpareil. Fortunately he’s played by the delightful Eddie Marsan, who infuses the stiff little fussbudget with a pathos that makes him fascinating even when he tries to hoard magical knowledge particularly books. All book collectors can understand his preference for remaining in the library and for shrinking from lending precious volumes. I think he’s less sympathetic in the novel, where he simply appears stingy and nigh on paranoid. It’s impossible not to cheer when he blows away the gentlemen magicians of York at the start of the story. They only play at the idea of magic from a theoretical point of view, yet Norrell dares do so little with his vast information except work hard to keep all information to himself, running magicians out of town when he comes to London and advocating for a new magical court to try conjured crimes.
The best thing about Norrell is Childermass (and not just because he’s played by Enzo Cilenti) because he’s not blinded by unctuous flattery—and because he’s true to the memory of the Raven King. Nothing misses his notice and his hand-drawn tarot cards prove more useful than most of Norrell fidgeting. I’ll take a plain speaking northern man over a bewigged noble anytime, and Childermass has his own magical knowledge as well as good horse sense.
Naturally the arrival of the Byronic hero, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), livens up the narrative quite a bit. Though I sympathise with Norrell’s love of obscure knowledge and books (I’m a medievalist after all), I identify even more with Strange’s impatience with rules and regulations, as well as his trust in instinct and experience as the best teachers (even if they are sometimes the most harsh, too). I love the way he feels for the right magic—it makes for great visuals as he calls forth horses from sand or pops into mirrors. The relationship between Jonathan and Arabella is such a playful delight that you want there to be more to her role than what we see unfold. I long for something like Arabella Strange Learns the Language of Birds where she goes on adventures with her magical cohort Lady Pole (please please please).
Instead we go to war, which allows all the male characters to harrumph under their wigs and talk about important things, while the domestic sphere is going to hell in a handbasket. But who pays attention to women who probably aren’t as ill as they think they are and everybody ignores servants—even if one is destined to become a king. Ariyon Bakare’s Stephen Black shows more noble restraint and graceful decorum than any of the men socially above him. His quiet torture is absolutely riveting. It’s no wonder the mysterious Gentleman seeks to elevate his position. But a friend, however true, who believes in nefarious means to dubious ends represents a danger. While his spells keep Lady Pole and Stephen from conveying the true nature of their distress, it’s not as if any of the men notice much how altered they are.
They’re too busy playing soldiers.
The magicians become part of the war effort to show that the often-feminized tool of high fantasy has a really gritty application. Like the huge explosive battle of Helm’s Deep in the film of Lord of the Rings, it’s a violent attempt to wrest fantasy from the impression of airy lightness. Of course the televisions programme has to prove itself even more male romance than the novel; thus we have Jonathan’s servant die in an explosion during the Napoleonic War so we ‘know’ the costs of warfare in Jonathan’s tortured face. In Clarke’s novel, we see the grinding sorrow of war in the dogged struggle of it; the men survive it with grim humour. But for the shorter television saga we need to weep masculine tears.
Some of the effects are the defects of adapting the narrative of the doorstop book, where threads hinted at are reduced to one line, dismissing them from greater importance. The traditional roots are there: the programme has its gothic ruins, it even has its regency romance. One of the very best things it does well is capture the true nature of what Graham Joyce called “the Extremely Dangerous Fairy Folk.” These are not the cute Celtic shop sparklies: the our primary example, the Gentleman, offers a sinister charm, but he’s clearly very dangerous. The tale conveys clearly that our human arrogance makes us fallible because we have created stories of our superiority for so long we believe them to be true.
What makes both the book and the television series a delight is the subtext that the real magic is creativity. It’s a clear parallel. Whether you approach the process in a careful Norrellite fashion or with the impromptu intuition of Strangean ways, the truth is the Raven King flies in like a force of nature and smashes everything apart and that’s what inspiration does. The reason we need to see how Arabella and Lady Pole and Stephen and Childermass approach the same magic is because this is not a masculine art as we so often have seen it portrayed, nor is it the province of one race or one class, but it’s an essential human one. We are all undone by the Raven King, who is not a man after all but the power of inspiration that breaks us apart. Try as we might to control his force with systems and rules, the ravens cannot be contained. They are myriad and indeed impossible to kill. What makes us human—the creative process—is how we put the shattered parts together again and go on.
‘The Prof’ K. A. Laity conjures weird stories from Dundee and New York, like her Hard-Boiled Witch series and the weird noir novel White Rabbit
and eleventy million other things including academic work on esoteric subjects because she earned that title legit. Visit her world at KALaity.com.