I recently came across the term Noblebright fantasy. It is a term to describe fantasy that is the opposite of Grimdark fantasy (which has been very popular of late). I thought it was, firstly, a great word! And also a fascinating term. In order to get a good understanding when defining it, lets look at what Grimdark is.
Grimdark fantasy is defined on Wikipedia as:
Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.
It is set apart from Dark Fantasy, because the latter describes fantasy that has aspects of horror and the supernatural, whereas the term ‘Grimdark’ describes an overall tone of the work that is gritty and generally depressing. Authors of Grimdark Fantasy include Joe Abercrombie (whose twitter handle is lordgrimdark), Mark Lawrence, George R R Martin, Scott Bakker and many more.
Martin and Abercrombie are the only authors I’ve read that I know to write Grimdark Fantasy, although I do have books still waiting to be read by other authors. I have nothing against Grimdark fantasy as such, and I feel like the grittier side of fantasy can make the world more interesting, but I prefer stories that fit within the categorization of High and Epic fantasy.
Grimdark fantasy I’ve read
I love The Song of Ice and Fire series by Martin and the grittiness of the world and events, but the main issue I have with it is that there isn’t enough magic in it to sate me. The dragon are magical beings but do nothing. The white walkers are mainly a horror element that haven’t really had any major impact on most parts of that world either. The red woman sorceress is presented as having powers but Martin keeps it ambiguous as to whether she truly does. It has just enough magic to appeal to fantasy lovers but a small enough amount to appeal to everyone else.
This of course has nothing to do with what makes it Grimdark, but the lack of fantastical features in a world that is already brutal makes it seem even darker in my opinion. More like historical horror. However I feel the Grimdark elements could be why people love the work so much; it is explicit in every area. And half the shock is the death of a number of prominent characters and the draw to see what happens next pulls you into it.
I read one of Abercrombie’s works ‘Half a King’, which I enjoyed overall but felt the ending kinda spoiled it. I realise now it was unsatisfying to me because it was a Grimdark ending. Abercrombie wrote a blog post about the value of realism in fantasy. He suggests that traditional fantasy (by which I think he means High and Epic) is unrealistic and doesn’t address the realism of the world. I think there is something to that. However, I don’t think that all recent epic/high fantasy is unrealistic, and shouldn’t be tarnished with the same brush as the old greats.
Noblebright fantasy is defined by CJ Brightly as:
fantasy in which there is at least one person with noble, idealistic motives who does the right thing out of a sense of principle, and which is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.
The term is further defined on her blog:
‘Noblebright fantasy has at least one important character with noble, idealistic motives who does the right thing out of principle. The character is flawed, but his or her actions are generally defined by honesty, integrity, sacrifice, love, and kindness. The story upholds the goodness of the character; the character’s good qualities are not held up as naiveté, cluelessness, or stupidity, but rather shown to be worthwhile. Good characters can make a difference. Noblebright characters can learn and grow. They can deliberately choose to be kind when tempted to be unkind, they can choose generosity when it hurts, and they can influence their world and other characters for the better.’
Authors of Noblebright include: Tolkien, Brandon Sanderson, N K Jemisin, C J Brightly, Lindsay Buroker, Terry Prachett, and many, many more.
This description suggests that Noblebright largely refers to nature of the characters and their choices rather than a the tone of the story or world. This is an interesting take on the categorization of the genre because it suggests a less formulaic definition of what fantasy is and is not. Recent epic and high fantasy tend to fit into this term because they can address the grittiness and realism of their world but still have characters who have moral integrity and choose to do the right thing. And in fact, it is the harshness of characters’ world that highlights the need for someone like them.
Heroic Fantasy vs Noblebright
Then there is this definition of heroic fantasy by Robert Ryan:
If the hallmark of high fantasy is beautiful prose and a focus on the noble instead of the ignoble, what then is the signature of heroic fantasy? It’s simply this: a concentration on the main character’s mental struggle. Their courage vies against despair and the dark forces of the world. And we have a front row seat to the battle. They may win. They may loose (sic). But ultimately, they will not give in.
This seems very familiar to the Noblebright definition. However Brightly explains in a Kboard forum post that “heroic fantasy is almost always noblebright, when the term is used correctly, but noblebright isn’t necessarily always heroic fantasy, even when it has heroic characters.”
I relate to the term ‘Noblebright’ because I like reading about characters that want to be better than they are and aspire to do more for either themselves or the people they love. Characters who take risks and rise to the challenge when an injustice occurs – even if they don’t realise they have this in them at first. However I also agree that realism and the gritty nature of life is just as important as the idealistic and happy nature of life. You cannot really tell a true and interesting story of one without some element the other, just as there are people with various shades of morality and disagreeableness. Noblebright encompasses all of this. So I class this as what I write.
I hope that Noblebright becomes a sub-genre that both readers and writers can celebrate. If you like the sound of the term, and enjoy reading Noblebright books, try searching ‘Noblebright’ or ‘Noblebright fantasy’ in Amazon and browse through what comes up. If you want to learn more about supporting the Noblebright movement, visit www.noblebright.org
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