The Dark Side of Fantasy: How Tolkien, Martin, and Others Changed the Game (and What the Future Holds)

Ah, Dark Fantasy. The land of monsters, magic, and people doing terrible things to each other. It’s a genre that’s been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that it really started to take off.

The Birth of Modern Fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien

First came J.R.R. Tolkien, the granddaddy of them all. He gave us Middle-earth, with its hobbits, dwarves, and wizards, and showed us that fantasy could be just as epic and meaningful as anything else. But his world was still pretty clean-cut; good guys fought bad guys, and the good guys always won.

The Gritty Turn: George R.R. Martin and Clive Barker

It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that things started to get really dark. Writers like George R.R. Martin and Clive Barker showed us that fantasy could be gritty, violent, and downright disturbing. Suddenly, the good guys weren’t so good anymore, and the bad guys were even worse.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series flipped traditional fantasy on its head by replacing noble knights with conniving politicians and brave warriors with ruthless assassins. Instead of the typical tale of defeating the evil lord and saving the kingdom, we got the brutal realities of war and the long, slow grind of politics.

Pushing Boundaries: China Miéville and Other Innovators

But Martin wasn’t the only one pushing boundaries in the genre. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series took Dark Fantasy to new, twisted heights with graphic depictions of body horror, sexual violence, and religious blasphemy. 

Meanwhile, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series blended Dark Fantasy, science fiction, and horror to create a world that is both sprawling and grotesque, a scathing critique of capitalism and colonialism with corrupt bureaucracies and grotesque inequalities.

The New Wave: Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and More

Hold onto your butts, folks, because Dark Fantasy is about to take you on a wild ride. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is a no-holds-barred exploration of power and violence, while Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series takes the classic hero’s journey and twists it into something totally nihilistic and messed up.

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy: A Brutal Examination of Power and Violence

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is a no-holds-barred exploration of power and violence, set in a gritty, war-torn world where characters’ motives are never simple, and the line between good and evil is constantly blurred. 

Abercrombie’s trilogy, comprising “The Blade Itself,” “Before They Are Hanged,” and “Last Argument of Kings,” focuses on a diverse cast of characters, including a barbarian warrior, a cunning torturer and a crippled war veteran. The trilogy delves into the harsh realities of war, the brutal nature of human ambition and the devastating consequences of the pursuit of power. 

Abercrombie’s work has been praised for its grim and visceral approach to Dark Fantasy, and the First Law trilogy has garnered a dedicated following.

Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Series: A Nihilistic Twist on the Hero’s Journey

In Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, the classic hero’s journey is twisted into something entirely nihilistic and unsettling. The trilogy, composed of “Prince of Thorns,” “King of Thorns,” and “Emperor of Thorns,” follows the story of Jorg Ancrath, a ruthless and cunning prince who embarks on a violent quest for power. 

Jorg’s journey forces readers to confront uncomfortable questions about morality, vengeance, and the lengths people will go to in order to achieve their goals. 

The Broken Empire series has been praised for its dark and unrelenting portrayal of a world where good and evil are not easily distinguishable, and where even the most brutal actions may be motivated by a twisted sense of justice.

Other Influential New Wave Authors

The new wave of Dark Fantasy has seen several other authors contribute to the genre with their own unique voices and styles. Some notable examples include:

  • Scott Lynch’s “Gentleman Bastard” series, combines Dark Fantasy with elements of heist and crime fiction, featuring a band of thieves and con artists who navigate a brutal and corrupt world.
  • Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” series, explores the consequences of power and ambition in a world where magic is controlled by those who can manipulate light, with a unique and intricate magic system that adds depth to the story.
  • N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, is an award-winning series that blends Dark Fantasy with post-apocalyptic fiction and explores themes of oppression, survival and the power dynamics between different social classes.

Dark Fantasy Invades the Small Screen: Television and Video Games

The surge in popularity of Dark Fantasy has not been limited to literature alone. The genre has made significant inroads into television and video games, offering a diverse range of entertainment options for fans of dark and gritty stories.

Television: The Rise of Adult-Oriented Fantasy

But you know what really flipped the script? Television, baby! The massive success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, showed us that we were ready for some serious, adult-oriented fantasy. The intricate storytelling, morally ambiguous characters, and brutal plot twists in Game of Thrones captivated audiences around the world, proving that Dark Fantasy had mass appeal. 

Suddenly, every network was trying to create the next big epic, with shows like:

  • The Witcher: Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s book series, The Witcher follows the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter navigating a morally complex world filled with political intrigue and supernatural threats.
  • His Dark Materials: Adapted from Philip Pullman’s beloved trilogy, His Dark Materials explores a parallel world where human souls manifest as animal companions called daemons, and a dangerous secret threatens the very fabric of reality.
  • The Expanse: Although primarily a science fiction series, The Expanse contains elements of Dark Fantasy, with its focus on political machinations, morally ambiguous characters, and an ancient alien threat that could reshape the universe.

These shows, along with others like Carnival Row and Shadow and Bone, have helped to solidify Dark Fantasy’s place in the television landscape.

Video Games: Immersive Dark Fantasy Worlds

Intricate RPG games like The Elder Scrolls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne have been extremely popular among Dark Fantasy lovers. These games offer immersive experiences, allowing players to step into intricate, dangerous worlds filled with wonder and terror.

  • Elder ScrollsSkyrim: A long-running series of open-world RPGs, The Elder Scrolls games are known for their rich lore, sprawling landscapes, and engaging stories that delve into the politics, cultures, and histories of their respective fantasy worlds.
  • Dark Souls: A series of action RPGs, Dark Souls is renowned for its punishing difficulty, interconnected world design, and cryptic storytelling. The games are set in a dark, decaying world filled with monstrous creatures and ancient mysteries.
  • Bloodborne: A spiritual successor to the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne transports players to a gothic, Lovecraftian world plagued by a mysterious curse. With its fast-paced combat, intricate level design, and haunting atmosphere, Bloodborne has become a cult favorite among Dark Fantasy fans.

These video games offer players the chance to explore the darkest corners of their imaginations, immersing themselves in worlds where the lines between good and evil are often blurred, and where every decision can have far-reaching consequences. 

If you’ve ever gone down the Thieves Guild side quests in Elder Scrolls V at the expense of XP for fighting, then you’re very well aware of exactly how your sh*tty decisions can get your character offed with merely two wizard zaps.

The Future of Dark Fantasy

Alright, let’s get real for a second. Dark Fantasy isn’t going anywhere. From Tolkien to Game of Thrones and beyond, this genre has gone through more changes than a teenage werewolf. It’s become more complex, more diverse, and more balls-to-the-wall crazy. Whether you like your fantasy gritty and violent or twisted and surreal, there’s something out there for everyone.

And who knows what’s next? Maybe the next big thing in Dark Fantasy is just around the corner. So let’s grab a cold one and enjoy the ride. Or, you know, read a book or watch a show or do whatever it takes to scratch that Dark Fantasy itch. We won’t judge.


  • Dark Fantasy has evolved over time, with authors like Tolkien, Martin, and Barker each contributing to its growth and transformation.
  • The new wave of Dark Fantasy authors, including Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence, explores themes of power, violence, and moral ambiguity in their works.
  • Television series such as Game of Thrones, The Witcher, and His Dark Materials have brought Dark Fantasy to mainstream audiences, showcasing adult-oriented and complex narratives.
  • Video games like The Elder Scrolls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne allow players to immerse themselves in rich, intricate Dark Fantasy worlds, offering engaging and challenging experiences.
  • The future of Dark Fantasy looks promising, with the genre continuing to expand, diversify, and captivate audiences across various forms of media.



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