The trend towards dark, gritty fantasies has dominated fantasy writing for the last decade or so. The relatively light-hearted Harry Potter series grew darker and more somber as the books progressed. Game of Thrones came to dominate epic fantasy, filled with violent battles and characters that may be murdered in the blink of an eye. The YA market has seen dystopian novels like the Hunger Games pitting children against each other in a battle of survival.
There is another, less apparent theme that runs through all three of these series. Their brutality is grounded in actual history. Ironic as it is, the darkest aspect of each of these books is actually the most realistic.
Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin has created many fantasy elements for his epic series, dragons, ice zombies, seasons that last many years, and even the land he describes. But the drawn out civil war that drives the story is inspired by, if not based on, historical events. The English Wars of the Roses contain many elements that Game of Thrones fans will recognize, including at least one battle that puts the series to shame for it’s pure brutality.
This video does a good job of explaining the connections:
Does Voldemort’s obsession with muggle blood strike you as eerily familiar? It should be. J. K. Rowling based a lot of the Death Eaters rule on Hitler’s Germany. Voldemort’s hatred for muggle blood, especially his shame over his own, mirrors Hitler’s obsession with Jews. Even the way he uses an existing bigotry, building a mythology of Salazar Slytherin around the destruction of muggles, mirrors how the Nazi party played on existing racism and anti-semitism. The world of the later books, where Voldemort holds sway, gives us a haunting glimpse into the lives of resistance fighters in any repressive regime.
The Hunger Games
The idea of forcing provinces to send tributes to compete in a bloody battle royale might sound like the most preposterous fiction, but that’s exactly what ancient Rome did. And that’s where Susan Collins drew much of the inspiration for the Hunger Games. Even the purpose of the Hunger Games matches that of the ancient coliseum. Not only were they displays of wealth and power by the sovereign state, they were vital distractions for the masses.
I could continue in this vein for some time without running out of examples. Tolkien denied that the Lord of the Rings, published in 1937, had any historical allegory. But many readers and critics can’t help but see the rising power in the east as being applicable to both Sauron and Nazi Germany. The analogy between the middle earth and the times in which the books were written is remarkable, whether he intended it or not.
Tolkien’s close friend C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, was free in admitting that the Narnia series were written in response to World War Two, and the parallels are significant there as well.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Authors are often influenced by the times in which they live and the experiences of the real world.
I think the bigger question we need to ponder is this, gritty fantasy shows us about ourselves. We create dragons, evil wizards, and mythical weapons, but they true horrors aren’t the things writers manufacture in their minds, but the reality of human nature itself.