The Relentlessness of R.A. Salvatore, the Anti-George R.R. Martin
Chasing the literary of our fantasies
In the first episode of House of Dragon, viewers encounter merciless metaphors (childbirth = jousting) and self-expression in which characters declare impulses, eccentricities, and childhood histories that dictate the traumas that activate their motives. Understanding each other, the show insists, is easy when everyone brings their whole selves to the castle.
In the first episode of Rings of Power, an ice troll attacks an elven scouting party after they climb a glacier. Cameras orbit breathtaking New Zealand landscapes and offer a topography crusaded by a reassuringly flat cast of two-dimensional characters.
These dynamics illustrate the chasm between two fantasy subgenres: dark fantasy (House of Dragon) and high fantasy (Rings of Power). Wikipedia defines these appropriately:
Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literary, artistic, and cinematic works that incorporate disturbing and frightening themes of fantasy. It often combines fantasy with elements of horror or has a gloomy dark tone or a sense of horror and dread.
High fantasy, or epic fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy defined by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, or plot.
Dark fantasy is founded on a complexity necessitating a moral navigation as faithful as Dante following Virgil. If it’s a George R.R. Martin book, incest is required. As well as, consequently, six personal assistants that help keep the family trees straight.
Did readers feel sick or sad or ashamed after reading it? Were they disappointed? Dark fantasy achieved. In a society suffering an addiction to the conviction that things are irreparably bad, we’ve seen George R.R. Martin ride that darkness all the way to the bank.
R.A. Salvatore, who has written 40+ books, is the modern standard for high fantasy. Recently reading Salvatore’s Relentless (2020), I was reminded of how much I loved to read Salvatore’s work when I was younger, before I decided, like so many others, that art had to be difficult to matter. I couldn’t help but reflect on how much we lose in the self-consciousness of our artistic appetites. Almost unfailingly, contemporary culture seems obsessed with the dark fantasies of art more than the high hopes of it. Escapism to the unreal, to the aspirational, is a phase to be outgrown when the currencies of artistic merit are almost all valued by grief, shock, and guilt.
Depth, we are told, is only possible with literary work rather than pulp fiction. When it’s a prerequisite that all art must worship the worthlessness of being whole, books that make you happy and free - the ones that can be read effortlessly - aren’t considered art, because escapism isn’t art. It’s entertainment. This requirement, in making triumph trite, makes it impossible for high fantasy novels to be literary.
But with the mere mention of the dark elf city of Menzobarrenzan, Relentless made it all come rushing back. Again. I found myself letting pasta overcook as I read about dark elves fighting demons in the Underdark. Once again, I was reminded of Salvatore’s absolute genius in the careful, concise cultivation of the high fantasy genre, his ongoing defiance of letting evil win in the eternal quest for art that gives us meaning. High fantasy always begs the question: if escapism isn’t art, then what is art?
The Second Age of Subversion
Nietschze, in 1882, declared that:
God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?
We often summarize this as “God is dead.”
In mainstream fantasies today, traditional heroes are dead. And it was George R.R. Martin who killed them. His novel Game of Thrones (1996) was hailed as a subversive twist on traditional fantasy. Many viewers of the corresponding HBO show could likely tell you where and when and who they were when they found out what happens to Ned Stark. In the books, random acts of violence and anti-heroes spit from the pages. Personalities and politics, not plots, are the focus.
A Song of Ice and Fire, as a fantasy series, has now sold more than 90 million copies worldwide. It is considered the most popular adult fantasy series since Lord of the Rings. These are, again, two very different works of fantasy. That was the point of Game of Thrones in the first place: to turn every expectation of modern fantasy upside-down.
The motif of dark fantasy books is the ambiguity of morality, a realism meant to ridicule readers for thinking virtue exists without vice. Protagonists are flawed and humorless. Anyone with charisma or virtue is publicly punished or privately perverted. Every villain is a victim of bad parenting. A lack of proper love and human touch turns them into monsters. By the time they’re in their preteens, they’re crossbowing prostitutes. Would-be heroes are treated to a gruesome death for the insolence of good deeds and unwavering principles. “Realistic,” we like to say.
High fantasy characters, as we see in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, are created with the idea that our beliefs, even in adversity, can persevere. Frodo, a hobbit described to be just over four feet and the ripe age of fifty in the books, journeys to Mordor to destroy the ring and rid the world of the dark lord Sauron, no strings attached. We never learn why Sauron wants to kill and destroy and who didn’t love him enough.
Dark fantasy almost always ends with unhappy complications. High fantasy ends when good vanquishes evil through heroic sacrifice.
Trying to pitch what would be his first published novel, The Crystal Shard (1988), in his late twenties, Robert Anthony Salvatore (born 1959) reassured his publisher that his protagonist, Wulfgar, would have a compelling sidekick.
As Salvatore explains in an interview:
They basically needed a sidekick character for the hero of my book. I talked them into doing a dark elf. I don’t know where it came from. I was under pressure. They needed an answer on a phone call right away, and they agreed, and came up and I told them his name was Drizzt Do’Urden. I started writing the book. On page two, he just took over the book. I just knew it about him.
Salvatore says as soon as he started writing, he knew Drizzt would be the hero:
The first chapter I worked on had Drizzt running across the tundra and getting ambushed by yetis. By about the third page, a strange thing happened. I knew. I knew that the book wasn't about Wulfgar, as I had planned, but was about this guy, this rogue dark elf. He literally stole the show.
High fantasy characters create themselves on their own: Salvatore discovered Drizzt not through an outline or a psychoanalysis plot point, but through a simple, effective yeti ambush.
By 1994, RA Salvatore had written ten fantasy novels. By 2012, he had written more than fifty. Twenty-four had made it to The New York Times bestseller list. He had sold 17 million books. He has perfected a reader-ready prose so engaging you can open a novel to a random page and find yourself immersed instantaneously. Reading Relentless (2020), I didn’t even need to know what had happened in the previous two books in the trilogy…. Let alone the 10+ books in the same world that I hadn’t read.
Let’s take a look at Chapter 22 of Relentless:
The Absence of Compromise
Artemis Entreri stood at the edge of the chasm that held the primordial of fire, his jeweled dagger laying loosely atop his open and up-facng palm, . He stared at the weapon, hatred in his eyes, but only because that dagger was a reflection on him. He understood that now. He realized that now, after his stint in the cocoon of conscience, that his worse crimes were those when he had put this evil weapon to use.
Entreri had killed many foes, both in battle and in secret. He had lived as a hired assassin. Always had he justified his work by telling himself that he had never killed anyone who hadn’t deserved it- the world was a brutal place, after all. He still believed that to some extent… except when it came to the work he did with this particular weapon. He had just killed people with it; he had obliterated their souls and stolen whatever afterlife might have awaited them.
How many of his victims had deserved that?
Even the most heinous? The most villainous?
He couldn’t justify it, not ever.
Salvatore shows the cosmos of a character arc in two paragraphs. Artemis Entreri, the cool assassin I last encountered in The Halfling’s Gem (1990) in elementary school, is still here. Except, like me, he’s changed and grown. Relentless shows that an artist’s conviction can always uncover a new creation, even when following a well-worn trail.
Relentless spans different timelines. In one, we’re shown a different perspective of a plot that Salvatore originally wrote to share Drizzt’s backstory in the early nineties for The Dark Elf Trilogy But this time, we follow the adventures of his father, Zaknafein, and the mercenary leader Jarlaxle. Their exploits had been covered in previous books, which I didn’t read. Same with their friendship. Yet I still understood the weight of the relationship with a single scene as Jarlaxle talks about how Zaknafein may never be able to show his face in the city again.
“We will adventure together again,” Jarlaxle promised with as much conviction as he could manage. He didn’t really believe it, though, and could tell that Zak didn’t, either.
Both of them had to at least pretend they believed, though.
Without that, they had nothing.
In fewer words than George R.R. Martin takes to introduce his characters, Salvatore dwells on the universal law of friendship and the belief that creates the durability of it. Wondering if Salvatore had always had this magnetic, polished prose, I dusted off The Crystal Shard, which I last read in third grade, and flipped, randomly, to Chapter 18.
Drizzt and Wulfgar were pleasantly surprised when they found the back entrance to the verbeeg lair. It sat high up on the steep incline on the western side of the rocky outcropping. Piles of garbage and bones lay strewn about the ground at the bottom of the rocks, and a thin but steady stream of smoke wafted out of the open cave, scented with the flavors of roasting mutton.
I had to pull myself away just to come back to Substack, still wondering what was going to happen with the verbeegs. In trying the same experiment with A Game of Thrones, I flipped randomly to page 462, starting a chapter from Ned Stark’s point of view:
Through the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes upon the walls where the heads of dragons had once hung. Now the stone was covered with hunting tapestries, vivid with greens and browns and blues, and yet still it seemed to Ned Stark that the only color in the hall was the red of blood.
Martin gives us a beautiful description as Ned takes the throne and, just like the show and so many other scenes, a heavy-handed dose of foreshadowing. Ned is there to listen to a complaint about brigands. The complaints last for eight pages. By page 470, Ned has made a decision:
Ned raised his voice, so it carried to the far end of the throne room. “In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, his Hand, I charge you to ride to the westlands with all haste, to cross the Red Fork of the Trident under the king’s flag, and there bring the king’s justice to the false knight Gregor Clegane, and to all those who shared in his crimes. I denounce him, and attaint him, and strip him of all rank and titles, of all lands and incomes and holdings, and do sentence him to death. May the gods take pity on his soul.”
We’re told the words echo in the hall and I can’t help wondering which words, and how many. The chapter, which started with Ned sitting down to make a decision, ends with this decision. This is, we can believe, the realism of royal procedurals. But in waiting for something to happen, a reader’s attention can wander. These are books to be enjoyed at a different level of experience. After Relentless, I’m not sure I know which experience is better anymore.
What is Salvatore’s secret to maintaining that passionate and precise prose after spending three decades with a handful of characters? How does he keep going back and actually caring? He thinks not of realism first, but of the readers. Summing it up in a 2007 interview, he explains:
“The one thing I think people should recognize more about the fantasy genre is that, there are so many levels to it, about why people read fantasy books. Some people read fantasy for no other reason than to forget about a bad day at work. Escapism is a great tactic, if used in moderation. Someone may pick up a Drizzt book because they don't want to think about something bad going on at work. A kid might read a book because he can identify with the heroes and feel empowered by them.”
"I wish people, writers in the genre, would appreciate the fact that there are many reasons people have to read a book. First and foremost, I look at my job as an entertainer. If a guy in Baghdad's reading my books to forget about what he had to do that day, that's good. If a kid's reading my books and feeling empowered by them, that's great--but the only one that can make that sort of determination is the reader…
Genre literature is literature, and I think that that word, 'literature,' is used as a bludgeon, because people spend so much time trying to prove that they're better than other people. C.S. Lewis said that the only one who can determine the relationship between a book and a reader, is the reader. I don't know what that word 'literature' means, and I don't think the people who wield that word know either. It is what it is, we do what we do, and no one should ask us to apologize for that."
R.A. Salvatore’s philosophy is to respect the reader. In a literary world where the art is so often measured by discomfort or inaccessibility, turning the pages of Relentless felt so natural and effortless that, for a brief moment, I remembered what it felt like to lose myself in a book.
Triumph and victory can feel sinful in a world seemingly saturated with suffering. But our lust for life comes from hope, not resignation. Salvatore has known this all along, explaining about his cast of heroes:
With the Drizzt books, I don't think the readers really want someone to die.
In art, the rules of judgement change with the times. But the rules of joy don’t. A work of art is the medium, not the art itself. The art is in how the audience experiences it, not the nurturing, needling or nagging of the artist forcing the audience to experience it the right way. Over the decades, Salvatore has never forgotten one key thing: sometimes, even in real life, the heroes do win.
I think what draws people to GoT and other analogous dark fantasy isn't the cachet of "serious genre literature", or the pleasures of schadenfreude, or to see classical notions of heroism immolated. It's in seeing characters retain and strive for humanism, sardonically and imperfectly, in a world marred by bummer big arcs bending definitively away from justice. Tyrion and Bronn and The Hound are what linger for me. Not the set pieces. Not the Walkers. Not Kit Harrington's brooding. It's the Bogie-in-Casablanca angle that's appealing; the begrudging sort-of-heroism. It feels real and authentic because, well, it is. And even half-assed heroics look valiant against backdrops of despair.
I haven’t read any Salvatore. But my usual gripe with high fantasy is basically that high fantasy seems overly indulgent. Much of the book ends up being about the world building: describing magic systems, cities, quirky culture and customs and religions. I end up wondering, is this book even for me (the reader)? Or is it for the author--to spend time in a fun world of his/her creation? Just having a blast imagining all the aspects of the world? Compared to dark fantasy, where the fantasy world just feels like the setting and the story is really driven by the characters. Have you experienced that?