What distinguishes dark fantasy from 'regular' fantasy? There are a lot of viable answers to this question, but two specific criteria keep coming to mind for me, in part because of that vitriolic article last month and its bizarre claim that dark fantasy was a modern tradition, divorced from the Tolkien-and-Howard roots of 20th Century Fantasy. As a brief aside, getting away from those roots is by no means a bad thing in my book -- I'm re-reading Lord of the Rings right now and wincing every time I realize that the racism is far more ingrained and explicit than I remembered... but I think that dark fantasy owes as much to Tolkien as it does to Lovecraft.
What defines dark fantasy? In a word: fear. Much dark fantasy treads the line between fantasy and horror, because it lingers on trauma, on human weakness, on evil so powerful or pervasive that characters have a hard time imagining victory. Heroes in dark fantasy do not typically spend a lot of time feeling capable, confident, or virtuous, but instead question their decisions, shy from violence, and dread the next chapter as much as the reader. By dwelling on fear, there's less glamour in the conflict, and rather than making the reader feel uplifted by kinship with something great and triumphant, the narrative connects by letting the reader identify with fallible, human heroes, with the same sorts of foibles, doubts, and weaknesses they experience themselves. And the victory in the end is often the more exultant as a result of how viscerally each raising of the stakes feels to the frightened reader-hero duet.
In Lovecraft, the horror comes from a universe that is at best indifferent to mankind, and at worst actively malignant and hostile. No cavalry rides to the rescue, no purity remains unstained, there is nothing worth fighting for, no hope of escape or triumph but only of delay, of temporary refuge. That's pretty damn scary.
But Tolkien doesn't pull punches either. The armies of Mordor are countless, and no military victory can realistically be achieved. It is said, explicitly, that all stories of Middle Earth are sad stories, because magic is fading from the world -- the elves, who in many ways represent transcendant, almost angelic forces of good, are leaving, or diminishing. There is no going back to the good old days, and even the Shire is threatened in the end by the spectre of industrialization, its peaceful pastoral atmosphere marred. Frodo fails, as anyone who bore the ring for long would fail. The mere presence of the Nazgul terrifies people and animals alike, to the point of fainting, physical illness, temporary madness. There is a lot to be scared of in these pages. And in the end, while the powers of darkness may be defeated, there is the notion -- from Morgoth to Sauron to Saruman, from the great to the petty -- that inevitable progress itself is an enemy, and the grandiose patterns of evil, even once banished, will be repeated on a smaller scale, in more petty ways. Those touched by evil -- Frodo, Bilbo, even Sam -- never truly recover, not for years after, and in the end they, too, must flee the world itself to find peace and healing in the otherworldly West.
And that's the other trait of dark fantasy, as potent and present as any other unremitting terror: there is no unmixed victory. Sorrow and loss are omnipresent. What was broken cannot be fully fixed. Tolkien is gentler and more hopeful than Lovecraft, but the message is the same, is as dark in its own vision: the modern world is a fallen place, and those who win great victories over evil are tainted so that they cannot fully enjoy them. All good things must pass.
Philosophically, Tolkien's anti-progress pastoral sentimentalism and belief in a diminishing good is one that I reject, and do not believe in. And many works of fantasy, both dark and otherwise, refute that wistful tone, and the implied grim message. But Tolkien is often as dark, if less explicitly, than any other fantasist. And in whatever form, the Pyrrhic victory, incomplete, is a central theme of much dark fantasy. there is no happily ever after, and what happiness their is is not found in perfect health, fulfillment, or restoration, but in learning how to cope and go on in a world whose troubles can never be completely solved.
Romanticism certainly has its place, and I am fond of happily-ever-afters. But I don't believe that fantasy must always be escapist or unreal; and people may be as comforted by knowing their heroes still struggle as by knowing their heroes have attained some implausible but desirable state of perfection.
As always, I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this.