Merry Paternal Unit’s Day weekend! Get your dad a pen and a tie or bake him that cake he demands every year, or else…
Anyhoo, today’s a great time to talk about fathers in the grimdark. There’s a plethora of examples. Some are great, and these guys are usually axed too soon. However, let’s be honest, most fathers in the grimdark deserve to get shot on the shitter by their disgruntled kids.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Fathers everywhere come in all shapes and sizes, including in the grimdark. There are notable heroic, good examples, but a bunch of other crappy excuses for fathers there, too. It’s grimdark – did you expect a world full of Mr. Bradys? At best, you’re getting a fantasy version of Al Bundy most of the time.
So do crappy fathers deserve our sympathy? Nah. But why do the good ones have to die too soon? Raises the stakes? Causes trauma-induced agency? Fill in the quote. You know the one.
Hello! My name is _______. You killed my _______. Prepare to die!
What about the foster fathers, stepdads, and other non-bio dads who either lift up our protagonists or make Charles Dickens’ Mr. Murdstone look like Father of the Year? Let’s dive in to that one a little more later. But first, an all-too important question that’s been gnawing at me.
What makes a good dad in the grimdark?
To answer that question, let’s turn to the example most people know and love: Ned Stark. (If you don’t, I’m not sure we can be friends.)
Ned loves his kids. He sees them as individuals and motivates them according to their personalities and passions. He sets limits and holds each one to the standards they’re able to meet. In A Game of Thrones, Sansa laments that he seems easier on Arya than her. When they’re on the road to King’s Landing, Sansa notices that Ned doesn’t admonish Arya for picking him a bouquet of poisonous plants and getting herself dirty in the king’s presence. She wanted her father to say “be the lady you were born to be,” (A Game of Thrones, Sansa I). Instead, he indulges Arya. Considering that Sansa’s eleven and poised to be the future Queen of Westeros at that point, and Arya’s nine, Dad made a right call, in my fatherly opinion.
Is this favoritism though? No. Ned is meeting his kids where they’re at in their development. It’s also clearer in the books that Ned holds his kids to cultural expectations, to an extent. In the show, Ned just hires Syrio Forel to train Arya in sword fighting. It’s made to seem like he’s letting her develop her passions. In the books, it’s made clearer: he hires Syrio to humor Arya; he expects that she’ll tire of the hours of drills and then drop her ambitions to own and use a sword (Eddard V).
But the enduring part of Ned, the part that makes him a good dad even after he’s dead, is that he imparted good lessons on his kids. Each one of Ned’s kids carries the lessons he imparted on them: good values, discipline, tenacity, etc. long after he’s gone. It doesn’t do Robb any favors when he weds Jeyne Westerling to preserve her honor, but I’d argue that Bran, Arya, and even Sansa grow from the foundation Ned laid for them. And THAT is what makes a good dad, in the grimdark or in our own world.
It’s always Daddy’s fault.
There are two major types of bad dads in the grimdark: abusive assholes and perfidious fucks who don’t perform their family duties.
Outright abusive assholes are easier to spot. From Tywin Lannister’s derision of Tyrion to Craster, who “marries his daughters who give him more daughters” (Game of Thrones s2e13) and sacrifices his sons to the White Walkers, these sods are so depraved, they make readers’ stomachs churn.
Then there’s fathers who practice perfidy: it seems like he’s going to act in good faith when it comes to his kids, but when the chips are down, he balks. When I say perfidious fucks, I mean so-called people who don’t step up and act like a father: people like Jorg’s father in The Broken Empire trilogy who won’t see his fucking son after he survives an attack on his life. To make matters worse, Jorg’s mother is raped, his baby brother is killed, and he ends up disfigured. Even worse? Jorg’s father signs a peace treaty with the asshole who raped his wife, killed his son, and disfigured his other son! And won’t see him while he’s recovering.
Jaimie Lannister can fit in this category. He doesn’t seem too interested in stepping up to the plate as a dad. If he did, that would undo House Lannister for obvious legal and social reasons, but he still doesn’t take too much of an interest in his kids. Neither did Robert, come to think of it. Sure, he punishes Joffrey when he cuts open a pregnant cat to see the kittens inside, but outside of that, he’s fond of “his kids,” but not as involved as a 21st century audience will expect him to be.
That’s a great segue into cultural standards. Historically, even a couple generations ago, dads weren’t as involved in their kids’ lives as they’re expected to be now. Traditionally, Dad’s job was to be a provider and as long as he brought the bacon home every night, he was considered to be doing a good job. Those days seem to be over, and even in grimdark. Everybody has higher expectations now.
Can non-bio dads do it better?
Maybe. Perhaps that’s why God invented the mentor figure. As a surrogate father, the mentor figure crosses multiple genres to lend the protagonist a helping hand, from calling the hero on an adventure to walking them through what they’ll face. They’re easier to spot in noblebright. Right, Gandalf?
But there are solid father figures in the grimdark. Geralt of Rivia mentors Ciri (thanks to Law of Surprise!), eventually and reluctantly stepping in as her father after she has to flee her kingdom. Not-so-heroic examples include The Hound, who ushers both Sansa and Arya Stark through their loss of innocence while being his affably depraved self. In one I read recently, Sorcery of Thorns, a highborn demon named Silas often takes on this role for the heroine, Elisabeth.
Who’s your favorite grimdark dad? Are there any you love to hate? Sound off in the comments or join the conversation on the socials!