I love fandom. I love it with a mad, passionate zeal that defies reason at times. I am a fan in my bones. I owe this community everything.
But, as with any family, I can see all sides. Us fans? We do love a tempest in a teapot.
Fans are mad pedants. We tend to be smart to a degree that cuts through social convention, and that results in a compulsive need to pick apart every statement, every structure, to find flaws and faults and drag them out into the light, dancing and shouting, “look at me! Look at me! I FOUND THIS!”
It’s irritating as hell. It’s also critically important. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and he was right. I’ll stretch the quote: the unexamined work is not worth enjoying. Fans challenge every convention in every medium with a speed and passion that’s breathtaking.
And so the “grimdark” controversy, in which fans decried the gritty, hopeless turn they’d seen their medium take of late, under the pens of such luminaries as Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, George R. R. Martin and Daniel Polansky. Who wants to read such dark stuff? Who wants to put down a book feeling like they got hit by a truck?
There are a lot of grimdark protagonists to address, but the most shining example is Jorg of Ancrath, Mark Lawrence’s hideously twisted boy king, who horrifies us by turns in the Broken Empire trilogy.
Jorg of Ancrath is a true misanthrope, a man more than willing to snuff out the lives of thousands to achieve his aims. His slaughter is truly egalitarian: women, children, the elderly, his own family and friends, Jorg is happy to put them all to the sword if it will move him closer to his goals.
If Jorg slaughtered and betrayed for slaughter and betrayal’s sake, the grimdark offendees would be right. Worse, he would be an unlikeable character, throwing the reader out of the story.
But he’s not. Jorg is twisted into form by a series of horrific events, thrust into adulthood before his time, surrounded by people who would commit crimes that would put his own to shame if only they had the means. Jorg isn’t burning the world because it’s fun. He’s flailing, coping. He’s trying to come to grips with a world that has failed him, that doesn’t deserve a messiah. In Jorg, Lawrence answers the question: “What if the Chosen One hated us? What if he was right to do so?”
There’s a tyrannical form of optimism that has pervaded our genre for most of its history. It’s the fantasy equivalent of the “think positive” motto, or those omnipresent posters with a kitten dangling from a tree branch, large friendly letters reading HANG IN THERE! at the bottom. It’ll be okay. Things will get better. Frodo will get the ring to Mordor. And even if you don’t feel that way, don’t let on, because nobody likes a downer, and contemplating despair doesn’t help anyone.
Except, it does. Which is why the grimdark authors are so successful, why Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD won the Pulitzer. Sometimes, confronting despair is refreshing in its honesty. Sometimes, saying the monster’s name empowers you to do battle with it. This is why the “grimdark” movement is needed. This is why Jorg of Ancrath is a hero for our age, not just a good character, but an important one.
Sometimes, an awful thing is just awful. Sometimes, we don’t want to think positive. We don’t want to be a kitten clinging to a tree branch. There is no upside. No light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t want to let bygones be bygones. We want someone to pay. Ignoring this, smothering it under a blanket of false optimism fools no one, only allows it to curdle inside you, like the living scars wrought by the hook briar across Jorg’s skin. It is the painfully forced smile, the hysterical edge of a laugh.
Acknowledging the horror of a thing doesn’t change the presence of everything bright and bold and wonderful, it merely allows all things their due, a nod of the head to the complexity of the world. Understanding that complexity is an incredibly empowering. It is what prevents us from cleaving to noble ideals even when they sink us. It is avoiding the fate of Ned Stark, making the kind of thoughtful moves that really change the world, instead of the bluster that purports to the change the world.
The world can be awful. So awful that we want to anthropomorphize it, make it into something we can scream at, we can punch, we can make pay for what we’ve had to suffer. It won’t fix the damage, but it will be justice, and that is something.
Jorg Ancrath does that for us. It is the newest form of the wish fulfillment we enjoyed in the old superhero comics, when the scrawny nerd fought back against the bully and won.
The world punished Jorg Ancrath, so he punishes it back. For all of us, he kicks life in the balls. Not because he’s evil, not because he’s weak. But because life deserves it, because it fucking had it coming.
Jorg leads the grimdark cast in facing bleak reality and finding a way to win in spite of it. Jorg does more than tell a story. He wades into the sea of capriciousness and yanks it into form. In a world where cancer exists, where child abuse exists, where Boston and 9/11 and Deepwater Horizon can happen, he finds a way to exert control, to build meaning out of the tattered, mismatched hand he was dealt. It is brutal, it is savage, it is horrifying.
And it is also hope.
The entire series, and its latest installment, EMPEROR OF THORNS, deserves your attention. Be disgusted by it, be unsettled by it. But don’t ignore it.