Jorg Ancrath and the Tyranny of Optimism


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?

I do.

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.

  • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

    Thanks, Myke. Yep, excited for when I can read Emperor of Thorns, myself.

  • http://twitter.com/SamSykesSwears Sam Sykes

    I’m not entirely sure I agree.

    Grim­dark” isn’t really a phe­nom­enon so much as a response to the “think pos­i­tive” atti­tude. The san­i­tized, blood­less, morally irre­proach­able sto­ries of our youth are what spawned a need for sto­ries with moral com­plexity, ambiguous char­ac­ters and people who didn’t always do the right thing.

    But I think we’re moving too far in the oppo­site direc­tion. If there is a tyranny of opti­mism (and I’m not denying that there is), I haven’t really seen it and, of course, I only claim to speak for myself when I say this, but I need my books to say something.

    Just as I found the old sto­ries said very little, mostly revolving around the idea that good is good and bad is bad the end, I find that a lot of sto­ries are con­tent to paint a hor­rible pic­ture and, for some reason, no one reacts to it because hey, the awful is awful, so why bother.

    Nat­u­rally, vio­lence and despair are no strangers to my work, but they need to be more than just a state­ment of fact. I need them to interact with the char­ac­ters. I need them to fight back against the dark­ness. I need them to reject reality. I need them to claw their way to the top, even if it is through a mile of shit to get there.

    Frankly, grim­dark doesn’t impress me because it seems to just make the state­ment that the world is shit. What made The Road so effec­tive was not that the world was shit but that because the only thing you can do–and indeed, you must do–in the face of it is to cling. It is, at its core, a very human and heart­ening mes­sage: people who do the thing that is actu­ally the wrong thing to do in the face of the darkness.

    Nat­u­rally, I’m a huge fan of all the authors you’ve men­tioned and I’m in no way dis­puting their abil­i­ties. I’m just a little bored by the message.

  • Stina Leicht

    we see grim­dark in a sim­ilar light, you and i.

  • Michael J. Sullivan

    I wasn’t aware there was a grim­dark con­tro­versy. Martin, Aber­crombie, Brett, and Lawrence are all top selling authors. If people are indeed “decrying” such works it cer­tainly isn’t hurting the sales at all. In fact, as is often the case, pub­lishing is embracing these types of sto­ries and if any­thing they are more pop­ular than ever.

    All that being said…I agree with you people should go out and read Mark’s Broken Kingdom’s books — he does a mas­terful job at this type of writing and if that is the style you find enjoy­able you won’t be disappointed.

  • Mazarkis Williams

    One com­plaint: I hope you change “where Boston … can happen” to “Boston bombing … can happen” because I’m actu­ally really happy BOSTON hap­pened! And don’t forget the people who rushed for­ward to help after that hor­rible inci­dent. I would not shy away from writing about some­thing ter­rible like the bombing but I would include people like them who ran towards the explo­sions and saved lives. Ulti­mately that’s what I prefer to write about. Tri­umph over adver­sity. The heroism of ordi­nary or unlikely people. Hope. If that’s oppres­sively opti­mistic I apologize :)

    But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Jorg. I do.

  • Mia

    Every book has some­thing to say and it’s no less impor­tant just for being a bleak mes­sage. Hope cannot and should not be the only thing worth writing about. Hope­less­ness, help­less­ness, total vul­ner­a­bility — all these are as much a part of the fabric of reality. It shouldn’t be ignored for lack of cheer­ful­ness. When did cheer­ful­ness become a bench­mark anyway? I read books to open my mind to every­thing and any­thing. Sh** hap­pens and it is only right that we think about it, talk about it, write about it. If there is a place for bright-eyed opti­mism, there should be a con­comi­tant place for hope­less­ness as well as every­thing in between. Even whimsy and caprice need a place at the table because there is value in acknowl­edging those who need no fur­ther reason or jus­ti­fi­ca­tion than that.

    Is it too obvious I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence’s books?

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  • book­wraiths

    Wow, I am a big fan of realism, but I just don’t see Jorg as any symbol of “hope.” I enjoyed the first book, intend to read the next two, but I saw little Jorge as he was written: he is a sociopath. Look it up.
    As you your­self pointed out, Jorge has and will kill/rape/torture anyone he feels he needs to in order to get his aims. My god, man, how is that in any shape or fashion fighting against the “grim­dark” reality. Jorg is the poster child for what is wrong with the world he lives in. He isn’t trying to change any­thing, stand for any­thing, pro­tect any­thing from evil. No, little Jorge views ANYTHING and EVERYONE as expend­able in order for him to get what he wants. (Sociopath) He is the damn cancer that is killing you. He is the molester that lures inno­cent chil­dren into his house with sweet words and a con­trived smile so he can abuse them. He is the master mind telling the sui­cide bombers to kill inno­cent people. He is the exec­u­tive deciding that profits trump envi­ron­mental safety or the injury of others. And — at least after Prince of Thorns — Jorge has no REMORSE for any­thing he does but arro­gantly declares that he intends to do it again and again and again unless you can stop him. (Sociopath). Little Jorge is Han­nibal Lecter with a sword!
    There is no hope with Jorg; there is nothing but pain. Mostly yours! Remember that Jorg cares nothing for his family or friends, do you think he gives a shit about a fan! Lol!

    • Elliott

      …Did you even read the books?

      • cynic

        Well, obvi­ously at least not past the first parts of the first book.
        book­wraiths descrip­tion of Jorge is valid for the first chap­ters of the first book.

    • Ben Jackson

      book 3’s ending com­pletely negates your interpretation

  • http://www.uk-plc.net/ Ronald Duncan

    Jorg is an amazing char­acter that con­tinues to grow and evolve through the series. Do not judge him on his child­hood. The only cer­tain thing is that he would prob­ably kill you if you were in his way and lead you to death if you follow him.

    There is a reason he man­ages to lead a bunch of ban­dits as a child, and it is not because he is a sociopath.

    The books reminded me of the wasp fac­tory, set in a wider and much more inter­esting tapestry with the 3 books that Jorg deserved.

    Thank you Mark Lawrence.

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