Jorg Ancrath and the Tyranny of Optimism

By May 19, 2013Comms

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.

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

More posts by Myke Cole

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Paul Weimer says:

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

  • Sam Sykes says:

    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 says:

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

  • Michael J. Sullivan says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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?

  • bookwraiths says:

    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!

  • 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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