Looking at morally grey characters through the lens of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns

Instead of book reviews of traditionally published mainstream books, since there are plenty of those, I decided I would engage in a bit of literary analysis. I picked up “Prince of Thorns” by Mark Lawrence because it is a classic of the grimdark fantasy genre, and it did not disappoint. At first glance it seems like your typical revenge porn that relies on a dark, violent landscape to drive the plot. Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, driven by the desire to avenge his murdered mother and brother and prove himself to his cruel father, leaves the castle as a teenager on a bloodthirsty rampage with a gang of bandits. But as it turns out, this is not a typical revenge porn fantasy, because Prince Jorg is a morally grey character.

The literary world loves morally grey characters but naturally there is no common definition of what they really mean. Bad people who are really good people at heart who do bad things? People who are depraved who regardless have some sort of moral compass, like Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White? Most of us aren’t murderers, meth dealers and hit men, though; we’ve done bad things, said cruel things to people, regretted our behavior, but we’re also good people trying our best, because people are complicated. Isn’t, then, a morally grey character just a complicated character? 

Prince Jorg throws that idea on its head. If you take a look at the definition of what it is to be a “moral person,” it is a person’s standards of behavior or beliefs that is acceptable to them. Morally grey, then, is someone who stands in the middle of that, in the murky areas between what is good and what is bad, what is neither good nor bad. Start off with Jorg’s first mission. He frees a black Nuban man from torture in his father’s prison, and the rest of his Brother bandits. He discards his tutor and does not care if he lives or dies. He’s single-mindedly focused on revenge and he thinks the bandits will help him in this task. But first he, a ten-year-old boy full of anger, must earn their trust. 

Over four years fighting along their side, killing them at times as well as killing their foes, he improbably does just that. He’s not just some spoiled, angry boy; he does not judge them, and he fights like a seasoned man, with the same lack of fear for death. Sometimes you wonder why they follow him; one small wrong move and they could meet the sharp end of his temper. But then when a fellow brother falls to his death off a cliff in pursuit of necromancers, they swap memories of him in memorial, even though he was a cook and they didn’t care for his food. 

Soon, you are alongside Prince Jorg, rooting for him too, because you see the human side of him, the fallible side. The side of him that thinks he might still win his father’s love, the side of him who is frustrated to have been manipulated by magic in the Hundred Years’ War. He is a complicated character, yes; but he’s also clearly a bad guy, and he also has very human flaws and ambitions that earn your respect, too. He’s not likable, far from it; but respect isn’t always about liking someone. Through the layers of darkness, beyond the squalling boy who doesn’t understand the war games that adults play, you see his soul. That’s just a good character, but a morally grey one, too.