The Tragedy of Prince Harry

REVIEW: 'Spare' by Prince Harry

Getty Images
January 15, 2023

This is not Prince Harry's autobiography. It is a biography of a character called "Prince Harry," assembled from conversations with the real Harry by a ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer. It is to autobiography as one of those Philip Roth novels where the main character is called "Philip Roth" are to fiction, only less tedious. It is fascinating in its way, though not in the way the real Harry intends. It is a collaboration between two unequal partners, one an accomplished ventriloquist, the other believing that he has finally found his voice.

Harry recorded the audiobook, so he knows exactly what is in Spare. He wants us to know that animals give him spirit messages from the beyond. These are usually sent by his late mother Diana, Princess of Wales, who died violently in 1996, when Harry was 12 and his older brother William was 15. The messages begin when Harry is 14. He and William are on safari in Botswana, eating dinner in their tent, when a leopard appears. "Everyone froze," Harry says. "Except me."

"I took a step towards it. … I was thinking about Mummy. That leopard was clearly a sign from her, a messenger she'd sent to say, 'All is well. And all will be well.'"

The leopard lied. Harry is not well. He and William are traumatized by Diana's death. Their father, now Charles III, struggles to comfort them, and sends them to boarding school. Harry refuses to believe that Diana is dead. He tells himself that she is hiding in a Swiss chalet, and she comes to him in his dreams. Soon, Harry is binge-drinking and smoking weed. Smoking a fat one with his mates in a bathroom at Eton, perhaps Britain's top boarding school, Harry looks out on the moonlit grounds and meets his spirit animal:

Pass the spliff, mate.

One night, straddling the loo, I took a big hit and gazed up at the moon, then down at the school grounds. I watched several Thames Valley police officers marching back and forth. They were stationed out there because of me. But they didn't make me feel safe. They made me feel caged.

Beyond them, however, that was where safety lay. … So much peace in the wider world … for some. For those free to search for it.

Just then I saw something dart across the quad. It froze under one of the orange streetlights. I froze too, and leaned out of the window.

A fox!

Maybe it was the weed—undoubtedly it was the weed—but I felt a piercing and powerful kinship with that fox. I felt more connected to that fox than I did to the boys in the bathroom, the other boys at Eton—even the Windsors in the distant castle. In fact, this little fox, like the leopard in Botswana, seemed like a messenger, sent to me from some other realm. Or perhaps from the future.

In 2008, more than a decade later, Captain Harry Wales, now serving as a gunner on an Apache helicopter in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is camped for the night, drinking hot chocolate and watching the radio. Around one in the morning, a flurry of messages about "Red Fox" come through.

The voices were saying this Red Fox was in trouble, no doubt about it.

I made out that Red Fox was a person. Had he done something wrong?


Were others planning to do him wrong?


Judging from the tone of the voices, Red Fox was about to be murdered. I swallowed a mouthful of hot chocolate and blinked at the radio and knew with total certainty that Red Fox was me. …

My mind flashed back to Eton. The fox I'd glimpsed from the future after all.

An Australian magazine had got hold of the story that Harry was in Helmand. He was a target for the Taliban, so his superiors decided to extract him, for his own safety and that of his fellow soldiers. At 24, his active military career was over. The Army made the "spare" a leader, and valued his talents. It gave him a purpose for the first time, and kept him busy enough to forget his sorrows.

Nearly a decade will pass until he meets Meghan Markle in 2016. These are the lost years. The spirit animals fall silent, and Harry self-medicates. He drinks and smokes weed every day. He does coke, magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, and LSD in an effort to lift the veil of reality and stroke the lost leopard. He falls out of night clubs, too drunk to walk. He picks fights with photographers and his own bodyguard. He has panic attacks whenever he meets the public. He stays in Courteney Cox's house when she is away, drinks loads of tequila, takes loads of mushrooms, and hallucinates that her toilet is speaking to him.

Harry does not explain why Courteney Cox's talking toilet was a hallucination, but the spirit animals are real. At this point in his life, he cannot explain anything to himself. He is so overwhelmed with loss and grief that he cannot recall his mother. He is trapped in a "red mist," a rage that he directs at his feeble father Charles, his scheming stepmother Camilla, his cold, conformist brother William, and above all at the British press, which he blames for his mother's death.

Diana is a leopard, Harry is a fox. Charles is a cowardly lion. William has surrendered his "autonomy," so he doesn't get an animal at all. Kate is the bitch who takes William away from Harry. Alone, he unravels further. By 2013, he cannot control his panic attacks and agoraphobia.

I came to fear simply being around other human beings. More than anything else I feared cameras. The telltale click of a shutter opening and closing could knock me sideways for a whole day.

I had no choice: I began staying home. Day after day, night after night, I sat around eating takeaway, watching 24. Or Friends. I think I might've watched every episode of Friends in 2013.

He hits rock bottom: "I decided I was a Chandler." By 2015, he is the world's most famous incel:

Every night I'd go straight home from work, eat over the sink, then catch up on paperwork, Friends on low in the background. … I missed the war.

After dinner I'd smoke a joint, trying to make sure the smoke didn't waft into the garden of my neighbor, the Duke of Kent.

Then I'd turn in early.

One night in 2016, Harry receives a hint through the ether that the spirit animals will return. Scrolling through his Instagram feed, he sees Meghan, wearing a pair of digitally superimposed dog ears. He gets her from the moment he sees her, because everyone shows their true selves on Instagram, especially actresses. As a fellow canine, the domesticated version of his wild Red Fox, the Californian fox gets him, too. Their affair is mostly conducted online. After two dates in real life, he asks her to go camping in Botswana for a week. The future is here.

Harry takes Meghan to meet his family at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. They go for a walk by the sea and see some seals lying on the rocks. Harry, who was enchanted as a child by his Pa's stories of selkies, mythical Scottish mermaids, calls to the seals, but they ignore him. When Meghan calls, they erupt into a "seal opera." "She really is magic," he thinks. "Even the seals know it." But when they return to the castle, Pa's chef tells him off. The waters are "teeming with killer whales," and Meghan's siren song was "like calling them to their blood-soaked deaths."

That's killer whales, not killer Wales. Harry tells us that he killed 25 people in Afghanistan at the push of a button. Harry has always fought William's battles for him, from when they were children: "When the scrap finally ended for good, when we hobbled away together, I always felt such love for him, and I sensed love in return, but also some embarrassment. I was half Willy's size, half his weight. I was the younger brother: He was supposed to save me, not the other way around."

Charles was also supposed to save Harry, but "Pa" isn't much of a man, either. Harry depicts Charles as well-meaning, stuffy, repressed, self-obsessed, and vain. He travels everywhere with his teddy bear, like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. He is a perpetual adolescent, a man-child unable to shoulder masculine responsibilities because his mother refused to die. He is outmanned by Camilla, who plays "a long game, a campaign aimed at marriage and eventually the Crown."

Harry's family are driven by "fear" into a subordinate relationship with the "paps," the paparazzi, and the British tabloids who are their biggest customers. But Harry walks toward danger, just as he walked toward the leopard in Botswana. The leopard is danger, the leopard is Diana. The closer he gets to her, the safer he feels. The closer he gets to her, the closer he is to death. William can repress his loss as he inherits the task of being the heir, and shoots partridges. Harry is adrift in grief, and cannot hide. When he shoots his first stag, the ghillie guts the dying beast and forces Harry's head into its cavity.

Sandy knelt before it, took out his gleaming knife, bled it from the neck, and slit open the belly. He motioned for me to kneel. I knelt.

I thought we were going to pray.

Sandy snapped at me. Closer!

I knelt closer, enough to smell Sandy's armpits. He placed a hand gently behind my neck, and now I thought he was going to hug me, congratulate me. Atta boy. Instead, he pushed my head deep inside the carcass.

Red Fox is in trouble. He asks a palace security officer for access to police files containing photographs of Diana's last moments in the underpass in Paris.

There were lights all around her, auras, almost halos. How strange. The color of the lights was the same color as her hair—golden. I didn't know what the lights were, I couldn't imagine, though I came up with all sorts of supernatural explanations.

As I realized their true origin, my stomach clenched.

Flashes. They were flashes. And within some of the flashes were ghostly visages, and half visages, paps and reflected paps and refracted paps on all the smooth surfaces and glass windscreens. Those men who'd chased her. … they'd never stopped shooting her while she lay between the seats, unconscious, or semiconscious, and in their frenzy they'd sometimes accidentally photographed each other. Not one of them was checking on her, offering her help, not even comforting her. They were just shooting, shooting, shooting.

I hadn't known. I hadn't dreamed. I'd been told that paps chased Mummy, that they'd hunted her like a pack of wild dogs, but I'd never dared to imagine that, like wild dogs, they'd also feasted on her defenseless body. I hadn't been aware, before this moment, that the last thing Mummy saw on this earth was a flashbulb.

The red mist is now a "torrent." Harry blames the "paps" and the papers more than he blames his Pa. He loves his mother's image, but by his own admission struggles to remember her living presence. She is literally "indescribable" to him. Harry censors the details that he can remember, but which might damage that ideal.

"I remembered bedtimes in Kensington Palace, saying goodnight at the foot of the stairs, kissing her soft neck, inhaling her perfume, then lying in bed, in the dark, feeling so far away, so alone, and longing to hear her voice just one more time."

After divorcing Charles and leaving the royal security envelope, Diana fell in love with an Egyptian playboy, Dodi al-Fayed. It was a Fayed chauffeur who crashed that car in Paris, by speeding downhill into the underpass so fast that the Mercedes limo took off, hit one side of the underpass, then ricocheted across into a concrete pillar. Three of the four passengers died. The survivor was the bodyguard who, being a mere mortal, had worn his seatbelt.

Harry cannot name al-Fayed; he calls him "Mummy's friend." He does not mention that Diana dumped William and Harry in Scotland with the grandparents, so she could pursue her summer romance with Dodi. Nor does he mention Mummy's earlier lover, Dr. Hasnat Khan, whom she smuggled into the Kensington Palace apartment she shared with William and Harry. Like Oedipus, Harry is blind to Mummy's true nature. Diana manipulated the press, too. Before she was taken from Harry, she abandoned him.

Princess Diana was hunted by the jackals, but the Diana she was named for, the Greek goddess, was the huntress. She pursued fame in revenge for Charles's faithlessness, staging teary confessionals for the cameras and driving the pack of paps at him and his family. Charles retaliated with his own staged confessions. Harry now retaliates with his. The Windsors survived Edward VIII's dalliances with Wallis Simpson and Hitler. They survived Charles and Diana's war for public sympathy. They will survive Harry's assault, too. But will he?

Harry thinks his father and brother are cowards for not trying to correct the tabloids' lies. He fails to grasp that public fictions, the tabloid stories and the royal rituals, allow the Windsors to preserve an approximation of their true, private selves. Spare is a cruel book, revenge served hot, with a side of relish and hypocrisy. If drugs and spirit animals connect Harry with the true reality, Diana's reality, then gossip and private conversations expose the false reality of monarchy. His revelations are intended to leave his father and brother cowering naked, like King Lear on the heath.

At William and Kate's wedding in 2011, "Harry" has a Jungian epiphany:

"It occurred to me then that identity is a hierarchy. We are primarily one thing, and then we're primarily another, and then another, and so on, until death—in succession. Each new identity assumes the throne of Self, but takes us further from our original self, perhaps our core self—the child."

Life is a game of masks, of fictions refracted in the flash of desire. Harry's selfhood is fractured by traumatic grief. He cannot remember Diana, so he cannot sustain a single identity. "Harry" is "Spike" to his friends, "Harold" to his brother, sometimes "Haz" or "Hazza" to his girlfriends, "darling boy" to his father, "Prince Jackaroo" to some friendly Australians, "Scrawny" to the royal bodyguards, and "Prince Thicko" to himself. With "a half dozen formal names and a full dozen nicknames it was turning into a hall of mirrors," he says. "Self? I was more than ready to shed that dead weight. Identity? Take it."

Unsure who he is, "Harry" wonders if his beard is "Freudian—beard as security blanket," or "Jungian—beard as mask." The artful cruelty of Moehringer's ghosting is that he allows Harry his Jungian self-presentation, but seeds the narrative with Freudian clues. Harry tells us that Meghan, by reconnecting him with Diana, has allowed him to take off the mask and be his true self. But Moehringer shows us a psychological reality of fleeting refractions, a Freudian conflict where death and desire converge: Prince Harry as Prince Hamlet.

The first thing to do is to get Pa out of the way. One day during his Army service, Harry is the ground controller on a training exercise that is conducted near Charles's country home in Gloucestershire. Charles comes out to meet Harry, who is directing a Typhoon fighter jet that is dropping live bombs. As Charles drives away, Harry assigns a target:

The Typhoon tracked Pa, did a low pass straight over him, almost shattering the windows of his Audi.

But ultimately spared him. On my orders.

It went on to blow a silver barn to smithereens.

"The play's the thing, to catch the conscience of the king," Hamlet says. In the old days, "countenancing the death of the king" was a capital offense. Harry does more than countenance it. Like Hamlet, he sets his revenge in motion, but wavers at the last.

William has priority in the succession, but weak Willy cannot stand up for himself. When he gets married, he surrenders to protocol. William gets married in a uniform he does not like, to a woman that, Harry implies, he might not love. Willy has to shave his beard, too. Beards are forbidden in the Army, and they are "a clear violation of protocol and long-standing norms" in the family. "Willy was glum at having so little say in what he wore to get married, at having his autonomy taken from him on such an occasion," Harry reports.

Harry, acting as Willy's best man, gets to keep the beard that he has grown on an expedition to the South Pole. The expedition has also left Harry with a frostbitten penis. He has a numb willy at Willy's wedding, which is held in Westminster Abbey, where the emotional numbing, Diana's funeral service, was held.

"Between these thoughts of Mummy and death and my frostnipped penis," Harry recalls, "I was in danger of becoming as anxious as the groom." No wonder. As Harry loses William in the place where he lost his mother, he fears that he will lose his manhood. Like him, the princely penis oscillates "between extremely sensitive and borderline traumatized." A friend suggests he massage it with Elizabeth Arden face cream.

"My Mum used that on her lips," Harry says. "You want me to put that on my todger?"

"I found a tube," he writes, "and then a minute I opened it the smell transported me through time. I felt as if my mother was right there in the room."

This is the healing balm he needs. This moment is Harry's first reunion with Diana since the leopards stopped talking to him, and it happens when he is rubbing his numb penis. Diana, the image of death, restores Harry to life. Earlier, Harry tells us that he and William were circumcised as infants, against Diana's will. His father wanted him "snipped," as all the Windsor men are. Now, as Diana's gelded Will marries cold Kate, Harry's manhood is reborn. He is ready to meet his reward, the hot babe he saw on Instagram when he was high and eating takeout.

After Meghan has sent him to therapy because of his rage, Harry realizes the royal family is a "death cult." Yet he also recalls that it was Mummy who gave him his first vision of the death that she would later suffer. As children, William and Harry are in the back seat when Diana is at the wheel, fleeing from the paps. The young Red Fox has a foretaste of the leopard's last race. "Are they going to kill us, Mummy? Are we going to die?" he asks.

This is not the only time that Diana prepares Harry for adulthood by preparing him for death:

"It was Mummy who took Willy and me on our first military exercise—a 'killing house' in Herefordshire. The three of us were put into a room, told not to move. Then the room went dark. A squad kicked down the door. They threw flash bangs, scared the devil out of us, which was their aim. They wanted to teach us how to respond 'if ever' our lives were in danger."

When Harry takes "Mummy's favorite perfume" to a therapy session, one sniff opens Harry's mind like "a tab of LSD." Her scent is the spoor that refracts through his mind, a sensory memory of death and desire. By pure chance, Meghan happens to wear the same brand of perfume on their first date. She is his fate, his future. "She loved my beard, she loved to grab it and pull me in for a kiss." He wears his beard on their wedding day. William "bristled."

Harry is adamant that Meghan loves him for who he really is:

"I felt pretty sure she hadn't googled me, because she was always asking questions. She seemed to know almost nothing—so refreshing. It showed that she wasn't impressed by royalty, which I thought the first step to surviving it. More, since she hadn't done a deep dive into the literature, the public record, her head wasn't filled with disinformation."

Moehringer allows Harry to say this, even though he and we know that this cannot be true. Meghan's childhood friend insists that Meghan was an avid reader of royal biographies, especially about Diana. Meghan was photographed outside Buckingham Palace when she visited London as a teenager. When William married Kate, Meghan blogged about the "pomp and circumstance surrounding the Royal Wedding," and the "endless conversations about Princess Kate."

A 2014 photo shows Meghan, sitting in an airport with her laptop, reading about Elizabeth II. In Tom Bower's recent book Revenge, Meghan's former business adviser Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne attests that Meghan told her, "I've googled Harry. I've gone deeply into his life." Harry tells us that he googles Meghan as he falls in love, but he insists that she, like Diana, is entering the royal circus as a naif. His first "marathon" Instagram session with her happens to fall on what would have been Diana's 55th birthday. Who is the naif here?

"She definitely hadn't googled us," Harry repeats. This is one of two phrases that "Harry" repeats as Moehringer pushes the point home. He is showing us that Harry does not know who Meghan is. Harry sees her as an avatar of Diana. And Meghan encourages this, whipping up Harry's trauma along with his desire. The first time Meghan is at the wheel and pursued by paps, she phones Harry from the car. She tells him she feels "sure she was going to be in a crash."

"I was in London, in my own car, my bodyguard driving, and her tearful voice brought me right back to my childhood," Harry says. "Back to Balmoral. She didn't make it, darling boy. I pleaded with Meg to stay calm, keep her eyes on the road."

The other phrase that Harry repeats is his promise to Meghan: "Trust me, I’ll keep you safe." In Meghan, Harry sees the redemption that Diana denied him: the chance to save his beloved, to join her in the escape from the royal cage. As he has reenacted Diana's last chase in his mind, even retracing it through the tunnel in Paris, so he reenacts its script with Meghan, hoping to rewrite the ending that awaits at the end of the tunnel of love.

Harry and Meghan flee from Britain because they believe that his family is colluding with the press against them. She tells him she is suicidal: He is about to lose his love all over again. Elizabeth II, Charles, and William reject Meghan and Harry's proposal that they hover between duty and fantasy, halfway in the family firm and halfway out. Pa, who has been "my boss, my banker, my comptroller, keeper of the purse strings throughout my adult life," cuts Harry off.

For the first time, Harry must fend for himself. Like Diana, he has left the royals' state-funded and highly professional security envelope. "I felt fatted for the slaughter. Suckled like a veal calf." The closer Harry's proximity to death, the worse Harry's anxiety gets, and the closer to Diana he feels. Meghan tells him she is pregnant by leaving her positive tests for him to find:

The wands were on the nightstand. I only kept a few things there, among them the blue box with my mother's hair. Right, I thought, good. Let's see what Mummy can do with this situation.

I thought: Thank you, selkies.

I thought: Thank you, Mummy.

When Harry takes Meghan to visit Diana's grave, he feels that "Meg might also want a moment," so he takes a stroll. "When I came back, Meg was kneeling, eyes shut, palms against the stone." She was, she says, praying for "clarity and guidance."

When their children are born, Diana is in the room too. At night, when Meghan and the kids are asleep, Harry slips out and gets high on his own. The clear night sky over Montecito reminds him of the stars over Africa. The Red Fox communes with the spirit of the leopard, but he is never safe. There is no clarity in this freedom. There is no real guidance, either. Meghan, his savior, is pushing him back into the limelight.

Harry must fund his family's security or risk bringing Diana's fate upon Meghan and his children. The only way to save them is to sacrifice himself: to sell his story, to seek out the hated camera, to sit with the hated journalists, to dissolve himself in the flashbulbs, to be lost forever in their refractions, and join his mother. "Keeping people tuned to the show, that was the thing."

Like Hamlet, Harry has now hoist himself on his own petard, the hot wind of his rage and resentment. Like Hamlet, he will fall on his own poisoned sword. Harry, his father's dim, damaged, delusional, doomed "darling boy," has sold his family and his soul. Meghan and Moehringer have served him on a platter, like a roast swan at a royal banquet. There is no return after this, only the final act of the tragedy.

"All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with," the Fool tells King Lear. "Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away." William, not Harry, was born to be king. Harry, jealous and enraged, has turned himself from prince to fool. He has exchanged a prince's diadem, a life of service, and the love of his people for the hollowest of crowns, a career in reality television and the cover of People magazine.

Spare ends with the death of Elizabeth II. After the funeral, Diana sends Harry another animal messenger, a hummingbird. He cannot stop, and he does not want to. The deeper he goes, the closer he feels to her. He has placed himself inside the jackals' circle, and his fate will be hers. No one is spared in a revenge tragedy. Like Diana dying amid the halo of flashbulbs, Harry will understand when it is too late. The last in Diana's parade of spirit messengers will be the vultures.

Red Fox is in trouble.

by Prince Harry
Random House, 416 pp., $36

Dominic Green is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His latest book is The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898.