As talked about in my previous article, the world of a Song of Ice and Fire is a bleak and depressingly realistic one. A lot of people have compared this saga to that of Lord of the Rings and other epics, the reality of Game of Thrones is a lot more complicated.
Tolkien’s main works were inspired by English and European history and folklore, alongside his own trauma in World War One. But while many take away his classic black and white world as being optimistic, in the grand scheme of things it’s quite bleak. The world of Lord of the Rings is that of one in constant degradation. Each age is worse off than the last, less pure. Evil is only vanquished temporarily, destined to rise up again. Conflict is cyclical and those who face it are never the same afterwards.
The world of Game of Thrones is understandably a lot bleaker than this. While Tolkien channelled the anxieties of his generation, so too does George R. R. Martin. The only difference being that Martin’s works channel a much more nuanced view of both history and human nature as a whole.
If you were to break up the series into it’s most basic components it would be; power, tradition and the uncontrollable- each component influences the other, but the latter and the prior often oppose each other.
Power, as Varys describes; “resides where men believe it does” power and authority are ideas that the populace believes in. It’s ingrained into the societal hierarchy via class, which is maintained mostly through a sense of tradition. Each class has those who reside a sense of authority. When Tyrion (in the books) was enslaved as he travelled through Esos towards Mereen, he commented how even slaves have their own kind of hierarchy. Those who bully the ones weaker than them so that they can exercise some kind of limited authority.
If you have enough power you can subside tradition. Characters such as Varys and Petyr Baelish are examples of the poorest, lowest of commoners who through their respective talents manage to climb the ladder and reach the highest of positions. Varys through the power of collecting secrets has become spymaster while Petyr after becoming an elite merchant earns the title of treasurer.
But no matter how much power you hold, there is certain things that cannot be denied. Petyr Baelish can never sit on the Iron Throne because of his social position. Likewise the absolute power of the Iron Throne is limited only by wealth. If the throne is a means to reach the sky, then the Iron Bank acts as a glass ceiling. Robert Baratheon’s rule was almost entirely funded by Tywin Lannister, who in turn manipulated the courts in such a way that power practically fell into his hands when Robert passed.
The Lannister’s wealth resides in gold, the Tyrell’s in food and the other houses are left to catch up in any way they can. But the way power can come to tarnish tradition is made quite evident. While the Starks in the North are not as wealthy or as powerful as their southern counterparts, they are more honourable. This code of honour makes Ned Stark especially unqualified in the politics of King’s Landing.
If Ned is an example of a nobleman with a high sense of honour, then Tywin is the opposite. He remained neutral in Robert’s Rebellion, only summoning his forces to sack Kings Landing- even lying to the King, saying that he was there to defend them. To make matters worse he helped orchestrate the Red Wedding, enacting upon one of the nations greatest taboos; killing a guest in your own home.
Tywin respects only power and reaffirming the social structure that allows him to exert that power. That means reaffirming both classism and sexism, which can be seen in the way he treats both Tyrion and Cersei. In the case of his son, he takes him aside after finding him planning to elope with a peasant girl.
He reveals that this peasant girl was actually a prostitute that he had his brother Jaime introduce him to in this elaborate plot. Tywin then forces Tyrion to watch on in horror as he brings the girl in and has the guards have sex with her right in front of him. Each guard gave her a silver coin, afterwards Tywin had Tyrion sleep with her- this time having her paid by a gold coin.
The lesson was to signify the differences between their social position. That Tyrion was a Lannister and a Lannister has no business consorting with a peasant, or a whore. It’s later revealed that this girl wasn’t actually a prostitute, that there was no intricate plot between Jaime and Tywin. That Tyrion genuinely did fall in love with a peasant girl. So instead of watching these guards pay her for a service, Tyrion was basically subjected to watching Tywin’s soldiers rape the woman he loved over and over again.
The only thing that remains more powerful in this world than classism is sexism. In the lower classes this version of sexism is often more crude an violent, with most soldiers and peasants indulging in brothels and during times of conflict- rape. Arya is disguised as a boy when she journeys through Westeros in fear of this. The appeal to the Unsullied is that when they sack a city, they will not rape its inhabitants. The same cannot be said for other armies such as the Dothraki, who are effectively paid in this brutality.
In the higher classes women are treated as goods and services used to unite households via marriage. Cersei was promised to two different Kings, Rhaegar and Robert. The prior ended up marrying a Martell and the other is, well, Robert. Robert Baratheon is often beloved by fans but when you really look at him, and I mean really look at him, he’s an objectively terrible person.
He’s a bully, which can be exhibited by the way he treats Lancel. He’s a neglectful and bad father, one of the reasons that Joffrey turned into such a hateful person. He’s a drunkard and a rapist, often times forcing himself onto Cersei when he feels like it. His best years were violent and crude, he’s a bad guy- no wonder Cersei tried to kill him.
Cersei herself is one of the most vile villains in the series, overseeing the murder of hundreds and the torture of many- both innocent and guilty. It’s easy to hate her but when you do get her perspective on things, it’s hard not to pity her. As a member of the ruling class her power should be unlimited, but because of her gender there is a glass ceiling.
She’s forced to degrade herself with sexual favours to gain loyalty, whether it be from the head of the Kingsguard in the books or with Euron Greyjoy in the show. She’s often used as a pawn, a commodity, by Tywin who seeks to marry her off to anyone who would take her. She dedicates so much attention in trying to retain her power by whatever means necessary and she ends up hurting both herself and the people she cares about in her state of paranoia. It’s pitiful.
Danaerys mirrors her experiences as she was subjected to sexual abuse by her older brother, later sold off to Khal Drogo- who in the show straight up raped her. Ever since then she’s been trying gain as much power as possible, often times with success that comes at a cost- such as political turmoil. It seems the only reason Danaerys succeeds while Cersei fails is because she doesn’t have any dragons.
This limitation of seemingly limitless power is enforced by tradition, meaning that a woman cannot rule alone. The way these patriarchal and hierarchical structures develop in the first place is quite fascinating.
I first learned, or at least first understood, how these structures originated while playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. This session was a based on civilisation, a strategy game in which a player is given a society at its inception and has to build these people up until they become a kingdom. Game play will have the player span over entire generations of people as they develop their tribe into a village, then a town, then a city- a country and even maybe an empire- all the while competing against rival peoples.
We start out in this continent, each player is stationed in a different area with different resources. Some have plenty of land for crops, some have an abundance of gold. Trade relations begin soon and growth follows with it. Conflict occurs when invading forces appear and you’re forced to defend yourself, but mostly it is as a result of other players expanding into more territories.
To avoid the possibility of losing you have to make conflict pointless. You get trade agreements that are sealed with marriage. You assert a social hierarchy that is reaffirmed by an accepted mythos, a religion that conveniently places you on top of that hierarchy. To ease tensions between former enemies, you need a scape goat. You place these concerns on an anxiety on the unknown; such as peoples who live over the mountain on the unexplored areas.
Me and the other players decided to tease another player who was stationed on this small island away from the mainland. We joked about holding this prejudice against his people, but soon enough it got out of hand and we found ourselves trying to harm them at any given opportunity. Each time a member of our royal families gave birth to a daughter we aired our frustrations and then immediately tried to sell them off like cattle.
The session lasted about five hours and it took longer than I’m proud to admit for me to stop dead mid game and say “wait…did we just create a patriarchy?” it was a scary revelation for me because I had gotten so carried away in the power struggles of this tiny little world that I forgot what I was engaging in was completely unethical.
The people raised in this kind of structure aren’t necessarily evil, but they are raised in a world where evil is actively ignored or applauded. In the case of Bronn, he reflects the reality that this social hierarchy creates sociopaths.
Hungry for wealth of his own, Bronn has become an elite killer. A violent and traumatic childhood ensured that he had a skill for fighting and the lack of empathy to be good at it. While Robert and other noblemen learn that “men shit themselves when they die” when they were adults, Bronn learned it when he was five.
Through Bronn we’re reminded that tradition, the belief that power resides in specific people because it is god given, is ultimately a farce. In the final season of the show he makes this really good rant on the matter;
“Who were your ancestors? The ones who made your family rich? Fancy lads in silk? They were fucking cutthroats. That’s how all the great houses started, isn’t it? With a hard bastard who was good at killing people. Kill a few hundred people, they make you a lord. Kill a few thousand, they make you a King.”
When you break it down, lordship, house loyalty- it’s all quite absurd. Picture it. You’re a peasant boy in Riverrun, never picked up a sword in your life, never even been in a proper fight. One day some guy from the North, who you’ve never met, gets his head cut off by a guy down south. Now you’re expected to go off and die in a battle for someone you’ve never met on behalf of a man who barely even recognises you as a person. How does that even make sense?
No one suffers more in Westeros than the peasants. After Tywin Lannister has his forces burn and pillage all the crops in the country, a famine soon ensues. The hunger and sickness of the poor forces them to head to the capital for food and safety. Along the way they are radicalised by religious fanatics who seeks to assert their dominance over the entire kingdom.
It seems like one of the only laws in Westeros that is unbreakable is Murphy’s law; Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
With man made ideas comes man made problems. Political squabbles, religious fundamentalism, war- all of these things, no matter how difficult, are ultimately controllable. What is not controllable however is the weather. You can halt an army, hold peace with your enemies- but you cannot stop Winter.
The greatest anxiety that Martin channels is our fear of climate change and our failure at handling it. Through the imagery of the Night King’s army, we see this uncontrollable terror that makes all the politics of Westeros seem rather trivial. The Wildlings fleeing to southern lands mirror our world’s own climate refugees, the Night’s Watch reflect our futile attempts at holding the peace between our own conflicts and Armageddon.
When trying to unite the Southern houses, Jon Snow heads beyond the wall to capture a wight and bring it all the way to Kings Landing. Irrefutable proof that the army of the dead are on their way. Everyone pledges their support, but Cersei cunningly lies and holds her forces at bay- holding onto her own power, even if it costs her everything.
It would have been out of character for Cersei to help the Starks, even when presented with irrefutable proof of a threat. But this decision represents more than just her diabolical character. It reflects the greed of our own world, placing the burden of saving the world onto others when it’s really a team effort.
I’m a believer in what Hank Green thinks of Climate Change. Meaning that I don’t think that it will be the end of us, but I do think that if we don’t deal with with now it will cost us more later. Both financially and humanely, it will cost us more. There is no way in stopping global warming, all we can do now is engage in some damage control.
Which is what makes the final season of Game of Thrones so disappointing. Because the point of this existential threat is that it can’t just be defeated in one battle, it can only be held back. It’s the responsibility of the realm to hold the Night King at bay. The gradual decline of the Nights Watch is the neglect of that responsibility.
To battle this kind of threat it will cost everything, a huge sacrifice, something that would change the way people live forever. The reality of this situation cannot be amended so easily just by one big battle.
The world of Ice and Fire is a cold one. Where conflict is rife due to constant power struggles. Where women are abused and used as commodities. Where the lower classes are used as canon fodder and as props in the surge of religious fundamentalism. Where when faced with a gargantuan existential threat, humanity can be trusted to squabble and bicker- every time.
The reality of Game of Thrones touches too close to home, which is why George R. R. Martin is one of the greatest fantasy writers of our time.