This post contains spoilers for all books in “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the entire series to date of “Game of Thrones.”
“There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals, and families.”
“I am yours. And you are mine.”
-Ygritte to Jon Snow; Shae to Tyrion; Osha to Bruni (referenced)
You guys. “Game of Thrones” has been so good this season.
The third book is the finest, narratively speaking, but what’s been particularly impressive about the show is how they’ve managed to retain the suspense and momentum of the plotting while drawing out some philosophical differences between characters which only become truly apparent in the fourth and fifth novels – and on which the show, much like George RR Martin himself, seems to have a weighted opinion.
The most obvious example of this is Varys. At the end of the recent episode “The Climb,” Littlefinger speechified to Varys about the nature of social chaos: it is a ladder, an opportunity one must climb to the lonely peak. We didn’t get to hear Varys’s rejoinder to this tedious bit of on-the-nose monologuing, but in the books we find it much later, when he commits murder in order to bring to Westeros a stable, knowledgeable ruler. Varys, after all, believes in the realm, the well-being of an abstract polity which has real-world implications for its members. Littlefinger believes only in Littlefinger.
Of course, Littlefinger has recourse which Varys does not. Petyr Baelish is off to wed Lysa Arryn, to improve his station and enrich his power through marriage, tapping old family connections for the social climb. Varys, a eunuch from a foreign land, cannot rely on any such network – he has built his own network, to be sure, of misfits and the underappreciated, a web of listeners and informants running all the way to the Wall. As Littlefinger pontificates on the false mythology of “the realm”, the camera gives lie to his selfish calculation, visiting Jon Snow and Ygritte on top of that great icy edifice and showing us the miles of Westeros to its south.
The realm, it turns out, is quite real.
As Jon and Ygritte embrace one another passionately at the top of the world, those who have read the books (and many of those who are only watching the series, but who sense that this can’t end well) know that there is another lie at work: the lie of love as the ultimate security. Earlier in the episode, Ygritte counsels Jon to give up his lingering loyalty to the Nights’ Watch; they don’t care if he lives or dies, she says, just as King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder doesn’t care if she lives or dies. As a couple, they can care about one another; they can matter, in a way that larger forces will never recognize. It is, essentially, an argument about familial primacy, the idea that, once committed to one another, no priority can ever be greater. Ultimately, Jon Snow betrays this trust, fighting on the opposite side to Ygritte in battle, his dedication to the larger cause of Westeros greater than his devotion to his girlfriend. In fact, every couple we encounter on the show who utters the phrase of ultimate devotion – “I am yours. And you are mine.” – meets a terrible end. Between Jon and Ygritte, Tyrion and Shae, and Osha and Bruni, we must wonder if the repetition of those seven fateful words illustrate a larger point about the futility of commitment when larger forces are at work.
For the most glaring example of that futility, we need look no further than the series’ central set of heroes, the Stark family. Scattered beyond communication, patriarch dead, the Starks demonstrate – or fulfill – the falseness of the Thatcherite formulation, again and again. Sansa and Arya, in particular, survive not because of individual generosity or family connections, but as a consequence of larger social currents, their value determined by the status of their brother’s war. Robb has imprisoned his mother and is forcing his uncle to marry as a penance for his own mistake: by what sense of “family” is this appropriate, if not for the societal consequence of his war and declared kingship? An uncle does not usually take orders from a nephew, but a bannerman must from a king.
The best deconstruction of the value of family, however, is undoubtedly the Lannisters. Tywin Lannister is preoccupied with nothing more than family: he has devoted his entire life, and his considerable wealth, to the preservation of his family’s name, reputation, and power. In the process he has alienated all of his children, driving his daughter to an exquisite paranoia and his younger son, eventually, to patricide. Putting family before all else – using the realm to serve his family, rather than the other way around – has, for the Lannisters, led to the destruction of both family and realm.
There are no unproblematic heroes in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” but those who are most sympathetic are those with consciences somewhat more modern than their contemporaries or, indeed, than Margaret Thatcher. Jon Snow is murdered by some of his enemies within the Nights’ Watch, but only after making some radical alliances and strategic reforms with the potential to permanently alter the political geography of the North towards a more egalitarian, less tribalist position. Daenerys Targaryen becomes an emancipator as much as a conquistador, which can seem diversionary (particularly in the fifth novel) but which actually contains a powerful lesson for the Mother of Dragons: through her anti-slavery crusading she comes to recognize that rulers have an impact on their subjects, that governance is about more than simply title or right but about the structure of society itself; that laws have value, and that – while “individuals” and “families” might be the dominant constructs of power and social organization at this point in time – it is in fact incumbent upon something larger, upon society itself, to determine how those individuals and families are organized and how much power they can wield. In Mereen, Daenerys grapples with the implications of this realization without much success; the details of a medievalist fantasy differ from contemporary political reality but the debates are underpinned by the same fundamental concerns of rights, responsibilities, and social participation. Contrast this with Tywin Lannister, often seen as ruthless but effective in his leadership, a man whose perception of Westerosi society is of teeming masses to be constrained so that their labor might be most efficiently exploited, their value fully extracted for the benefit of the tiny, ruling elite. The cost of Tywin’s effectiveness is the oppression of the masses and an inability to respond with anything other than violence when members of the non-elite classes react to the brutality of his policies.
Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion – whose political enlightenment shows its limits in the fifth novel, but who is still philosophically advanced for his era – share a certain crucial quality in their heritage: all come from great privilege, but are nonetheless outsiders. Tyrion might be a Lannister, but his dwarfishness has bred a certain amount of empathy. Jon Snow grew up in Winterfell, but as a bastard he sees less value in maintaining all the traditional values of Westeros than many of his colleagues. Daenerys has perhaps the greatest investment in restructuring society, for among the Targaryens, women never ruled; a civil war was fought over the question of gendered succession, and the loss of the distaff side held for three hundred years. If Daenerys simply re-imports Targaryen rule to the Iron Throne without changing its character in certain deep ways, she will invariably be the victim of her own success, married off and then usurped by husband or children. Cersei’s mistake all along has been to believe in the inviolability of her own ambition, in the idea that her own individual or familial power would become so great that she could ever be beyond the reach of society; Daenerys’s great insight is that such a circumstance is impossible, particularly for a woman, and so she must bend society as well.
The other alternative would be to manipulate society, without altering it permanently. The most well-adjusted individuals and family in the entire series are probably the Tyrells, and the Queen of Thorns is right up there with Scully as my favorite fictional character of all time (those who knew me in high school are aware that there is quite literally no higher praise I can offer). Lady Olenna and her granddaughter have maximized their position through a manipulation of Thatcher’s position so complete that it is a veritable refutation. As lords of the Reach, the breadbasket of Westeros, the Tyrells’ value to society at large is quite apparent, but they do not stop at simply feeding the masses – as the book references and the show makes quite explicit, Margaery becomes a sort of Princess Diana-figure, visiting orphans in Flea Bottom and earning the love of the commoners by seeing them as more than just bodies for exploitation. The idea of a government providing services and attention to the lower-class people of King’s Landing, with consequences of mutual benefit for both government and populace, is absolutely radical within the context of the Westerosi monarchy – and it is also the most basic philosophical underpinning of the modern welfare state, in which the provision of minimal economic security ensures social stability and, and as a result, increases economic output. Cersei finds Margaery threatening on a personal level, but her distrust isn’t, ideologically, wrong – if the Tyrell vision of society flourishes then the legacy of Tywin Lannister will come to seem as brutal and exploitive as it was.
Much as Margaery’s popularity in King’s Landing is largely fueled by the oppressions suffered at the hands of other leaders – Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin – Princess Diana’s rise in the hearts and minds of Britons was also in contrast to the destructive policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who sought to strip from society all of its promises and protections, leaving the working classes in downward competition. By virtue of luck Thatcher (like Reagan) happened to be in power while the Soviet Union was imploding, and so her name – like Reagan’s – has come to be linked, oddly, with the triumph of democracy, rather a historical accident for one who purported not even to believe in the polity she represented. Littlefinger, to be sure, would have been a Thatcherite, seeing nothing but opportunity in her trail of institutional destruction, just as he finds opportunity in the regime of Joffrey and Tywin Lannister that he could never know under Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryan, or the Tyrells.
Despite the long common history of the Seven Kingdoms, Westeros is still very much of an emerging political identity, its people identifying more as Northerners or Southerners or Iron Islanders (or Dornish!) than Westerosi. That a narrative about its power struggles should focus on the fragility of its developing society and nascent institutions is not surprising; that the frailty of family and the destructiveness of self-interest are given even more weight is, however, fairly rare. Embedded in characterizations of hubris and naivete, arrogance and ambition, the latter’s influence on the storyline can be harder to detect. Again, it falls to Varys – and the Queen of Thorns – to provide the most complete argument for the importance of durable society and social institutions, discussing the most honorable individual in the entire series, Ned Stark. “I was an admirer of [his],” says Varys. “Ned Stark had many admirers,” Lady Olenna responds. “And how many stepped forward when the executioner came for his head?”
Individuals and families are necessary ingredients for a just and fair society, but they are insufficient. Society is not just its constituents but the power dynamics and institutions which operate among those constituents; decent individuals and families still get disrupted every day in East Oakland by the police, an authority which continues to operate as it does only because of sanction by (white, powerful) society. Ned Stark lost his head not because he had failed as an individual, and not because his family had failed, but because of a failure of society – because of the fundamental injustice allowable in an absolute monarchy. No individual and no family is sufficiently powerful to not only unseat a king but to change the form of government altogether – for that people must work in concert, collectively, as a society. Indeed, it is the only way that individuals and families have ever made true and lasting progress.