BY KEVIN HACK (Guest Contributor)
“Game of Thrones,” the television series and pop culture phenomenon, along with “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy fiction series that inspired it, tell a story that is fundamentally of politics in its most personal, primeval and brutal forms. Newcomers to the fantasy genre, prior to the rise of George R.R. Martin’s fantastical reinterpretation of the historical War of the Roses in 15th century England, likely associated the genre with the moralist stories of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or perhaps darker sword and sorcery novels, most notably Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series. Unlike the Low or High fantasy settings, Westeros and Essos assign no morality to power. In doing so, its story is a space for the discussion of morals. But where morals may differ, twist, bend, and break, the accumulation and leverage of power are absolute. And the distribution of power is by definition the study of politics, a familiar field to us here at SAIS.
Starting with the Starks, the series’ protagonists, this separation of power and morals is perhaps most pertinent. The Starks are the idealists in all of us, and like their ignorant idealism, it is either beaten into oblivion by the harsh realities of the world or forged by necessity into something more pragmatic. Ned Stark, an outsider from the isolated North, descends upon King’s Landing and attempts to impose fiscal austerity and opposition to the “corrupt” domination of the realm by the wealthy Lannisters. Ned Stark, the new Hand of the King is received about as well as the IMF’s structural adjustment programs. Like so many foreigners attempting to set the developing world on the right path, Ned is far too concerned with what the realm should be to consider how to make the best of what actually is. Ned is uncompromising in his honor and the realm is uncompromising with him.
While there is certainly more to explore in the ethical implications of Ned Stark’s political failures and the subsequent tales of his unfortunate offspring, the story’s most compelling and complex characters lie beyond the simplistic protagonists of the former Lords of Winterfell. None make this clearer than the Lannisters, particularly Tywin and his daughter, Cersei. Tywin, the greatest politician in Westeros, masters the art of political leverage. His armies, despite failing in the face of the upstart general Robb Stark, are ultimately victorious against the North after brutal deception at the Red Wedding, while simultaneously thwarting the assault of veteran general Stannis Baratheon on King’s Landing. Tywin is a master of effective coalition building, undermining his enemies while creating loyal allies. Some, such as the Freys and the Boltons, live in both debt and fear, while others, like the Tyrells, engage in quiet competition. Ironically, for every success Tywin ensures, there is a mirrored failure by his children in the wake of his death. Where Tywin enriched allies, Cersei empowers the violent extremism of the Faith of the Seven.
But perhaps the most blatantly familiar demonstration of an abuse of political power comes from everyone’s favorite character, Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys’s immense political influence and power stem from her dragons that are, strategically, the closest thing Essos has to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). And, like anyone who really shouldn’t have WMDs, Daenerys doesn’t really know how they work or sometimes, where they even are. Daenerys uses the immense power her dragons offer to impose her own morality on a series of cities engaged in the slave trade, which while certainly deplorable from a modernist view of what is clearly not a modern society, also basically fueled the entire economy of the southern half of that continent. Daenerys shows an inability to transform political power into popular support, especially when she ruined the lives of thousands to ensure that other thousands could live in continued misery, but with subjectively valuable freedom, namely the freedom to rage a violent campaign of reprisals against their former masters. Daenerys learns, through tragedy, how carefully balanced the application and threat of violence must be to ensure the stability of states. In her fervor to defeat her newfound enemies, she presumes too much of her “allies” and, in her campaign of “liberation”, she fails at the task of actual statecraft.
This only begins to scratch the surface of “Game of Thrones” and its very real connection to the modern political world. While we may not necessarily be as scared of the dead coming back to life and invading Minnesota, it tells an intriguing and heavy story of choices, consequences, morality and most importantly: power.