14 July 2017

Why Game of Thrones is really a battle of ideas


In the wake of the Brexit referendum, as the Conservative Party descended into a convulsion of backstabbing, there was only one comparison to make. This was, everyone from Metro to the New York Times agreed, a real-life Game of Thrones – complete with threats from Boris Johnson’s campaign manager to turn Michael Gove into a Theon Greyjoy (for the uninitiated: look it up, then wince).

It’s a measure of the trauma afflicting our politics that the go-to cultural comparison is no longer The West Wing, or even The Thick of It – it’s a series in which an entire continent is repeatedly laid waste by a series of squabbling, squalid warlords. Its creator, George RR Martin, even declared Donald Trump the spitting image of a grown-up King Joffrey. It wasn’t a compliment.

Yet as the TV series returns – the UK premiere airs on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on Monday at 2am, then again at 9pm – there’s something very obvious that people have missed. That I’d missed, until my friend Mark Forsyth pointed it out. Beyond the blood and magic and nudity, the story of Game of Thrones (the TV show) and A Song of Ice and Fire (the books) is not just about power. It’s about politics. And its central question is not “Who should sit on the Iron Throne?”, but “What is the nature of government?”

This may sound like a stretch – the equivalent of arguing that the series is secretly a parable about global warming, in which vast climatic forces doom the planet because selfish, bickering politicians can’t agree to cooperate. (Though now that you mention it…)

But to understand what I’m talking about, you have to understand how Martin works. (Warning: the following contains many, many spoilers – and if you’re not a fan of the series, it’s probably best to jump ship now.)

When it comes to his characters, the author uses a simple trick, over and over again: he puts them through a personally tailored hell. Bran is a boy who loves to climb – he loses the use of his legs. Jaime is the greatest knight in Westeros – he loses his hand. Brienne seeks a lord to be loyal to – and is powerless to prevent them being slaughtered. All Tyrion ever wants is the love of a woman, and of his father – so he finds the woman he loves in bed with his father.

For some characters, of course, Martin flips the script by giving them all they ever wanted. Sansa wants to marry her fairytale prince. Cersei wants to rid herself of her boorish husband and see her children crowned. Jon wants to be part of a band of brothers. In each case, the dream turns into a nightmare.

It is this narrative engine – seeing beloved characters suffer, and define themselves through suffering, and ultimately triumph – that is at the heart of the series’ appeal. But what few people have noticed is that Martin is doing the same thing to Westeros itself: he is testing its politics to destruction, in the name of ultimate redemption.

Martin’s inspiration, as he’s often said, is the Wars of the Roses. But those real-life wars were contests of dynasty rather than ideology: there were good kings and bad kings, but were all cut from pretty much the same constitutional (or unconstitutional) cloth.

Game of Thrones, by contrast, pits not just rulers against each other, but systems. Almost all the characters who rise to power, and fall from it, represents an archetype – a fundamental principle on which government could possibly be based.

This process starts even before the series begins. The Targaryens, who took the principle of divine right to the logical extent by marrying brother to sister, have collapsed into depravity. (As will Joffrey, the tyrannical boy-king born of another incestuous union.)

Next, Robert Baratheon has claimed the throne by force of arms. Robert’s defining attribute, the thing he most prides himself on, is his strength. But in the years since, he has not only run to fat but bankrupted the kingdom. Strength alone, clearly, is not enough.

Enter Ned Stark. In any other series, he would be the hero – or at least guaranteed a heroic death to set things up for his children to triumph. The value he represents, after all, is nobility: the age-old belief that we want and need our rulers to do the right thing. Yet in arguably his most shocking inversion of fictional norms, Martin exposes this as a childish delusion. Instead of cleaning out the Augean stables, Ned chokes on their filth – ending up with his head on a spike, and his beloved family brutalised.

This, however, is only the start of it. Stannis bases his claim to the throne on his legal right. Renly, on his charismatic appeal. The Gordon Brown of the Baratheon family lasts longer than the Tony Blair – but both come undone, one rather more rapidly than the other. Robb is more traditionally virtuous: both valorous and righteous. But he too suffers the most brutal of deaths.

This process of political threshing and winnowing is utterly remorseless. But it is not just about the claimants to the Iron Throne, though. In every part of Westeros, and beyond, there are characters who embody a different approach to power.

The Boltons, and in particular Ramsay, rule by cruelty and fear – only to find that it is not quite enough. Tywin Lannister is the master of realpolitik – but transgresses the norms (such as guest-right) on which society’s stability depends. Daenerys, in her earlier incarnations, attempts to govern via mercy and compassion – and pays a heavy price for her naivety.

As the series has gone on, and the political convulsions affecting Westeros have destabilised the established order, Martin has been able to widen his scope far beyond his medieval inspiration. King’s Landing witnessed the rise of the High Sparrow – a small epic in the seductions of fundamentalism, and its ultimate inhumanity. Judging by the closing scenes of the most recent TV series, that regime may well be replaced by the Westerosi equivalent of a police state, with Qyburn as Cersei’s Beria.

What matters here is that Martin is not just conjuring these characters and regimes into existence for the sake of it. It’s hard to pick up in the TV series, which can’t help but lend the blood and gore a quasi-pornographic tinge, but the books set out in excruciating detail the damage which this posturing and selfishness, all these political blind alleys, has wrought.

Perhaps the best example is Arya’s flight from King’s Landing with the orphans in his second book, across a pillaged and devastated landscape. The Lannister knights who savage the countryside are far more monstrous, Martin makes clear, than any number of magical White Walkers.

So what values does Martin actually endorse? He has scant time, it is clear, for the patriarchy: it is notable that Westeros is teeming with male-only orders (the maesters, the Watch) which fall far short of their ideals.

Martin does, of course, respect the value of money. The most fearsome force in the books, short of the rampaging dragons and evil ice zombies, is the Iron Bank of Braavos, which holds rulers across the world by the short and curlies. It is money that keeps the soldiers armed and the smallfolk fed. Tywin Lannister is feared and respected not for his courage, but for his near-infinite wealth.

But money alone, as Martin makes clear, is not enough. Like all the other contenders for power, those who depend on wealth alone are soon humbled. This is the story that plays out in the east, as Daenerys leads her insurgency against the oligarchs who have turned slavery into an extraordinarily lucrative lifestyle.

It is a tribute to Martin’s writing, and the coherence of the world he has created, that a wealth of economists (which should definitely be the collective noun) have analysed the finances of Westeros. And what many have pointed out is that the economy, like its medieval forebear, is based on extraction rather than exchange.

In this world, rulers seek money because of the armaments it will buy them, not because trade will make their nations and citizens richer: symbolically, the Lannisters’ great riches come from mining, not trading (and equally symbolically, it is Littlefinger, the character who represents pure self-interest, who plunges the kingdom into debt and debases the coinage). Even the Iron Bank is less an engine of credit than an old-fashioned moneylender. Its clients are kings, not start-ups.

So what does Martin actually believe – other than that Westeros is in desperate need of an Adam Smith of its own?

The best answer comes from two of his favourite characters, Varys and Tyrion – realists who cannot stop themselves being idealists.

In a famous exchange, which the author has said is one of the most important in the books, the eunuch poses the dwarf a riddle:

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”.

Varys’s answer to this is that “power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” (Though it presumably helps if you have a dragon on call.)

But there’s another way of looking at it. That riddle also describes the exact process I’ve just been talking about. Each of these forms of authority – monarchy, theocracy, plutocracy – is examined in the course of the books, and each is found wanting.

Martin’s real preference, I would argue, is revealed in another on-the-nose conversation between Varys and Tyrion (taken from the TV series, admittedly, rather than the books).

“What is it you want, exactly?” Varys asks. Tyrion responds: “Peace. Prosperity. A land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless.” “Where castles are made of gingerbread and moats are filled with blackberry wine,” scoffs Varys.

Yet it’s the same dream he too has been working towards – he seeks a Targaryen restoration not out of dynastic loyalty, but for the good of the many.

And this is the manifesto that Daenerys takes up. In a rousing speech (again in the TV series) before launching her invasion of Westeros, she pronounces: “Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell, they’re all just spokes on a wheel.  This one’s on top and that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

The point about the Game of Thrones, in other words, is that it’s rigged: the only way to win is not to play. That’s because Martin’s series is ultimately an examination not of power, but of selfishness – of what happens when the laws and institutions and values that sustain a society break down, and of what kind of laws and institutions and values make that society worth saving.

If Martin’s story is a reimagining of the Wars of the Roses (even his world map is just Britain turned upside down) then Daenerys looks set to be the Henry Tudor role – the monarch who finally delivers peace.

The last of the Targaryens has certainly learnt to temper optimism with realism. But if she gets to sit on the Iron Throne, it will not be because she has the most power, but the most wisdom – because she and Tyrion and Varys have finally learned the lesson Martin has been trying to teach his characters about the responsibility that the strong owe to the weak.

And because she’s got dragons. Obviously.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX