Actual medieval life was boring. What gives George R.R. Martin's blockbuster fantasy series its spark is not historical accuracy but rather the author's imagination.
As compelling as HBO's Deadwood is, it only gestures at the historical forces that shaped the real-world Old West: military conquest, industrialization, and ethnic conflict. Complex phenomena such as those undercut the notion of the individual taking control of his or her own destiny, a trope at the heart of this, and every other, Western.
Hollywood representations of the mob often paint gangsters' stories as dark but familiar versions of the American dream: the outsider's acquisition of wealth and respect. Such whitewashes make for terrible history, but as HBO's Nucky Thompson would say, "never let truth get in the way of a good story.
Showtime's blockbuster series is great television, but not a useful guide to real-world homeland security. Hint: we always tap the suspect's cell phone.
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) in the HBO series Game of Thrones. (Moonladymusings)
Commentary by foreign policy analysts on the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones stressed its supposed underlying theme of political realism. Thus one writer claimed that the TV show and the George R.R. Martin novels on which it is based "clearly demonstrate the power of might over right," and another agreed: "In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior." But a closer look of Game of Thrones suggests a different take.
To be sure, life in Westeros is poor, nasty, brutish and short, and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' television program are laced with Hobbesian metaphors, Machiavellian intrigues, and Carr-like calculations of power. But the deeper message is that realism alone is unsatisfying and unsuccessful -- that leaders disregard ethical norms, the needs of their small-folk, and the natural world at their own peril. Jockeying for power by self-interested actors produces not a stable balance but suboptimal chaos; gamesmanship and the pursuit of short-term objectives distracts players from the truly pressing issues of human survival and stability.
On the surface, ethical norms and honor receive short shrift in the series. Norms -- collective beliefs about the proper behavior of actors -- are sometimes invoked, but usually only to foreshadow or bemoan their violation. [Spoiler Alert] Thus the first book, and season, begins with Ned Stark explaining to his son the proper rules governing executions -- and ends with Stark being executed improperly for his naiveté. But much of the characters' behavior is in fact rule-bound: Catelyn could not have captured Tyrion without her father's banner-men following norms of fealty, and Tyrion could not have escaped her grasp had norms of the "kings' justice" not trumped Lysa's desire for an execution (and Catelyn's desire to retain a hostage). Even powerful characters sometimes follow rules to their own short-term detriment and frustration.
Social relations in Westeros are sustained as much through bread-breaking rituals, arranged marriages, and promise-keeping as through backstabbing and treachery, and the power of such rules is only highlighted by their occasional breach. Lords and kings no less than oath-breakers are punished for violating custom and agreement -- either explicitly or through the inability to convert their hard power into material successes. Contrary to Cersei's assertion, kings cannot always "do as they like": Ned and the chivalry he represented may appear to have been the loser at the end of book and season one, but Joffrey's disregard for basic standards of justice will return to haunt him as it did his predecessors. The true moral of the story is that when good rules are disregarded, disorder and ruin follow -- just as Thucydides' story of Melos, some argue, when paired with his description of Pericles' death and Athens' fall, is meant to suggest that the gains that power achieves without justice cannot endure.
In Westeros, as in our world, norms exert power both by creating incentives for certain behaviors and by defining identities -- which in turn shape people's motivations, interests, and strategies. By following the rules and norms of the Night's Watch, ordinary criminals are reconstituted as protectors of the realm. Distinctive cultural norms surrounding death, sex, cuisine, and travel are what distinguish the Dothraki from Westerosi, not simply ethnicity. Power and norms together are what determine outcomes, in short, and the wisest actors are those who understand how to use both.
Discarding realism's exclusive focus on the powerful, Game of Thrones pays attention to all sectors of society, including those at the bottom. Martin uses many plot devices to force viewers to see the world of the elites through the eyes of stewards, prostitutes, bastards, and dwarfs. Even seemingly marginalized characters are forced to reflect on their own relative privilege, as when Tyrion calls Jon out for whining over his illegitimacy and Bran for sulking about his disability when they have been bred in castles.
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