a final final take on game of thrones

I was honestly intending for my last post on this topic to be, well, my last post on this topic. But then I realised I hadn’t actually talked about the political situation at the end of the series.

Oh, but before that, one other totally unrelated thing that’s bugging me. A lot of people are comparing the death of Qyburn in episode five to Frankenstein being killed by his own creation. Except … I mean … I’m pretty sure that Frankenstein isn’t killed by his own creation. Doesn’t he die of exposure at the North Pole? Like I seem to recall that’s up there with “the creator not the monster” in terms of fairly commonly known things about Frankenstein.

But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. The weird link I made in my head that took me there was that people keep making throwaway comments about Qyburn’s death being Frankenstein-like, and I keep going “hang on, wut?” And I keep tripping up similarly over people’s responses to the political resolution we’re offered for Westeros at the end of S8E6. Because they tend to fall into two categories: “this is a step towards democracy, which while incremental is a step in the right direction” and “this is too small a step towards democracy, which means it doesn’t go far enough in the right direction.”

And people sort of toss this into their discussions like it’s a given—they just blithely refer to the situation as “quasi democratic” when it’s … not. People also sometimes make throwaway references to Magna Carta which … well … it’s sort of a complicated document and something people talk about in the abstract a lot more than the specific. And if we assume that the Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be roughly analogous to the Wars of the Roses (roughly 1455-1485) then we should be well past the era of the Magna Carta (1215-ish depending on which version you’re talking about). Not that it’s particularly clear what the laws of Westeros even are, especially with reference to the kinds of things that real social reform would require in a medieval setting which is … not of interest to the general public. Magna Carta, for example, includes such thrilling clauses as “All fish-weirs are in future to be entirely removed from the Thames and the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea-coast”, and “There is to be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale, and one measure of corn, namely the quarter of London, and one breadth of dyed, russet and haberget cloths, that is, two ells within the borders; and let weights be dealt with as with measures”. Plus some parts of Magna Carta were deeply regressive, like  “no man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband.”

The problem we have here is essentially that Game of Thrones very effectively challenged the fantasy tradition of treating monarchy as an unproblematic system of government, but never really did the groundwork for exploring how it could be replaced. And this isn’t because the show was rushed, it’s because the show always kind of had its cake and ate it on the whole “monarchy is shitty” thing. Varys rather sanctimoniously wonders “why is it always the innocents who suffer when you high lords play your game of thrones” but the show isn’t really interested in what’s going on with the smallfolk, or really with the machinery of governance at all (also it is fucking called Game of Thrones). Dany’s “Break the Wheel” rhetoric is actually a perfect encapsulation of this—both the characters and the show only ever really pay attention to the commoners when they’re making grand abstract points about freedom, but that’s not what makes a kingdom better. What makes a kingdom better is somebody sitting down and saying “you know, it’s pretty annoying that ordinary people don’t have standardised weights and measures for things they use in their daily lives”.

And of course we aren’t going to get that. Nobody would watch a long-form fantasy TV show in which after a long and bloody civil war, a climactic battle against death itself, and the destruction by dragonfire of a major city, the highlords gather together and say “this is terrible, we must make certain that nothing of the kind ever occurs again, and also I HAVE SOME STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT FISHING WEIRS.” So instead we get a set of slightly peculiar markers that are designed to signal progress to a modern audience by pushing buttons that we ourselves associate with modernity in ways that would be wholly different in a Westerosi context.

We start off with Sam’s attempt to full on invent democracy, which is laughed down by the assembled lords. And that whole sequence feels misjudged to me. For a start, I know there was a time skip but we’re at most a couple of months away from the complete destruction of the capital and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Now isn’t the time to be cracking wise. And the whole way the idea is introduced just feels massively metatextual. The framing is that we, the audience, are supposed to know that full participatory democracy is the “right” answer but that the lords of Westeros are too backwards to realise that. This ignores … so much. I suppose there was no Athens analogue in the World of Ice and Fire (which is somewhat facetiously known in the fandom as “Planetos”) so it’s not like in the real world where democracy would be a very well documented phenomenon. But why doesn’t Yara Greyjoy stand up and say “actually, that’s how we do it in the Iron Islands” (following the real model of Nordic countries, the kings of the Iron Islands are elected at something called the Kingsmoot, which is a much bigger deal in the books than in the show where, like, ten people show up to it). It’s not like anybody voices any of the thousands of very reasonable objections one could have to participatory democracy in a world where communicating from one side of the kingdom to another takes months, where most people are illiterate, where wealth and landowning are still entirely hereditary and, let’s not forget, people are still allowed to maintain private armies.

They eventually settle on the idea of a king being chosen by … well it isn’t really clear and obviously isn’t clear to the actual people present at the actual event (Davos even expresses uncertainty about whether he gets a vote) but essentially a small clique of powerful noblemen. And actually that is at least a fairly reasonable and stable system in the sense that, going forward, it can be fairly easily defined: give one vote to each of the constituent kingdoms except the Crownlands, and you have a nice small electorate who you can bring together fairly conveniently. Basically they transition the kingdom from a hereditary monarchy to an elective monarchy, which is … fine in a sense. Except that the show frames this change as (a) a step towards democracy, which it isn’t and (b) a clear improvement on the previous system, which it also isn’t.

I’m going to start with point (a). One of the biggest mistakes we make (and we make it because it is made so easily) when looking at history (disclaimer, I am a world away from being a historian) is to view it as having a single clear trajectory. You start with all the power in the hands of one king, and then you gradually transition that power to the nobility, then the middle classes, then the working classes, then you get universal suffrage by way of a single clear path with no deviations. The thing is, that isn’t actually how it works. Some monarchies have very centralised power, some are very decentralised, some democracies are actually deeply unjust (Athens had, like, a lot of slaves as for that matter did the early USA) and some monarchies are actually quite progressive. It’s especially noteworthy that the big selling point Tyrion pitches for the new Westerosi government is that it eliminates dynastic rule, but there’s no indication that dynastic rule is at all the problem with Westeros.

I’m not particularly pro-monarchy, I think it’s at best an irrelevance and at worst a symbol of entrenched inequality. But every year the Economist magazine (through the EIU, the Economist Intelligence Unit) publishes its annual Democracy Index, in which it rates the strength of democracy in every country in the world and it’s really interesting to notice that four out of the top five countries have a hereditary monarch (Norway, Sweden and Denmark all have their own, and New Zealand still recognises the Queen of England as its head of state) while none of the five least democratic countries do (unless you count the Kim family in North Korea, which wouldn’t be totally unfair).

Point being, moving from hereditary monarchy to elective monarchy doesn’t actually make the Seven Kingdoms any freer or more democratic, it just slightly changes the kind of feudalism it operates under.

Even worse (and bringing us to our part b) it arguably changes the kind of feudalism it operates under to a type of feudalism that will exacerbate Westeros’s main problems. We’ll ignore for the moment the whole supernatural angle (the show certainly seems to want us to) and assume that Bran isn’t going to suddenly become the God Emperor of Dune but that instead the system is going to work roughly the way Tyrion says it will: Bran will be king, but on his death the High Lords of Westeros will come back to the Dragonpit and choose a new king from amongst themselves.

This is … kind of a recipe for disaster? My inspiration for the post was a twitter thread from Brent Sirota of NC State University laying out in detail why, if we assume the War of the Five Kings is nominally the War of the Roses it follows that what Westeros really needs is actually a far stronger centralised monarchy. Robert’s Rebellion and everything that followed came about (much like the real Wars of the Roses) happened because individual noble families got powerful enough that they could challenge the monarch, and that led to decades of strife and chaos. I mean think about it—how can it ever be a good thing stability-wise for the king to be profoundly in debt to one of his own subjects (for those who haven’t recently rewatched the first series, remember that the crown owed the Lannisters millions).

What I found particularly interesting about this analysis was that, when it popped up on reddit one commentator, by way of rebuttal, posted the following quote from George R. R. Martin himself:

“The Kingdom was unified with dragons, so the Targaryen’s flaw was to create an absolute monarchy highly dependent on them, with the small council not designed to be a real check and balance. So, without dragons it took a sneeze, a wildly incompetent and megalomaniac king, a love struck prince, a brutal civil war, a dissolute king that didn’t really know what to do with the throne and then chaos.”

 And this leads to a fascinating tension of duelling authorities. On the one hand you have a legitimate historian with real-world sources and on the other you have the person who designed the world. Being a fully paid-up death-of-the-author type, I’m very much of the opinion that GRRM’s interpretation of where the Targaryens went wrong is no more valid than anybody else’s but I do think it’s fascinating that Sirota draws attention to the “weird Americanism” of the way we are invited to rally behind Dany’s abolitionist agenda, while Martin himself sums up the problems with the Targaryen regime using the characteristically American language of “checks and balances”.

Also, looking at that quote afresh, I can’t quite tell if it’s meant to be sarcastic. Because “…it took a sneeze, a wildly incompetent and megalomaniac king, a love struck prince, a brutal civil war, a dissolute king that didn’t really know what to do with the throne and then chaos” actually describes a really long sequence of events so (especially with the quote out of context) it’s hard to be sure exactly what point Martin is making. Because I suspect tipping most medieval societies into chaos would have required way less than two wildly incompetent monarchs with a civil war in the middle.  Hell there was a civil war in England so chaotic it’s literally called “The Anarchy” and that was precipitated entirely because a drunk guy rammed a boat into a rock.

I think what I’m inching towards here is that A Game of Thrones was really good at challenging the fantasy genre’s well-documented bias in favour of “rightful kings” but might have fallen foul of the genre’s somewhat less well-documented bias in favour of decentralised power. I don’t want to give too much life to increasingly outdated stereotypes of the genre, but there’s still a strong tendency in fantasy for “bad” societies to be very centralised and monolithic (your prototypical dark lords and evil empires) while “good” societies tend to be more of a loose confederation of autonomous bodies (see the rebel alliance in Star Wars or the Last Alliance in Lord of the Rings). Much as I loved Sansa’s ending in the TV series, I do think it’s interesting that “independence for the North” is seen so unambiguously as a positive outcome, rather than as a complicated state of affairs that could easily be either desirable or undesirable depending on your perspective. #StrongerTogether.

Because Sirota’s very much right on this one. It’s easy for a modern audience to get behind “freedom” or “liberation” as heroic agendas. It’s much harder for them to get behind “centralisation of power in order to create stability that will ultimately benefit the common people by enabling them to go about their lives without being disrupted by the squabbling of the baronial classes.” And it’s still harder for them to get behind “standardising the quart and making minor changes to the management of rivers.”

And as a result, the series does end on a peculiar note of cognitive dissonance. We are invited to view the institution of elective monarchy (or weirwood god-emperoroship, the jury is still out on that one) as an unambiguously good thing, even though all it’s really doing is—as one article I read pointed out—codifying the Game of Thrones for perpetuity (it’s suddenly way easier to murder and politic your way onto the throne). It’s particularly weird when coupled with the destruction-by-dragonfire of the throne itself, which is one of those big bits of symbolism that might just be symbolic in a vacuum rather than symbolic of anything. I mean … yeah the spiky chair is gone, but the Iron Throne was never the One Ring, it’s not the object itself that is inherently corrupting, it’s the endless jockeying of the noble families for power. An endless jockeying, incidentally, that they have now (entirely on the say-so of a confessedly incompetent man in handcuffs) enshrined into their new system of government.

Taking a step back (sorry, I overuse that phrase), I can’t help but think that part of the issue here is that while the show does a good job of challenging the fantasy cliché of just and rightful kingship, it actually does quite a bad job of correctly articulating the problems with monarchy. Obviously it’s right in broad strokes—heredity is a bad qualification for leadership, just because your father was good at governing that doesn’t mean you will be, it’s very easy for somebody with unquestioned power to oppress people—but I think it’s very wrong in the specifics. Many many years ago, one of the earliest conversations I remember having about A Song of Ice and Fire was with a friend who was disappointed by Jaime’s chapters in A Storm of Swords, because he felt that revealing his backstory with the Mad King made him significantly less morally ambiguous. As he put it, “would you murder a man you had sworn to protect if he had proven himself a cruel tyrant” is an interesting moral question, “would you murder a man you had sworn to protect if it was literally the only way of stopping him from actually blowing up a city and actually killing an actual million actual people” is rather less so. Although the series pays lip service to the idea that monarchy is inherently unjust and that there are no truly good kings, it presents its bad kings as so scenery-chewingly, city-immolatingly, casually-mass-murderingly terrible that it’s hard not to view its real problem with monarchy as a lack of insurance against individual bad rulers, rather than a more structural problem with a society that treats some humans as inherently more worthy than others.

In this framework, the move to elective monarchy is exactly the right play, because it probably does mitigate against the possibility of getting a monarch who will decide on a whim to burn the capital to the ground (which isn’t as far as I know a problem real-life monarchies had particular trouble with). But it does kind of leave the whole of the rest of feudalism in place and curiously unexamined.

Basically the end of the show turns the Seven Kingdoms into the Holy Roman Empire. An institution, it should be noted, that was actually ruled by a single dynasty for nearly three centuries. This is … fine. But it’s still just another turn of the wheel.


One Response to a final final take on game of thrones

  1. alliea_2 says:

    Monarchy is of course completely indefensible, except that in its current European form of a toothless constitutional monarchy it in practice works rather well, as noted by the EIU. The reason for this is that a constitutional monarchy is prevented from taking political action (except in minor and heavily prescribed ways), but still occupies a space in the political structure. That neutralises that space, with the result that those who do weald political power have to do so around that space, and are constrained in doing so – no elected politician in a constitutional monarchy can hope to become Supreme Leader in the way that Trump seems to wish to do.

    I’d argue that the Church of England serves much the same purpose: as a church established by law it has no need to define itself by its dogma and it can be both be a safe space for the religious and a barrier to unsafe versions of religions gaining too great a currency in the politics of the nation.

    I suppose all that means I’m a evolutionist not a revolutionist and a pragmatist rather than an idealist. I can live with that. Perfection in human affairs is impossible given human imperfection.

    And talking of perfection in human affairs, I have been waiting muchly for Ardy 3 and devoutly hope that the current date for delivery is firmly fixed.

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