The Philosophy of Governance in Game of Thrones

The HBO television show Game of Thrones, based on the books by George R. R. Martin, has begun its fifth season.  Martin wrote the books in part based on the concern that J. R. R. Tolkien had focused on the war against evil and had neglected the difficulties of governing.  Martin’s books focus on the latter.

I know my Game of Thrones mainly from the television show rather than the books (although I have read the first book).  So it is always possible that my thoughts here might turn out to be inconsistent with later developments in the books.

(Spoiler alert: the following post assumes that you have finished the fourth season of Game of Thrones.  If you have, it is safe to read.)

My view is that Martin believes that desirable governance is something of a golden mean between two extremes.  On the one hand, there is the philosophy of governance of the Starks – Ned and his eldest son, Robb.  Both of these leaders are admirable men in a way – they are mainly honorable and seek to follow moral norms.  Yet disaster befalls both of them.  Ned is killed largely because he does not act strategically or decisively, warning the Queen and allowing her to act against him.  As a result, his family is devastated.

Robb, too, is an honorable man and leader.  Yet, in the end, he and his mother and his followers are destroyed because of his honor and naiveté.  He orders his army to abandon strategic positions to attend a funeral and he executes one of his important lieutenants who has acted wrongly, resulting in the loss of half of his army.  He does break a promise to another leader, seemingly a dishonorable act, but he does so out of true love.  But then his naiveté leads him to trust that leader, who slaughters him.  Thus, honorable and nonstrategic leaders are a bad deal in Martin’s world.

At the opposite extreme are leaders who are strategic and conniving, but are mean and are willing to make enemies of those they regard as beneath and unable to harm them.  These are the despicable characters – the three Lannisters – Joffrey, Tywin, and Circe.  Joffrey gets killed because a powerful lady regards him as a moral abomination.  Tywin is killed at the hand of his son who takes revenge against Tywin’s outrageous parental behavior.  Both Joffrey and Tywin don’t believe they will be harmed for their actions, but they are overconfident and mistaken.

By contrast, Martin appears to endorse an intermediate type of leadership – one exemplified by Tyrian Lannister.  Tyrian is a strategic thinker, both anticipating the actions of others and reading their behavior.  But Tyrian is an essentially good man, one who often has the best interests of others in mind.  Another person in this category is Varys, who is strategic and shrewd, but is genuinely interested in peace and justice.

Are there lessons for our own politics?  Presumably there are.  We want someone as President who seeks the right goals, but is able to promote those goals in an effective way, which often means behaving strategically and sometimes sacrificing a lesser value to secure a greater one.  We don‘t want a person with an exaggerated sense of honor or who fails to understand how the world works – the most obvious recent example being Jimmy Carter, one of our worst leaders in the last couple of generations.

Reader Discussion

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on April 20, 2015 at 12:03:26 pm

Game of Thrones -- haven't read it; haven't seen it; don't need it, 'cuz I'm already well acquainted with that other great serial author of strategy and conquest, Jane Austen.

Whom should you marry? Those who marry for money and those who marry for love both suffer in the end. Only those who make shewed appraisals of mates, balancing money and love, prevail in the end. Somewhat less blood, but only because Austen's wounds go deeper.

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on April 21, 2015 at 18:48:56 pm

The simile "government is like the early Victorian England marriage market" strikes me as something of a stretch. While it may be the case that Austen has something to teach us about governance, my guess is that there are other, better metaphors out there.

Nor am I persuaded that the world of GoT, as imagined by G.R.R. Martin, tells us all that much about modern political leadership either. While I do not doubt the basic analysis of character provided above by Professor Rappaport, it is equally the case that good leadership is about more than character. Leadership takes place within institutional frameworks--a fundamental truth neglected by Martin, who focuses almost exclusively on character (as a good dramatist myst). Martin's setting thus is at best a very loose simulacrum of 15th century England, which Martin himself has claimed as the historical basis for his setting.

This kind of exercise is entertaining, but in the end I think also uninformative. At its best, it can merely confirm our own predispositions, but I think ultimately has little potential to challenge or transform them.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 02, 2015 at 07:48:07 am

Cersei. Tyrion.

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on May 02, 2015 at 12:46:18 pm

The circumstances of Robb Stark's marriage are different in the book and the TV show. In the book Robb marries the daughter of a low ranking vassal of the Lannisters out of honour - a beautiful young girl tends to his wounds, they have sex, and Robb believes that his only honourable course is to marry her. He makes a brief mistake and finds himself in a situation where whatever he does is dishonourable. He reveals his poor judgement by making the wrong choice, and it costs him his life and his throne; a shrewder man would have either kept the girl as a mistress or discarded her.
In the book most of the chapters covering Robb Stark are told from the perspective of his mother, and she has a very rose-tinted view of him. If you look more dispassionately, you can see that he has been relying on the good judgement of others - mainly Roose Bolton, who is actually acting for himself, but also his uncle, The Blackfish - and was riding his luck before his eventual downfall. None of this comes across in the TV show.
There are other cases where changes that are made in the TV show which subtly alter our understanding of the characters, and usually, as above, the book's telling of the story is, as a result, better.

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