These days it takes a medieval fantasy to help us remember why liberal democracy is worth cherishing.
My co-blogger John McGinnis has a great post up on the politics of Game of Thrones. (I cannot resist mentioning that I initially recommended that John watch the show but he resisted; obviously, he has come around.) Unlike John, I watch Game of Thrones for all of it – for the politics, for the great characters, for the surprises, for the sex, for the violence, for the humor as well as for the politics. I thought I would add a couple of reactions to the show and John’s post. (Some spoilers below.)
John notes how the show vividly illustrates that “a stable monarchy was a great advance for liberty over warring barons.” True enough, but the show also makes clear that the danger that the hereditary monarch can impose when he turns out to have the wrong traits for ruling, as the mad king, Aerys II of the House of Targaryen, displayed. By the same token, such a mad king might have good or bad heirs – Aerys’s son Prince Rhaegar may turn out to be have been a good man (or at least not a bad one), and while Aerys’s younger son, Viserys, would certainly have been a disaster, his daughter Daenerys, shows signs of greatness.
John also notes that some men just do not have the capability for exercising power, such as Robert Baratheon and his successor Joffrey. This is certainly right, but author George Martin also recognizes that some men cannot exercise power well, because they lack a Machiavellian insight into the nature of the political world. Ned Stark was disastrous because he sought to impose his ideals of how the world should be rather than recognizing and responding to how it actually is. As Daenerys shows, one need not be a bad person or ruler in order to rule effectively. One just has to understand how the world works.
In my view, the most distinctive characteristic of Game of Thrones (apart from George Martin’s willingness to kill off important characters) is his mixed view of the world, with few characters being entirely good and even fewer being entirely bad.
Jaimie Lannister – the so called King Slayer and oath breaker, who has an incestuous relationship with his sister – nonetheless is the only person in his family who loves his younger brother and shows significant courage in defending and rescuing his captor, Brienne of Tarth. Jamieie’s brother, Tyrion Lannister is a drunkard and whoremonger (as well as suffering the disadvantage of being a dwarf), but he is one of the most admirable characters on the show, being both smart and good.
As noted above, Ned Stark is a good and honorable man, but he is clueless about politics and his cluelessness leads to disaster for his family. His son, Rob, who is also a good man and mature for his age, nonetheless breaks his oath to marry for love and also feels the need to execute Rickard Karstark, the head of the Karstark clan, leading to the loss of half his army and ultimate defeat. Tywin Lannister, who sees the world of power so clearly, nonetheless is blind to the brilliance and goodness of the dwarf that is his son.
John notes that author George Martin is not romantic about the Middle Ages like Tolkien was – and let me say, thank God for that. But I am not sure that is because Martin likes the modern world better. Rather, I just think he sees the whole world as different shades of grey, and so cannot describe any part of the world in an overly romantic way.