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The Price of Civilization

Is it possible to have civilization without killing?

J.R.R. Tolkien and George Martin approach this question in very distinct ways but they seem to agree the answer is “no.” Both believe that civilization needs the office of the knight: Because some seek power maliciously, others must unite ferocity and gallantry. “Fantasy” may be their genre, but there is a certain realism that runs through the civilizational stories these two authors have produced.

Game of Thrones is the adaptation of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (2011) and it opens with a scene of capital punishment. A knight of rectitude in his prime, Ned Stark, beheads a hapless youth who deserted his duty on the Wall after encountering a White Walker. The scene is echoed at the end of the first season when the young sadistic King Joffrey orders the King’s Executioner to cut off Ned Stark’s head. That is but one of many examples of capital punishment in Game of Thrones. Even the generous and just Daenerys Stormborn, Targaryen claimant to the Iron Throne, does not hesitate to employ it.

Tolkien, whose storytelling also revolves around the knight, is quite different. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, at a time in England when capital punishment was the mandatory sentence for murder. Moreover, as Tolkien was very much a Catholic, he would have known that Thomas Aquinas wrote carefully and favorably about capital punishment. Yet there are two instances when Tolkien’s heroes stop capital punishment.

In a magnificent scene in the film adaptation, Gandalf exorcizes the King of Rohan, Théoden. Possessed by the corrupt wizard, Saruman, Théoden is victim to the wizard’s mind control. When Gandalf casts out Saruman from Théoden it becomes evident that Gríma Wormtongue, the king’s own counselor, has assisted Sauron’s usurpation of the throne of Rohan. Sword in hand, the king approaches Wormtongue and rising up brings the sword to his head only to have Aragorn, the incognito King of Gondor, restrain the blow. Aragorn reaches out to help the cowering Wormtongue off the ground but the ingrate counselor spits on the offered merciful hand. Capital punishment is stopped, all the same.

When Frodo intervenes to stop capital punishment, the case is even stranger. Poor Gollum is in the sights of the archers of Gondor. He has wandered into the Forbidden Pool, his scrambled mind completely unaware of any prohibition. Gollum, a cannibal, also loves fish and, intriguingly, washing himself. The Captain of the Guard, Faramir, tells Frodo the penalty for trespass is death. But Frodo succeeds in persuading Faramir not to loose the arrows. Frodo prevails, but against what?

Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, discusses an unusual Roman institution, the piacular. Smith, a lecturer on law amongst other things, tells us that a person became piacular if inadvertently walking onto sacred grounds. The penalty, even if the person were a stranger to town, was death. Smith develops an interesting moral psychology from this mode of law where intention is irrelevant to guilt. Unawares, sad Gollum is piacular but Tolkien has Frodo suspend this ancient mode of law.

Tolkien’s revelation in a 1943 letter of his personal political preference—“my political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy”—is sometimes dismissed as the mild raving of a man with an other-worldly cast of mind. In a recent book, I have tried to demonstrate that Tolkien’s political reflection runs very deep.

The Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954-1955, begins in peace. Its opening locale is Tolkien’s idyll, Hobbiton and the Shire. The king is absent and a vague memory remains that hobbits do live under the king’s laws. Hobbits have a special knack for making things grow and some even indulge in vanity. In The Hobbit (1937), Tolkien has Bilbo a dapper man with whole rooms devoted to his clothes. The Shire is rustic, decorated with crafts, and most vices unknown. Yet the story’s rudiments are that the hobbits are pulled from their comforts, go to war, and return as knights.

The Lord of the Rings ends with the false wizard Saruman mocking the returning veteran hobbits, “you hobbit-lordlings.” Though ravaged by Saruman, in time, the Shire returns to its tranquility and, though Aragorn sits on his throne, mild is the king’s presence.

It might be worth asking: if the workings of government are this smooth, might they also be boring? As a species, we like to play—and to play at war. Testing ourselves is innate. In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga’s classic work on the role of games in developing civilization, the Dutch historian and theorist offers a striking account of the trial as a game. Huizinga points to multiple sources to identify the contained space where games happen: the playing field, being in the dock, and being called to the bar are all part of the spatiality of trial.

And so how odd it is that Tolkien, a writer otherwise so fascinated by space and geography, omits the trial court entirely. Despite its being one of the iconic markers of civilization, Tolkien never has anyone in the dock. Meanwhile in Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister, wittily played by Peter Dinklage, is put on trial twice—once for killing his cruel nephew, Joffrey, and the other for the attempted murder of one of Ned Stark’s children.

Is a significant difference between Tolkien and Martin their attitudes towards the state? Perhaps we can say of Tolkien that he thought one might kill for civilization and then hope that government would be marked by mildness. This position is comparable to that of Albert Camus. No one can plausibly think of Camus as other-worldly and yet he thought wars had to be fought even as he famously railed against harsh government, and in particular, capital punishment.

If Camus is the philosopher for Tolkien, Martin’s preferred book of philosophy might be the one that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in 1532. The Prince, his famous manual on how to gain and keep a throne, seems ever-present in Game of Thrones.

With the death of Robert Baratheon, various pretenders step forward. Though Joffrey succeeds to the throne, his hold upon it is tenuous. Axiomatic to Machiavelli is the principle that no prince can survive if held in contempt or found odious, and Joffrey is a case in point. Rumors swirl that he is a bastard, offspring of Robert’s wife and her brother, Jaime Lannister. While baseness of origin makes a prince contemptible, Joffrey could do nothing about that. What he could change—his sadism—he seems unable to. Indeed in his cruelty he is his own worst enemy.

Machiavelli is not shy around cruelty but he warns that it must be deployed swiftly, and followed just as swiftly by the enactment of more genial policies. Joffrey fails to follow this rule. He is an odd creature, being not a sadist, exactly, but a voyeuristic sadist: he never tires of watching his henchmen tormenting and humiliating. That he is poisoned is predictable: none amongst the aristocracy of Westeros can be certain who will be chosen next to entertain Joffrey. It turns out that Littlefinger kills Joffrey—but someone or other was always going to do it, Machiavelli would insist.

Daenerys Targaryen is a much better student of Machiavelli. Of impeccable pedigree, and direct heir to the throne usurped by Robert Baratheon, she is no stranger to cruelty either. Machiavelli is fascinated by the idea of rule by reputation and thus counsels princes to be striking in their actions. With Daenerys’ people dispirited and scattering, she burns a witch alive only herself to walk into the flames and emerge unscathed with three baby dragons nestled about her naked body. Seldom has a population bent the knee so promptly.

Taking to heart Machiavelli’s suggestion that a prince spend others’ money, Daenerys moves from one slave-holding city to another, plundering or using each city as a base of operations. Having a deep hatred of slavery, Daenerys buys an 8,000-man slave army with one of her dragons as the price only to order her new army to slaughter their erstwhile masters, sparing, as she pointedly puts it, only the children. The dragon she sold she orders to burn alive the chief of the slavers. The slaughter over, she promptly frees her slave army and asks them to follow her freely as she sets out to liberate other slave cities.

Since both J.R.R. Tolkien and George Martin accept that civilization is not possible without killing, the real question in the end may be: If we are to kill for civilization, what kind of civilization should we hope for?

Neither author evinces the kind of humanitarian ethics that is based on a hope that war might be overcome. They give full scope to the role of knights. But the outcomes are that Martin describes an activist prince ruling through spectacle whereas Tolkien, though he has Gandalf often deploying his power theatrically, holds as his true ideal an absent prince, and a recommendation for knightly mildness in political rule.

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