Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Discourses on Westeros

With the much-anticipated 7th season of Game of Thrones about to begin it may be an opportune time to review what the events in Westeros have come to represent, and what they mean. What can we learn from the struggle for the Iron Throne and the conflict between the characters and realms it causes?

The first thing to note about the world of the Westerosi is that life is complicated. Politics, not in terms of grand ideologies or narratives of state but in terms of the endless micro-politics of feud, bargain and vendetta, is the real subject of Game of Thrones. With few real differences in worldview or philosophy between the Kingdoms life takes on the nature of an endless battle for supremacy or survival, as the interlocking rivalries constantly revolve and interchange.

This lack of clarity in purpose locks the characters in some kind of omnipresent moral fog. It's striking, especially on repeated viewings, how the characters begin the series nearly all suffering under some kind of misapprehension; all misunderstanding each others motives or keeping some secret so that they are all incapable of seeing each other straight. It's not until later in the series do we even begin to understand what really caused events to unfold as they did. Throughout the narrative characters are unaware of what is being said or done by others at the same time, almost as if a constellation of planets was orbiting as-yet-unseen celestial body.

The actual bread-and-butter of politics in the series deals with the realities of government. Ruling is a complicated business that entails building coalitions of support, a great deal of horsetrading, and no little bloodshed. Without this hegemony and the force to back it up, Kings are vulnerable to be deposed. The Mad King's brutality saw him lose allies until he eventually made a coalition opposing him a political necessity, as well as a reality. Robert Baratheon, despite having no claim to the throne, nonetheless wins it. The Lannisters have to continually align themselves with rival houses to peel off some of the opposing forces against them, but even they slowly alienate their supporters and become isolated. The Houses effectively operate as political parties do, garnering and consolidating their support. The layers of legitimate force are also complicated, with the King, the City and the Houses all having their own separate militia. To survive and rule in this world you have to be flexible, lithe, and probably morally corrupt.

The key exemplars of this realpolitik tend to be the most morally bereft and brutal – Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, Walder Frey, Cersei. Those characters who try to self-consciously demonstrate a moral rectitude – Eddard Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys – all suffer for this to varying degrees and ultimately all have to face the fact that the mathematics of political reality still apply to them. Jon's attempts to effectively ride two horses at the same time, performing the greater good and shoring up his support in the Night's Watch, proves futile. Ned Stark discovers that people are much more complicated than he can imagine, and being a man of honour he can't imagine how complicated they really are.

The key event in the series is actually a depressingly modern event – a (literal) palace coup, at a moment of political crisis caused by King Robert's assassination. As such the Lannisters maintain power through a variety of measures which slowly hollow out the integrity of the institutions of state. Their decreasing circle of power throughout the series is in direct correlation to the amount of arbitrary violence that the Lannisters are prepared to use, most spectacularly being the bombing of the Sept of Baelor at the end of season 6. What else can Cersei do to maintain her grip on power after that? What isn't she prepared to do?

Issues of federalism and independence naturally arise. The North wishes to make it ungovernable but ultimately has to contend itself to being a vassal. Life under occupation or as a neo-colonial client state is brutal and hopeless. Those kingdoms that attempt to maintain their autonomy or neutrality, such as the Vale, simply become embroiled in a greater game. Both independence and neutrality appear to be illusory, as it is practically impossible to prevent outside influence corrupting whatever dreams of nationhood that the Kingdoms may have.

Outside the arena of conflict some attempt to maintain a constant opposition. The wildlings are an obvious example, being marked as literally 'beyond' or 'outside' the political arena and whose inability to submit limits their ability to influence events. The Iron Islands have to contend themselves with a kind of nihilistic doomed rebellion, never able to succeed in making a mark on the world and always prone to bloody and inevitable defeat.

The introduction of a supernatural element in the series presents a method where the oppressed and the outsiders are given a kind of deus ex machina to switch the odds. The dragons, previously the vanguard of Targaryen oppression, become the vanguard for the liberation of the slaves. The Lord of Light gives the Brotherhood Without Banners the power of resurrection, and brings Jon Snow back from the dead. The religion of the slaves has teeth. But when spirituality is used for political ends, either by Cersei or by Stannis, it proves to be both authoritarian and disastrous. The Faceless Men also represent a failed liberation narrative – ostensibly disciples of the religion of the oppressed, now merely a guild of assassins bought by coin and inevitably being used for the advancement of oppressive ends.

The sweep of the story is beginning to take on an emancipatory arc, as the Mother of Dragons & Breaker of Chains returns to Westeros after leaving a trail of liberation in her wake. The idea of a 'white saviour' bringing freedom to black slaves is inherently problematic, although some effort has been made to give the liberated a voice in Daenerys' actions. How will the 'rainbow coalition' of warriors, freed slaves, mercenaries and Greyjoy deserters maintain their unity in their new role as conquerors?

Whether there is any actual development towards democracy or liberation in Westeros is open to conjecture, but one thing is for sure – the world of the Westerosi is bound to stay as Machiavellian as ever.

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