Game of Thrones Captures Our Politics

Wednesday

I’m not the best person to be writing on Game of Thrones since I’ve only read the first novel while watching none of the series. I am, however, somewhat of an expert on how societies use fantasy to process pressing concerns, and I taught the first volume of George Martin’s series in an American Fantasy course a few years back. I therefore have some insight into why it has so seized the American imagination.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid wondered this past weekend whether the Democrats are the principled Starks while the Republicans are the unscrupulous Cersei Lannister, who sees principle as a sucker’s game. That framing may help explain some of the show’s popularity as politicos debate whether Democrats should adopt the cynical tactics of Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If scorched earth opposition to Obama, gerrymandering, voter suppression, court packing (especially Merritt Garland), and other strong arm behavior get you what you want, why behave any other way? After all, the principled Ned Stark is beheaded while, as of this moment, Cersei holds the Iron Throne.

Nor surprisingly, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren reads the show in this light. Given her working class sympathies, it’s not surprising that her favorite character would be Dany:

Daenerys “Stormborn Targaryen has been my favorite from the first moment she walked through fire. Despite being the daughter of the Mad King and the last rightful Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne (until this week), Dany didn’t grow up in the lavish palace walls of the Red Keep. She was born during the chaos of her father’s overthrow, in the last great civil war between the rich and powerful family houses. Dany grew up in exile, wandering the so-called Free Cities of the East — many of which weren’t free at all but propped up by slave markets to serve their masters. When we meet Dany in season one, she’s a teenager sold off by her abusive elder brother to beefcake warlord Khal Drogo in order to further his political ambitions. Dany might be a princess by birth, but she wasn’t dealt an easy hand.

Dany believes fiercely in her right to rule, but she despises what ruling means in the world she’s grown up in. She doesn’t want to be a slave owner or a dictator — and she definitely doesn’t want to become her murderous father. She tells Ser Jorah: “Slavery is real. I can end it. I will end it. And I will end those behind it.” Before sailing across the sea to Westeros, she frees the enslaved people of Meereen and creates an army that fights because they want to, not because they have to. (Also, she has dragons.)

Warren’s final parenthetical expression is telling. She has been around politics long enough to know that moral authority is not enough in itself. One must also have some kind of leverage. Warren imagines using such leverage for a good cause, indulging in a progressive savior fantasy:

In the season-eight premiere, our Khaleesi finally arrives at Winterfell with Jon Snow and her army of the Unsullied to “save the North,” not conquer it. She states her mission clearly in season seven: “I’m not here to murder. All I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over everyone both rich and poor, to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world.” And as much as Dany wants to take on her family’s enemies and take back the Iron Throne, she knows that she must first fight the army of the dead that threatens all mankind. This is a revolutionary idea, in Westeros or anywhere else. A queen who declares that she doesn’t serve the interests of the rich and powerful? A ruler who doesn’t want to control the political system but to break the system as it is known? It’s no wonder that the people she meets in Westeros are skeptical.

We know well which “rich and powerful” Warren has in mind. In the show, they are represented by the Lannisters:

The Lannisters have long been the richest family in Westeros, and they’ve paid an enormous price to become richer and more powerful. Their matriarch has lost her father and all three of her children. Her brothers have abandoned her. Cersei is a lot more honest about wielding power than most: “I don’t care about checking my worst impulses,” she tells Tyrion in the season-seven finale. “I don’t care about making the world a better place. Hang the world.” The Lannisters’ gold mines under Casterly Rock went dry a long time ago. Without pillaging the Tyrells, her regime’s coffers would have been empty.

Could it be that Warren is thinking of illicit Russian money, laundered through Deutsche Bank, to explain how our own Cersei has overflowing coffers? That and influence peddling?

Unlike Dany, Cersei doesn’t expect to win with the people — she expects to win in spite of them. When Cersei’s brother (and lover) Jaime begs her not to wage a war — arguing that they don’t have the warrior strength of the Dothraki or the allegiance of the other houses, she replies with all the confidence in the Seven Kingdoms: “We have something better. We have the Iron Bank.” Rather than earn her army, Cersei pays for it. She buys 20,000 Golden Company mercenaries — though they arrive without their legendary elephants — with funds from the Iron Bank. 

Warren concludes her description sounding like someone running for president—in fact, as one of several strong women who have a legitimate shot. Think of the “army of the dead” as climate change or income inequality or the rising threat of authoritarianism:

So this is it — season eight. Winter is here, the Wall is crushed, and only five episodes remain. With all these powerful women preparing for battle, will the mighty bank silence the army of the people? Will the army of the dead heading straight for Winterfell make all of this talk about breaking wheels irrelevant? We’ve got five episodes to find out if the people can truly break their chains, destroy the wheel, and rise up together to win.

As relevant as the story may seem today, however, the novel Game of Thrones appeared in 1996. What are we to make of that? To answer, a comparison is useful with Lord of the Rings, probably Martin’s greatest influence. Tolkien too focuses on power’s corrupting potential, but for him Middle Earth can be saved only if the ring is renounced. In Tolkien’s Christian vision, “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Bound up also in Tolkien’s vision is the concept of fair play, as we see in Gollum’s internal struggle. Gollum functions as our alter ego, and we see him torn between his promise to behave and his lust for the ring. Because we are sinful, in the end we succumb to our lust, as Frodo does on Mt. Doom. Because of a higher grace, however, and because of our own kind actions, we triumph over sin. Middle Earth is saved.

For a long time, such an ethics guided our hero stories and also played a role in our politics. When a president stepped out of bounds, as Richard Nixon did, there were principled Republicans who stood up for the rule of law. The U.S. Congress was guided by certain rules of comity.

In the years when Martin was first writing Game of Thrones, however, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich adopted new slash and burn tactics, which signaled the beginning of the end of bipartisanship. At the same time, we saw the rise of the extreme right, which used talk radio to promote conspiracy theories and the Starr investigation. Al Gore’s decision not to contest the 2000 election in order to save the nation seems almost quaint in its idealism. So, in retrospect, does Obama’s belief that there is not a red America and a blue America but the United States of America. One hears Cersei chuckling.

So where are we now? Should the Starks become more like the Lannisters or will that just degrade everyone? Or to ask the question in another way, is a principled woman saving the day with overwhelming fire power a contradictory fantasy? (Martin is only too aware of how power corrupts, so making this an unlikely outcome for the series.) If Stark principle does in fact prevail, will that strike us as credible or a fairy tale?

Some fatalists, claiming to be realists, argue that the white walkers will wipe everyone out and that will be that. Something in the human spirit rebels against such a surrender, however. And against a surrender to cynical politics as well.F

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