Set in a world full of war, drama, scheming and betrayal, the television series “Game of Thrones” by D. Benioff and D. Weiss and the novels of “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin can teach us a great deal about the world in which we live and the ways in which political systems and relations function in the real world. Politics and political theory is as applicable and relevant to the world of Game of Thrones as is it is to the one in which we live, and many parallels can be drawn between the two. For instance, we see a continuous struggle for power and dominance between the powerful families of Westeros, just as we witness nations such as US, China, Russia among others struggle for global dominance in the real world, the dragons represent the hard power tactics acting as the nuclear weapons of Westeros and the possessor of such power often emerges to be the strongest player of the game, and finally the threat of the Night King and the White Walkers which functions as an ongoing climate change debate that nobody wants to discuss. Therefore, Game of Thrones takes an approach to politics that is rather timeless in nature instead of rooting itself in basic themes of good vs. evil and it can provide a fresh approach to understanding politics.
A first look at the series gives us the basic idea that Westeros is a dark and dangerous place where the vicious and the cunning such as the Lannisters and Boltons always emerge triumphant while those preaching honour and morals such as the Starks end up with their heads on spikes, decorating the walls of the Red Keep for the people to admire. Thus a general perception on how the world of Game of Thrones is dominated by realpolitik is established. Martin’s tale is filled with Hobbesian metaphors and Machiavellian intrigues and while it is true that life in Westeros is nasty, brutish and short, a closer look reveals how realism alone is unsatisfying and unsustainable. A complete disregard of norms often comes back to haunt the characters as we see how Tywin Lannister who is seemingly winning the game ends up being betrayed by the consequences of his hatred towards his youngest son, very similar to the fate of Roose Bolton who ends up being killed the same way he betrayed and killed his King, Robb Stark. Therefore, Game of Thrones from a political perspective is far more transformative than meets the eye, it is a tale about the consequences of unchecked realpolitik, and depicts the complexities of identity, allegiance and social norms.
Martin’s tale is full of layered characters and complex personalities that function within a world of unstable political systems. Various instances in the story can serve as excellent case studies for understanding different political theories that often come into play in the fight for survival and sustenance that the characters (willingly or unwillingly) find themselves intertwined in.
There is little difference between Tywin Lannister’s conversation with his grandson over “What makes a good king?” and Machiavelli posing the question “What makes a good prince?” to the young Florentine monarch. The plot of Game of Thrones paints a dark picture about human nature, where people are seen as essentially selfish, greedy, egoistic and pursuing their own self-interest at the cost of others; the masses of Westeros desire and prize personal safety while the elites are bent on increasing and consolidating power and position. Similar to that of the Realist world view.
Perhaps the character that perfectly embodies the principles of realism is Tywin Lannister and his actions in the War of the Five Kings. In “The Prince” Machiavelli writes “never attempt to win by force, what can be won by deception”. We see the embodiment of these words in Tywin’s resolve (during the War of the Five Kings) to not make a move and let his enemies wear themselves out through internal strife and conflict. Tywin decides to strike only when his enemies are most vulnerable and that too with trickery and deception, having the Rebels in the North killed at a wedding by making an alliance with one of the rebels. Thereby killing 10 people at dinner instead of 1000 at war, a gesture some would even consider noble?
Noble or not, Tywin Lannister emerges to be the wisest of the players of the Game of Thrones, steadily consolidating his power and establishing a reputation of fear that evokes command and obedience. Well, Machiavelli did say “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” did he not?
The theory that emphasizes socio-economic analysis being the focus of international relations and argues for class conflict to be the driving factor in human history finds an important place in the world of Game of Thrones. Marxist theory divides the society into bourgeoisie (the rich or the few) and the proletariat (the poor or the many) and argues that the bourgeoisie has been exploiting the proletariat since times immemorial. The society that exists in Westeros follows medieval feudalism where peasants pay taxes to their landlords who in turn pay taxes to their overlords and so on until the tax reaches the Crown. Thus, there is a clear division of class in Westeros where the landowners become rich through the labour of the peasants who perform difficult tasks for menial wages. The stronger lot, who are few in number, and own most of the property become feudal lords and monarchs (bourgeoisie) while the weaker sections (proletariat), constituting the majority, toil for their masters. In such a system the rich keep amassing wealth while the poor become more and more downtrodden until they are left with no choice but to resort to violence against the exploitation.
This revolutionary aspect of the theory can be understood from the world view of the High Sparrow. In a conversation with Ollena Tyrell, the High Sparrow says “Have you ever sowed the field, Lady Olenna? Have you ever reaped the grain? Has anyone in House Tyrell? A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many. And when the many stops fearing the few…”, similarly, in a conversation with Jaime Lannister, he says “Even though they (proletariat) are insignificant... united they can topple an empire (bourgeoisie)”. Thus, the masses are united under the Faith Militant led by the High Sparrow, against the ruling class of Westeros and their continuous exploitation. This uprising of the Faith Militant is an excellent case study for understanding the Marxist theory.
This theory primarily seeks to demonstrate how the core aspects of international relations are social constructs, rather than having their origins in nature. It argues that these core aspects are formed as a result of ongoing interaction between social practice and interaction. These ideas are consistent with what Daenerys Targaryen preaches to her followers in her quest to win back the Iron Throne which originally belonged to her ancestors. In a conversation with Tyrion in Mereen she states “Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell, they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top and that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.” Thus suggesting that the established order is one that is a social construct and can be changed, and in doing so she hopes to create a world that is better than its predecessor.
Similarly, Constructivism talks about power as a concept which is not “given” but emanates from the way in which structure is constructed in social practice. Therefore implying that power is an entity which is related to the way in which social institutions are constructed by actors and that by realizing this construction, it can be subject to change. Reflecting upon these ideas in the show, Lord Varys (a spy of the King) says “Power is a curious thing. Power resides where men believe it resides. It is a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow”.
Anarchism is a political philosophy based on the rejection of unjust hierarchies and establishment of a self-governed society based on voluntary and cooperative institutions. In other words, Anarchists are what we see in the form of the Wildlings or the Free Folk in Westeros. The name “Free Folk” is a reference to the society in which they live which recognizes no inherent political authority except for the leaders they choose for themselves. The Free Folk are seen as a threat to the established order as opposition to the state is the central aspect of their philosophy.
We can also find examples of different types of anarchism within the established order as practised by several characters. The most significant among these is the character of Petyr Baelish, a noble in the royal court. Baelish is an Anarchist who thrives on chaos in the lives of people around him and sees it as an opportunity to ascend in the hierarchical ranks. Baelish, also known as Littlefinger, has absolutely no regard for the Gods, love, and loyalty. He uses self-occurring chaos to his own personal benefit. In a conversation with Varys, he brilliantly sums up his anarchist ideas stating “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
While Westeros and surrounding lands are deeply misogynistic societies, this does not necessarily make Game of Thrones sexist. In fact, it plays a role in bringing out the reality of feudal gender relations. The vivid depiction of female subordination, forced marriages, sexual assault in fact work towards exposing the belief that Knights and Armies exist for the protection of the people, just as modern-day governments exist to protect citizens from external threats. The show consists of strong female characters with a voice of their own; and while they are faced with societal constraints, instead of conceding to them these characters try to find a way around them and climb up in status and power.
Characters such as Cersei and Daenerys, both have faced similar disadvantages throughout their lives, but despite these obstacles both the characters have emerged strong, climbing up the ladder of success one step at a time, the former by using tactics such as deception, scheming and the latter by trying to balance power with morals. Meanwhile, other strong female characters such as Arya, Brienne, and Yara (or Asha as in the books) refuse to follow rules set by the society for women and try to find their way up the ladder through different paths pursuing strength as a means of resistance.
In conclsuion, a series as diverse and complex as Game of Thrones cannot be explained with just a single political idea or theory as is often claimed. Martin’s tale consists of characters and storylines that are distinct from each other (in terms of themes, motives, ideas etc.) but still find themselves to be intertwined. Westeros is presented as a dark place where everything comes at a price and a struggle, we find some struggling for safety and sustenance, others for recognition and glory, and some even for love. Just as we see different nations today playing the same game for their respective interests and motives, whether they stand for peace or for war, there is no escaping the game. The underlying lesson that it teaches us is that the quest and pursuit for power is a pit in which all the characters, willingly or unwillingly, end up falling. In the words of Martin himself, “Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men. All will play the Game of Thrones”.
Blair, A. (2012, November 13). The philosophical ethics of game of Thrones. Den of Geek. Retrieved from: https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/game-of-thrones/23414/game-of-thrones-and-the-game-of-subtext
Carpenter, C. (2012, March 29). Game of Thrones as Theory. Foreign Affairs Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2012-03-29/game-thrones-theory
Owen, P. (2017, August 29). Ice and fire: what Game of Thrones can teach us about power politics? The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/aug/29/game-of-thrones-hbo-cato-institute-politics
Political Animal Magazine. Varys – His Riddle. Political Animal Magazine. Retrieved from: https://politicalanimalmagazine.com/tag/game-of-thrones/
The Political Science Club. (2016, January 5). Game of Thrones: A Political Science Approach to Westeros. The Political Science Club. Retrieved from: http://thepoliticalscienceclub.com/game-of-thrones-a-political-science-approach-to-westeros/
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