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.
The HBO television show Game of Thrones, based on the books by George R. R. Martin, has begun its fifth season. Martin wrote the books in part based on the concern that J. R. R. Tolkien had focused on the war against evil and had neglected the difficulties of governing. Martin’s books focus on the latter.
I know my Game of Thrones mainly from the television show rather than the books (although I have read the first book). So it is always possible that my thoughts here might turn out to be inconsistent with later developments in the books.
(Spoiler alert: the following post assumes that you have finished the fourth season of Game of Thrones. If you have, it is safe to read.)
My view is that Martin believes that desirable governance is something of a golden mean between two extremes. On the one hand, there is the philosophy of governance of the Starks – Ned and his eldest son, Robb. Both of these leaders are admirable men in a way – they are mainly honorable and seek to follow moral norms. Yet disaster befalls both of them. Ned is killed largely because he does not act strategically or decisively, warning the Queen and allowing her to act against him. As a result, his family is devastated.
“If you have come for justice, you have come to the wrong place,” cries Tyrion Lannister, sitting in a dungeon, accused of a murder that his judges, who include his father, know he did not commit. Tyrion makes this comment to a noble who offers to be his champion in a single combat against a fearsome warrior—a combat that will resolve Tyrion’s case. By killing the warrior, the noble aims to avenge the rape and murder of his sister. But, as Tyrion’s champion, the noble has his skull crushed for his effort.
Tyrion’s comment could serve as an epigram for the entire season. It is not only the intrigued filled capital of King’s Landing but the entire world which appears to be the wrong place to find justice.
Indeed, this season is best seen as a meditation on the absence of justice in that world and perhaps on the limitations of justice in ours. Being just is a very dangerous personal stance to take in a pervasively unjust society. A virtuous circle of good behavior cannot begin when injustice is tolerated, let alone rewarded.
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.
I watch the Game of Thrones for the politics, and there is a lot of political insight to admire. In anticipation of the next season that begins this Sunday, I thought I would comment on some of it.
An overarching theme is the nature of power—what is it and where does it lie. The two Kings on the Iron Throne portrayed so far—Robert Baratheon and his successor Joffrey– are not the real powers within their own kingdom. They are either insufficiently vigilant or insufficiently self-possessed to enjoy enduring authority. Even kings must exercise power through agents. Game of Thrones in large part reflects this principal-agent game and these two principals lack the self-agency to control their external agents. As Machiavelli recognized, only people of a certain character can wield power over the long term.
Mancur Olson (and Thomas Hobbes before him) understood that a stable monarchy was a great advance for liberty over warring barons, because the king has incentives to invest in the prosperity of his people so as to gain more taxes and more power rather than simply to seize the assets of his subjects. Game of Thrones vividly illustrates this truth. Once there is no agreement among the leading houses on the successor to Robert Baratheon , death and destruction reign instead. And Robert’s own displacement of his lawful predecessor, Aerys II of the House of Targaryen, weakened the royal legitimacy that his death then undoes.
The most powerful noble House in the series—the Lannisters— boasts the motto: “We always pay our debts.”
There is a great deal of pessimism about the nation and the culture, so I thought it would be appropriate to mention one area where I think we are in a golden age: television.
I suppose that it is a little misleading to call it television. What I have in mind are the cable (and mostly pay TV) series. Shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men (the early seasons were better for the latter), both of which just completed their seasons, House of Cards (which I am now watching), Boardwalk Empires, Downton Abbey, Dexter (again the early seasons), and a host of others. All of these shows won’t appeal to everyone, and I am sure I am leaving out some favorites of the reader, but you get the idea.
In my view, these shows – for lack of a better term, let’s call them Pay TV series – are better than ordinary TV (a weak standard) and movies. And the question is why?
There are various factors responsible. One is that most of these series are on Cable and Pay TV and therefore are not subject to the restrictions on words and mature themes that govern ordinary TV. Another is that these series are a new genre, if you will, giving the authors 12 shows in a season to develop characters and story arcs. Unlike ordinary TV, the shows require that you watch them in order, so that they build plot lines and develop characters.