A Pop Cultural Lens into the Feudal World

April 24, 2015

Doug Enaa Greene, via Red Wedge Magazine

On April 12, 2015 the wildly popular Game of Thrones returned to HBO for a fifth season. No doubt, this season, like all the others, will break ratings records and encourage endless speculation and debate by fans. The television series, based on a projected seven novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, has a devoted following among viewers who are willing to wade through intricate plots, an enormous cast of characters and a world as rich as our own. The series is set in a fantasy world resembling feudal Europe and on the surface feels like many other “sword and sandal” epics, such as Lord of the Rings. However, the series is more than beach side reading — drawing extensively on history, mythology and literature.

Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones (especially for Marxists) is that, unlike Lord of the Rings, there are few clear cut heroes or villains; instead everyone is a shade of gray and presents a harsh view of the feudal world and its sharp class divisions, bourgeois revolutions from above, subordinate status of women, and brutal realpolitik. [1]

A historical materialist analysis of Game of Thrones has been the subject of two essays “Can Marxist theory predict the end of Game of Thrones?” by Paul Mason and “Game of Thrones and the End of Marxist Theory” by Sam Kriss (focusing heavily on the collapse of feudalism with arguments we will discuss in detail below). Kriss’ essay also argues that part of the appeal of Game of Thrones is that the series undermines any idealization of feudalism where “its kings aren’t just cruel and stupid but powerless, trying to bat away rapacious financiers and ghoulish monsters with both flapping, ineffectual hands…[and that this] was the last time that all the mystical creatures that hid in the dark places of society were known, named, and understood.” By contrast, capitalism presents itself as rational, while it shrouds real social relations beneath commodity fetishism and the mysteries of the market. The use of Marxist analysis to fantasies such as Game of Thrones, as Kriss rightfully points out, “helps explain our own demon-haunted world.”

War of the Five Kings and the Breakdown of Feudalism

The main settings for Game of Thrones are the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. Westeros is made up of seven kingdoms — the Kingdom of the North, the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale, the Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Reach, the Kingdom of the Stormlands and Dorne. The Seven Kingdoms have existed for thousands of years  largely as a feudal society and undergoing periodic dynastic shifts, civil wars and invasions (the dominant religion known as the “Faith of the Seven” forbids slavery).

One of the major plots of the series is a civil war by the noble kingdoms for control of the Iron Throne following the death of the King Robert Baratheon. The “War of the Five Kings,” which begins at the end of the first season initially involves five separate claimants to the Iron Throne (currently reduced to three by the end of season four) involves bloody battles, massacres and dynastic upheavals which devastate Westeros.

The roots of the war go back to season one when Eddard “Ned” Stark, the rather sympathetic and honorable Lord Paramount of the North, receives news that his friend Jon Arryn, his mentor and the current Hand of the King, has been murdered. Eddard is chosen by King Robert to replace Arryn as Hand of the King. Although Ned considers refusing, Robert needs a loyal friend in the capital, and also promises to wed his son Joffrey to Ned’s daughter Sansa (which would subsequently give the Starks a claim on the throne). However, Eddard only agrees to take the position when he receives a secret letter from his wife Catelyn’s sister, Lysa Arryn (Jon’s widow) that implicates the Lannisters in the death of her husband.

The Lannisters are one of the most powerful and wealthiest noble families in Westeros. They also possess a deserved reputation for ruthlessness and dishonor (and there is mistrust between them and the House of Stark). King Robert’s wife, Cersei, the current Queen, comes from the Lannisters. Upon hearing this news, Eddard suspects that there is a plot being raised against the King and accepts Robert’s offer in order to investigate Jon Arryn’s death.

While in the capital of King’s Landing, Ned learns that Jon Arryn took an interest in Robert’s bastard children. Through further investigation, Ned discovers that all the bastard children (like the Baratheons) possess black hair. However, all of Robert’s children have blond hair like the Lannisters. This convinces Eddard that the King’s children are not his, but are actually the product of Cersei’s incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie (a member of the King’s Guard). This means that the children have no claim to the throne. With the King away on a hunting trip, Eddard confronts Cersei, telling her he knows the truth, and warns her to flee the capital before Robert returns as Ned will tell him the truth.

Robert is mortally wounded on his hunt and dies, but not before naming Eddard as Protector of the Realm, to rule until Joffrey can come of age. Eddard moves quickly, writing to Robert’s elder brother Stannis (the rightful claimant to the throne), urging to take power. Robert’s other brother, Renly, leaves the capital before the King’s death–fearing a bloodbath. Eddard ignores the suggestion of his ally Petyr Baelish “Littlefinger” that they take advantage of the situation to gain more power. Eddard doesn’t believe that he has a legitimate claim to the throne, but rather plans to arrest Cersei and her children once the king is dead (Eddard refuses to shed blood while Robert is dying). This gives Cersei a chance to make her own plans. After Robert dies, when Eddard attempts to have her arrested, the Guards and Littlefinger betray him. Eddard is taken into custody and is later publicly executed by King Joffrey. This goes against the express wishes of Cersei, who wanted to have Eddard banished and potentially bargain with Eddard’s son Rob who is raising an army to rescue his father.

Following the death of Eddard, the “War of the Five Kingdoms” begins. Although Joffrey is crowned King, his claim is disputed by Stannis and Renly Baratheon (who are both making separate claims) due to him being the product of incest. Stannis claims that the throne is his by right since he is the elder brother of the King. Even though Renly is second in line, he believes that he would make a better King than Stannis. Eddard’s son Rob Stark is crowned “King in the North” by his men and wages his own war with the Lannisters, but doesn’t declare allegiance to either Stannis or Renly. At the same time, Balon Greyjoy,ruler of the Iron Islands, who had lived uneasily under Robert Baratheon, declares his independence once more.

The war rages on with shifting alliances and assassinations of key players. Although Rob Stark is military successful against the Lannisters and dubbed the “Young Wolf,” he makes a number of errors such as breaking a promise to wed into the House of Frey (one of his key allies) when he falls in love with Talisa Maegyr (a noble from the Free City of Volantis). Robb is unable to secure an alliance with Renly (who is assassinated by Stannis) or the Iron Islands (Theon Greyjoy in fact sacks Robb’s home of Winterfell). Robb’s missteps allow for Tywin Lannister (Cersei’s father and the true power behind the Iron Throne) to make an alliance with the Freys, who proceed to have Robb killed when he attempts to mend fences.

Joffrey’s claim to the Iron Throne is most directly threatened by Stannis, who has his brother killed and leads a massive fleet and invasion force to King’s Landing. Despite being on the verge of victory, Stannis’ forces are beaten back by the clever tactics of Tyrion Lannister and soldiers from the House of Tyrell (Margaery Tyrell is the widow of Renly and once she is betrothed to Joffrey, this cements the alliance between the two houses). Although Stannis is beaten off, he returns to his home base of Dragonstone and after securing financial support from the Iron Bank of Braavos, he raises a new army and lands in the far north.

The war not only redraws the political map of Westeros, but it also brings immense suffering to poor peasants. Peasants find themselves pillaged and raided to feed the various armies. All of the factions sack cities, rape women and massacre prisoners. The breakdown in social cohesion in the Seven Kingdoms means that there are various outlaws who can act with impunity and that the Lords pledged to protect the peasantry are unable to do so. Forces such as the Brotherhood Without Banners arrive in order to protect “smallfolk” and deserters against all who would threaten them. Although initially allied with the Lannisters, the Brotherhood winds up acting as a guerrilla band behind Lannister lines, infuriating Tywin and other commanders.

As the Seven Kingdoms are laid to waste by civil war, they risk mutually assured destruction from beyond their borders. On the far northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, there is a monumental fortification known as the Wall, which stretches for 300 miles along the border and is 700 feet tall and made of solid ice. The Wall was reported constructed thousands of years ago to protect the Seven Kingdoms from the White Walkers, monstrous beings who once ruled Westeros, but were driven away. Now most people in the Seven Kingdoms believe that the White Walkers were little more than myths to frighten children. The Wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, who’s members swear allegiance only to the Watch and do not take part in the civil wars of Westeros. Although the Watch was once considered an honorable institution, it is now a place to send outcasts, misfits and prisoners. And the Watch,  is also understrength, numbering less than a thousand men with run down defenses with their requests for aid from King’s Landing ignored.

By the time of the television series, the Watch is fighting off the wildlings or the “Free Folk.” The wildlings are free folk who live north of the Wall, coming from many different tribes and cultures. They practice a different religion than the people of Westeros “Old Gods of the Forest.” The wildlings have a much more fluid social structure with no differentiation between lords and peasants farmers. Men and women alike go into battle together And while the wildlings do at times unite and follow a “King-Beyond-the-Wall” (currently Mance Rayder) into battle, the position is not hereditary, they don’t have elaborate rituals and ceremonies for royalty. Nor do the wildlings have laws or a state of their own. The Free Folk also mock the people of Westeros as “kneelers” for accepting royalty and nobility.

During the War of the Five Kings, the wildlings are moving south because of the White Walkers and the onset of winter. They engage in several skirmishes and major battle with the Night’s Watch in the hopes of getting past the Wall and to safety. Although the wildlings nearly succeed in taking the Wall, the arrival of Stannis Baratheon and a fresh army is enough to stop their attack and take Rayder prisoner.

The mode of production in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros most clearly resembles what Marxists would characterize as a feudal society. Feudalism is characterized by small farming, based on traditional land ownership with clearly defined rights and duties for every member of society from the peasants to nobles to the King. Yet feudalism is very much a class society. As Marx once said, “Hierarchy is the ideal form of feudalism; feudalism is a political form of the medieval relations of production and intercourse.”[2] For instance, the peasants in Game of Thrones are not slaves, but they are expected to surrender a portion of their labor to the lord (say by working for the lord’s land five days out of the week while working on his own plot for the other day) in exchange for protection. The noble lords themselves thus gained their primary means of wealth from the peasantry who are the main producers. Feudal society in Game of Thrones does not operate according to market principles, but rather according to tradition and custom. The peasants are concerned with producing goods for the nobility and for maintaining their own subsistence. The nobility by contrast were interested in their own luxury or increasing their lands and political power – not surplus accumulation.

Unlike capitalist society, where there is relative autonomy between the state and the economic base, under feudalism the state and economy where fused. Marxist historian Perry Anderson describes the relationship in the following way:  “Agrarian property was privately controlled by a class of feudal lords, who extracted a surplus from the peasants by politico-legal relations of compulsion. This extra-economic coercion, taking the form of labour services, rents in kind or customary dues owed to the individual lord by the peasant, was exercised both on the manorial demesne attached directly to the person of the lord, and on the strip tenancies or virgates cultivated by the peasant. Its necessary result was a juridical amalgamation of economic exploitation with political authority. The peasant was subject to the jurisdiction of his lord.”[3] Thus while the state of feudal society performs the same function as the state under capitalism, it is far more fragmented as demonstrated in Game of Thrones – the noble families are all jostling for influence in order to increase their lands and hence their power leading to intrigue and wars.

However, it is clear from the War of the Five Kings that the feudal state in Game of Thrones is incapable of defending the common interests of the Lords or the social cohesion of their system. For instance, the Night’s Watch is left alone (with the notable exception of Stannis) to fend off the threat of the wildlings and the White Walkers. Even though the various factions of the civil war have raised enormous armies, they are not being used to defend the common interest of the nobility, but rather the particular interests of different Houses.

Another further point of note is that the feudal society in Game of Thrones is stagnant in terms of technology and state structure (despite periodic dynastic changes). Paul Mason argues that this is a  problem that “fantasy fiction adopts the conceit of a feudalism that is always in crisis but never overthrown.” And he does have a point, feudalism in Westeros has lasted for thousands of years with little appreciable advance in technology or change in the basic mode of production (aside from the abolition of slavery). And while commodity production does exist on the margins of Westeros, notably trading routes in the ports such as Kings’ Landing and the Iron Bank of Braavos, only the former is prominent (since they have funded the Lannisters’ war). However, the replacement of feudalism in Westeros by capitalism, which Mason predicts will occur in the series, remains an open question.

Although the War of the Five Kings remains in progress in Game of Thrones currently, it is possible to speculate on the war’s outcome for the feudal system. Westeros is certainly in crisis, with the signs of “debts accumulated under a corrupt patronage system, whose sources of wealth dried up, destroyed the system in the end” as Mason argues, portending the end of feudalism. And certainly, the Iron Throne as it is currently organized is incapable of protecting the common interests and property of the nobility. By contrast, Kriss says that Mason’s account of the crisis of feudalism is actually a crisis of capitalism. In fact, Kriss says that Mason neglects the role of class struggle and that “The real crisis of feudalism had very little to do with corruption and aristocratic profligacy, and everything to do with collective action on the part of the toiling masses.” And certainly in Europe, following the Black Death, facing a population shortage the peasants were able to obtain higher wages, rights to land, etc which prompted the rulers to turn to primitive accumulation and to undermine peasant rights — all of which ultimately led to the development of capitalism.

Yet there are problems with Kriss’ statement that the crisis of feudalism had everything to do with the collective action of the masses. Certainly, there is the Brotherhood Without Banners who are fighting all the Kings. Yet the growth of market forces and the decline of feudalism can just as easily be brought about by outside forces. For instance, the crisis of feudalism in Japan came with the arrival of trading ships of Commodore Dewey and the threat of imperialist takeover. To forestall such a fate, the rulers of Japan instituted the Meiji Restoration to develop capitalism. A crisis of feudalism can lead to a decline in living standards for the masses, as it did in Japan with the Meiji Restoration. So contrary, to Kriss who says that the crisis of feudalism allowed peasants to get what they wanted such as higher wages, and he is certainly correct that this occurred in Europe following the Black Death, and as the example of Japan shows this was not always the case. Perhaps the Iron Bank would back a claimant to the Iron Throne, such as Stannis, who would bring a revolution from above?

Returning to the Seven Kingdoms, Mason says that with the Lannisters broke and indebted to Iron Bank, commerce needs to take hold in order to curb the power of the monarchy: “But for this to happen you need the rule of law. You need the power of kings to become subject to constitutional right, and a moral code imposed on business, trade and family life. But that won’t happen in Westeros, where the elite lifestyle is synonymous with rape, pillage, arbitrary killing, torture and recreational sex.” While Mason says this won’t occur, it could plausibly be argued that the loose structure of the monarchy would need to be replaced by something like an absolutist state by the victor in the war.

In order for the lords to strengthen their hold on the peasantry and ensure surplus extraction, the powers of coercion would have to be displaced upwards towards a centralized and militarized monarchy — breaking with the previous fragmented powers of the nobility. At the same time, as occurred in our world, the emergence of Absolutism in the Seven Kingdoms could open the door for commodity production on the margins of the feudal economy to develop on their own terms with the creation of wage laborers and the bourgeoisie.

However, as we shall see there are other forces that could lead to a transition to capitalism (not considered by Mason or Kriss) in the world of Game of Thrones.

The Role of Women

Eddard Stark: “A little Lady shouldn’t play with swords.”

Arya Stark: “I wasn’t playing. And I don’t want to be a Lady.” (“Lord Snow”)

The place of women in the feudalistic world of Game of Thrones generally resembles that of medieval society in Western Europe. Women are not allowed to own or inherit land and title, only men can do so. Women are under the authority of either their fathers (if unmarried or widowed in the case of Tywin and Cersei Lannister), their husbands (Ned and Catelyn Stark) or their sons if they have come of age (Robb and Catelyn Stark). Women are not allowed to marry for love, especially if they come from a prominent family, such as in the case of Cersei, but to secure political alliances or increase the power of their houses. A marriage for love or breaking a promise to marry into a family can be seen as a grave insult and have disastrous political consequences (as Robb Stark learned too late when he broke his promise to marry into the House of Frey). Furthermore, women are expected to dress beautiful, be caste until marriage, and bear children. In war, women are routinely killed and if they have the bad luck to survive, they are raped by soldiers.

However, there are number of women who break with the predominant gender roles in Game of Thrones. For instance, Arya Stark is the youngest daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark. As a noble-born girl, she is expected to learn knitting and act like a lady. However, Arya is very much a “tomboy” and interested in warfare and archery (she is a better shot than her brothers). Although Arya torments her more proper sister, Sansa and is a constant headache for her mother, both her father and brother Jon help to foster Arya’s interests. Jon gives Arya a sword before departing for the Night’s Watch, which she promptly names Needle. When Arya goes to King’s Landing, her father hires a trainer Syrio Forel to train her as a warrior with “dancing lessons.” Despite this, Ned hopes that Arya will eventually accept her place as a lady:

Eddard Stark: You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights and princes and lords.

Arya Stark: No… that’s not me.  (“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”)

Syrio Forel doesn’t mind that Arya is a girl, but he teaches her how to fight with stern lessons. And ultimately, when Ned is arrested for treason and the Lannisters send in soldiers to arrest Arya, Syrio sacrifices his life so she can escape (Arya kills a stable boy during the effort). Arya manages to escape King’s Landing just before witnessing her father’s execution with the help of a member of the Night’s Watch, Yoren. In order to return home to Winterfell, Arya has her hair cut short and poses as a boy and a recruit to the Night’s Watch with several other boys.

Arya manages to do this quite well since she already acts more like a boy than girl. The only thing that could give her away is when she has to go pee, so Arya sneaks off into the woods. Arya and her group of friends are captured by Goldcloaks (in service of the Lannisters). During captivity, Arya watches as many of her friends are systematically tortured and killed. Arya becomes hardened by the experience, vowing revenge each night before she goes bed, reciting the names of all the people she plans to kill like a prayer.

The Goldcloaks take Arya and the other prisoners to Harrenhal where Tywin Lannister discovers that she is a girl posing as a boy. Recognizing that Arya is clever and intelligent, Tywin makes her his cup bearer. Although Arya performs her duties, Tywin keeps an eye on her and discovers that she is a northerner, literate, and knowledgeable about history (more so than his advisers). Tywin tells Arya that “You’re too smart for your own good–has anyone told you that?” (“A Man Without Honor”) This is a telling remark on how much Arya is diverging from her expected gender role as a lowly-born cup bearer.

Eventually, Arya is able to escape Harrenhal by enlisting the help of Jaqen H’ghar, whom she had befriended earlier. Jaqen is actually not his name, but an assumed identity since he is a member of the Faceless Men of Braavos. Once free, Arya watches more friends die at the hands of the Brotherhood Without Banners. When she is captured by the brutal warrior Sandor Clegane “The Hound.” (one of the men she vowed to kill), Arya witnesses the massacre where her brother is murdered. The experience makes Arya grow ever more hardened. Arya kills willingly and without remorse. When the Hound is wounded in a vicious fight with Brienne of Tarth, he begs Arya to kill her in order to put him out of his mercy. Yet Arya leaves him to bleed to death, exacting her revenge. She later leaves Westeros on a ship for Braavos.

The experience of Arya is not only of a girl who questions her perceived gender role as a noble-born lady, but in order to survive alone she has to become willing to endure and adapt. Arya is willing to kill without hesitation and cuts herself off from all attachments. Her enthusiasm to engage in battle is so extreme that she has to be reigned in several times.

Another example of a woman who violates her gender role in Westeros is Brienne of Tarth. Brienne is not only a knight from a noble house. She is not even looked on as a man – considering that she tall, heavily built with short hair. Her physical appearance is something that is continually mocked on by men. Although there is no formal prohibition on a woman becoming a knight, since men are warriors Brienne does so anyway. And as a knight, Brienne is not only a better warrior (able to best renowned fighters such as the Hound), but follows the code of chivalry better than most men. For example, know matter whom Brienne pledges fealty to, Renly, Catelyn Stark, or Jaime Lannister, she makes every effort to stay true to her vows. This is something recognized by Jamie Lannister, who initially despised her but Brienne did all in her power to protect him on the route back to King’s Landing because she swore to. As a reward, Jamie gave Brienne a sword as a gift, which she appropriately names:

Jamie Lannister: They say the best swords have names. Any ideas?

Brienne of Tarth [Thinks for a moment] Oathkeeper. (“Oathkeeper”)

Even among those most expected to play traditional gender roles, such as Queens and princesses, there is a continual violation of them. For instance, Cersei Lannister is Queen and later regent for her son Joffrey, yet she seeks out greater power and independence for herself. She is smart and ambitious, but not particular good at playing politics. And in perhaps what is the greatest violation of a woman’s role in Westeros, to be a faithful wife and mother, Cersei bears three children with her brother Jaime — the knowledge of which helps to cause the War of the Five Kings. Margarey Tyrell, who initially is married to Renly, then Joffrey and later betrothed to Tommen (who becomes king after Joffrey’s death) is a skillful manipulator who hides her ambition with a compassionate side has one goal in mind:

Petyr Baelish: “Do you want to be a queen?”

Margaery Tyrell: “No. I want to be the Queen.” (“The Ghost of Harrenhal”)

Perhaps an interesting example of a woman in Game of Thrones who most clearly embraced her gender role and learned the brutal realities of being a woman in a misogynist society is Sansa Stark. Sansa, the elder sister to Arya, loves to knit, wear dresses and believes all the stories she hears about chivalry. Once Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey, she believes this to be a fairytale ending. However reality soon sets in after her father Ned is killed for treason before her eyes on Joffrey’s orders. Sansa soon finds herself a prisoner in King’s Landing, subjected to abuse and torment at the hands of Joffrey. She is nearly raped at several points.

However, Sansa learns the reality of the way the world is, which is told to her by the Hound:

Sandor Clegane: He can die just fine on his own. I can take you with me. Take you to Winterfell. I’ll keep you safe. Do you want to go home?

Sansa Stark: I’ll be safe here. Stannis won’t hurt me.

Sandor Clegane: Look at me. Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them. (“Blackwater”)

Sansa learns to endure and keep her true feelings well guarded as opposed to lashing out like Arya. When Sansa is tortured and humiliated by Joffrey, Tyrion comes to her rescue and stops the abuse. Sansa maintains public loyalty to Joffrey, even when with Tyrion (who has no love for his nephew). In observing Sansa’s facade, Tyrion remarks:

Tyrion Lannister: You may outlive us all, Lady Stark. (“Garden of Bones”)

Even when Sansa is married to Tyrion, a dwarf she finds grotesque, she keeps up the act and never lets on. Although she will never openly love Tyrion, Sansa is prepared to play the role of a loyal wife. However, Tyrion realizes how unhappy Sansa is in their marriage and promises that they will not have sex unless she wants to. Incidentally, Tyrion is one of the few characters in King’s Landing who treats her respectfully.

However, Sansa eventually escapes from King’s Landing after King Joffrey is poisoned at his wedding feast and Tyrion is framed for it. The architect of her rescue and the murder of the King is Littlefinger, who wanted revenge of Joffrey for killing Sansa’s mother Catelyn (who he also loved). Petyr’s words help Sansa to come to a growing maturity about the way of the world:

Sansa Stark: Why did you really kill Joffrey? Tell me why.

Petyr Baelish: I loved your mother more than you could ever know. Given the opportunity, what do we do to those who’ve hurt the ones we love? In a better world, one where love could overcome strength and duty, you might have been my child. But we don’t live in that world. (“Mockingbird”)

Littlefinger takes Sansa to her aunt Lysa in the Vale. Sansa disguises her identity and befriends her cousin, the sickly boy Robin. Although Littlefinger marries Lysa (giving him claim to the Vale), she believes that Sansa secretly loves her new husband. When Littlefinger kisses Sansa, Lysa is enraged with jealousy and attempts to kill Sansa. However, Littlefinger intervenes and saves Sansa and then has Lysa thrown to her doom. Following the death of Lysa, Sansa and Littlefinger are interrogated by the Lords of the Vale about the murder. There, Sansa reveals her true identity and lies saying that Littlefinger killed Lysa to protect her, breaking down in tears in the process. The Lords accept this explanation and Petyr is exonerated. Later, Littlefinger confronts Sansa about why she lied to protect him, her answer shows that how far she has come:

Petyr Baelish: The first time I saw you, you were just a child. A girl from the North, come to the capital for the first time. Not a child any longer. Why did you help me?

Sansa Stark: They would have thrown you through the Moon Door if they’d found you guilty.

Petyr Baelish: That’s not an answer.

Sansa Stark: [nonchalant] If they’d've executed you, what would they have done with me?

Petyr Baelish: I don’t know.

Sansa Stark: Neither do I.

Petyr Baelish: Better to gamble on the man you know than the strangers you don’t…. you think you know me?

Sansa Stark: I know what you want.

Petyr Baelish: Do you? (“The Mountain and the Viper”)

Despite beginning as a rather naïve and innocent girl, Sansa learns harsh lessons about the way the world works and the place of women in it. She learns to keep her true feelings guarded and to pick her allies with care. At the time of this writing, it seems that she is using Littlefinger in order to protect herself and to gain greater power.

Before moving onto the final woman of this section, a few words about the role of women in Game of Thrones. Although Brienne is an exception to the role of a warrior woman, there are cultures such as the wildlings where women fight alongside men (notably Ygritte) and among the Ironborn where women can captain ships (Yara Greyjoy). Throughout the history of Westeros, there have also been stories of women warriors such as Visenya Targaryen. And women can also rise in the Faith of the Seven becoming septas or members of the Silent Sisters. However, it is in the religion of  R’hllor, the Lord of Light, that the priestess Melisandre is able to rise to prominence and become a trusted adviser (and lover) to Stannis Baratheon.

The final woman who breaks with her gender role is Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys (or Dany) begins the series as a young girl in her teens, who lives in exile. She is one of the two surviving children of  King Aerys II from the House of Targaryen, and the former ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. Aerys was overthrown shortly before Dany’s birth when Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark led a rebellion against his rule. Dany and her brother Viserys thus live in the Free City of Pentos across the Narrow Sea on the continent of Essos. Viserys, a vain, abusive and short-tempered man dreams of returning to Westeros and reclaiming the throne from King Robert. When Viserys loses his temper, he says to his sister:

Viserys Targaryen: You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you? (“Winter is Coming”)

As part of his scheme, Viserys has Dany married off to the Khal Drogo, Khalasar of 40,000 nomadic and fearsome Dothraki warriors. In return for the marriage, Drogo will give Viserys the men he needs to retake the Iron Throne. For Viserys, Dany’s feelings in the matter are not even considered, rather she is merely a means to an end. When Dany objects to the wedding, she is threatened by Viserys. However, Dany reluctantly goes through with the wedding, thus securing her brother’s alliance.
Dany is not willing to be a submissive wife or take orders from her brother. She begins to grow into her role, learning the Dothraki language, customs and commanding the men under her husband’s command. She also takes the advice of her servant, Doreah, learning how to pleasure Khal Drogo and to use her sexuality to her advantage:

Doreah : No, Khaleesi. You must look in his eyes always. Love comes in at the eyes. It is said that Irogenia of Lys could finish a man with nothing but her eyes.

Daenerys Targaryen : Finish a man ?

Doreah : Kings traveled across the world for a night with Irogenia. Magisters sold their palaces. Khals burned her enemies just to have her for a few hours. They say a thousand men proposed to her and she refused them all.

Daenerys Targaryen : Well, she sounds like an interesting woman. I don’t think that Drogo will like it with me on top.

Doreah : You will make him like it, Khaleesi. Men want what they’ve never had. And the Dothraki take slaves like a hound takes a bitch. Are you a slave, Khaleesi ? Then don’t make love like a slave. Very good, Khaleesi. Out there he is the mighty Khal, but in this tent, he belongs to you.

Daenerys Targaryen : I don’t think that this is the Dothraki way.

Doreah : If he wanted the Dothraki way, why did he marry you ? (“The Kingsroad”)

Dany grows steadily into her role with develops a new-found confidence as well. She grows to love Khal Drogo and becomes pregnant with his child. When Viserys attempts to regain his control, Dany stops him and shows her independence:

Daenerys Targaryen: I am a Khaleesi of the Dothraki! I am the wife of the great Khal and I carry his son inside me. The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands! (“Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”)

Dany’s threats don’t stop Viserys, who confronts Khal Drogo and demands that he honor the agreement and give him a crown or else he will retake his sister. Drogo winds up having Viserys executed by pouring molten gold over his head. Dany looks on coldly as he is killed and notes:

Daenerys Targaryen: He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.” (“A Golden Crown”)

When word of Dany’s pregnancy reaches Westeros and King Robert sends an assassin to kill her, fearing a rival for the throne. However, thanks to Ser Jorah Mormont she escapes death. This infuriates Drogo reverses his earlier decision to break the agreement with Viserys and vows to cross over into Westeros and take the Seven Kingdoms. In order to raise money for the necessary ships to invade, Drogo begins raiding and taking prisoners. When Dany objects to the harsh treatment of prisoners, one of Drogo’s men objects and challenges Drogo in combat. Drogo defeats the challenger easily, but he receives a wound on the chest which grows infected.

Khal Drogo’s condition worsens and he falls from his horse (a sign of weakness among the Dothraki). Dany grows desperate to save her husband and has Mirri Maz Duur (one of the prisoners she saved) use magic to help him. The Dothraki object to magic and most of the men of the khalasar separate. Although the magic succeeds in saving Khal Drogo, causing the death of Dany’s unborn son in the process, Drogo is left in a vegetative state. Dany can’t understand why, but Duur says that this was done as an act of revenge for the destruction of her village.

Dany is distraught and has Drogo smothered with a pillow and gives him a funeral pyre. Duur and three dragon eggs, which Dany received as a wedding gift, are also placed on the pyre. Duur is burned alive and Dany steps into the fire, possibly meaning to kill herself. However, Dany survives the blaze and it turns out that she now has three young dragons on her. The Dothraki and Jorah Mormont are stunned and fall to their knees, proclaiming Dany their queen.

From this point on, Dany uses her skills as a leader, her lineage as the rightful heir of Westeros and the symbolism surrounding her dragons to build an army of devoted followers and soldiers in order to retake the Iron Throne of Westeros. Dany, perhaps more than other female character in Game of Thrones, is successfully able to overcome her gender role and become a ruler in her own right. The socio-economic and political implications of Dany’s quest to retake the Iron Throne are what we now turn to.

The Transition to Capitalism?

In season three, Dany and her entourage arrive in the city of Astapor in Slaver’s Bay of Essos. Slaver’s Bay is a fertile agricultural region with an economy centered around slavery. Although her dragons have grown, they are still quite small and no substitute for the army she needs to retake the Seven Kingdoms. In the city, she plans to buy an army of 8,000 Unsullied in Astapor. The Unsullied are eunuch-slaves who have been trained since birth to be regarded as some of the greatest soldiers of the world. Dany knows that slave soldiers would become a problem in Westeros, which has outlawed the practice (and which Dany finds abhorrent). After consulting with her advisers, Dany realizes that she has no other way of acquiring an army.

Dany continues with her negotiations to buy the army and the only thing she has to offer for all the Unsullied is one of her dragons. Even though Dany’s advisers are opposed to the bargain, since the dragons are key to her army, she reluctantly agrees to sell Drogon. On the day of the exchange, Dany sells her dragon to the masters of Astapor for the Unsullied. Once Dany is assured that the Unsullied are under her command, she orders them to kill all the masters of Astapor, free all the slaves, but to harm no innocents. After Astapor is sacked, Dany tells the Unsullied that they are free to do as they wish — to leave unharmed or to under her fight command. After a moment of quiet, the 8,000 Unsullied pledge their allegiance to Dany and march out of the city.

Shortly afterward, Dany moves against the city in Slaver’s Bay — Yunkai. She initially offers mercy to the masters of Yunkai, saying their lives would be spared if all the slaves were freed. However, the masters refuse this offer and Dany promises that no mercy will be shown to them. Despite the reputation of Yunkai as an unconquerable city, Dany’s soldiers are able to take it and liberate the slaves. Dany addresses the freed slaves who now revere her as “Mhysa” (or Mother) and embrace her.

After this victory, Dany and her army move onto the largest and most powerful city of Slaver’s Bay — Meeren — which possesses great wealth and enormous slave population (three slaves to every freed person). Rather than take Meeren in a frontal assault, Daenerys encourages the slaves within to rise up. She bombards the city with barrels containing the broken chains of slaves, to tell the enslaved that she is a liberator. Daenerys then has the commander of her Unsullied, Grey Worm, smuggle weapons into Meeren who arms the population. Very quickly, the slaves rise up, slaughter the masters and take control of the city.

When Dany enters the city, she has 163 masters crucified outside of the city in retaliation for the  Masters of Meeren crucifying the same number of slaves en route to the city as a warning. Daenerys answers the objection of her advisers that she should treat the masters with leniency as follows:

Daenerys Targaryen: Remind me, Ser Jorah, how many children did the Great Masters nail to mileposts?

Jorah Mormont: 163, Khaleesi.

Daenerys Targaryen: Yes, that was it. [nods to the Unsullied]

Barristan Semly: Your Grace, may I have a word? The city is yours. All these people, they’re your subjects now. Sometimes it is better to answer injustice with mercy.

Daenerys Targaryen: I will answer injustice with justice. (“Oathkeeper”)

Following the liberation of Meeren, Dany learns that her soldiers have captured 93 ships which would be enough to take her army to King’s Landing (which she could probably take, but not all of Westeros). Dany is also disheartened to learn that in Yunkai the masters have restored slavery and vowed revenge against her. In Astapor, the ruling council she installed has been overthrown. This dismays Dany and she is unsure of her ability to rule the Seven Kingdoms when she can’t hold Slaver’s Bay. Dany decides to stay in Meeren and gain some experience as a ruler.

Dany finds that ruling Meeren is more difficult than she expected. For one, she hears petitions from her subjects, learning that she crucified a master who had actually opposed brutality towards slaves (his son asks to bury the body). She also sends soldiers of her army to retake Yunkai and end slavery there once and for all. She also has to use one of her elite units, the Second Sons, to keep order in Meeren from killings and robbery. And Dany’s dragons also cause her headaches, killing livestock and children which causes her to lock two of them up. And she discovers that her trusted adviser Jorah Mormont was spying on her for the Iron Throne back in Westeros (Dany has him exiled).

Perhaps most distressingly for Dany is that freedom has left the former slaves in a precarious condition. For instance, privileged house slaves and former tutors such as Fennesz find it difficult to make their way in the world and miss the security that come from being slaves. Now that Fennesz is free, he is forced to live on the streets where ex-slaves are fighting each other. Fennesz eventually petitions Dany to allow him to sell himself back to his employer:

Daenerys: I have outfitted mess halls to feed all former slaves and barracks to shelter them.

Fennesz: I do not mean to offend, your grace. I went to one of these places. The young prey on the old. Take what they want and beat us if we resist.

Daenerys: My Unsullied will make them safe again in short order my friend, this I promise you.

Fennesz: Even if they are safe, who would I be there? What purpose would I serve? With my master, I was a teacher. I had the respect and love of these children.

Daenerys: What is it that you want from me?

Fennesz: Your grace, I ask you to let me sell myself back to Master Mighdal.

Daenerys: You want to return to a man who owned you, like a goat or a chair?

Fennesz: Please, your grace, the young may rejoice in the new world you’ve built for them. But for those of us too old to change there is only fear and squalor. I am not alone. There are many outside waiting to beg the same-

Daenerys: I did not take this city to preside over the injustice I fought to destroy. I took it to bring people freedom. But freedom means making your own choices. I will allow you to sign a contract with your former master. It may not cover a period lasting longer than a year.

Fennesz: Thank you, your grace. Thank you.

Barristan: The masters will take advantage of this situation. The men serving them will be slaves in all but name. (“The Children”)

While Daenerys is not willing to countenance the rebirth of slavery in Meeren, she does recognize that ex-slaves need employment. Thus she allows for some primitive form of wage labor among the former slaves and their masters. And considering how little time has passed since emancipation, the slaves turned workers may find their conditions of employment to be little different than slavery. However, Daenerys is finding her own rule increasingly threatened as ex-masters in Yunkai and Astapor have openly revolted while she has few loyal administrators. Perhaps in order to secure her position and build a wider class base, Daenerys will be pushed into making alliances and concessions with the former masters, which could undercut her own popular support.

Dany has potentially unleashed social forces that she cannot control. She began liberating cities in Slaver’s Bay in order to gain the men and resources she would need to retake Westeros. As part of her strategy, Dany mobilized slaves to fight for their own liberation, but in doing so has alienated the former masters. So Dany may have helped Slaver’s Bay bypass a feudal stage of development, bringing it to the cusp of a “revolution from above” to establish primitive capitalism. And as part of Dany’s strategy and “revolution from above” to build the support she needs to move against the Seven Kingdoms, she will undoubtedly have to make compromises with the former ruling class (not unlike the Japanese Emperor during the Meiji Restoration). It is a point that is not considered by either Mason or Kriss who consider the possibility of a bourgeois revolution mainly within Westeros.

However, this brings up the question of what happens to the former slaves? While they may be willing to follow Dany and fight for her, they have their own dreams and aspirations that don’t include replacing one form of exploitation with another. Indeed, during the bourgeois revolutions in France and England, the end result may have been the establishment of capitalist relations of production, but the masses didn’t go into battle with that in mind. They were fighting their own revolution against oppression, privilege and bondage. And in the case of France, the Jacobin section of the radical bourgeois was willing to ally with the popular masses to push their demands even against the bourgeois system itself. It remains open at this point if Daenerys is willing or able to back support of former slaves or if she will solidify her rule by allying with the masters. Then again, the freed slaves may desire something beyond a bourgeois revolution and fight for their own emancipation and a people’s republic.

You Win or You Die: Political Realpolitik in Game of Thrones

In contrast to most fantasy stories, Game of Thrones does not have an idealized view of politics. There are no noble heroes who rally honorable knights to their banner in order to fight dark forces. Rather, politics in Game of Thrones resembles a Hobbesian “war of all against all” or the twisted Machiavellian paths of how to build and maintain alliances on the road to power, isolate opponents with different means (both fair and foul), and once in power how to maintain it. Throughout the series, those characters who understand the nature of realpolitik are able to succeed while those who don’t are ruthlessly crushed.

The clearest example of this can be found in the character of Ned Stark. As we discussed above, Ned is an honorable character who is always trying to do the right thing for the good of the realm. His problem is that honor prevents him from being able to succeed. For instance, when Ned discovers the truth about Jamie and Cersei’s incest, he decides to wait before exposing and arresting them. Rather than moving swiftly, Ned acts honorably and warns Cersei to leave the capital. The scene between the two is instructive on revealing how little Ned understands how politics works:

Eddard Stark: When the king returns from his hunt, I will tell him the truth. You must be gone by then, you and your children; I won’t have their blood on my hands. Go as far away as you can with as many men as you can, because wherever you go, Robert’s wrath will follow you.

Cersei Lannister: And what of my wrath, Lord Stark? You should have taken the realm for yourself. Jaime told me about the day King’s Landing fell. He was sitting on the Iron Throne, and you made him give it up. All you needed to do was climb the steps yourself … such a sad mistake.

Eddard Stark: I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but that wasn’t one of them.

Cersei Lannister: Oh, but it was. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground. (“You Win or You Die”)

Indeed, Ned had lost his chance for power at the end of the Robert’s rebellion and he lost his chance to defeat Cersei by informing her in advance that he planned to arrest her. Cersei took advantage of Ned’s weakness in acting honorably (and relying on Littlefinger) by mobilizing her own forces and taking him prisoner. Cersei was correct, there was no middle ground in the game of thrones, you either play to win as she was, or you lose.

Although Cersei is able to stay informed of the various factions and plots in King’s Landing, she recognizes that knowledge is not enough to rule (although it is necessary). She knows that knowledge is nothing without the power to implement it. For instance, when Littlefinger hints to her that he knows she has an incestuous relationship with Jamie and that gives him power over her, Cersei quickly disabuses him of that notion by ordering her guards to kill him:

Cersei Lannister: I heard a song once, about a boy of modest means, found his way in the home of a very prominent family. He loved the eldest daughter. Sadly, she had eyes for another.

Petyr Baelish: When boys and girls live in the same home, awkward situations can arise. Sometimes, I’ve heard, even brothers and sisters develop certain affections. And when those affections become common knowledge, well that is an awkward situation indeed, especially in a prominent family. Prominent families often forget a simple truth I found.

Cersei Lannister: And which truth is that?

Petyr Baelish: Knowledge is power.

[Cersei pauses a moment]

Cersei Lannister: [to her guards] Cut his throat. [her guards move to do so]

Cersei Lannister: No, wait. [chuckles] I’ve changed my mind. Let him go. [her guards do so] Step back three paces. [they obey]. Turn around. [they obey] Close your eyes. [they obey].

Cersei Lannister: [steps up to Petyr] Power is power. (“The North Remembers”)

While Cersei understands the nature of power, she is actually a poor political actor. Rather than seeking to broaden the base of support for her son Joffrey’s tenuous hold on the Iron Throne, she lets petty jealousies get in the way (such as with her brother Tyrion), acts in a short-sighted manner and alienates potential allies (such as the Tyrells) with her immature behavior.

If the fate of the Iron Throne were left in Cersei’s hands, it would surely have succumbed to its enemies long ago. Yet the real power behind the unstable King Joffrey is not Cersei, the Queen Regent, but her father Tywin Lannister. Tywin is everything that his daughter is not: he is a prudent political actor who is able to see the big picture, form alliances without letting old feuds get in the way and knows that those alliances have to be constantly maintained for Joffrey to stay on the Iron Throne.

Tywin has proven his ability as a political actor over and over again. For one, he restored the position of House Lannister after his own father Tytos left them in ruins due to poor investments. The vassals of House Lannister rebelled and Tywin brutally put them down, showing he understands Machiavelli’s maxim:

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. [4]

And while Tywin is willing to offer the carrot whenever possible to win power, he will not hesitate to use deadly force. Thus inside the velvet Lannister glove there is a clenched fist.

During Robert’s Rebellion, Tywin remained non-committal until after it was clear that Robert was going to win. Then Tywin marched his own army to King’s Landing, but he tricked the Targaryens into believing that he had come to defend the capital. King Aerys II made a fatal mistake when he opened the gates and allowed Tywin’s forces to enter. Tywin wasted no time in sacking the city and killing the royal family. Once Robert Baratheon arrived, Tywin presented him with the Targaryen corpses as proof of his allegiance. Then he solidified the alliance with the Baratheons by marrying his daughter Cersei to Robert. Thus Tywin understands some of the key lessons of politics – knowing the right moment to strike, the use of deception and force, securing your position and making the right friends.

During the War of the Five Kings, Tywin’s political skills are on display once again as he is able to build the alliances that keep his grandson on the Throne. Despite the fact that House Tyrell had allied with Renly Baratheon, who were enemies of the throne, Tywin is not above mending fences with them by having Margarey Tyrell marry Joffrey – making her the future Queen. This alliance allows Tywin to bring the substantial military forces of House Tyrell to King’s Landing in order to defeat Stannis at the Battle of the Blackwater.

Although Tywin does not trust the Tyrells, he realizes that he needs them for more than just their military support. In order to wage the War of the Five Kings, the Lannisters had to incur an enormous debt from the Iron Bank of Braavos. And the Lannister gold mines have gone dry, so they are deeply in debt. Tywin understands that without the financial support of the Tyrells, then the Iron Bank (who demand repayment) may turn against the Iron Throne:

Tywin Lannister: You don’t need to make formal alliances with people you trust.

Cersei Lannister: And whom can we trust?

Tywin Lannister: Ourselves, alone. (stands up, pours wine) The Tyrells are our only true rivals in terms of resources- and we need them on our side. (passes Cersei a goblet)

Cersei Lannister: Robert wasn’t particularly rich.

Tywin Lannister: (scornfully) Robert had me funding him. (pours himself wine) Wars swallowed gold like a pit in the earth.

Cersei Lannister:… I suppose that explains why we did so well in the last one. (takes a drink)

Tywin Lannister: D’you know how much gold was mined in the Westerlands, this past year?

Cersei Lannister: (deadpan) Haven’t a clue.

Tywin Lannister: Go on- your best guess.

Cersei Lannister:… pounds, tons, ounces?

Tywin Lannister: (grimly) Doesn’t matter. The answer’s the same.

Cersei Lannister: (stares at him)… That can’t be.

Tywin Lannister: Our last working goldmine ran dry three years ago.

Cersei Lannister: (pause) Then how do we pay for anything?

Tywin Lannister: The Crown owes the Iron Bank of Braavos a tremendous amount of money. (walks back to his desk)

Cersei Lannister: How much?

Tywin Lannister:… A tremendous amount. (sits down)

Cersei Lannister: …There must be someone, at the Iron Bank, that you can speak to- come to some arrangement-

Tywin Lannister: (impatiently) The Iron Bank is the Iron Bank; there is no someone. (takes a drink)

Cersei Lannister: (also impatiently) Someone does work there, it is comprised of people-

Tywin Lannister: And a temple is comprised of stones; one stone crumbles, and another takes its’ place- and the temple holds its’ form, for a thousand years or more. And that’s what the Iron Bank is- a temple. We all live in it’s shadow, and almost none of us know it. You can’t run from them, you can’t cheat them, you can’t sway them with excuses. If you owe them money, and you don’t want to crumble yourself… you pay it back. (pause) Vesting the Tyrells in the Crown will help a great deal, in this respect. (“First of His Name”)

And Tywin also builds an alliance with House Frey (and the Boltons), whom Robb Stark had alienated, by giving them reassurances to kill the Starks. However, while the Freys kill the Starks during a wedding feast (a  dishonorable act), they take the credit for the massacre, but since Tywin operated in the shadows, he takes none of the blame. Thus Tywin not only lets pragmatism and grand strategy guide his strategy of building alliances and maintaining Lannister rule, he also “cheats” and lets others take the blame for dishonorable acts while he appears blameless. This grasp of politics and strategy allows Tywin to come out on top, while Robb Stark who never lost a battle was ultimately defeated:

Tyrion Lannister: No, I think armies give you power. (Tywin nods) Robb Stark had one, never lost a battle, and you defeated him all the same. [Tywin nods again] Oh, I know. Walder Frey gets all the credit- or the blame, I suppose, depending on your allegiance. (pause) Walder Frey is many things, but a brave man? No. He never would have risked such an action, unless he had certain assurances…

Tywin Lannister: Which he got from me. Do you disapprove?

Tyrion Lannister: I’m all for cheating, this is war. But to slaughter them at a wedding…

Tywin Lannister: Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.

Tyrion Lannister: (sarcastically) So that’s why you did it- to save lives?

Tywin Lannister: (impatient) To end the war- to protect the family. Do you want to write a song for the dead Starks? Go ahead! Write one. (pause) I’m in this world a little while longer- to defend the Lannisters, to defend my blood.

Tyrion Lannister: …The Northerners will never forget.

Tywin Lannister: Good. Let them remember what happens when they march on the South. (pause, puts his papers away) All the Stark men are dead. Winterfell is a ruin. Roose Bolton will be named Warden of the North- until your son by Sansa comes of age. (stands up) I believe you still have some work to do on that score. (turns away, Tyrion stands up, furious, and follows him across the room)

Tyrion Lannister: (angrily) Do you think she’ll open her legs for me after I tell her how we murdered her mother and brother?!

Tywin Lannister: One way or another, you will get that girl pregnant-

Tyrion Lannister: I will not rape her! (pause)

Tywin Lannister: …Shall I explain to you in one easy lesson how the world works?

Tyrion Lannister: (sneering) Use small words- I’m not as bright as you! (Tywin glares at him)

Tywin Lannister: The house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its’ sons and daughters first. (Tyrion gives him an odd expression) A good man does everything in his power to better his family’s position- regardless of his own selfish desires. (Tyrion begins to smirk)… Does that amuse you?! (“Mhysa”)

While Tywin is not a perfect political actor (his hatred of Tyrion ultimately brings about his death), he understands better than almost any character in the series the importance of wisdom. He is a shrewd political operator who sees the big picture, knows it is not enough to win power but you have to keep it, uses deception, and maintains appearances as a fearsome (albeit honorable) man. And Tywin is smart enough to know that there are some things that he doesn’t know, so he has to be willing to listen to those more knowledgeable than him. It is a lesson that Tywin attempts to pass onto his grandson Tommen on what makes a good king (in contrast to Joffrey who was a bad king):

Tywin Lannister: Your brother is dead. Do you know what that means? [Tommen hesitates in answering] I’m not trying to trick you.

Tommen Baratheon: It means I’ll become king.

Tywin Lannister: Yes, you will become king. What kind of king do you think you will be?

Tommen Baratheon: A good king?

Tywin Lannister: I think so as well; you have the right temperament for it. But what makes a good king, hmm? What is a good king’s single most important quality?

Cersei Lannister: This is hardly the place or the time-!

Tommen Baratheon: Holiness?

Tywin Lannister: Baelor the Blessed was holy and pious. He built this sept. He also named a six year old boy High Septon because he thought the boy could work miracles. He ended up fasting himself into an early grave because food was of this world and this world was sinful.

Tommen Baratheon: Justice?

Tywin Lannister: A good king must be just. Orys the First was just; everyone applauded his reforms, nobles and commoners alike, but he wasn’t just for long. He was murdered in his sleep after less than a year by his own brother. Was that truly just of him, to abandon his subjects to an evil that he was too gullible to recognize?

Tommen Baratheon: No. What about strength?

Tywin Lannister: Yes, strength. King Robert was strong; he won the rebellion and crushed the Targaryen dynasty. And he attended three Small Council meetings in seventeen years of ruling, and he spent his time whoring, hunting and drinking until the last two killed him. So, we have a man who starves himself to death, a man who lets his own brother murder him and a man who thinks winning and ruling are the same thing. What do they all lack?

Tommen Baratheon: Wisdom?

Tywin Lannister: Yes!

Tommen Baratheon: Wisdom is what makes a good king.

Tywin Lannister: Yes. But what is wisdom? A house with great wealth and fertile lands asks you for your protection against another house with a strong navy that could one day oppose you. How do you know which choice is wise and which is not? Any experience of treasuries and granaries? Or shipyards and soldiers?

Tommen Baratheon: No.

Tywin Lannister: Of course not. A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t. You’re young. A wise young king listens to his councilors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. And the wisest kings continue to listen to them long afterwards. Your brother was not a wise king. Your brother was not a good king. If he had been, he’d probably still be alive. (“Breaker of Chains”)

Tywin is not the only skilled political actor. Tywin began with certain advantages such as coming from a noble house and possessing connections. Yet Littlefinger shows how it is possible for someone of modest means can gain power and influence by taking advantage of chaos. While young, Littlefinger learned that he would never win by brute force or strength, but through guile and cunning:

Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: You know what I learnt losing that duel? I learnt that I’ll never win. Not that way. That’s their game, their rules. I’m not going to fight them: I’m going to fuck them. That’s what I know, that’s what I am, and only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.

Ros: And what do you want?

Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: Everything, my dear. Everything there is. (“You Win or You Die”)

Littlefinger’s sense of finances and ability to pick out the correct allies (and to ditch inconvenient ones) ensures that he is able to rise high. For instance, he befriends and betrays Ned Stark. Furthermore, Littlefinger also makes sure that he loyally serves anyone he is allied to at a particular moment (he successfully negotiates the Tyrell alliance to the Iron Throne). Littlefinger’s success in gaining the support of the Tyrell elevates him to become Lord of Harrenhal, which gives him a significant amount of land and title. He uses that title to arrange his marriage to Lysa Arryn and gain control of the Vale. Before leaving King’s Landing, Baelish has King Joffrey killed and frames Tyrion for the murder, creating even more chaos in the capital. And even if Littlefinger is discovered to be the culprit, he is now safely in the Vale which is a militarily impenetrable position. And after he marries Lysa and has her killed, Littlefinger is now in a position to marry Sansa Stark, who has a claim to the North. Thus, Baelish is now clearly positioned to gain a dominant position in the Seven Kingdoms.

Yet the true genius of Baelish is not that he took advantage of the civil war to gain power and title, it is that he orchestrated the war from the beginning. Littlefinger knew that there was bad blood between the Starks and Lannisters which just needed a fuse. He also knew that Lysa Arryn loved him, so he had her poison her husband Jon promising that they would be together if she did so. And Littlefinger had her blame the Lannisters for Jon Arryn’s death, thus lighting a match (and he was careful later to kill Lysa to silence any witnesses). Petyr’s strategy is to create chaos and then use the resulting confusion to play off his opponents and rise to power:

Littlefinger: 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, who are given the 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. (“The Climb”)

Lastly, there is the example of Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of Tywin, who is a capable political actor. Tyrion may have a sharp tongue, drink and sleep with prostitutes, but he is extremely intelligent and well-read. Realizing that he would never have his brother’s strength, he compensates for that with book-learning:

Jon Snow: Why do you read so much?

Tyrion Lannister: Look at me and tell me what you see.

Jon Snow: Is this a trick?

Tyrion Lannister: What you see is a dwarf. If I had been born a peasant, they might have left me out in the woods to die. Alas, I was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock. Things are expected of me. My father was the Hand of the King for twenty years.

Jon Snow: Until your brother killed that king.

Tyrion Lannister: …Yes. Until my brother killed him. Life is full of these little ironies. My sister married the new king, and my repulsive nephew will be king after him. I must do my part for the honor of my house; wouldn’t you agree? But how? Well, my brother has his sword, and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow. (“The Kingsroad”)

Tyrion is able to use his mind and sharp wit to escape from death on a number of occasions. He is also able to see the big picture and swallow his pride. Tyrion builds alliances for his advantage, but in Tyrion’s case, it is often built on genuine friendship and the pursuit of mutually assured goals (such as Bronn). This doesn’t mean that Tyrion won’t practice subterfuge or play his opponents against each other (he does willingly), but he does so with the greater interests of House Lannister and his own comfort in mind.

Tyrion isn’t necessarily interested in glory, but in advancing his own agenda behind the shadows and acting as the situation requires. Unlike Cersei, Tyrion believes that real power is not necessarily from physical force, but where people believe it resides. And if he maneuvers himself correctly, he can gain a great deal of power, as the spy master Varys reminds him with a riddle:

Tyrion Lannister: The Council has a reputation for serving past Hands poorly. I don’t mean to follow Ned Stark to the grave.

Varys: Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?

Tyrion Lannister: Why, am I about to hear one?

Varys: Three great men sit in a room; a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?

Tyrion Lannister: …Depends on the sellsword.

Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor the favour of the gods.

Tyrion Lannister: He has a sword, the power of life and death.

Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule… why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?

Tyrion Lannister: (frowns) I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.

Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and… a very small man can cast a very large shadow. (they both smile and drink) (“What Is Dead May Never Die”)

In the last analysis, Game of Thrones eschews any idealized portrayal of feudal politics for the grim reality of realpolitik. While fantasy series typically present heroes who act honorably as the ones to come out on top, in the world of Westeros, following a code of honor is naïve and bound to get you killed. Rather, the winners in the game of thrones are those who use the facade of honor, while building alliances, manipulating others and taking advantage of a situation who ultimately win.


In the end, the Game of Thrones series may feel like perfect escapism into a fantasy universe, but the show is so much more than that. Game of Thrones breaks with the heroic world of knights, kings and magic to show the harsh and unforgiving realities of feudalism and power politics for the viewer. It is a world where class and power matters, women are at the mercy of men, and where honor will get you killed. For Marxists, Game of Thrones is essential viewing not only for its gripping storytelling and multidimensional characters and epic battles, but for showing us how exploitation and oppression functions.


  1. The focus of this essay will be solely on the television series Game of Thrones and not George R. R. Martin’s books. All information was gathered either from the episodes of the show or the two wikis dedicated to the television series (http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/) or the novels (awoiaf.westeros.org/). Whenever dialogue from the series is quote, the episode name can be found italicized in parenthesis.
  2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “German Ideology,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch03abs.htm
  3. Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (New York: Verso Books, 1974),147.
  4. Nicolo Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://marxists.org/reference/archive/machiavelli/works/prince/ch17.htm

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is the author of a forthcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.

Category : Culture / Marxism

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