DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: If you haven’t seen Game of Thrones or read Song of Ice and Fire, both contain large amounts of sexually disturbing and violent material, which will be under discussion in this post and probably in any comments as well.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post will discuss both the HBO series and the original books by George R.R. Martin. This post and the comments will likely be rife with spoilers for both.
These two related works – the HBO hit Game of Thrones and the George R.R. Martin fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire – are wonderful fodder for those who, like me, tend to prefer complex characters over simple ones. In my experience, at least, villains are often painted with greater nuance than heroes, as if the author assume that we will automatically “sign on” with the causes of the “good guys,” but they have to explain the reasoning of the “bad guys” to us. The result, to me, is that villains are almost always more interesting, more attractive, and more sympathetic than heroes in speculative fiction genres.
George R.R. Martin seems to have circumvented the problem by foregoing heroes altogether, at least in the “present day” of his world. There may be heroes of the past, but even they are turning up more ambiguous than one usually finds in epic fantasy. The real brilliance of this move, though, lies in the fact that the author managed to manipulate the majority of his audience into thinking that wasn’t his intention for the entirety of the first book (a feat which the showrunners of the televised version replicated with season one on HBO).
I have had a very frustrating repeated experience when discussing these two works with people. Allow me to describe it here. And please note, this has happened even with people who normally are able to discuss literature and film with me in a rational manner. It’s pretty quick to describe. At some point, someone asks the question, “Who is your favorite character?” And I answer, honestly, “Jaime Lannister.” At this point, the conversation goes one of two ways. If the person has read or viewed past a certain point, they say, “Ah, after he lost his hand, you started liking him.” And I protest, “No, he’s been my favorite since the beginning.” At which point we get the same result as if the person hasn’t seen Jaime lose his hand at all, which is that the person promptly explodes with “You’re a horrible person!” Not “I disagree,” not “He’s a horrible person, how could you like him,” but “You’re a horrible person.”
You see, Jaime became my favorite character in the books the instant he was introduced simultaneously as “The Lion of Lannister” and “the Kingslayer,” when he first enters the feasting hall at Winterfell. Before he threw Bran out of a window, before it became apparent that he was sleeping with his sister – not that either of those was inconsistent with the portrait painted in that first snapshot. It became apparent then that this was going to be the character who would be the standard-bearer for moral neutrality and complexity, which has certainly been borne out in later revelations and events. Most readers noticed the other two events much more, due to their spectacular nature, and when I ask people why they don’t like Jaime, those are always the items they bring up. Then they bring up the issue of him having murdered his king, which is of course far more complex than the title of “Kingslayer” would grant.
So let’s talk about that particular event for a bit, because there’s one piece of information that almost everyone overlooks, and is never brought up in conjunction with it in either the show or the books. Jaime makes the snap decision to murder the Mad King Aerys, to prevent him from immolating the capital and everyone in it. Not the job of the Kingsguard, certainly, quite the opposite, but one has to wonder what the world would look like today if one of Hitler’s bodyguards had done the same thing. Would we condemn them? Probably, since we would have no way of knowing what might have been. But let’s get to that missing piece, which wouldn’t have been the case for that hypothetical German: Jaime was only seventeen years old when he made the decision to take that action and never explain his reasoning to anyone, to prevent a panic and instead take everyone’s judgment on himself.
Let’s get to the judgment side of things now. In the first book and first season, Jaime appears to be squarely on the side of the “villains,” along with the vast majority of the cast. The lines are drawn clearly, Starks versus Lannisters, good versus evil, straightforward versus backstabbing, swordsmen versus poisoners (not that this was true either, of course, but it was so easy to believe), you name it. In my opinion, Eddard Stark was the worst thing to happen to Westeros since Aerys. He’s a lousy King’s Hand, and a hypocrite who takes far too much pleasure and comfort in passing moral judgment on others to be a reasonable administrator in a complex world. (This opinion is just about as popular as loving Jaime.) He has his own moral compass, to be sure, but it isn’t what he claims it is. He works for his own honor, his own ideas of right and wrong, and places those above the good of the realm… while claiming that his greatest motivation is service to the Crown. Eddard Stark, in this, is as treacherous as the Lannisters could ever be. Robert Baratheon’s own good, the realm’s own good, were never Ned’s priorities.
The Lannisters are far better rulers. Not that this makes them “good.” Or even “good rulers.” They certainly aren’t that either. And Joffrey is a special case – there’s a reason he was possibly the most hated character on TV, and that there’s an online campaign to erect a statue of him in New Zealand for the sole purpose of publicly tearing it down in celebration. But the rest aren’t anywhere near the sadistic psychopaths that Joffrey turned out to be. Cold, calculating, manipulative, broken: these are all apt descriptions. But those aren’t necessarily all bad qualities in a ruler, which after all is the end prize of the titular “game of thrones.”
The concept of “house words” is also used beautifully to manipulate our ideas of morality in this fantasy world. An apt example is House Tully, with their words of “Family, Duty, Honor.” There’s a great scene in the show reminding us that to members of this family, it should always be “family first,” and this is portrayed as a positive quality. In a family member, it probably is – but not in the ruler of a country.
At their hearts, none of these characters are perfect rulers. None of them may even be good rulers. Quite a few might make competent rulers. But the moral rules and the logistical rules don’t necessarily match up… which is probably a good thing, since there are no “good guys” to be found, only “bad guys” and “worse guys.”