Justice in a Land of Ice and Fire

Don’t expect justice here . . .

This is heavy on spoilers from the first book, which sets up these characters, but I will go lighter on spoilers from the later books.  Given the approaching climax of the third season of Game of Thrones on HBO, I decided to strike while the iron is hot . . . so to speak.

Critics of high fantasy literature often argue that reactionary conservatism is endemic to the genre.  If Tolkien’s opus is taken as the definitive model, it’s not hard to agree.  Rightful and just kings return to their thrones; manservants are loyal and steadfast, if somewhat simple; the leisurely rustic life triumphs over the industrial proletariat; goodness and nobility shine forth from the skin of tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed paragons from the north and west; hordes of dark, vicious, evil races swarm from the south and east; women are passive, beautiful objects that need rescuing (with the occasional active, adventurous female, e.g. Eowyn, being an exception that proves the rule); and the underlying Christian ethos transcends time and space.  High fantasy, after all, finds its roots in the Romanticism of the 19th-century, in many ways a reaction against the cold scientism of the Enlightenment and the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution.  Despite the increasing number of women who have become consumers of the genre, one has only to peruse the covers in the fantasy section of Barnes & Noble to see the impossibly muscular manly-men and the well-endowed, scantily-clad women who love them.  Plus ça change . . .

Reviewers of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (the basis of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones) have often called him the “American Tolkien.”  This is a little hyperbolic, since from a literary perspective, Martin is closer to the pulpy, page-turner-ish Robert Jordan than to high English Tolkien (although Martin draws deeper characters and wittier dialogue than Jordan, in my opinion).  But in many ways, Martin is really an anti-Tolkien, inverting the romanticization of the medieval world typical of the genre.  The rightful king is a self-indulgent asshole, as are most of the pretenders; manservants are likely plotting to slit their masters’ throats; noblesse oblige is a transparent sham used to justify ridiculous entitlements; the dominant “races” are tyrannical and hierarchical, while the nomads and “savages” of the world seem to be the only ones to truly grasp the idea of freedom, albeit a freedom born of brutality; women are treated as inferior but have slightly more options available to them than real-world history afforded them; and all the religions seem equally hypocritical, brutal, and violent.

Martin’s epic is intensely character-driven, so the deeper themes and philosophies are often more subtle.  But one of the dominant themes is the (im)possibility of justice in a deeply flawed world.  Westeros is a land governed by a thriving feudal system based heavily on real-world Europe, but it’s a feudal system with chinks in its armor that allow alternative and empowering visions to bloom in the imaginations of the marginalized – women, dwarves, cripples, criminals, bastards, prostitutes, non-white peoples, and children.  The most compelling characters of the series emerge from an intense experience of feudal injustice.  Each of these characters has their own voice situated at the margins.  Martin allows these characters just enough room to try and do something about it – and here, indeed, is where the series earns the name “fantasy”.


Many of the characters of the series still believe in the justness of their feudal system despite all evidence to the contrary. Eddard (Ned) Stark, his daughter Sansa, and Stannis, the brother of King Robert and one of the pretenders on Robert’s death, represent three iterations of this faith in the system.

A good question. But is he the politician we deserve or need?

Ned is the stereotypical fantasy hero who holds that loyalty to friends and family and the conscientious pursuit of honor and duty will create real virtue.  He is goody-two-shoes to a fault, but he is immediately admirable and sympathetic.  When administering the death penalty, he accords the accused the honor of being the executioner himself – the condemning judge must wield the blade – which is the act through which we are first introduced to the Starks and the ethos of the Northmen.   He has only once besmirched his honor, and that was in fathering the bastard Jon Snow, for which he punishes himself by raising Jon in his household as a constant reminder to himself and his wife Catelyn (and to Jon, as well) of his shame.  Considering how many bastards we eventually meet in the course of the story, Jon Snow is hardly anything unusual, but for Ned, his momentary dalliance was a profound betrayal of love and family.

We begin to suspect Martin’s deviousness when he takes this paragon of nobility and plops him down unceremoniously in the middle of the Machiavellian den of vipers that is King’s Landing, the capital.  As the hedonistic and world-weary King Robert’s newly-appointed Hand, he is left mostly to his own devices to sort out the murder of his predecessor and ferret out threats to the King.  The secret at the center of all the deceit is that all of Robert’s “children” are actually the children of Queen Cersei and her twin brother Jaime (a secret revealed early on when young Bran Stark catches them in the act, is pushed out a window by Jaime, and conveniently contracts amnesia until it is too late – just to remind you of the soap-opera conventions of the series).

So what?  Well, according to the rules of succession dictated by Westerosi feudalism, if son Joffrey is a bastard of incest, he cannot be the heir.  The throne must pass to Robert’s next oldest brother Stannis, a humorless and unpopular blowhard.  When Robert is (not so accidentally) gored fatally by a wild boar, Ned finds himself kingmaker, and his choice and its consequences drive the action for the next several books.  It turns out Ned’s true tragic flaw is to believe in nobility in an ignoble world.  He could have kept Cersei’s secret and offered to mentor and perhaps soften the sadistic Joffrey as regent.  Or he could have supported the claim of Renly, the younger Baratheon brother, who is popular, well-connected, reasonably virtuous, and stunning in eveningwear.  Or he could even arrest Cersei and her brood and take the throne himself with little complaint from the establishment.  But Ned is Ned, so he mercifully gives Cersei a chance to flee (as if!) and begins to clear the way for Stannis’ succession.  From the perspective of the rules of honor, family, and nobility he did precisely the just and right thing, but it was the worst thing he could have done.  Ned Stark loses his head, Joffrey climbs the throne with scheming Cersei at his back, and the realm descends into a bloody civil war in which ordinary people are made to suffer.

I imagine most would disagree with me, but I think the argument can be made that Ned is the true villain of the piece.  His refusal to make nuanced decisions based on a “lesser of two evils” rationale leads him to identify his choices as black or white.  Would there still be gore and suffering in Westeros?  Probably, but Ned chose narrow morality over pragmatic wisdom, and justice suffered for it.  Cue the orgy of hangings, disembowelings, flayings, castrations, beheadings, trials by combat, and nipple-ectomies (Nipples in a George R. R. Martin book have a life expectancy similar to hands in a George Lucas film).

C’mon, Sansa, show us your backbone! You know you wanna!

Neither Martin nor Westeros is kind to those who hold to notions of virtuous nobility.  If Ned Stark is the ultimate fantasy hero (Aragorn wrapped in Luke Skywalker with shades of Woodrow Wilson), his daughter is the ultimate fantasy consumer, starry-eyed and weak-kneed in the presence of jousting knights and romantic troubadours singing songs of valor and true love.  In many ways, her fate is worse than her father’s – to witness the plots and atrocities of the court first-hand, be powerless to stop them, and be forced to assert their justness publically.  She is a perpetual innocent victim, but her victimhood is a direct function of her willful naiveté.  After being subjected to humiliations from her betrothed Joffrey and cynical “life lessons” from her future mother-in-law Cersei, at the end of the third book (A Storm of Swords) we are led to believe that she will have a moment of respite:

“Her maid rolled herself more tightly in her blanket as the snow began to drift in the window.  Sansa eased open the door, and made her way down the winding stair.  When she opened the door to the garden, it was so lovely that she held her breath, unwilling to disturb such perfect beauty.  The snow drifted down and down, all in ghostly silence, and lay thick and unbroken on the ground.  All color had fled the world outside.  It was a place of whites and blacks and greys.  White towers and white snow and white statues, black shadows and black trees, the dark grey sky above.  A pure world, Sansa thought, I do not belong here.” (A Storm of Swords, chapter 80)

She builds a Winterfell in the snow, idealizing the castle home of her youth, a place of safety and certainty.  But the horrors of lust, jealousy, and deceit will quickly dash her vision in the book’s remaining pages, and still worse horrors await the reader in the epilogue. Sansa’s passivity makes her a very frustrating character and a stark contrast to the many courageous female characters in the epic.  We receive flashes of resistance, but she suppresses them herself long before anyone else attempts to.  She is the poster child for the false consciousness of the rich and powerful of the land, willfully blind to the injustices which surround them and which they may unwillingly perpetuate.

No one appreciates a guy who withstands a siege with the help of onions . . . or kills his brother with a foul weird blood-shadow from the uterus of someone with whom he should not be having sex.

Even though Stannis Baratheon is not a main point-of-view character, his shadow is long.  He represents the flipside of Ned Stark’s coin.  If Ned and Sansa cling to an idealized concept of nobility, Stannis represents the bald reality of what that entails.  He is, according to the rules, the true heir – Ned staked his life on it.  He possesses a noble’s sense of entitlement and a deep bitterness when others refuse to acknowledge his rights.  He should be king; he should be beloved; he should be acknowledged, but solely on the basis of his genealogy and dutiful service.  He is not vicious or evil; he is simply the product a system that (supposedly) prizes heritage and martial valor more than charisma, compassion, or insight. His sense that history and destiny must see his claim recognized is not helped by his red priestess, Melisandre, who tells him that he is an ancient hero reborn, prophesied to save the world from the cosmic threat of the Others from the Frozen North.  As the blind Maester Aegon observes, however, Stannis’ messianic fire sword gives off light, but does not give off heat.  It is his status and contrivance, not his character or passion, which puts him where he is.  He is not the one the world needs.

Like Ned and Sansa, his sense of justice and morality is without nuance, and while in the Starks this trait reinforces their “nobility,” in Stannis we see it more truly as something impersonal and inhumane.  His most loyal friend, Davos Seaworth, is a former smuggler who snuck in food and supplies to Stannis and his forces during a siege in the old rebellion against the Targaryens.  The reward for his bravery was a knighthood, but also the removal of his fingers – he was, after all, a smuggler and should be punished.  Stannis is pure justice, without mercy, forgiveness, or wisdom.  If peasants and savages die along his path to destiny, so be it.

It is striking that the cosmic backdrop of the story involves the dualistic clash of the necromantic Others from the far north and the ancient fire magic of the dragons, long thought extinct.  Yet the characters that reveal the most dualistic and rigid thinking seem the least-suited to succeed in the world of Westeros.  I suspect Martin is up to something sneaky in the remaining two books.


The most interesting characters, at least for me but I suspect many will agree, tend to be those that recognize the systemic injustice of politics and society in the world of Westeros, but then try to make it better somehow.  But how do you fight it?  In the characters of Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and Arya Stark we are given three distinct answers – revolution, subversion, and rebellion.

If eating raw horse organs will save my people, I will do it gladly!

If Stannis thinks he’s the prophesied savior of the world but isn’t, Daenerys is clearly the one poised for this role, but yet she doesn’t quite know it yet.  Despite being the scion of a great house, overthrown by Robert’s rebellion, she has had none of the privileges of royalty.  More than any other character, the young queen follows a complex evolutionary arc that teaches her what must be sacrificed to truly rule and rule truly.  Unlike her self-entitled brother, Viserys, Dany begins her path to power at the very bottom, a pale and timid child sold to a Mongol-like Dothraki warlord as price for a horde that will help her house to regain the throne of Westeros.  At first little more than a sex slave, she learns to make her husband love her and respect her.  A rough and uncouth man, Drogo is nevertheless not cruel or abusive, and finds his increasingly confidant wife a pleasing asset.  It is not long before she has been able to assert a place of power among the nomads.

Beyond her own experience as chattel, one of her first lessons in the injustice of the world comes from her attempted intervention in the custom the Dothraki have of raping the women of conquered peoples.  She forbids the practice and takes several victims into her service.  One, the witch Mirri Maz Duur, betrays Dany, saving the life an ailing Drogo at the cost of placing Drogo in a permanent catatonic state and the life of Dany’s unborn child.  Dany protests:

“I spoke for you,” she said, anguished.  “I saved you.”

Saved me?”  The Lhazareen woman spat.  “Three riders had taken me, not as a man takes a woman but from behind, as a dog takes a bitch.  The fourth was in me when you rode past.  How then did you save me?  I saw my god’s house burn, where I had healed good men beyond counting.  My home they burned as well, and in the streets I saw a pile of heads.  I saw the head of a baker who made my bread.  I saw the head of a boy I had saved from deadeye fever, only three moons past.  I heard children crying as the riders drove them off with their whips.  Tell me again what you saved.” (A Game of Thrones, Chapter 68)

Another, Eroeh, who served Dany loyally, is taken and gang-raped in the dissolution of the tribe after Drogo’s death.  Her acts of kindness are undone by the resentment of the privileged who felt those privileges being challenged by uppity women.

It’s at this moment that Daenerys assumes (not so subtly) the mantle of the Wagnerian Brünnhilde, literally climbing the funeral pyre of her husband (fueled by the traitorous witch’s own body) and shaking the firmament with the birth of a new order.  In one of the first true appearances of magic in the series, Dany survives unharmed, albeit singed and hairless (something the TV series opted against) and the fossilized three dragon eggs burned with Drogo have hatched.  She is the Mother of Dragons, harbinger of the Revolution.

It could be expected that she would be motivated by revenge against the once loyal tribesmen who tore her people apart.  Or maybe she would be motivated to use her dragons to buy an army to sweep back into Westeros.  But what truly comes to motivate Dany is the cause of emancipation.  She takes upon herself the task of liberating all the slaves of the Eastern continent (Essos is a Greco-city-state Ancient Mediterranean-ish culture, just as Westeros is a Medieval European-ish culture).

The next step in the education of Queen Daenerys Targaryen is to learn the cost of Revolution.  Opportunists flock to see her dragons and attempt to take them away or control them through controlling her. And when she finally has an army of liberated military eunuchs behind her and is no longer dependent on the patronage of the greedy, the dragons start to become a powerful military weapon in their own right.  But as the dragons/the Revolution grow, they become harder to control and require more food to sustain them.  When it is finally revealed that one of the dragons has eaten a peasant’s child, she begins to show some cold feet.  Her conquest of the slave cities has not come without cost.  The class warfare backfires and the freed slaves become both victims and perpetrators of civil strife, as the remaining slaver cities unite against her.  There is sickness, interruption of trade, and scarcity of resources.  Is it even possible to be a benevolent conqueror?

Dany, too, could end up a victim of idealism like Ned Stark, but her own experience of slavery and poverty have given her an edge that the landed nobility lack.  She has learned to be pragmatic and adopted an attitude of service, making uncomfortable personal choices for the greater good of her “children.”  Will she pull it off?  And will she be able to bring her new vision to Westeros?  Destiny say it’s so, but when has Martin let destiny have its way without a fight?

Not generally a fan of corporal punishment, but gee, Joffrey really needs to be slapped from time to time.

Tyrion Lannister is the favorite of most of Martin’s fans, and not just because of Peter Dinklage’s amazing portrayal on TV.  Without a doubt, he is the smartest man in the room, both in book-smarts and in his ability to think on his feet and toss out clever barbs.  He is, however, a dwarf, despised by his father and assumed by almost everyone he meets to be as evil as he is ugly (Peter Dinklage is handsomer than the descriptions in the book), the “Imp.”  By all the rules, he is forever barred from assuming true power, but he also sees the tangled strings of intrigue more clearly than anyone else.  He is the Michel de Certeau of Westeros.  Leading a revolution of dwarves and outcasts is clearly out of the question, so Tyrion assumes the role of trickster, manipulating situations behind the scenes.  As he says to the bastard Jon Snow early in the first novel, “Never forget what you are.  The rest of the world will not.  Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”  (A Game of Thrones, 14) Despite his reputation, he usually tries to counter-balance the injustices he sees around him.  For example, when Tyrion holds the post of King’s Hand, he sends the captain of the guard, Janos Slynt, who gleefully followed King Joffrey’s infanticidal orders, off to the Night’s Watch, where he can do no more harm (he thinks).  The only problem with doing such things behind the scenes, though, is he must remain an unsung hero even as he accumulates powerful enemies.

Through much of the second book, Tyrion is the only thing standing between the sadistic and megalomaniac King Joffrey and the rest of the kingdom, attempting to mentor him in ways that Cersei (or Robert, or Jaime, or Ned) has not.  Joffrey, though, is beyond redemption, and Tyrion, as his Hand, comes to be associated with the worst of the King’s misdeeds.  So Tyrion’s good intentions tend to be thwarted, much like Dany’s.  But this doesn’t prevent him from lying and conniving towards justice.

Arya Stark, played by Maise Williams in the HBO series and one of the best of an already talented cast.

The third option, the most modest, yet the assured one, appears on the plate of Arya Stark, the tomboy who’d rather learn sword-fighting than embroidery.  It is her status as a child, and as a girl who looks like a boy, that gets her out of the dreadful scrapes she experiences in the first two books.  By the middle of Clash, we see that she has started down the career path of assassin.  Like Daenerys, Arya has an evolutionary arc, although in this case she has a series of mentors in place of Dany’s antagonists: Syrio Forel, who teaches her swordsmanship for the small and agile; Yoren of the Night’s Watch, who teaches her to hide as a boy and trust other outcasts; (the TV series gives her some time as Tywin Lannister’s page, a brilliant deviation from the books); Jaqen H’qaar, a shape-changing Faceless One, who kills three men for Arya in exchange for her saving the lives of him and two other prisoners, and who presents the possibility of joining the Faceless guild in Braavos; Beric Dondarrion, loyal knight turned undying Robin Hood, waging a guerilla war against any lordly army, Lannister or Stark, who causes suffering to the innocent populace; and finally the Hound, the anti-knight who rejects all notions of honor (yet nevertheless has a keen sense of justice).   Each of these mentors has no qualms about bringing the strike of death from the shadows to those who they feel are remorseless scum.  Yet each has been motivated by some sense of justice – in the form of the balancing act of vengeance.

A witness to her father’s beheading, Arya begins a bedtime litany of all those against whom she will bring revenge, a list that frequently grows and occasionally diminishes with time.  It is truly a sign of the upside-down world Martin has created that this heroine who challenges five gender stereotypes before she has breakfast has chosen to become the face of Death.  This approach to righting injustice might seem piecemeal, but so far Arya has racked up more successes than either Dany or Tyrion and has had fewer failures.

In modern parlance, we make reference to the “rule of law,” that notion that justice transcends all race, class, gender, and political status.  Even the President is subject to the law.  Such is not the reality for societies in a feudal or tribal situation (Afghanistan?).  There is no strong state to enforce such justice, so justice must be sought through personal relationships and networks of patronage.  In a tribal situation, vengeance is justice; in a strong or strengthening state, vengeance or the use of patronage networks is known as corruption.  But that doesn’t always work either, if you end up being betrayed by your relatives and allies.  It makes for great drama, as the longevity of the Mafia movie genre attests.  Westeros is a feudal realm that claims to support the rule of law, but is actually far more tribal than the Ned Starks of the world would admit.  If there is a “lesson” to be learned from Martin’s epic, it’s that the system of justice we hold dear obscures a myriad of privileges and entitlements that elevate some over others in the same moment that it denies such inequality exists.


A family torn apart and never getting back together. They all think the others are dead. The reality is a little more complicated than that . . .

In contrast to the narratives of friendship and loyalty in The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and most representatives of the fantasy genre, the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire live in a morally atomistic universe.  After the radical dispersal of the characters in the first two books, none of the main characters get to reunite with those they love most for very long, if at all.  And when family members and friends find one another, conflicting priorities pit them asunder, as Catelyn Stark’s desire to reunite her family causes her to free the captured Jaime, eliminating one of her son Robb’s few diplomatic bargaining chips and causing a deep wedge in their relationship.  Tyrion and Jaime, the only family member who ever had showed him kindness are soon split by revelations about how Jaime destroyed one of the only moments of true happiness in Tyrion’s life.  Arya and Bran Stark in the third book are moments away from being reunited with siblings, only to have cruel fate intervene.  And although surrounded by advisors, Dany is increasingly learning that even her most trusted advisors have ulterior motives and should be kept at arms’ length.

The help and aid of family, friends, servants, lords, and even passing strangers cannot be assumed, and, in fact, harm can be expected to come from those corners instead.  In Martin’s world, Sam would have plotted with Gollum to filch the Ring and toss Frodo (that elitist bourgeois stooge of the snooty elves!) alone into the Dead Marshes (Why wait till Mordor, smelly shit-hole?).  Then he would have thwacked Gollum (slave mentality!) in the head, taken the Ring, captured Gandalf (self-righteous self-appointed Christ-like messiah!), and hanged the wizard’s flayed corpse at the gates of Mordor as a warning to Sauron (small-minded plotter with no true understanding of the workings of Power!).  Go Sam, the true and only Master of the World!

So in Westeros, each of the characters must learn to be mistrusting and self-reliant.  Yet this is not some Ayn Randian medieval individualistic paradise.  It is a dystopia; the system is rotten to the core, and it is not conducive to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.  Justice will not and cannot come from group action or state structures.  Even the noble, well-intentioned, guerilla Brotherhood without Banners under Beric can only dish out a brutal vengeance on rampaging soldiers, steeping the land still deeper in blood and violence.

And yet, I find Martin’s world optimistic and profoundly humanistic (even if the American liberal in me finds his lack of faith in true government reform disturbing).  The Needle-pricks of Arya, Tyrion’s small Sisyphean acts of corrosion, and Dany’s insistence to keep her people free at any personal cost place the primary responsibility for goodness and justice on the individual human being, even in the face of ugliness on a global scale.  Even the Hound, reviled as the brutal extension of Joffrey’s sadism, finds ways to make Sansa’s life better in ways that she will never understand or appreciate.  Arya’s refusal to kill the Hound as he lay mortally wounded could be taken as a cruelty, but at another level it is a silent acknowledgement that he no longer deserved to be on her death list – forgiveness in the midst of the gore and pus.

The cosmic backdrop of the battle between Ice and Fire has been on the back burner (so to speak) for most of the series.  But we know that “winter is coming.”  One of the things I’m anxious to see (if Martin ever finishes the last two books) is how the seemingly classic Good vs. Evil battle on the horizon will be squared with the atomistic, non-dualistic moral universe established by the characters on the ground.  I believe a clue can be found in one of the world-building conceits of the world: Seasons are not regular (no astronomical or geological explanation is even hinted at).  They follow each other in proper order, but the length of winters and summers can last years and perhaps decades.  It’s not totally random or relativistic, but nor is it totally fixed and predictable.  The opening credit sequence of the TV series gives us a gods-eye view of the world, giving the impression that there is some deeper cohesive meaning to the whole story.  But given Martin’s tendencies for the cruel twist, I have to wonder if the Others aren’t in fact the good guys, sent to resurrect the sins of the Realm and send them out to annihilate the whole mess.

Should we welcome the zombie-makers as our new rightful and just overlords?

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  1. EDIT: fixed some links to images that broke.

  2. http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/realpolitik_in_a_fictional_world_game_of_thrones_murky_morality_tale_partner/

    An interesting article comparing Tyrion’s ethic to that of Reinhold Niebuhr!

  3. http://www.salon.com/2013/06/15/is_game_of_thrones_taking_its_cues_from_military_history_partner/

    Another interesting post highlighting the historical basis for expecting a Revolution that will sweep away the whole system.


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