The Dilemma of Honour and Realpolitik in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire
by Dan Haggard
In my last post I looked at how George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” explores the key features of honour cultures. But what is so interesting about honour? Why should we be interested in it? What makes George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, as an essay about honour, relevant to modern readers? The first part of an answer to this question is that ASOIAF is a critique. It is not a simple portrayal of the honourable characters as good guys and the dishonourable characters as bad. By reading ASOIAF we learn just what value the concept of honour brings, and in what ways it fails us. But what we also learn is that Martin’s saga defines one of the central dilemmas of the modern age. We are used to thinking that honour is a dead concept that is no longer applicable to us. But this is not so. Politics in the modern age is ruled by two forces – Realpolitik and Honour. And there is a tension between them so profound that it will likely be the ruin of us all unless we find some solution.
But to understand this – we’ll have to go deep into the story of ASOIAF. As per usual – spoilers follow. Go read the books first if you like suspense in your stories.
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Part One: Choose Your Honour
One of the most obvious criticisms of honour culture concerns the tensions that arise because of the different layers of society that accrue over time. We started out living in tribal communities where there was little potential for conflicted loyalty. But as a society grows larger, as a tribe becomes just one integrated unit within a larger hierarchy of organisations – how does the individual deal with conflicts that arise between the multiple groups of which he is a member? ASOIAF can be read as an essay of the multiple ways in which individuals seek to navigate through these sorts of conflicts.
When we follow their choices in this respect, Martin shows us something very important about the concept of honour – and the relationship of the individual to it. We get a concrete demonstration of how it is that the individual is constituted by the choices they make. When they choose one group over another, we’ll see that they are choosing some notion of honour over another. I said in my previous post that honour is a cultural force which serves to bind groups and individuals together. But it’s more than just this – it determines who a person is relative to the connections they have with others. Thus, an individual is not an isolated Cartesian island that stands alone – the individual is directly constituted by the choices they make with respect to other people. Insofar as individuals come into conflict with one another, it’s often because of their differing choices and stances toward the concept of honour. And it’s because of these varying perspectives that the concept of honour fails to do what it is supposed to do – bind the realm together and ensure peace.
So what are these choices? You can provide a neat index of the kind of choices that individual characters face by looking at the varying levels of abstraction at which the concept of honour operates – corresponding to the level of institutional group existing in the society.
Family, Friends, Kings and the Realm
At the very lowest level of abstraction comes the family – this is the unit that is closest to us and most immediate. It’s the group to which the concept of acting honourably and loyally is first learnt. At some point thought, for every major character in the story, the loyalty toward the family is tested by callings of a higher order duty. How each character deals with this choice reveals key facets of their nature.
Right at the beginning of the first book – A Game of Thrones – Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell (Ned) is asked by King Robert Baratheon to serve as his hand, a kind of second in charge that looks after all the day to day practicalities of running the kingdom. Accepting this post means leaving Winterfell and his family to live in Kings Landing, half a world away. Ned chooses to obey the command of his King and leave his family, leaving his wife Catelyn to rule in his stead.
But in actual fact, this is not just a simple choice between serving the King and being with his family. In the book, Ned is on the verge of refusing the request – citing his duty to Winterfell and his family. It’s his wife that impresses upon him the importance of obeying the King and the great honour being offered the position of the King’s hand. When they learn from Catelyn’s sister that the previous hand was murdered and that there are threats on the King’s life, Catelyn emphasises Ned’s close friendship with Robert and argues that he can’t forsake such friendship. This is the argument that seemingly sways him. Thus Ned is revealed to be a character that values his family above his loyalty to the realm – and only chooses the realm because his wife, his closest confidant insists upon it, and because of his close friendship with Robert.
The recent HBO series “Game of Thrones” changes this – and I think it’s a mistake – but an instructive one. In this version, Catelyn wants Ned to refuse the offer, but Ned impresses upon her the status of the King and the fact that he cannot be disobeyed. And when they learn of the threats against the King, this only hardens Catelyn against Ned’s leaving since he will be put in the firing line – to the detriment of his own family. At the point Maester Luwin impresses upon Ned the oath that Ned swore to serve his king and it’s this which seemingly clinches the argument.
The book version is actually more consistent with Ned’s overall history. Although he is an extremely honourable man – his loyalty to his family and friends always superseded his loyalty to the crown – since he was a willing participant in the insurrection against the mad king – the war which placed Robert Baratheon on the throne. It is also consistent with his final choice to give up his loyalty to Robert’s brother Stannis after Robert dies. He gives up this honour in order to protect his children.
But the HBO version is not uninteresting. It reveals a tension between family, and those to which we share a strong bond and are not family – our friends. At the centre of this conflict is a dynamic that most would relate to today. The woman resents the loyalty her husband shows to his friends, and feels neglected because of the attention he pays them at her expense. This is a refrain that many modern men and women would understand well – and it’s likely the reason why the HBO series changed it. HBO’s version also echoes the choice that Robert makes in valuing his friendship with Ned over any kind of intimacy with his brothers.
In any case, what we see is that Ned’s honour is defined by those choices that concern conflicting loyalties to differing groups. The tragedy of his story is that it is his loyalty to his wife, family and his closest friend that leads him to serve the realm as the King’s Hand instead – even though his loyalties lie with his family – a choice that ultimately leads to his doom. Bonds of family and friendship are of a kind that are the most intimate and straightforward, yet serving as the King’s Hand requires great wile and cunning. Ned is just not capable of playing the Game of Thrones.
A similar, yet different choice is made by Jon Snow – the bastard son of Eddard Stark. As a member of the Night’s Watch he is sworn to defend the realm against the threats coming from the North. His oath is sworn for life. He is not allowed to desert for any reason. But when he learns that his father is being held captive at King’s Landing and that his brother has marched to war, he has to decide whether or not to support his family, or stay loyal to his oath to the Night’s Watch.
This choice is similar yet different to the one that Eddard is forced to make for some interesting reasons. Like his father Jon is motivated primarily by his duty to his family. He initially chooses to break his oath and rides to support his family – much as you would expect Ned to do. What’s more, an oath to the Night’s Watch is taken to be an oath to the realm – as such it represents a very abstract and high sort of honour. In this way is Jon’s oath similar to Ned’s oath to the King.
Yet swearing an oath to realm is different to swearing an oath to a King. Yes, the king and the realm are symbolically meant to be one and the same, yet the Night’s Watch is keenly aware of the distinction. They see their oath as being even higher than allegiance to any one king. And the civil war, wherein there are numerous pretenders to the throne, serves as proof of them of this fact. Their duty to protect the wall transcends any political reality.
It’s probably for this reason that Snow chooses to break his oath to the Night’s Watch. Like his father, he sees more immediate value in the honour that comes with staying loyal to one’s family. And interestingly, it’s not the abstract, higher sort of honour involved in serving the realm that changes his mind – it’s the intervention of his friends in the Night’s Watch who convince him not to break his oath. Thus he is convinced to continue serving the realm – the highest of all these abstractions – by the people closest to him. In this way his choice exactly mirror’s the one made by his father.
Again we see how the concept of honour determined by their choice defines the individual. When Jon speaks with Lord Mormont – the commander of the Night’s Watch – after his brief desertion, Mormant is reasonably forgiving. But he sums up nicely the way in which Jon is a product of the ties to his brothers in the Night’s Watch. He says: ’Honour made you leave, and Honour made you come back.” - as if to say that Jon is at the mercy of the tensions implicit in the concept of honour itself. When Jon replies that it was his friends that made him come back, Mormont’ reply is perfect: “I didn’t say it was your honour that brought you back”. Sometimes the choice we end up making transcends who we are as an individual and is borne of the connections we have with other people. This is the essence of honour.
Love as Honour
Besides the conflict that comes between family and those more abstract forms of honour associated with serving the realm – there is conflict borne of the tensions between honouring individuals that you care about, and those groups your connection to which are not of family, or friendship, but more pragmatic concerns. Sometime families must ally themselves with other families in order to achieve a greater strength – usually when confronted with a stronger enemy. And to do this – they use marriage.
In order to move his army south to do battle with Tywin Lannister, Robb Stark has to secure an alliance with the Frey’s. To secure this alliance he promises himself in marriage to one of Walder Frey’s daughters after the war. But Robb is wounded in battle and falls in love with Jayne Westerling who tends his wounds. One thing leads to another and they end up having sex.
Now, as I explained in my previous post. A woman’s honour consists in the power she has to unite families through marriage. This is symbolised by the giving of a woman’s virginity to her husband on their wedding night. If she is not a virgin, then she loses this power. Her honour is therefore besmirched. Now – because Robb takes Jayne’s virginity – he also takes her honour. He is now faced with a choice – he can marry her, thus saving her honour, or remain true to his oath to marry one of the daughters of Walder Frey in order to protect the alliance.
Robb is, of course, a true son of Eddard Stark, he chooses the more intimate relationship over the higher (or more abstract if you like) form of honour involved with the alliance between the two houses. This choice has dire consequences – and ultimately leads to Robb Stark dying and losing the war – even though he never loses a single battle.
The Lannister Way – Not Entirely Different From the Stark Way
It’s tempting to think of the Starks as the good guys and the Lannisters as the bad guys. But in actual fact they have a lot more in common than you might first suppose. The key thing that they share is a loyalty to their own family that is put before any loyalty to the realm, the King or their alliances with other houses or families. And like the Starks, this loyalty to family is what often leads them to calamity. Of course, the two families are fundamentally different in some key respects – but to really understand how they differ, we first need to understand the ways in which they are similar.
Lannister family loyalty is enforced in the first instance by the Patriarch of the family Tywin Lannister. All three of his offspring have this loyalty drilled into them and they all start the story intensely loyal to one another. There are numerous occasions where Tywin encourages his children to dishonour themselves in various ways in order to maintain loyalty to the cause of their family.
For example, there is an occasion when Jaime Lannister spares Ned Stark’s life after the latter is stabbed from behind by one of Jaime’s men. To kill Ned then wouldn’t have been honourable in the broader sense – since it breaks the conventions employed when combat is used to settle grievances. Essentially – such fights should be fair. But Tywin is unimpressed by Jaime’s decision to let Ned Stark live – and calls him a fool. From Tywin’s point of view, the interests of the Lannister family transcend any higher concepts of honour which are used to arbitrate disputes between families – like trial by combat.
It’s because of Tywin’s influence that all three of his children grow up intensely loyal to their family. Even Tyrion, who is the most estranged from the others in his family owing to his increased intelligence and diminished stature, nevertheless expresses a strong loyalty to his family. Although his father never gives him the respect Tyrion wants, still he obeys his father’s commands – fighting for him at Riverrun, accepting Tywin’s directive to become Hand of the King as well as successfully defending King’s Landing against invasion by Stannis Baratheon.
Jaime’s loyalty to his family is unquestionable. When Tyrion is arrested by Catelyn Stark, Jaime attacks Eddard Stark in the aforementioned episode where he spares Ned’s life. Jaime is motivated to abandon his post as a member of the King’s Guard to wage war against the Stark’s – a war precipitated in order to secure the release of his brother and defend the honour of his house. Then there is the incestuous relationship that he has with his sister. While this relationship represents a perversion of family loyalty – nevertheless, there is no single relationship which better conveys the intensity of Lannister insularity.
So the Starks and the Lannisters aren’t entirely different in this respect. Nor are they so different when it comes to a willingness to dishonour themselves in various ways in order to preserve their ties to their family. As we’ve seen with the Starks, Ned was willing to reject the offer to become the King’s Hand and lie about Joffrey being the rightful King, Jon was willing to break his oath to the Night’s watch, and Robb breaks his oath to the Frey’s.
The Lannisters dishonour themselves repeatedly. Jaime stabs the mad King in the back, breaking his oath as a sworn member of the King’s Guard. Then there is his affair with his sister. Since she is married to King Robert – their affair is treasonous and would bring great dishonour to them both as well if it were discovered. Tywin Lannister only joins Robert Baratheon’s rebellion against the mad king when the day is already won. His puppet Maester Pycelle convinces the mad King to open the gates of King’s Landing to Tywin’s army. But Tywin betrays the king and sacks the town – securing a marriage of his daughter to the newly crowned King Robert.
Part Two: Honour and Realpolitik
The conflicts that arise between different groups in large, mature society poses one challenge for honour based cultures. The failure of the concept of honour to make easy the difficult choices the characters often face when reconciling these conflicts is one reason why the kingdom descends into civil war and chaos. But this is not the only component of Martin’s critique. We begin to understand the second component when we consider those aspects which distinguish the Starks and the Lannisters.
So then, in what way are the Stark’s and the Lannisters different? We intuitively think that the Starks are a nobler breed than the Lannisters – yet as we’ve seen both are willing to act dishonourably in order to protect their family. So it’s not correct to just say that the Lannisters act dishonourably and the Starks honourably. This interpretation is way too simplistic.
One difference is that the Starks are less insular overall than the Lannisters. It’s because of their willingness to forge connections to people outside their family that they often end up choosing the higher forms of honour over their loyalty to their kin. It’s is Catelyn’s influence that causes Ned to agree to become the hand – and while she is a married Stark, she is born of house Tully. Having that influence coming into his home from the outside allows him to gain a perspective that takes a broader view. Jon demonstrates a similar willingness to accept into his circle those who are not his family. As such, it’s his friends in the Night’s Watch who convince him to stay loyal to the higher concept of honour involved with his oath. Later on in the books his forms an alliance with the leader of the wildlings – the traditional enemies of the Night’s Watch, and he does so precisely to stay true to his oath to protect the realm from the greater threat that comes from the white walkers.
The Lannisters lack these sorts of connections to those outside their own family. Part of the reason for this has to do with their power and richness as a family. Because they are so powerful, they don’t need to form the sorts of connections that the Starks do. Various houses choose to throw in with the Lannisters precisely because of their power – and this becomes self-reinforcing. The more power they have, the less they have to do to reach out to secure the alliances they need.
When they need further help – they simply pay for it. And so they can buy loyalty without having to forge the sorts of connections the Starks do. Hence the Lannister house motto: ”A Lannister always pays his debts.” Tyrion in particular resorts often to buying allegiance from those he encounters in order to bolster his strength. He buys the protection of Bronn, as well as allegiance of the hill tribes of the vale. He pays even for the sex he receives from brothels. Thus he is shielded from having to establish real relationships with people – relationships where he is forced to take their feelings into account.
Jaime relies less on coin than does Tyrion, but that’s because he doesn’t need coin to get by. He has his looks and he has his prowess with the sword – two features that Tyrion lacks. As I explained in my previous post – an honour culture is one that uses combat to arbitrate disputes. Because Jaime can’t defeated in single combat – he doesn’t have to modify his behaviour to fit in with the demands made by those outside his house. If it ever comes to blows – he has nothing to fear on account of his prowess with the sword. Add to this prowess the power of his house and Jaime comes to believe that he can act without negative consequence, regardless of how dishonourably he acts.
The Art of Power – Old and New
It’s when we look into the source of power of the two houses that we learn the essence of the difference between them. And it’s also here that we come to Martin’s most penetrating critique of honour cultures.
The Power of the Starks
The source of Stark power essentially comes from their skill in combat and in war. As I mentioned earlier – in the war against the Lannisters, Robb Stark is undefeated in all his battles. He only loses because he is murdered by the Freys when he tries to patch up his alliance with them. Ned Stark’s skill in war plays no small part in Robert’s victory over the mad king.
As such, the Starks respect the old custom that ties the notion of honour to skill in combat. As I argued in my previous post – this custom likely originated from the fact that primitive people formed groups around those that could provide physical protection. Since honour is a concept which binds people together as groups – it was a natural step to use combat to settle disputes since it was the force which allowed groups to form in the first place. Since greater strength in combat meant a greater ability to protect and defend one’s group – a custom developed wherein the actual process of defence could be skipped if one’s greater strength could be proven.
This is why trial by combat is supposed to be a fair fight. If poison, or some other kind of treachery is used, then you never really get to find out who is the stronger. This ‘fair fight’ component of the custom made sense where it remained the case that a greater amount of physical strength really did imply a greater ability at defending the group and maintaining hegemony.
The Starks demonstrate their allegiance to this custom multiple times. Catelyn Stark allows Tyrion to seek justice by means of a trial by combat. He is allowed to choose a champion to fight for him – as his small stature would mean that his trial would never be a fair fight. When his champion wins, Catelyn lets him walk free – even though she is completely convinced of his guilt in the attempted murder of her son.
Another example is when Ned Stark refuses to be involved in the use of assassins to murder Daenarys Targaryen. He even goes against Robert’s command by giving up his position as hand to the King – because he sees such an act to be completely without honour. The reason why it’s not honourable is because it’s not a fair fight – it’s not a true test of strength. (And incidentally – this is why it’s still not cool for men hit women to this day. It offends our sense of honour.)
Interestingly, the fact that the weak are allowed to choose champions demonstrates neatly how the honour system comes to be torn apart by its internal contradictions. Combat had to be fair in order to be a true test of strength between combatants. This made sense because being the stronger in more primitive times was a reliable indicator of your ability to maintain group hegemony. But when combat comes to be used as a generalised method for settling disputes – the preservation of the fairness component ends up leading to champions being used. But this means that the disputants no longer are the ones having their strength tested – defeating the raison d’etre of the entire process. It becomes completely nonsensical.
The source of strength that goes with this sort of honour is an old kind of power. As society has evolved, physical strength is no longer so valuable an asset. It’s no accident then that the Starks are worshippers of an old set of gods – ones that are said to have faded in their strength and influence in the world.
The source of Lannister power is more modern. In a society with established institutions that keep the peace and provide order, brute strength is no longer as essential. The pragmatic realities of power shift away from brute strength to cunning, deception and the will to do whatever is necessary to achieve one’s aims. This is Realpolitik.
Realpolitik is born of a kind of selfishness. Single combat, as a means of settling disputes, has an efficiency to it that benefits both sides. Once the stronger is proven the dispute is settled without a large amount of bloodshed. Realpolitik insists upon gaining as much advantage as possible over your opponent through whatever means. It is not interested in the greatest good to the greatest number. Rather, it wants the greatest good for ones own, and the least good for everyone else.
It’s important to emphasise that any tactic is permissible so long as it is the best strategy for the given situation. Hence there will be times when one must be ruthless and without mercy, but at other times it is better to allow ones opponents to change their loyalties and bend the knee – if it be that your strength is not enough to crush them.
The master of Realpolitik in this story is Tywin Lannister. He stays out of Robert Baratheon’s war against the Mad King until only the final moment when the latter has already lost the war – ensuring that his own strength is not spent at all. He is ruthless as well. Because he comes late to Robert’s cause he needs a way to demonstrate his fealty. He does this by murdering the wife and children of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, the son of the Mad King Aerys, and presenting the bodies to Robert. Robert is grateful for this act because it meant he himself would not have to perform such an ignoble act.
The most salient feature of Realpolitik is the clear advantage it affords the practitioner over those who follow the old ways like the Starks. Time and time again the Starks are outwitted by their enemies because of their predictability and their willingness to assume that everyone else is playing by the same rules. It’s for this reason that the Lannisters are the most powerful house in the Kingdom. They are simply better at navigating the pragmatic realities of power than their enemies.
A great example of the advantage of Realpolitik over the honourable is when the sell sword Bronn fights on behalf of Tyrion in his trial by combat. The champion of Lady Lysa fights honourably in full mail. He attacks directly expecting sword to meet sword in a true test of strength. Bronn, however, wearing only light armour, dances out of reach, throws objects in the Knights path, waits from him to tire and then goes in for the killing blow. Lady Lysa accuses him of not fighting with honour. Bronn agrees, but then points to his fallen foe and points out that he did – suggesting the obvious stupidity of such an approach.
It’s this difference between the two houses that explains the enmity between them. And it’s sometimes difficult to understand the choices of the characters without keeping this difference firmly in mind. There is one scene in particular when Ned Stark meets Jaime Lannister in the throne room when he first arrives at King’s Landing. Jaime recounts when the Mad King murdered Ned Stark’s father in front of the whole court. He explains how he thought that his murder of the Mad King was justice for this crime against the Starks. Yet Ned is not impressed and instead reinforces his contempt for Jaime’s act of dishonour in murdering the man he had sworn to protect. Jaime is genuinely stung by this rebuke and is somewhat at a loss to come to terms with Ned’s hatred for him.
The scene is difficult to understand because Ned, after all, betrayed the King just as much Jaime did. They had both sworn fealty to the mad King. But the difference is that Ned and Robert challenged the power of the King in a fair fight – as per the dictates of honour. But Jaime stabbed him in the back, robbing the King of an honourable death. Jaime felt he had to do this to prevent the King from being able to give the orders to burn the city to the ground – but this is irrelevant to Ned (also unknown) since Jaime’s act was not the honourable way to settle the dispute.
Beyond Combat and Realpolitik
The critique of honour culture implicit in Martin’s narrative concerns this tension between the pragmatic realities of power and the traditional use of fairness and strength in order to maintain group hegemony. Martin’s point is that the desired hegemony and peace cannot obtain while these tensions exist. What’s more, neither the Stark approach or the Lannister approach is capable of securing the victory that they desire.
This interpretation is borne out by the way events progress in the story. The two houses are mirror representations of one another – the way a mirror produces an image is the reverse of the other. While their differing characteristics ensure different paths for each family, the outcomes hitherto are relatively the same. How the families adapt to reality as it unfolds gives us some insight as to how Martin thinks one might replace the society that is collapsing under the weight of its own self-contradiction. Let’s look at some examples.
Both families start out as functional family units – loyal and bound tightly together. Both families end up disintegrating, although the reasons are different in each case. For the Starks, they remain loyal to one another, but their commitment to the traditional values of honour puts them at the mercy of events. It is external forces which drive them apart – not a lack of love between them. Eddard is separated from his family in order to serve as hand as commanded by the King. Catelyn abandons her sons Bran and Rickon at Winterfell in order to pursue justice against the Lannisters – both in arresting Tyrion and supporting Robb in his war. Robb marches to war to fight the Lannisters and rescue their father Ned – also abandoning his brothers. Jon Snow is prevented from helping his kin by his oath to the Night’s Watch. Sansa becomes the captive of Queen Cersei at King’s Landing after Ned is arrested. Arya flees King’s Landing, but never makes it back to Winterfell. She arrives at the castle of the Freys just as her mother and her brother Robb are being murdered. Even Bran and Rickon are forced to go their separate ways so that they are not caught together.
The Lannister family disintegrates as well but in this case it is because of internal fighting. While the start out loyal to the family, they all eventually turn on one another. Tyrion and Cersei begin battling for power while Tyrion serves as the Hand to King Joffrey. Eventually she has him arrested under suspicion of murdering her son King Joffrey – a crime of which he is entirely innocent. Jaime comes to mistrust his sister when he learns that she has been having voluntary sex with his cousin Lancel and others. Tyrion comes to hate both his father and Jaime for their role in deceiving him about his wife. They convince him that she didn’t marry him out of love, but was a whore that they both hired to teach him a lesson. Since so few women would ever love a dwarf, Tyrion can’t forgive either for this crime. He hates his father for it so much that he murders him. Jaime feels guilt at the role he played in deceiving Tyrion, but can’t forgive the crime Tyrion commits in the murder of their father. The Lannisters ultimately win the day against their external enemies – but they can’t find a way to protect themselves from each other.
The deaths of the patriarchs of each family is in fact a perfect symbol of the way in which each family comes apart. Eddard dies at the command of King Joffrey in act act of supreme betrayal, while Tywin dies at the hand of his own son. Eddard is killed on account of the external forces of Realpolitik working against him, while Tywin dies because of the internal games of Realpolitik that the Lannisters play against one another.
And herein lies the heart of Martin’s criticism against both approaches. Fighting honourably will cause your family to be at the mercy of your enemies, even while you still love and trust each other. The adoption of Realpolitik will make it easy to defeat your enemies – but you won’t be able to resist the temptation to employ such arts on your family members in order to achieve personal gain at their expense.
Different Starting Points
There is another feature of the two families that has them start from opposite ends of the spectrum, yet progressing toward a similar, final destination. This has to do with how connected to the honour culture the different families are.
The Stark children all start out extremely well integrated and not just because their father has drilled his values into them. Robb is a skilled tactician in combat and well prepared to succeed his father. Sansa is well suited to play her role as a bride – the way in which women generally get to contribute to the honour of their family. She is feminine, passive, modest and beautiful – all the qualities desired by prospective partners. Bran has begun his training and is on track at the start of the novels to become a knight – as is his dream. Jon and Arya are not quite as well integrated as the other two children – Jon on account of being a bastard, and Arya because she has none of the passive qualities of her sister. Yet Jon is skilled in combat and makes up for his lack of honour as a bastard by joining the Night’s Watch. And whether or not Arya likes it, she can still play her role as a potential wife – and she is used to that effect when her brother Robb offers her hand to one of the sons of Walder Frey in exchange for an alliance.
The Lannister children, on the other hand, all start the story at odds with honour – and again, this is not just because of the Realpolitik they learnt from their father. Cersei is miserable in her loveless marriage to King Robert. She wants power and wants to rule, but is forever frustrated because of her status as a woman. Tyrion, on account of his stature, has no skills in combat and so can’t play the traditional role of a man in an honour culture. Developing his wits and skill at reasoning only further alienates him since he can see clearly all the contradictions and hypocrisies that honour cultures involve. Jaime is unsurpassed in single combat – but he is forever blocked from having any honour because he murdered the Mad King yet swore an oath to protect him.
It’s worth spending a little bit more time on the starting point of the Lannister children, because it’s easy to just dismiss them as bad people. But in every case there are extenuating circumstances that makes it understandable that each character would view the honour culture with contempt.
In Cersei’s case it is the fundamental unfairness of the role ascribed to women in the honour system. They are denied power solely on the basis of their inferior capabilities in combat. This might make sense in earlier times when society was without the institutions to guarantee security – but in any sort of advanced civilisation, the continual identification of honour with skill in combat becomes farcical and loses it’s rationale – as I pointed out earlier. Yet the traditions persist and women are denied equality. From this point of view it’s understandable that Cersei would see it as being entirely permissible to resort to Realpolitik in order to achieve her aims. She is reacting against what is a fundamental injustice against her sex.
Tyrion’s lack of combat skills is not just what prevents him from participating in the honour culture around him – he is blocked by his father from ever taking his rightful place as the heir of Casterly Rock. Jaime is the eldest son, but pledged himself to the King’s Guard and so cannot ever claim lands or titles. So the title should pass to Tyrion. But Tywin resents Tyrion not only for his stature but because his mother died giving birth to him – so Tywin resolves never to allow Tyrion to claim his seat. So power is denied him. To his credit he has developed a more modern sense of justice that is based on reason and truth – much like our own concept today. But without any direct power, he can’t bring the justice he would like to the realm. As such he resorts to Realpolitik as much as his siblings in order to try and achieve his aims. Perhaps the greatest symbol of this is when he murders his father on account of Tywin’s treatment of him. Tyrion’s position is such that he would never be able to seek true justice for what Tywin has done to him – so he is willing to resort to murder in order to achieve the same.
Jaime is perhaps the most interesting of the three. He is almost certainly a conscious allusion by Martin to the Sir Launcelot legend. In my previous post I discussed Mallory’s version of the Sir Launcelot legend. As we saw – Mallory’s tale gives us insight into the nature of honour culture. Launcelot betrays King Arthur by sleeping with his wife Guinevere and thus acts dishonourably. But because he is unmatched in combat by any other knight, he can preserve his honour by slaying any who would accuse him. Although everyone knows, or at least suspects the truth, harmony is preserved while Launcelot is able to kill anyone who would dare to make the accusation.
The similarities to the Jaime are unmistakable. Both serve the King in the roles reserved only for the most trusted of knights (Lancelot on the Round Table, Jaime as a member of the King’s Guard). Both are involved in affairs with their Queen – an act of treason that carries the sentence of death. Jaime, however, is a strange variation of this arch type. He is the brother of the Queen and their affair is incestuous. And while he holds a trusted position in servitude to the King – he is barely trusted at all. He has no honour because he is the King Slayer. He is only pardoned for this crime by the usurper Robert Baratheon as a favour to Tywin Lannister (Jaime’s father) – whose support he needed to rule. So while Lancelot keeps his honour up until the point at which his affair with the Queen is discovered, Jaime has none the whole time during the events of the story because of his history.
So it’s understandable that Jaime would be contemptuous of the honour culture around him, and not just because of the hypocrisy he sees in it. Because of his skill in combat and his status as Tywin’s son, he lives a life which for all pragmatic purposes is unencumbered by his lack of honour – except perhaps for the occasional look of contempt from his peers. Why then would he ever value it? He never has to really feel the alienation a lack of honour brings while his position and skills in combat remain intact. Of course, then there is the fact that his dishonourable act of murder nevertheless saved King’s Landing from being burnt to the ground. So then why wouldn’t he see honour as a plastic badge worn by proud and stubborn men?
The Starks and the Lannisters each suffer different kinds of setbacks which force them to compromise their initial values to some degree and become more like one another. The Lannisters lose those things which makes their lack of honour (beyond their loyalty to one another) irrelevant. The Starks, on the other hand, have to learn to embrace various aspects of Realpolitik in order to survive. The characters that are unable to evolve in this way end up dead – or near to it.
Tyrion becomes a hunted man on account of murdering his father – and so loses access to the wealth that he used to pay for allegiance. He has to learn to establish relationships with people without it. He has to learn to hold his tongue, and take other people’s feelings into consideration. He learns to look out for other people, besides seeing them merely as pawns to use in his games against his sister.
Jaime loses his sword hand – and as a result is forced to re-assess his entire outlook on life. Without his sword hand he can no longer keep up the pretence of honour that he was once able to. He feels his alienation deeply and resolves to act honourably from then on. He refuses his father’s request to leave the King’s Guard, and he helps Brienne in her quest to find the daughters of Catelyn Stark. He had made an oath to return Catelyn’s daughters in exchange for being released as her prisoner. But Sansa and Arya had both already escaped King’s Landing by the time he returned. So he provides Brienne with Eddard Stark’s sword and a bag of gold so as to help her keep her oath and in some way satisfy his own. Meanwhile he continues to serve in the King’s Guard as is his duty.
Cersei is still a work in progress – but I suspect she is heading for a gruesome death. She refuses to be humbled when she is forced to walk naked through the streets as a punishment when she is caught fornicating various people. She is also aided by Varys. He murders her uncle Kevan Lannister – who was in the process of undoing much of the mess that she had created. Without that constraint – she seems unlikely to ever have to change her ways until it is too late.
Turning to the Starks, Bran loses his legs and has to give up his dream of becoming a knight. Without the Stark skill in combat he has to discover a new role for himself. He learns to become a shape changer as well as other druidic powers that allow him to access the memories of trees and see visions of people in the present and from the past. This is not entirely unlike the character Varys who hides in the walls of the castle at Kings Landing – gathering information by listening in on the conversations of all those in the court. Spying and information gathering is at the heart of Realpolitik. Bran is learning a version of it which is far more powerful than the ordinary kind.
Arya falls in with a sect of Bravosi Assassins that can change their faces in order to disguise themselves. She starts down this path when she enlists the aid of a face changer to murder her enemies for her. While she aspires to being able to fight honourably like her brothers, she realises that as a girl she will never be able to survive that way. Being able to kill like an assassin gives her a sense of power that allows her to overcome the limitations with which she was born. It’s not the Stark way, but it has kept her alive so far.
Sansa is rescued from Kings Landing by Lord Petyr Baelish (or Little Finger as he is commonly known) – one perhaps even more cunning than Tywin Lannister. She pretends to be his bastard daughter so that she is not discovered as the sole remaining heir to Winterfell – a ruse that is just one of the many deceptions and intrigues she learns from her protector. She becomes Little Finger’s student in the art of political intrigue. So far this choice has also kept her alive hitherto.
As I said – the characters that fail to adapt in this way seem to be the ones that meet a bad end. Ned Stark obviously fits this bill, and I’ve already mentioned Tywin Lannister’s end. Obsessed with obtaining glory for his house, he fails to attend to the needs of those within it – his children. Thus Tyrion’s act of murder against him is a direct cause of his unwillingness to see beyond the glory of the Lannister name.
In defending the honour of his chosen bride, Robb Stark destroys his alliance with the Freys and ends up losing the war. Both he and his mother Catelyn are murdered at the wedding of her brother to Walder Frey’s daughter. Catelyn’s naivety in this instance is particularly telling since she relies on an old custom that forbids anyone from killing their guests once they have secured the guest right by consuming the food and drink of the host. Walder Frey – in a supreme act of Realpolitik, provides the food when asked but ignores the custom and murders the entire host regardless.
Waiting for the End
But what is this final destination toward which Martin’s story is heading? Only he knows. The saga is not yet finished and we still do not yet know what his final vision is.
The question facing the surviving characters is a profound one:
How does one reconcile the need for honour with a need for the pragmatic dictates of Realpolitik?
This is the essential dilemma of the entire saga. Without honour – without the force that binds us together, our understanding of Realpolitik causes us to devour one another with schemes and treachery. Yet without the will to do whatever is necessary we are left exposed to the treachery of others.
This is one of the defining questions of the modern age. Our governments have to wrestle with it all the time. They walk a tightrope stretched between honour and Realpolitik and the threads of that rope seem to be fraying. The war on terror has us entering wars without any declaration, committing acts of torture and detaining enemy combatants without trial. But can our governments resist the urge to turn their talents against their own populations? President Obama has reserved the right to assassinate American citizens without trial and he refused to prosecute those who illegally wiretapped American citizens without a warrant. Dictators around the world are provided material support, even while they suppress and brutalize their own people. All these crimes and more are justified in the name of Realpolitik.
The rationale for such abuses is just what we’ve seen in Martin’s narrative – if you aren’t willing to do what Realpolitik requires then you will be at the mercy of those who are. Yet at the same time, to which concept do supporters of these practices return when they try to stem the increasing discord within their own ranks and among the general citizenry? Honour. Thus if you didn’t support the war in Iraq, you were not a patriot, you were un-american, you were not one of us. The same sorts of charges are levelled against those protesting against Wall Street currently.
One wonders how long this can keep us from tearing ourselves apart and falling into an abyss of war and misery.
What About Morality?
Of course, in modern times, the concept of honour is meant to have died out except for various tribalistic societies that haven’t yet upgraded their value stack. We are supposed to be governed now by appeals to our ‘virtue’ – something we possess inalienably as a result of our actions. Honour, remember, is not inalienable. It can be taken from us by the actions of others. And to be virtuous is to perform actions which are morally correct – that is to say, gain their correctness through appeal to some absolute measure, provided sometimes by God, sometimes by reason.
This is supposed to be the defining narrative of our age – the one that displaced the honour system as a more sophisticated, and less tribalistic one. And one might think that it provides the solution to the dilemma posed by Martin’s sage.
But here’s the funny thing. It’s completely impotent as a source of motivation when cast in terms of what being virtuous gets you. Virtue is something you possess whether other people perceive it or not. So it is not a public quality in the way that honour is. Hence it can’t provide the sort of rewards that honour can in terms of connecting you to others. Nor does it provide the pragmatic advantages that Realpolitik can since it ignores the realities of power and forbids various actions that Realpolitik demands. So in what sense can morality actually motivate us? The difficulty in finding an answer to this question is why the phrase: ”A good deed is its own reward” is so commonly heard.
The ultimate motivation may just be that if we were all moral – we would solve the dilemma presented by Martin’s narrative. Acting according to universal moral laws would bind us altogether under a common set of rules that we could all trust – the existence of multiple groups within society would no longer require the need for Realpolitik because they would all be moral people. But assuming that this reasoning is correct – the big problem is that no one agrees really on what being moral is all about. Whether the justifications for a particular brand of morality has come from Gods or men – there has never been any agreement. There remains multiple gods that different groups worship. And even if the gods were rejected and we drank our morality only from the fount of reason – the philosophers have come to no agreement as to how to justify various moral systems. And they’ve been arguing about it now for over two thousand years.
So it’s a curious thing that morality and virtue has come to dominate the narratives in our modern cultures. We are governed, and respond more eagerly to the dictates of honour and Realpolitik. Yet we see ourselves as aspiring to be virtuous people who see both concerns of honour and Realpolitik as beneath. What extraordinary delusion. Unless we free ourselves of it – we may never find the real solution to the dilemma that George R.R. Martin presents us.