I’ve been rereading George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song Of Ice and Fire (ASOIF) series for the last month or so. My current job puts me in 12 hour days with little spare time to speak of, so when I’m not working, I’m either reading George “Deuce Rs” Martin or listening to it on Audible.
I’m sure this is why it’s the only thing I think about. And since my job is in the context of electoral politics, I have a bad habit of drawing parallels between what I’m reading and what I see in my day-to-day work.
I guess that’s mostly bad because ASOIF is full of blood and rape and people doing awful things, but from time to time I glean something interesting.
Case in point, last week, a friend of mine asked me how I would define power. It was out of the blue, but I had just happened to pass over a discussion between Tyrion and Varys about power a few days prior, and I jumped back to that. Varys had asked Tyrion a riddle:
Three great men, 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?
That passage, which illustrates my argument as well as any words I would have written, concerns where power lies.
“Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
“It has crossed my mind a time or to,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”
“And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”
“That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”
“Just so…yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, who do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”
“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”
“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or…another?”
Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Power resides where men believe it resides.
In sociology, we have the Thomas Theorem, which states that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” It isn’t exclusive, though. There are situations that men (and women) fail to define as real that have very real consequences, but Thomas explains that the definition of the situation, shared or singular, becomes a focus of human behavior.
In ASOIF, that means that power is drawn from what people believe, because it causes men and women to act. So, for example, after the death of Robert Baratheon, there were no less than five self-styled kings fighting in Westeros. Who was the real king?
One could make the argument Stannis had the best claim because he was Robert’s younger brother. King Renly was the youngest brother. King Joffry was a bastard child, not actually related to the previous king. Rob Stark and Balon Greyjoy were basically rebells.
Disregarding whether or not Stannis would make a good king, why wasn’t he crowned? Because Martin had to push more books out of his mind-womb to get that check? Maybe. But, I like to think it’s because the people didn’t believe it… or at least not enough of the people. Martin’s books read like an instruction manual on abusing laws and traditions enough that people believe in an objective or are manipulated into doing whatever is wished of them.
The Lannisters tricked the court and their supporters into believing Joffrey was the rightful king. And actually, the Lannisters themselves (as a whole) were tricked by Cersei and Jaime into believing Joffrey was the true born son of Robert in the first place. That’s a lie that got tons of people (and one out of every two Starks) killed.
People believed power resided somewhere with very real consequences.
The lesson I take away is that laws, rules, and traditions are only as good as the power backing them. Rightful law is the product of violence and ever dependent upon the threat of violence. Returning to our example, Stannis Baratheon should be king, right?
Maybe, but his claim is based on Robert Baratheon killing the last guy who was going to be king. So does that mean that Daenerys has the true claim? Well, her’s is based on the conquest of Westeros by her ancestor Aegon about 300 years prior. He was king because he killed enough people to make everyone call him so.
Basically, violence is the foundation of governance in ASOIF.
But, this is fantasy, and it is awfully nihilistic. This is tantamount to saying that religion, science, liberty… everything is subservient to power, which is dependent upon violence. There’s no way that can be how politics actually work?