Tag Archives: A Game of Thrones

The King Beyond The Cover: John Says More On A Song Of Ice And Fire

I’m almost exactly half way through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series, and I’m still writing about it because it’s all I think about. Every day.

I’ve already written about power in Westeros and how much of a disappointment Ned Stark is.

Read Part 1 On Power

Read Part 2 On Power

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out whose story it is. Political power in ASOIF is fascinating (to me), in part because we attach our concepts of power to ideas of right and wrong. In books and other media that usually means a righteous protagonist uses power to fix injustices.

That’s because protagonists are stand-ins for the triumph of our values. Generally, these are Judeo-Christian ideas about right, wrong, sacrifice, and love.

I’ve asked before, but why is it every movie has an underlying love story? Why is there such a strong connection between overcoming fantastic opposition and finding the one true, perfect love that was meant for you? Seriously, it’s in every movie about anything. It’s virtually omnipresent in American cinema. So much so that when it’s absent movies feel wrong or “French.”

In that same vein, why does the hero always win? Seriously, 99 times out of 100 the good guy wins after great personal sacrifice. Books. Movies. Television. Everywhere but Breaking Bad. To be fair, there are plenty of places where the good guy loses… just at a fraction of the amount that he or she (probably he) wins.

It’s because the hero is the personification of our beliefs. When Luke Skywalker is honing his mastery of the Force, that is really us, collectively, preparing to stand in the face of great hardship. When Aragorn comes back from a terrible fall, that’s us knuckling down against our own obstacles. When Harry Potter resists temptation, he fulfills our own sense of right… generally speaking.

Aragorn falls off a cliff from The Lord of the Rings… by Anyclip

The hero beats the bad guy, who represents our struggle for moral righteousness  And obviously the righteous get the girl because she (right or wrong) represents going to a state of happily ever after. In that state you get to live in peace and have kids because you’ve won out over adversity.

Which is why most of us hate it when good doesn’t triumph over evil and why foreign films and indy flicks with morally ambiguous characters don’t sell as many tickets. Buried will never make more money than Green Lantern. It will only cost less to produce.

If you’ve ever seen The Grey you know what I’m talking aboutRecently widowed  Liam Neeson is forced to fight for survival for what seems to be no reason. His reliance on rugged individualism fails him. His cries to god go (literally) unanswered. Win or lose (and we don’t know which), it feels strange because we (or at least I) find myself asking what was the point?

That’s because there’s no moral lesson to take away unless that lesson is: sometimes bad things happen even when you try really hard and do the right thing. Not very stirring.

I’m not sure ASOIF is that kind of story, given that we don’t have an end yet, but it remains that point of view characters have a powerful connection with the reader. We learn their histories, desires, fears, and vices.When you understand why a person does what they do, it’s hard not to find them sympathetic. Every man is the hero of his own story.

So whose story is ASOIF? Who’s acting out our ideas of good?

I used to think it was the Starks by sheer numbers of POV characters. Ned, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and John are all narrative windows. And all of them are centrally important to the movement of the plot. Not sure why Rob didn’t get any love. Oh, and all the Stark children are wargs; a special distinction in a world that seemingly has no magic.

But then Ned, Catelyn, and Rob all bite it in the first three books and Winterfell gets burned to the ground (spoilers). Meanwhile, all the Lannister characters start creeping into the mix. Tyrion was always a POV character, but Jaime and Cersei are added in later books.

Jamie is one such character. He was originally cast as an incestuous villain and oath-breaker– having killed the previous king he was charged to protect. As the story unfolds, Jaime’s motives for killing his king and making war against the Starks are shown as much for loyalty and honor as self-preservation. Speaking to Catelyn Stark he said the following:

“How can you still count yourself a knight when you have forsaken every vow you swore?”

Jamie reached for the flagon to refill his cup. “So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets, do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”

He took a healthy swallow of wine and closed his eyes for an instant, leaning his head back against the patch of nitre on the wall. “I was the youngest man ever to wear the white cloak.”

And the youngest to betray all it stood for, Kingslayer.”

“Kingslayer.” He pronounced it carefully. “And such a king he was.” He lifted his cup.”To Aerys Targaryen, the second of his name.”

I think that’s what excites me the most about these books. All of the people I thought were going to be my favorite characters are dumb and/or dead. I want to see whose tale this turns out to be. Mayhaps it’s the tale of Daenerys restoring her family’s throne. It could be about the ascension of John Snow from humble man of the Night’s Watch to protector of the North. But I wouldn’t count Bran Stark or any of the Lannisters out yet.

Maybe these books aren’t about a specific group of people at all, but about something that just happens the same way things in large groups of people often do.

Maybe it’s a case study on what it takes to create a king. In which case we should probably just read The Leviathan.

Next week I promise I’ll write about something else.

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Understanding The Flow Of Power In “A Clash Of Kings” Part 2

Last week I had some words about what we can take away George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series concerning political power.

Read Part 1

That’s what these books are really about after all. It occurred to me that in the first two books (and most of the 3rd and 4th) King’s Landing is the only city where we see anything happen. Old Town, White Harbor, Lannisport etc. aren’t featured in any kind of meaningful way because that’s not where the important people are.

And they are all important people. While not all the POV characters are lords, they are all powerful or in the presence of powerful people because Martin is concerned with power.

Anywho, last week I was talking myself into a nihilistic corner where legitimate power is derived from force alone. That’s not necessarily the wrong conclusion, but is that all there is to it? Is that the lesson we can apply to modern governance?

Well… maybe.

From where does the United States derive its sovereign authority? Eye roll. That’s actually a really complicated question, so instead I should ask, “from when did the United States begin to derive sovereign authority?”

Many would say somewhere between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. And almost all would say it was only possible because a stalwart cast of founding fathers and mothers took up arms against the British crown and declared themselves free.

He’ll save children, but not the British children.

It was possible because of force. Like George R. R. Martin’s series, history is concerned with the success of violence. Truly, the winners write history and laws, draw lines on maps, and decide who gets what.

Successful force has, historically, been the backbone upon which power is created. That power, converted into governance, is often legitimized through religion or culture, but in the end force has determined where that power starts and stops.

Awesome. We knocked that out in 300 words. So is that it? Everything we need to know about politics and power can be summed up as might makes right?

Not so much.  Westeros is a feudal society were power flows from the top down. The king names those he wishes to be lords to enforce his peace and to mete out his justice.

But in the modern era that is not the only source of power. Over the last several centuries folks have been rediscovering a source of power that’s been pretty successful in its own right.

The power of consensus.

At the end of the American Revolution George Washington stood victorious with an army at his back and decided NOT to be King In The North… err I mean King of America. For whatever reason he thought it would be better to set down his sword (figuratively and literally) and let the people get to work building a different kind of power.

It could have gone this way.

Here in lies the real difference between any exchange in ASOIF and modern polity. In Westeros, fealty is owed as a matter of tradition when any kind of decision is being made and, ultimately, one lord or king has the power to decide. A power based on force, legitimized by tradition/faith, and employed in a context in which there are few equals.

By contrast we have a democracy that demands equal protection under the laws. No man is a king. No woman a queen. And only the state has the right to employ violence against anyone. So long as enough people consent to those ideas, a society where violence does not determine power, at least the power to govern, will remain.

And as long as that consensus remains we can avoid a Storm Of Swords and the inevitable Feast For Crows that follows.

In a democracy having power and being powerful mean having something other people want. Building the power of consensus through money, talent, and even access to other people.

Consider the case of Tyrion Lannister. For those that haven’t read the books, Tyrion is a dwarf son to a noble house. His stature made him a constant pariah, even in his own family. His twisted legs and misaligned features assured that no one considered him beautiful or dangerous. Yet Tyrion proved himself one of the most dangerous characters in A Clash Of Kings by saving the capital city and keeping a king alive.

And then just as quickly Tyrion lost power when his father came to the city.

Where did that power come from and where did it go? Tyrion was just as rich as any time before his rise or fall. Similarly he was just as reviled by the court and just as bad at martial combat. But Tyrion used the gold he did have and pertinent information to make others do what he wanted. Blackmail. Bribary. Kidnapping his own nephew. Nothing was out of bounds for Tyrion, and all to keep the city safe.

Here it may be that ASOIF is closer to political reality. As a rule, feudal societies can operate by consensus as well, but the threat of force is always a legitimate option by most parties. In a Democracy things like money, information, and reputation play a larger role in building consensus and establishing power. Personal power can turn into a “legitimate” right to rule. If you doubt me, just consider the presidential election.

Personal connections, wealth, knowledge, and reputation make a president. These tools help a man or woman (but really a man) navigate the treacherous road to legitimate power. I’d cite some examples, but I’m at 900 words. Read Machiavelli or something. The point is that the power of governance rests upon the power of violence, but a democracy it constrains that violence. So the roads to that power run through personal resources and talents.

Which is in line with ASOIF. Many characters came from seemingly humble beginnings (Bronn, Little Finger, Varys, John Snow, and on and on) to become crucial political components of Westeros. That’s the real lesson we should take away.


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Understanding The Flow Of Power In “A Clash Of Kings” Part 1

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?


Look for Part 2 here.

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Follies Of An Iron Throne

I walked away from GenCon with the newest edition of A Song Of Ice And Fire RPG. Since then, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around running the game for friends. How do you put a series so detailed and beautiful into a sandbox for players? It’s not as if I’m lacking for materials, but the flavor and voice of the series is so nuanced and addictive I almost don’t know where to start in order to do it justice.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

So, I’m putting together a plan. I’m going to create the perfect ASIF game for my friends and they are going to have the most fun anyone has ever had imagining they were doing something, ever. And I fully intend to write about soon, but not today.

Today I want to talk about rereading A Game Of Thrones.I first read the book some years ago when my dad threw it at me and said it was good. I was like, “Whatever, old man. I’m gonna replay KOTOR until the sun rises.”Eventually, I did come around to opening the pages, and I must say, I was really, really… bored. I quit two chapters in and went back to video games.

But six or so months later, I found the book and decided to give it another go. This time I read the first THREE chapters before I quit. I didn’t have time for this shit.

About a year after that, I decided to give it one last chance. Maybe I had low blood sugar or was especially poor, but I got over that three chapter hump and started to really enjoy the book. There is just something about the way George R. R. Martin describes his characters and settings that enthralled me.

So, I read the whole series… up to A Feast For Crows and then went on with the rest of my life . I haven’t looked back until now.

But I need (and it is a need) to run this game, and I haven’t even read A Dance With Dragons. I’m trying to run a game in this world, and I’m not up on anything that’s happening. Seriously, I can’t even remember what happens at the wall for the entire series.

Clearly, I needed to go back to the source material.

But now I’m more than half way in, and we’re getting to one of the two deaths I’ve been dreading.

For those that haven’t read the books/watched the show, what I’m about to talk about is the brutal murder of what we were lead to believe was the main character of the book. At least, I had always thought Ned Stark was the protagonist because his family made up most of the POV characters.

Ned Stark’s death hurt my soul when I read it the first time, and now that I have the advantage of hindsight, watching him barrel past the shrewd wisdom of everyone in King’s Landing on his way to a beheading makes it so much worse. I can’t even say what bothers me about it so much. His honor is such a fault that it gets him killed and leads to a five-way war, the death of his wife and son, and the sacking of their castle. Actually, it pretty much destroys the seven kingdoms.

In the few chapters before his death, I read no less than four different plans people came up with to help him sieze power, much less avoid his own death. People are literally walking up to him and asking his permission to stop exactly what he is trying to stop, but they want to do it with sneaky court intrigue. All of them point out how doing it the honorable way will not only endanger his life, but also the entire realm.

I really should have titled this post “Ned Stark Is A Selfish Dick” because real honor would necessitate the sacrifice of one’s own values to save lives and keep the peace. Ned got caught up in this idea of legitimate succession that didn’t matter. Robert Baratheon got his throne by violence, as did the line of kings he rebelled against. Did it really matter who’s DNA sat on the Throne?


So now I have to listen (bought the book on Audible for when I drive) to Ned set himself up for death, and I don’t even know why it bugs me so much. Tyrian and Baelish are infinitely more interesting. Even Jaime Lannister gets super fascinating once you learn why he killed king Aerys.

At least if my players prove this honorable/dumb, I know it will be easy to keep them waylaid in their own castle.

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