Tag Archives: Greyjoy

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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