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