Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
As the phenomenal HBO series Game of Thrones returns to our screens, the politics of this world should be examined.
This article will contain many spoilers about the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Primarily set in the continent of Westeros, a central government in King’s Landing seeks to rule over the semi-feudal lands of the seven kingdoms. The tales of Westeros draw heavily from the veins of history, including England’s War of the Roses.
Prior to the start of the series, Robert Baratheon had led a rebellion against Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, and now sits on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. The Targaryen family had long since been masters of dragons powerful creatures capable of crushing armies. The Mad King commanded no dragons, but believed in his lunacy, that he would be transmuted into a dragon by wildfire.
After a lifetime of drinking, hunting and frequenting prostitutes, Robert Baratheon passes from a hunting injury, leaving the Iron Throne to his impestuous and sadistic son Joffrey. Seeking to demonstrate courage to his people, Joffrey orders the execution of Eddard Stark, who falsely confessed to the crime of treason. The Starks ruled over the North, and this act sparked a vicious uprising among the northern peoples. Declaring Eddard’s son Robb to be the King in the North, one Lord said:
Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again? It was the dragons we bowed to. And now the dragons are dead. There sits the only king I’ll bend my knee to: the King in the North!
The power of the dragons had bent the seven kingdoms under their flames. The absence of these winged beasts, as well as questions over Robert’s heir to the Iron Throne, caused the War of the Five Kings. The calls for self-governance, if a polity is sufficiently distinct from the rest of the territory, can be seen in contemporary times in Scotland and Quebec.
Game of Thrones not only considers self-governance, but how government is financed. The Westerlands, ruled by the potent Lannister family, holds the gold that funds the wars defending the Iron Throne. When Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, asks his daughter Cersei about how much gold has been mined, he says:
Our last working mine ran dry three years ago.
As discovered by Tywin’s son Tyrion, who had been recently made the Master of Coin, Westeros had been borrowing “tremendous” amounts of money from the Iron Bank of Bravos. The pomp and circumstance of King’s Landing had been afforded through budget deficits.
(Video: Dolorous Edd)
Even principles become tempered by reality. Daenerys Targaryen, the daughter of Arys II and the Mother of Dragons, had been burning westwards towards Westeros, to reclaim the Iron Throne. Realising that her forces may not be enough to conquer King’s Landing, and to cement her abolition of slavery, Daenerys stops to rule the former slave city of Meereen. Daenerys found the released servants had been left in a precarious state by her abolition, meaning she allowed the institution of one-year contracts between master and slave. Despite proudly declaring that dragons “are not slaves”, her dragons had been killing goats and children, and were locked away.
In a Rolling Stone interview, George R. R. Martin said of Tolkien’s Middle Earth:
Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a polcy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
We live in an imperfect world, where good intentions among rulers do not necessarily mean good rules. The lesson is: governance is difficult.