The Poison of Ideology in A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire and its amazingly popular Game of Thrones adaptation is many things. It’s a brilliant example of detailed, appealing, and evocative fantasy world-building. It’s a deconstruction of fantasy, adding a sobering dose of Medieval History-based realism to make us realize that a land of kings, knights, peasants, and dragons probably wouldn’t be as full of sword-swinging fun as we imagine. It’s an adventure tale, which actually does have a decent amount of sword-swinging fun – though it forces us to reckon with the consequences of violence, even cool violence involving magic Valyrian Steel swords and dragon flame. But, even though it takes place in a magical world not our own, A Song of Ice and Fire is also a cold and insightful commentary and condemnation of the modern age. Namely, this story of dragons, Children of the Forest, giants, and White Walkers has plenty to say about our current geopolitical situation and values. Does sound that like fantasy? Well, it all comes down to Game of Thrones giving different characters and factions ideologies, which almost always lead to pain and bloodshed – something anyone who reads a modern newspaper is familiar with. (By the way, I am going to spoil everything in the books and the show and do a tiny bit of speculation too, so be forewarned.)

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A perfect example is everyone’s favorite sleazy schemer – Peytr Baelish AKA Littlefinger. He’s the manipulative, lusting, wife-pushing, brothel-owning, back-stabbing slimeball that we all love to hate. But here’s the thing about Littlefinger: if Westeros’s history is going to follow the history of Western Europe (and Western Civilization), he’s the one who is going to win the Game of Thrones long term. Or at least, his ideology will. Littlefinger is all about capitalism, and he’s a Noveau Riche merchant who is all about the capitalist drive to earn and earn big. He came from an extremely poor semi-noble house and turned himself into a major power by hard work and careful investments, until he’s one of the most powerful men in the Seven Kingdoms. He’s practically a Horatio Alger character or a Republican Presidential Candidate. However, his unrequited love for Catelyn Stark makes him more like Jay Gatsby, another capitalist with a big secret. Around the time of the Renaissance, Littlefinger’s types – merchants and businessmen – started amassing power, and business is, arguably, the major force of power in the world today. So a quick peek at Westeros 2015 would reveal that the Iron Throne is little more than a ceremonial piece of furniture while Baelish Incorporated runs the world. Now, watching the show (and knowing anything about history) proves that feudalism sucks. Generations of peasants suffer and die while monsters like Joffrey take the throne because they have the right bloodline (or not…). But Littlefinger’s capitalism is duplicitous, corrupting, and driven by greed. It’s not much better from feudalism, and that’s because Littlefinger is defined by an ideology.

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Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, devotion to an ideology – almost any ideology – is a recipe for disaster, bloodshed, and murder. This makes the most sense to readers and viewers when it concerns ideologies we don’t like. Tywin Lannister’s all about preserving the family name – something a modern person doesn’t care too much about – and we’re not that surprised when it leads to Red Weddings, Tyrion’s Kangaroo Court, and other nastiness. Religious ideology gets the same treatment. Fanatic devotion to the New Gods leads to the Faith Militant, while worship of the Lord of Light leads to burning people alive. As a secular reader who has seen ISIS and the Westerboro Baptist Church in our time (and plenty of other nasty examples of fanaticism gone wrong in Medieval History), that ideology leading to violence and pain makes sense and isn’t too surprising.

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But George R.R. Martin is never about playing to a reader’s comfort zone. There are factions that have ideologies which are sympathetic to modern readers – and they cause as much problems as the Lannisters and the Faith Militant. First up is the Brotherhood Without Banners – the People’s Resistance of Westeros, who are all about protecting the smallfolk from the horrors of war and getting revenge on the odious Freys. This ragtag bunch of Robin Hoods are a loveable gang of guerilla heroes. They’re all about feeding the poor, redistributing wealth, and murdering Freys. Sign me up, I said! But then you get to the part about Lady Stoneheart – a vengeance-crazed zombie ghost leading the Brotherhood on a mission of vengeance. Well, said I, they’re only paying back the Freys for the Red Wedding. They still sound good to me! But the revolutionary furor and quest for vengeance of the Brotherhood Without Banners soon leads to some of the most sympathetic and beloved characters in the books – Brienne and Pod (not Pod!) being fitted for nooses. That’s when I realized that the Brotherhood Without Banners, like an actual revolutionary army fighting for a specific ideology, is an inherently violent force. The show doesn’t really have this happening with Brienne and Pod (though it still might), but they do sell the sympathetic Gendry to Melisandre in exchange for weapons, which goes to show that they might not be the Robin Hood heroes after all.

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Stannis Baratheon is another example. To a modern reader, he’s somewhat sympathetic, especially compared to his rival. He is the rightful king after all (for whatever that’s worth), but he’s also tough but fair and believes in justice and the rule of law. We love all those things! It’s no wonder Stannis has so many fans. But once again, Martin points out that Stannis’s ideology – the rule of law whatever the cost – is going to lead to suffering. In this case, it’s poor Shireen who pays the price, which will probably make everyone rooting for Stannis want to change their minds. It certainly did so for me.

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Ideology in Westeros causes problems because ideology in the real world, particularly when Martin was writing A Song of Ice and Fire, causes problems. The War on Terror, the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and loads of other nasty fights are about many things, but they’re primarily a clash of different ideologies. Soon as people start fighting for a Cause, they are willing to accept collateral damage in exchange for victory, and whether drones or dragons are involved, that’s going to lead to innocent people dying.

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That’s why the truly sympathetic characters in Game of Thrones are the peacemakers – like good, old Jon Snow. I initially wasn’t that interested in Jon Snow’s adventures at the Wall. It seemed unconnected from everything else, far away from colorful, witty characters like Tyrion. But after Jon becomes Lord Commander and realizes the threat of the White Walkers, he understands that it’s time to put differences aside and come together for a better future. The Wildings and the Night’s Watch are two groups defined by their mutually hostile ideologies, but Jon Snow recognizes that they need to stop killing each other and come to some sort of agreement. There’s no White Walkers about to swarm over the war-torn areas in our world, so we don’t exactly have a common foe to unite against, but just stopping relentless killing is a goal any reader can get behind. Sadly, Jon Snow ends up being the Yitzhak Rabin of Westeros in more ways than one – ending up murdered by fanatical Night’s Watch men driven by ideology, who chant ‘For the Watch,’ as they drive their daggers home. The show’s upcoming season finale might have something similar (but don’t be too worried – remember that Red Priests like Melisandre can bring people back to life and there’s all sorts of mystic mumbo-jumbo around Jon).

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Assigning modern metaphors to works of fiction is always a dicey proposition and A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot more than just a sad commentary on our times. But I do think that when we see horrific ideological acts every day in the newspaper, it makes sense that we’d look for them in our fantasy books and TV shows too. Maybe that’s why Game of Thrones holds the charm it does – or maybe it’s just the dragons.

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