A Philosophy of Ice and Fire

Season 7 of Game of Thrones premiers in five days (!),  and I for one am stoked. A lot has been made of the philosophies one can glean from these stories, so I wanted to give my own thoughts.

The ongoing argument is that George R.R. Martin is a nihilist and created these stories to beat his readers over the head with tragedy and suffering.

I disagree, and I will use this post to explain why.

Spoilers ahoy! I will be freely discussing spoilerish information from both the books and the show, so if you’ve somehow managed to avoid them to this point, this post is probably not for you.

I think it’s too reductive to say that Martin’s story is just a nihilistic view of the world. Westeros, and the other regions of this world, are too steeped in their own histories to be utterly pointless.

While the characters’ lives appear to be a Hobbesian fantasy of brutality and cruelty, the story is still building towards a larger purpose; it just may not be the purpose we are used to in our fantasy stories.

Traditional fantasy portrays a hero/ine who overcomes incredible odds to defeat darkness or evil and bring light and goodness back into the world.

Until the resurrection of Jon Snow at the beginning of season 6, it was hard to pin down just who the hero of ASoIaF was. (By the way, I’m conflating the show and the books intentionally, because I believe that, despite their obvious narrative differences, they are building to the same overall ending.)

Now, does that mean that Jon Snow and Daenaerys Targaryen are going to triumph over the chaos that is set to destroy Westeros? Not necessarily.

One of the main themes of Westeros is History, whether personal, regional, or cultural. My view is that Martin created these histories and their connections to the characters’ present lives in order to demonstrate two things:

  • History imitates itself, and
  • Even after the hero wins, the world is not all songs of joy and celebration

Histories of the Individual and the World

Just as the lives of each individual character are inextricably tied to their families’ pasts, so too is the larger story inextricably tied to the history of this world.

Take Ned Stark as an example. We don’t know it when we meet Ned at the outset of the story, but he is carrying two secrets that have filtered down through the years and through the entire series:

  1. What really happened at the Tower of Joy
  2. The parentage of Jon Snow

Both of these background nuggets are key elements of Robert’s Rebellion, and have finally, after 13-20 years of instability, rivalry, and warfare, come to fruition in the story of Jon Snow.

If we go back a little further, we learn that the circumstances of Tyrion Lannister’s birth seeps through his life to impact how his own family members (notably, Cersei and Tywin) treat him and ultimately oust him from the family completely.

And to take a longer historical view, what do the northerners say when Robb Stark wants to march off to war against the Lannisters? “It was the dragons we bowed to, and now all of the dragons are dead!” They then proceed to declare Robb the King in the North, the first King in the North that Westeros has seen since Torrhen Stark knelt before Aegon Targaryen some 300 years earlier.

The entire history of Westeros rides on the shoulders of these characters, and yes, many of them crumble under its weight.

If there is one character who embodies this philosophy, it is Varys, the Master of Whispers.

He has become the behind-the-scenes driver of most of the major events of the story, and all for the good of “The Realm”. Regardless of how you feel about Varys’s true motives, the fact remains that he understands the history of Westeros better than seemingly anyone else on the continent.

He recognizes that there is only one name that could unite seven independent kingdoms: Targaryen. I think he has been planning the return of the Targaryen bloodline to the throne since Robert’s Rebellion. When he speaks of fighting for The Realm, what he means is fighting for its stability. He knows that The Realm would crumble into internecine warfare without a larger power holding it together — and that has already begun.

Out of the Chaos…

As we approach season 7 of Game of Thrones the TV series, it’s not looking good for most of the major houses of Westeros.

The Baratheons, Tyrells, Boltons, and Martells are gone.

The Greyjoys, Starks, Freys, Tullys, Arryns, and Lannisters, are decimated with slim chances of survival for each.

Will Theon and Yara’s alliance with Danaerys pan out? Will Bran, Jon and Sansa survive Winter? Are all of the Freys dead? (Walder had a lot of kids!) Last time we saw Edmure Tully, he was a captive of the embittered (and now headless) Freys. Robin Arryn is a meek and sickly lad who would sooner die in a hunting “accident” then ascend to become Warden of the West. Jaime and Cersei are going to kill each other (and you cannot convince me otherwise), and would Tyrion really want the seat of the house that treated him like a pariah?

So this is where we are. Any house with regional or supra-regional influence is at the very least in shambles, and still has to survive the coming war.

Isn’t this the perfect opportunity for a lesser house to step into the chaos and rise to prominence? (House Baelish springs to mind — Chaos is a ladder, after all.) Wouldn’t it behoove such houses to jump at the chance to overthrow the entire order in favor of a new ruler who happens to have three dragons?

Aegon the Conqueror brought to heel the great houses of Westeros and elevated many new ones, like the Baratheons, the Tyrells, and the Tullys. These houses survived and became more powerful, ultimately falling in line behind Robert Baratheon’s rule.

But now, the wheel is turning again. Many of these houses have disappeared, crushed under the weight of history and the familial rivalries that were subdued by the Targaryens, but never extinguished.

Will Dany be able to “break the wheel” as she vows? I doubt it. She will invade Westeros, and Jon Snow, the new King in the North, will kneel before her. Her armies will bathe the old houses in fire and blood, and she will raise her new liege lords to power. The rivalries will still exist, just in new forms.

And I believe that’s the entire point. New houses will rise to power under the auspices of a new dynasty (whatever form that takes), but the Game will stay the same.

There will still be rivalries, inter-family marriage alliances, civil wars, invasions, dastardly monarchs, and mass executions.

The regime will fall, the cold winds will rise, and Westeros will have to re-re-rebuild from the frozen ashes.

History imitates itself.

If that is nihilism, then Martin is only drawing from a real world that breeds such perspectives. I won’t get all preachy and political, but it’s not hard to find current examples of human society not learning from past mistakes and falling into the same patterns of self-decay over and over.

If Martin truly is the fantasy author who flips the genre, then all he is doing is showing us that even when the hero triumphs, even when the evil monarch or the dark lord or the demonic armies fall, The Struggle does not end. Someone else will step up to challenge the newfound order.

And so we begin again.

Steve D

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