A Morally-Complex Game of Thrones

Review of A Game of Thrones (Book) by George R. R. Martin

By KENDRICK KUO

A Song of Ice and Fire invaded the houses of the average American with the advent of HBO’s Game of Thrones (named after the first installment of the fantasy book series). I saw the books in my school library growing up, but thought nothing of them until the TV show began to air and generate lots of excited cyber-chatter. I watched both the first and second seasons (the third season will premiere March 31, 2013) and finally made myself read the books at the prompting of an obsessed co-worker.

A Game of Thrones drops readers straight in the midst of political turmoil in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The Targaryen dynasty under the rule of the Mad King was semi-recently toppled by a coalition of fiefdoms comprised of a House and its bannermen—a society reminiscent of a medieval feudal system (Coyle Neal might be able to correct me at this point). Major players are House Baratheon, House Lannister, and House Stark, but there are of course other Houses that have different roles to play as the plot unfolds.

I. A “Brief” Summary [Spoilers from here on]

The complexity of the plot makes this fantasy series the sprawling epic that it is. To help readers of Schaeffer’s Ghost get a taste of this, I’ll forego summarizing it myself and suggest you go to the Wikipedia page if you intend to read this review without having read the book first. If you intend to read the book(s), be warned about the spoilers in the Wikipedia summary, for the unexpected twists are integral to enjoying the series. My reflections below will assume some understanding of the characters and plot lines (having watched the TV show will suffice).

George Martin takes us through this maze of intertwining storylines from the perspective of different characters. Each chapter is dedicated to the perspective of one of the key characters (in subsequent books we gain access to others as well). In this way these characters draw out our sympathies and we find ourselves liking some surprising people (e.g., Tyrion Lannister) and disliking others (Sansa Stark, Ned’s daughter betrothed to Joffrey).

One more note before shifting to some reflections, the HBO TV series follows the novels extremely well. Many lines are taken word-for-word from the books, and even the scenes are filmed almost exactly as they are described. For example, the first season covers the first book and ends with the same scene. For this reason, I recommend reading the book before watching the TV series. Also, the TV series and book contain highly mature content, mainly of a sexual nature, so be warned.

II. The Merits of Politics

Or, the lack thereof. Most short summaries of the book don’t get even close to giving you a sense of the crazy politicking that goes on in King’s Landing. It’s like House of Cards (a review for another day) meets the Middle Ages, but almost everyone is a version of Francis Underwood. That is, except Lord Stark. Ned longs to return to Winterfell, where people and relationships are simple and ruling is a matter of justice. Readers are drawn to Ned and the Stark brood (except, in my opinion, Sansa) because they have an idealistic view of politics and oftentimes refuse to get down in the mud.

But on the other hand, George Martin gives readers a sense of the futility in remaining aloof. To play the game of thrones, the stakes are high and you have to play dirty. As Queen Cersei says to Ned Stark, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” This should be taken literally, since our Lord Stark does in fact lose his head.

I don’t want to be a reductionist, but A Game of Thrones seems to have a clear message: politics is a dirty-but-necessary reality. To go further, the book lends credence to the phrase, “the personal is political”. The politicking in King’s Landing is intensely personal because it’s existential. And in this sort of politics, there is little room for honor.

III. The Demerits of Honor

Honor is a common theme, personified by Ned Stark and, more broadly, House Stark as a whole. They keep their word and feel bound by honor to do things that are not politically savvy. When King Robert learns that Daenerys Targaryen is pregnant with Khal Drogo’s child, he wants to send assassins to kill her. Such a move is morally reprehensible to Ned, not just because there’s no honor in assassination, but also because they would be killing an innocent child in the womb.

Another tension is with Jaime Lannister, who dealt the coup de grace to the Mad King and hence is called “Kingslayer”. Jaime killed the Mad King while a sworn member of the Kingsguard, having vowed to protect the king. This sets the Stark way of doing things in direct contrast with the Lannister way.

A third and final example was already mentioned above: Ned warns Queen Cersei to leave before King Robert returns from his hunting trip. Now, whether this is a matter of honor or of mercy is hard to parse, but I believe there’s a little bit of both. Ned doesn’t want a child (Joffrey) to be killed, seeing him as an innocent party.

When playing the game of thrones, there is little place for honor. Honor lets the Queen find a way to get out. Honor leads to Ned’s execution. Honor leads to Lady Catelyn allowing Tyrion to escape because he wins a competition fair and square.

IV. Hobbesian Realism

The Seven Kingdoms operates in a world where the international relations theory of Hobbesian Realism prevails (I hope I’m not getting in over my head here). Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as the inestimable Thomas Hobbes once wrote. And the international political system is anarchic, it’s a free-for-all.

Sure, there are “liberal institutions” (using IR parlance) such as a hereditary royal succession, there are Houses that pay homage to King’s Landing, and there is the Night’s Watch, which the Seven Kingdoms all contribute to. But in the end, the ultimate priority is every entity or sub-entity for itself.

V. A Lesson in Depravity

Despite the mature content in both the novel and the TV show, which will exclude a number of our readers from consuming A Game of Thrones, there is a healthy amount of content that is redeemable. George Martin portrays the Houses in such a way that we naturally gravitate toward House Stark and away from House Lannister, and with a wide spectrum of responses to the other Houses and their bannermen. But George Martin does so in a very realistic way that reflects the moral universe we live in.

All the characters have flaws and are at times dishonorable (of course, some are a lot more dishonorable than others). And they’re all forced to play the game of thrones, with some playing dirtier than others. This is a reflection of the reality that we live in a fallen world, with fallen natures. I appreciated the way A Game of Thrones was not a simplistic “good versus evil” story, but instead posed true ethical conundrums that will elicit different reader responses, without being cast adrift the sea of moral relativism.

This rings true for Christian readers. The doctrine of total depravity does not exclude the common grace extended to sinners, allowing them to still do good works within a limited scope. So we should not be surprised when people do terrible things, nor should we be confused when they do amazingly wonderful things.

The very complexity of the story has merit. It’s hard to follow the moral thread, as it is in most situations, hence we pray for spiritual discernment to understand the will of God as it is revealed in Scripture. Jon Snow is tempted to leave the Wall and join his half-brothers in their war against House Lannister, but he’s sworn to defend until his death. What’s the right, moral decision? Do ends justify the means, giving the green light to assassinate Daenerys Targaryen?

But setting aside questions that philosophy departments continue to publish books about, the Christian, once a moral judgment has been made, carries out the decision despite its cost. Paul tells us, “Do not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). We can do this because we have a sure hope of reward when we enter God’s rest. Mere sense of duty and honor will only get us so far. Without a guaranteed future reward, it seems meaningless to remain beholden to a moral standard that costs us dearly. Paul puts it like this, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

If there is no life after death, then there is no reason to hope in Christ and live sacrificially, denying worldly pleasures. Honor in the Seven Kingdoms makes little sense without the promise of reward in the future Kingdom. And so it applies to the kingdoms of this world.

  • Tyrion

    Hi,
    It’s not GRRM that portays the house in a way that makes us root for House Stark, it’s the characters you follow in the first book.
    GRRM use the POV structures really well you can’t take anything you read for granted because you see it through the lense of the character talking or thinking in the current chapter, and when they talk/think about other houses they usually don’t know the truth but just their perception of it (or they know the truth and deliberately lie about it, or interpret it the way they want to justify their future actions).
    Except Dany and Tyrion, all the POV of the first book are Starks (and Tyrion is kind of a black sheep in the Lannister’s family so he doesn’t get out of his way to apologize or explain his family’s behaviour) so obviously your view of events are subjectives to those of the Starks.
    Wait until you get the other side of the story for a lot of events and you may well reconsider your opinions on a lot of characters/houses.
    You’ll get in the head of other Lannisters and a lot of non-Stark people in the next books (won’t say which ones) and you’ll have to wait to get the accounts of several different people about the same event if you want to form and educated opinion about what really happened and why.
    A lot of that is lost in the TV Show were everything is more direct : for example, you can see that the Lannisters (Joffrey aside) are presented in a slightly better light in the tv show than in the first book because they’re not always seen through the eyes of their ennemies and they must keep true to their personalities even when those informations were not present in the first book.
    I hope you keep reading, even if the tv show exceeded everything i though it would be when i first heard of it, it doesn’t capture the complexity and emotional involvment the books can give you.

    • Kendrick

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right about how GRRM does a good job using the point of view to make us sympathetic with the characters. When it comes to Sansa Stark though–I found her character extremely annoying. I actually thought the TV show portrayed her in a better light than the book did, or I might just be a bit hard on the poor girl. [SPOILER ABOUT FUTURE BOOKS FOLLOWING] I’m currently in the fourth book, and I must say I’ve naturally grown a lot more sympathetic with Jamie Lannister. But that’s not really been the case with Cersei. I must say, even reading things from her perspective, I still find her unappealing.

      Regarding the TV show, I agree, Season 1 was incredible, and even the additional scenes that weren’t in the book enhanced the story-line, I felt. On the other hand, Season 2, for better or for worse, did some odd changes to the plot that I didn’t really think were warranted or necessary.

      • Jeanne K

        Remember that Sansa, especially in all the books you’ve read, is an innocent and sheltered child. You may find her annoying, and she’s certainly not my favorite, but she’s a sheltered teenage girl. That trait is common to the species. Not everyone can be heroic or awesome. Some just are people trying and failing (sometimes) to figure out what’s right. She couldn’t know how awful it was for her to beg Cersei to let her stay with Joffrey, for example. That GRRM allows this kind of greyness too adds to the moral complexity.

  • erasure25

    RE: Sansa. You should keep in mind the age of the children in the books vs. the age in the HBO show. HBO aged up all the children, including (especially) Daenerys. Sansa starts out as eleven years old in A Game of Thrones (book) and is described as very pretty. I wonder if you and others perceive Sansa as annoying because you and others are imagining someone of Sophie Turner’s age while reading the inner thoughts of a pretty 11 year old girl in the book? I am not nearly as annoyed with Sansa as others seem to be, maybe in part because I read the books first and did not imagine someone of Sophie Turner’s age.

    • Kendrick

      This is very true, I could see how the HBO show would have colored the way I perceive Sansa.


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