Monday, June 03, 2013

Playing The Game of Thrones, and Why Nearly Every Character Can Lose At It

“Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”“It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, two many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”“And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”“That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”“Just so…yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, who do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or…another?”Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”“So power is a mummer’s trick?”“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”Tyrion smiled. “Lord Varyls, I am growing strangely fond of you. I may kill you yet, but I think I’d feel sad about it.”“I will take that as high praise.” - from the book source A Clash Of Kings
With the recent much-ballyhooed episode of Game of Thrones that threw out all established tropes of heroes and happy endings, one thing that popped into my mind was how the whole series - both book and show - seem to be literally about "the Game of Thrones".  A Game over power and who truly wields it.

Partly I see the warning of Machiavelli in the series: the question "whether it is better to be loved or feared," and the answer "the real solution is to avoid being hated, which is the worst thing a Prince can accomplish." No finer example to be offered than Joffrey himself: the spoiled brat of a boy king who views himself perfect and noble and strong and yet everyone else - and whoa do I mean everyone - sees as weak, craven, worthless.  Made king only through rite of birth, Joffrey does nothing to prove himself: he immediately expects everyone to bow and scrape and follow his orders.  Of the flawed characters with a claim to The Iron Throne, Joffrey's the worst: the believer of the Divine Right of Kings and title holder of Zero Percent Approval Rating.  (Viserys is even worse than Joffrey, with the saving grace that he got himself killed in karmic fashion early enough that he doesn't leave the destruction that Joffrey does)

But Joffrey's not the only one.  Every character with an eye on that throne has a serious flaw when it comes to power and how to use it.
  • The Stark family as a whole - Kings of the North - are a noble breed but rule with their hearts more than their heads.  Eddard Stark is too trusting; Robb Stark too impulsive and focused on personal honor.  Both suffer, both die, and the aftermath of each one's fall leaves their House in great disrepair (albeit still alive through respectful allies keeping certain children safe). 
  • The Lannisters - right now the family of power in the Seven Kingdoms - are wealthy and feared (Machiavelli would be pleased) but each prominent member has issues: the patriarch Tywin is obsessed with the family name even as he disparages all of his children for their folly; eldest son Jaime is favored but is foolish and headstrong (and boning his own sister); Cersei imagines herself a player but is too vindictive and overplays her hand, and too much fears a prophecy of her children's fate that makes her commit acts that doom them anyway; Tyrion is the smartest character in the whole world, shows adept skill at manipulating ally and foe alike, and in all regards would be the best suited to rule... except as a dwarf he's dismissed by many of his fellow lords, is blamed for the sins of his nephew Joffrey, and his one strength - his wit - is also his weakness because Tyrion can't stop himself from saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.   
  • The Baratheons have the current, more honest claim to the throne through the accusation that Joffrey and Cersei's other children are not those of Robert Baratheon, the king who dies at the beginning of GoT.  But they start off divided even in their own House: the elder brother Stannis claims the throne but internally knows he's disliked for his stubbornness (if he ran for President he'd be an Active-Negative like John Adams); the younger brother Renly is the more charismatic and openly courts favor from his followers (he wants to be loved), but proves indecisive and disorganized and is ill-positioned when the moment comes to act.
  • The Greyjoys aren't even really playing for the Iron Throne: basically a House of pirates and raiders, they're in it to deal their rival family the Starks a serious blow.  Short-sighted, self-serving, needlessly cruel (leading to the "hated more than feared" doom) with the only decent characters - Theon, Victarion - suffering or due to suffer massive humiliations.
  • The Martells are either level-headed or honor-obsessed, and sometimes both.  They backed the wrong House in the last big war before GoT and suffered for it.  Opposed to the Lannisters, they would be formidable opponents except for their current leader Doran's fear of exposure (he's confined to wheelchair, fearing he would be viewed as weak) and proper paranoia that any move towards a deal could lead to betrayal... which leaves them incapable of making any deals at all.
  • The Tullys own a key point of land - the Twins, a vital bridge linking the North lands to the other kingdoms - but not much else: they are used by the other families or ignored.  Except for when one of their minor Houses - Frey - takes revenge on one such slight against Robb Stark and his House... by violating the most inviolate rule in human history (Sacred Hospitality); by doing so the Freys become hated - having rarely been loved or respected, this essentially dooms their House.  And it leaves the Tullys with almost no players on the board at all...
  • The Tyrells as a whole are quiet, watchful, intelligent, shrewd... and let themselves be manipulated by the other Houses - Lannisters especially - only because they came to power in their kingdom over more legitimate Houses, meaning they have little loyalty outside of their small circle of allies (again, the Lannisters).  They are good at playing the Game of Thrones (and are major characters because of it) but are playing for such long odds that they can miss every opportunity that arises to claim it...
  • The Targaryens are the fallen House, the kings before the start of the story whose rule was dominated by arrogance and madness (sourced to their open inbreeding campaign of marrying brother to sister).  Driven by a variant of the Divine Right concept - that they are Dragons (literally) - the Targaryens created a hostile environment against their House leading to Baratheons' rebellion and the wiping out of nearly every Targaryen claimant to the throne.  Except for two (really three, but the third remains hidden): Viserys and Daenerys.  Already mentioned Viserys as unstable and worse than Joffrey, and got himself rightfully killed off for his folly before he could do serious harm; on the other hand Daenerys has proven nicer, genuine and respectful of the people she now leads in foreign lands building up an army to reclaim the Iron Throne.  And it doesn't hurt that Daenerys has her dragon pets, and has proved her invulnerability to fire (!) confirming her divine right as Dragon.  But she's easily distracted, obsessed with a form of justice that her contemporaries refuse to accept, and tries too hard to be both loved and feared, which Machiavelli noted was difficult to manage for even the best of Princes.

The riddle Varys presents at the start of this article remains potent: who truly is in power?  Who is best using such power?  Solve the riddle and you figure out who is going to be left standing at the story's end.

Personally, I got money on (discovers Littlefinger has poisoned his drink) WHAT?  NOOOOooooo...

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