In this Kosmos Online Podcast, I’m discussing themes of liberty in the popular fiction and TV series, Game of Thrones. Our guest is Game of Thrones expert Amber Taylor, who has written about the series for The Atlantic and blogs at Prettier Than Napoleon.
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Jeanne Hoffman: Welcome to this Kosmos Online podcast. I am Jeanne Hoffman. Today we are talking about the popular fiction work in HBO series “Game of Thrones” and how it intersects with themes of liberty. I would like to welcome our Game of Thrones expert Amber Taylor who is a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law, a blogger at Prettier than Napoleon, and has written on Game of Thrones for The Atlantic.
Welcome Amber and thanks for joining us.
Amber Taylor: Thank you for having me.
JH: First of all for listeners who might not know about the show and book, could you give us a rough guide to the Game of Thrones world?
AT: Yes, so Game of Thrones was originally a series of novels by George R.R. Martin who is a well known sci-fi and fantasy author and also TV screenwriter which explains the cinematic quality of many of the plot developments in the series.
It originally was intended to be a trilogy as many fantasy series are. It has ballooned and is presently at five books. The fifth book came out earlier this year and last year was the first year of the HBO original series starring Sean Bean that covered the plot in the first book which is called Game of Thrones and it was renewed for a second season which is starting, I believe next spring, which will cover as far as I know the part of the second book which is called Clash of Kings.
So this began as a fantasy take on the Wars of the Roses. So the Lancasters in New York became the Lannisters and Starks and it has sort of acquired its own gravity through the development of the narrative.
It is at surface about the struggles between various noble families and factions for power in the aftermath of a rebellion several years, with the winner of that rebellion governing the kingdom or misgoverning and then the death of that king and what comes after.
In many ways it has a lot to say about various political themes and Game of Thrones is unusual in the fantasy genre, at least was when it was originally written that it really takes a very gritty realistic tone. In many cases fantasy is criticized for not really getting to these human issues and is Marie Antoinette with her shepherdesses in her sterile little cottage. But, Martin is very interested in looking at the dark side of a medieval setting.
JH: So the world that is going on there is it just about who can deploy the greatest force or are there questions of liberty or morality at stake within this?
AT: So the various families that struggle for power in the wake of the death of King Robert, which is something that we saw in season I of the HBO show in the first book, there are the Lannisters who are an extremely wealthy family of the queen Robert’s wife and his widow is a Lannister.
The various families have different motivations. The Lannisters are very out for wealth. The historically have made a lot of money from gold mining and are really very almost sociopathic in their pursuit of power.
The Starks who are the other sort of leading family–at least in first book and series–are from the north which you can roughly analogize to Scotland if you want, which has more of a history of independence and self rule. So you can read it as the fact that the Starks are in the wake of Robert’s death perhaps asserting new independence for the north is a claim to self governance and potential the overturn to devolution of power.
Some of the other factions and families have more or less in terms of principled commitments or ideologies. There is a rough analog to sort of Norse or Viking culture in the form of the Greyjoys, one of whom is a ward of the Starks in the wake of another war. They are a very individualistic family and society, but one which is also fundamentally based on the exercise of a force and almost ‘might is right’, although they do have interestingly female ship captains and other sorts of unusual things for the culture.
JH: So for fans of liberty does it matter very much who ends up winning?
AT: I think it does because one thing that you will see in the future– and I don’t want to give too much away –is that the scion of the former ruling house the one that was overthrown by Robert in his rebellion a couple of decades before the time that the show in the first book are set in, is currently oversees trying to muster forces to return to her homeland and hopefully conquer. One of the more interesting developments with her is that she is essentially sold almost as a slave to a rough and tough Genghis Khan-type figure in an attempt to get his military forces to take back her homeland. She, due to her experiences of being effectively chattel, has a very strong commitment to ending slavery.
But, there are a lot of problems that come along with the re-ordering societies even when you are trying to do so in an effort to increase liberty, and so one of the things that I think we will see next season is the difficulty of making these choices and making sure that they don’t lead to greater chaos or upheaval.
JH: So you were just talking about someone who is chattel, but I want to talk now about the Nights Watchmen. They go to the war and they made a free choice to join this watch rather than do other things and they are very strict service; no wife, no land, no children, no titles, no glory, so what about them? Are they free or are they sort of slaves to be in the watch?
AT: The Nights Watch is this really interesting construct because it is true that some of them, such as Jon Snow who is the bastard son of Ned Stark, the character played by Sean Bean in the series. Jon Snow, being a bastard, he has no inheritance. He has very little option for marriage or glory and so the nights watch provides a structure and a potential for him to succeed and contribute, but even so it is his legal status as a bastard that is really driving him toward that choice even though in his case it was made freely.
The problem with the nights watch is that, the nights watch performs this double role of providing an out worth for people who are bastards or cripples or you know, who couldn’t make it on the outside effectively so you know younger sons like the character Samwell Tarly who is an overweight and likes to, you know rather bookish and his father tells him essentially you may be really the son but your brother is the better heir you can choose to trying to watch or you can have a hunting accident.
So in many cases that even for the characters where it appears the most volitional there is a lot of societal pressure going on the tragedy to the watch, but the other function that the watch performs is, you can see this in history, societies that had judicial systems but not incarceration. So in a situation where somebody has violated the law where we would take away their physical liberty for a time if you don’t have the social structure, the apparatus that sort of capital to do that, like what we saw hundreds of years ago in England, is a lot of crimes became hanging crimes. In other countries you have corporal, physical judicial punishment and that is the case in Westeros, but there is this sort of alternate path where a person convicted of certain crimes who might be dealt or lose a hand or be hung have the option to join the watch which, even compared with a choice between hunger or lack of status, there may something that they are choosing but it is a fairly unfree choice.
So what you see there is that there are some people in the watch like Jon Snow who because they chose it freely come to it with a sense of pride and obligation, then you have people who chose it as an alternative to the rope who are much less motivated and in fact sometimes make a different choice, which is to enter the society beyond the Wall. So the nights watch guards via this immense wall constructed of ice in the northern border of Westeros from ancient enemies and they are however, almost anarchic tribal populations called wildlings who live north of the Wall and some of these people who join the nights watch and realize that a lifelong commitment , while its better than being hung, is still not something that they desire. It is in fact a life sentence chose to go pursue this wild existence beyond the Wall.
So those I believe are in many senses the most free people in Westeros but you also see that their status as being effectively anarchic and launch themselves as sort of left them with very little in the way of resources and of course they are cut off from trade or other relationships with people south of the Wall which also tends to limit their options.
JH: So George RR Martin kind of goes meta at times in that he uses his stories to comment on the way in which we use stories. So there is Sansa Stark who relies of stories, what is that about and how does it create spaces of liberty for her and which ways does it destroy it too?
AT: To an extent that Sansa is trying to create spaces of liberty for herself via her use of stories. I think it is mostly mental. This particular kind of narrative’s that Sansa, who is a young pretty girl who is betrothed to the son of the King Robert, means the daughter of the Stark family. Sansa have very idealistic notions about courtly love, about the obligations of nobility, about the obligations of men towards women and the consequent conduct that women and men show towards each other. And what you see with Sansa is that in some cases it does allow her to affectively remain sane by playing a role and sometimes it keeps her safe in so far as the role that she is inhabiting, that she is imbibed from, these stories of courtly love is a rather quiet and submissive one which sort of keeps her out of trouble when she is the target of abuse or in danger and in some sense obtains a certain amount of pity from her, from some of the other characters such as Sandor Clegane the Hound, who is a very brutal knight who has effectively renounced the knighthood and all of its accoutrements because he sees that being a knight doesn’t mean you are a good person.
He feels a certain sympathy for Sansa who has not yet come to the realization that he came to it at a young age which is, this courtly love narrative can really protect you and it doesn’t really reflect the world that they live in. In a sense this a lot of what Martin is doing with the story because many fantasy novels as I mentioned before are for fans of that courtly love narrative, of that, the perfect gentle knight, and what Martin is interested in showing you and Sansa is a really good example of that is that in a society where there is very little individual liberty and that force still plays a very strong role that these are not adaptive modes of conduct that being or subscriber to the ideals of courtly love and idealistic and Sansa is in fact it usually leads to trouble.
JH: I haven’t watched the series, you know I have just read the book so I apologize if I say his name but there is a character Tyrion I want to say his name Tyrion Lannister is that right?
AT: Tyrion, I think is how they say it on HBO.
JH: Yes. So he seems to have a great liberty to move between the roles and social ranks. Where does that liberty come from?
AT: Tyrion is a really great character. He does have that sort of sense of being free that a lot of the nobles don’t seem to have. A part of that is first of all Tyrion, being a Lannister, is incredibly wealthy above and beyond any of the other families that we see in the series. The Lannisters are well known throughout the country for being the richest people around and so while Tyrion has a certain liberty to be socializing with fellow nobles due to his birth, but also goes into the Taverns and the brothels and so on and is very comfortable with people of lower orders since he is protected by his wealth.
We see this where he comes into contact with some mercenaries and soldiers who might have otherwise killed him but where you have someone who can easily dangle the prospective ransom in any kind of dangerous situation, it allows you to be comfortable in circumstances where other people would be in a fairly great deal of fear. But part of what makes Tyrion’s freedom possible is, I think there is a quote, they make have it in the show as well as in the book, which is that in a conversation with Jon Snow who is an illegitimate he says that all dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes. He is if not cast out by his father due to his disability he is the second class citizen within the family.
His name and his wealth remain but he has no obligations or responsibilities because he is effectively a Lannister in name only and so his sense of distance and disillusionment, that isolation I think, is one thing that pushes him to be comfortable with people of various orders and various classes. In a sense he is impoverished as well. The fact that he is a dwarf and does not have obligations to be a knight he does not have obligations to be married off for the benefit of the family allows him a firm scope to experiment with different kinds of people with different interactions and he actually is a big reader himself. His broadmindedness probably contributes to his free and easy ways as well.
JH: So the world that Martin created seems pretty violent so is personal or political liberty possible with that violence?
AT: Martin is very pessimistic on this question and as the books go on we see in many cases people trying to remove these coercive institutions to make more room for liberty if not in an explosive context of an individualist that ethos at the very least to abolish slavery, to make a better life possible for people beyond the Wall in a kind of increased autonomy, more rights to women etc. In almost every instance where we see somebody trying to accomplish these goals they are either accomplished through violence–so the violent overthrow of one system in favor of another–or they are almost immediately combated with violence and if they are not willing to wield force in turn are quickly overrun.
There is very little scope for non-violent non-coercive institutions in a society but I think that is mostly just a factor of the development that you have shown here is a fairly accurate reflection I believe of our own history during that period and so what the state of liberty and institutions being created to arrest violence and force for Westeros five hundred years in their future may be much more promising as they are for us today, but during their time period of Game of Thrones I don’t think that we have a lot of that so authoritative.
JH: So really quickly out of all of their houses and tribes we’re introduced to who do you think has the greatest promise of liberty for themselves and for those who interact with them?
AT: So it is very interesting because the family that was originally ruling Westeros, the kingdoms before Robert’s rebellion, was the Targaryens which Daenerys who is the character who oversees mustering forces and her brother were those Targaryens and the reason why the Targaryens were able to unify the country was actually because of their possession of air power they had dragons but even after dragons became extinct the Targaryens will continued because there was a certain promise, a benefit that was still extend from this effective, kind of large free trade zone, one system of law, the kingdom was peaceful and sectional warfare was reduced because all of the kings had been made subjects of the high king who is a Targaryen. You see that start to fray later with as the Targaryen line becomes corrupted and it is actually the madness of the Targaryens and their direct infringing on the liberties of certain noble families and assassination of certain nobles that leads to their demise.
As I mentioned before Daenerys, due to her experiences, has this very strong sympathy for liberty and freedom and the only problem is she is simultaneously vehemently anti-slavery and also a believer in the divine right of kings and that she’s the one true Targaryen heir must rule Westeros. I have a lot of excitement for her as a potential ruler due to her freedom loving impulses but some questions about the other the Starks on the other hand are very noble family, very respecting of the rule of law, the north is a more individualistic place so perhaps libertarians, we’re all Starks at heart. The problem you see with the north, however, is that it is a large individualistic place.
Any large group of libertarians can become a little bit like herding cats and I think herding northerners poses some more challenges for the Starks in the Game of Thrones. If you have to pick a family or faction the Starks are not a bad choice due to their very idealistic notions about the rule of law and politics, in some instances they may not be able to make it to get to this leader stage where are able to rule and preserve a little bit more liberty. I don’t think that the Lannisters would be very liberty friendly so most of us I think are rooting for them to lose, although one of the things that Martin does particularly well is that he always seems to put at least one character in every family or faction or group, that you can feel for on an individual level which I think he does with Tyrion, who is a fan favorite and I believe Peter Dinklage the actor who plays him on HBO has got several awards for his portrayal. So if there is some way for us to have a liberty friendly ending, Lannisters get what they deserve, but Tyrion still makes it out, I think that is what a lot of people will be rooting for.
JH: Well thank you so much for joining us Amber.
AT: Thank you very much. I hope I was able to convince some libertarians that they should check out season 2 of Game of Thrones.
JH: And for more on themes of liberty and popular fiction works visit Kosmosonline.org providing career advice and intellectual resources and this is Jeanne Hoffman, signing off.