Is Daenerys Targaryen the salvation for Westeros and its disfunctional politics?
Co-published with the Birmingham Brief about Game lessons for our disfunctional geopolitics:
As the final, long-awaited, season of Game of Thrones begin, there is a flurry of speculation about who is likely to win. Given the informal motto of the show “Valar morghulis” (“all men must die”), this is by no means a straightforward exercise.
A recent academic paper analysed the narratives of 330 named characters over the life of the show. Of these 330, 186 (56%) had died. All but two demises were due to injury, burns, or poisoning with most dying as a result of assault (63%) and war (24%). Death is a key element of the show, and no character is safe — by the end of the seventh season, more than half of the important players had died, most of them violently.
Why so much violence and what does this tell us about the political institutions that support the mayhem?
The civilisation of Westeros is based on the European Middle Ages, specifically the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England. Much of the geography is the British Isles, including the wall. The climate is essentially European but varies between extreme cold in the North and a Mediterranean climate in the South, with epochal winters and summers lasting for years. The current series is set at the onset of such a long winter.
Politically, at this critical moment, Westeros was ruled by Robert Baratheon. It is fair to say that he was not the most diligent of Kings. His accidental death on a boar hunt precipitates a catastrophic political and institutional collapse, with a bloody competition for the Iron Throne amongst the rapacious, decidedly flawed, and borderline-insane ruling class of Westeros. Madness, inter-breeding, and incest haunts them, with calculating manipulators like Margery Tyrell and homicidal maniacs like Joffrey Baratheon.
Pretty much anyone who is interested in the power of the throne exhibits this increasing insanity. Stannis Baratheon, for example, executes political opponents using dark magic. Even the more positive characters in the struggle like Jon Snow are open to using violence.
Where Are The People?
Apart from those who are casually killed, most people appear in the show as soldiers, angry mobs, or pawns in the games of the ruling class. Only the intervention of the High Sparrow and a religious movement provides an alternative to birth as a means to attain power, and this is achieved by being more extreme than anyone else.
The repressed, alienated, forgotten, and dispossessed are north of the wall, a magical fortification ironically manned by the Night Watch, an organization of those who have been outlawed or rejected by the Crown Lands themselvesApart from those who are casually killed, most people appear in the show as soldiers, angry mobs or just as pawns in the games of the ruling class. Ironically only the intervention of the High Sparrow and a religious extremist movement provides an alternative to birth as a means to attain power, and this is done by being more extreme than anyone else.
The repressed, alienated, forgotten and dispossessed are north of the wall (or were), a magical fortification ironically manned by the Night Watch, little more than a gang as an organisation of those who have been outlawed or rejected by the Crown Lands themselves. To the north, there is a form of anarchy amongst the Free Folk or Wildlings who do not recognise the state and do not live an urban life.
The brooding Northlands are also home to the growing menace that builds up through the series alongside the onset of winter. Regarded as legend rather than reality, the White Walkers begin to appear, yet many of the degenerate ruling class of the South refuse to acknowledge the danger. The imminent threat of “the other” is about to result in a catastrophe of an undead swarm sweeping south.
westeros’ institutions are in no shape to resist the approaching threat. The leaders rule by force, favorites, and a form of patrimonial authority. Promotion is reliant on whim rather than on merit, with no degree of competence required for pretty much any job. Judging by some of the decisions made with regard to finance, incompetence may be a better guide to holding a position.
Westeros is a feudal system, with a class of serfs owing loyalty to a local lord. But some critical elements of real feudalism are missing. Whereas the system was propelled and financed by the small capital of individual yeoman farmers and merchants, as well as estate property and serfdom, in Westeros this small capital is missing and merchants are dwindling.
In medieval Europe this class of merchants formed parliaments, merchants’ guilds, autonomous cities, and other institutions were able to challenge the ruling class and to hold them to account through finance. These organizations fuelled scientific advances, education, and universities, none of which appear to be happening in Westeros under the rule of the Maesters and their arcane knowledge.
Salvation Through Daenrys?
Daenrys is the one character in whom others believe and who is seeking to change the political institutions of Westeros. In a well-known episode in Series 5, Daenrys compares the political competition to a wheel with each house spinning on it and occasionally rising to the top. She makes a vow that she will not merely turn the wheel until she rises: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
Her long experience in Essos as she frees slaves and creates her own kingdom does not suggest that she has worked out an alternative set of political institutions to being installed as Queen and doing it better.
But in her defence, Daenrys does seem to have a concern for the lot of ordinary people. She is an effective anti-slavery campaigner, which is mirrored by Jon Snow and his treatment of the Wildlings, particularly in treating them as fellow people and with some decency. Neither, though, seem to have much of a clue about what alternative forms of government will actually look like and we are not given any idea about the detailed reforms that must be necessary to break the wheel.
Game of Thrones is unusual in making politics and the possibility of reform (even if it does involve magic) the core element of the show, and perhaps the story of replacing a nasty ruler with a virtuous one is universally appealing.
As to who may win, I have my reservations about the power couple Daenrys and Jon, who appear not to be breaking the wheel yet. Part of me is rooting for the White Walkers, the dispossessed, and the alienated, although I am conflicted because I also support the Wildlings.
What price an abdication and the introduction of democracy as the most effective way of breaking the wheel?