Struggles for power make for some compelling television, as the success of HBO's "Game of Thrones" has demonstrated. Word on Fire Research Assistant, Jack Thornton, takes us on a spin through the fantasy world of Westeros, where vies for power can teach us a lot about our own shortcomings.
The beginning of April was a high point for many Americans and I’m not talking about April Fools jokes, although those are fun too (I guess). No, I’m referring to cable TV season premieres. All the big, famous TV shows that win awards and accolades kicked off their new seasons earlier this month. The biggest winner, by a landslide, has been HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Its ratings have easily beaten out all other cable shows and have increased greatly over last season’s record high finale.
It is extremely popular and rapidly getting more so. Why?
Allow me to put my nerd pants on and give you a brief overview of the world contained within this show so you have some idea of what the heck I’m talking about. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal more than the basics so there are no spoilers here.
Most of the action happens within a land called Westeros—a place much like Tolkien’s Middle-earth except where wonders such as elves, goblins and dragons are accepted as real in Middle-earth, in Westeros they are seen as myths or, at best, extinct.
One definite similarity between the two worlds is the abundance of ruggedly handsome men and beautiful young women as main characters. But I digress.
Westeros is dominated by a few great feudal houses with lots of less-great houses beneath them. The plot centers on the political intrigue of these houses as they vie for power. The lords and ladies of Westeros make and break alliances as easily as they breathe, which results in a political and social system where almost everyone is ambitious, untrustworthy, ruthless and almost completely without scruples.
Sound familiar? It should. The fantasy world of Game of Thrones is eerily similar to ours, particularly when it comes to politics.
OK, nerd pants off. Interpreter pants on.
The acting, writing, plot, costumes, sets, cinematography and locations in “Game of Thrones” are all superb, which enhances the realism. That’s not to say that I agree with or endorse everything in the show. I don’t. But the high production quality is undeniable and is certainly a big reason for the show’s growing popularity. Even more compelling than the filmmaking, however, are the themes contained within this grittily realistic drama.
What? A show set in a mythical kingdom where hints of dragons, mysterious ice monsters, giant wolves, witches and all other types of geek-attracting, magical elements abound is realistic? Yes. Yes it is. It’s realistic, often brutally so, because it gets to the core of subjects that are all too real to us humans living on planet Earth; love, hate, family, enemies, trust, betrayal, strength, weakness, truth, lies, honor, tyranny and fear. The theme that has received the most explicit treatment—especially in the first four episodes of the second season—is power.
Power – it’s terribly alluring and has some inherent goodness but, in the wrong hands, can be so destructive. Almost every character is concerned, in one way or another, with power: how to win it, how to keep it and what to do with it when one has it.
One major player believes power comes from religious fervor (read: religious fear) and tries to use it as a means to gain influence. Another character claims, “knowledge is power” but is duly intimidated when an adversary has her cronies rough him up before replying with the meaningless yet provoking idea that “power is power.” Some, such as the monstrous prince Joffrey, believe that power is a birthright and that once one has it one may do with it as one pleases (Joffrey likes to execute unlucky subjects on a whim and enjoys watching knights fight to the death for sport.) Others actually believe that with great power comes great responsibility, although these decent folks are few and far between.
I think the definition of power that the show favors is the one held by the sneaky, clever and strangely honorable Lord Varys who uses tricks, wiles, spies and information as a way to influence and control his fellow politicians. He claims that power “resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick; a shadow on the wall” and that it ought to be used for the good of the realm, not in an ideal sense, but in a practical one that allows those with power to sometimes do immoral things. The tone here clearly comes from Macchiavelli, the great Italian political theorist who claimed that a prince can justify immoral acts if they serve the good of the people.
I don’t want to give too much away here, but it is clear that the idealism of a Platonic or Christian political philosophy is not favored in Westeros. A person in power who seeks to do what is right in every situation is revealed as ineffective. The only ruler who has an idealized sense of right, wrong and responsibility quickly loses his power, which has drastic consequences for the kingdom. On the other hand, those who are totally irresponsible with their power and refuse to even appear kind or merciful for the sake of the masses are portrayed as monstrous, and it is clear that this kind of rule is also doomed to failure.
The rulers who seem to be the most effective are those who act with the good of the realm in mind, but who are willing to do immoral or dishonest things when practical need requires it for the good of the people, just as Macchiavelli describes. In short, most of the major players in this show believe, or want to believe, that the ends justify the means.
This amoral state of affairs where betrayal and injustice are the order of the day begs the question; how can things get so bad? How can an entire culture operate under a system where “anything goes”?
It comes down to godlessness.
There is a religious aspect of Westeros but it is completely disjointed and very few people actually believe in their gods in a profound way. There are many cults worshipping different sets of gods (nerd pants back on) including the seven gods that make up the official religion of the kingdom, which has elements of Christianity in it.
There is also the Drowned God of the sea, a Lord of Light, a god of darkness, the nameless gods of the north, the god of death, the horse god and countless others all worshipped in different ways by different peoples (nerd pants off). But almost all of them are considered as cultural and social traditions that have no actual reality. The lack of real belief in a supernatural element means that the ones who control the earthly sources of power have no one to answer to and are, in effect, the ultimate powers, which obviously leads to the justification of some pretty heinous things.
I don’t, however, think that the moral sphere in Westeros is actually subjective. I think that there is an objective morality, but that it has been ignored by the powerful and so the moral state has slid into disrepair. There is a poignant moment in the first episode of the second season where an unnamed soldier is forced to commit an act of atrocity and you can see how much it is breaking him up on the inside. If it were a completely subjective world such things wouldn’t bother anyone, but it is clear that some, even those who command and commit terrors, are struggling with it. Their consciences are alive and active.
It is impossible to comment the story’s final perspective of morality and power now because the series has not been completely written – there are still two more books in the series yet to be published – but I predict that the rise of certain ancient, supernatural powers in Westeros will result in a return to a more objective morality and a leadership similar to what is advocated by the wisest of political philosophers: rulers have a responsibility to their people and to live a moral life. At least, I hope so.
What’s the lesson here?
A show like this can shed light on our own society in ways that other television genres can’t. We’re experiencing increased godlessness in our society, and are feeling its effects in the political, social and economic spheres where the people with the greatest amount of power (right and left) aren’t looking to any power higher than themselves when making decisions that have a huge impact. Sure, most of them claim some sort of religion or spirituality, but how many of them are actually looking at their roles in an ideal, objectively moral way? I think the number is unfortunately low.
So what’s going to change it? We don’t have the luxury of counting on an awakening of dragons, ice monsters and werewolves to ignite the spark of genuine belief in our culture. As long as those in power believe that they answer to no one, there are going to be problems.
This isn’t a new idea. The Old Testament is full of story after story of prophets reminding citizens and kings that they live and rule under a higher power, and that ignoring the obligation to live morally and justly has dire consequences. This idea is reinforced in the natural law teachings of the Church Fathers and Aquinas: if a law violates the natural law written into men’s hearts it is unjust and will have negative results. We’ve seen it again and again. Unfortunately, something drastic is often required before miscreants start listening.
What’s needed today is a drastic change of hearts throughout the culture. Folks need to realize that they are not the center of the universe. We all have a real responsibility to our fellow man, especially when we are in positions of power. We are accountable for the well being of everyone we encounter and this demand stems from a higher power than ourselves. If we lose sight of this then culture devolves into a dog eat dog world. Let’s not lose it.
Winter is coming. We need to spread the warmth of love and responsibility to counter the cold.
Jack Thornton is a research assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.