Three things I learned from ‘Game of Thrones’
Vince Mallett | Friday, October 23, 2020
Warning: Major spoilers, for all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones” and all five books of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” are discussed in this column.
I am a die-hard “Game of Thrones” fanatic. The show is one of my all-time favorites, and the book series on which it is based is my absolute favorite. I think about the universe almost every day, argue about it with my roommate and listen to a weekly podcast about it, which deserves a ton of credit for developing my thoughts on the series’ themes. Those themes include heavy considerations of politics, duty, family, betrayal and love. I’ve decided to relay three lessons I’ve learned from “Game of Thrones,” in an effort to show that it’s not only excessive nudity and excessive violence. Again: Spoilers are incoming.
Lesson #1: Love and duty are not opposed to one another.
One recurring motif in both the books and the show is the resolution of dichotomies: magical vs. political power, confidence vs. humility and, of course, fire vs. ice. In “A Game of Thrones,” and in the first season of the TV show, Maester Aemon tells the hero, Jon Snow, that “love is the death of duty.” Jon’s relationship to this dichotomy is explored throughout the series and culminates in the decision he makes in the finale — which I can’t bring myself to write in words, even with the spoiler warnings.
Neither the show nor the books, however, should be understood as actually agreeing with Maester Aemon’s diagnosis. Instead, one must understand love and duty to be intimately related; the characters who do otherwise face disastrous consequences. Robb Stark chooses to marry the woman he loves instead of following through on his betrothal to a daughter of Walder Frey, resulting in one of the show’s iconically heart-wrenching twists. On the other hand, Stannis Baratheon puts aside his love for his daughter and burns her alive in order to bring his god’s favor to his army. He loses the subsequent battle and pays with his life. These two situations show that the sacrifices of love for duty and vice versa are dangerously unwise.
I believe, and I think the books and show teach, that duty must be thought of as subordinate to love. Love is the ultimate motivator, the ultimate goal and the ultimate prize. Our obligations are built on the love we must have for our fellow human beings. Of course, this is not to say that obligations should be shirked whenever we are acting out of love. That’s precisely what Robb Stark does: He fails to recognize that following through on his oath would be an act of love for his family, for his people and for peace in such a way that far outweighs the love he has for Talisa. To take a real-life example, imagine a single mother who has to decide whether to miss her daughter’s soccer game and work overtime instead. Is choosing to work necessarily blameworthy? Is putting food on the table not an act of love itself, which might outweigh attendance at a soccer game? We have to recognize that, while duty is grounded in love, neither can be disregarded without consequence.
Lesson #2: Power is a “shadow on a wall,” and shadows can kill.
Varys tells Tyrion, in “A Clash of Kings” and the second season of the show, that “power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.” Soon after this conversation, King Renly Baratheon is murdered by a literal shadow on the wall of his tent. When one interprets these events together, the point is rather clear: Social power is imagined, constructed by humans, but can kill you all the same.
Two examples from today’s world stand out to me, the second much more poignant than the first. Political power is not a real, fundamental thing that we decide whether or not to recognize. Instead, political influence only exists because we collectively decide to recognize it, to give political institutions legitimacy. Those institutions have virtually-unquestioned power over life and death as a direct result of that recognition.
Racism is also a “shadow on a wall” that wields deadly force. I strongly believe that there are no inherent, pre-societal differences between human beings of different races. Instead, I think race is socially constructed, reinforced through social practices, and reflected in the lived experiences of millions of Americans. This isn’t to say that race is “fake” or that we should all be “color-blind.” Instead, race is both a socially contingent phenomenon and something that has terrifying power, including the power to kill with impunity. We need only to look at the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and so many others to understand that power.
Lesson #3: There are some abilities that humans should not have.
Many fans considered Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons to be the heroes of the story, which partially explains why the final season was considered so disappointing. Instead, I believe that Daenerys and the dragons were always supposed to be the villains and that the still-unfinished book series will more skillfully depict how they arrive at that point. For one, dragons are always the villains of fairy tales, and while George R.R. Martin loves to subvert fantasy tropes, I think this particular cliche will be played straight.
More relevantly, I believe that Martin wants to show that there is power in this world that should not be manipulated by human persons, who are inevitably flawed. The impact that people have on the world should be personal: We can hurt our family, we can love our spouses, we can help our neighbors, we can kill our friends. The consequences of these actions, both good and bad, can also be dealt with on the personal level. In contrast, the dragons give Daenerys such immense power that she can no longer have personal interactions at all; everything she does is affected by her ability to annihilate anyone she chooses.
This lesson has a particular impact on 21st century life, especially with regards to modern technology. The presence of nuclear weapons has caused radical changes in international relations: The worst-case scenario is no longer total war, it is absolute destruction. On a more relatable level, the constant distraction of cell phones deteriorates our ability to maintain personal, material relationships. I’m not arguing that technology is evil; I also don’t think the dragons are evil in “Game of Thrones.” I believe that technology is a tool, and we have to carefully consider what tools we should be trusted with. I, for one, would rather not have to take care of a dragon.
Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in philosophy, with a minor in Constitutional Studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.