Game of Thrones may be taxonomically listed next to Lord of the Rings or Eragon as masterpieces from the genre of medieval high fantasy, but it vandalises the tropes found in historical high fantasy since Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien and Lewis imagined knights and noble crusaders, the people holding political power in Westeros are a mix between Bismarck and Machiavelli. This contrast is no more evident than in the portrayal of religion. The pagan state religion of the Seven Kingdoms, after centuries of decadence and power, is depicted as corrupt, violent, and morally bankrupt. George R. R. Martin separately critiqued medieval Christianity via the younger monotheistic faith of R’hllor, which inspires even a figure like Stannis Baratheon to burn his daughter at the stake.
So it was a rude shock to me when the recent season pivoted away from the gritty realism that has made the franchise so successful. I was particularly shocked at Daenerys’ abdication of her moral high ground. Although she occupies one-half of the book series’ title (“A Song of Ice and Fire”), she is no longer the great emancipator of Slaver’s Bay after landing on her ancestral home of Dragonstone. Her interactions with Westerosis this season says otherwise. She has a single message to Varys, to Jon, and her defeated enemies – bend the knee to me as semi-slave feudal subjects, or I will burn you alive. So much for her giving herself the title of “breaker of chains”.
Take her rant against the King in the North who was elected via a democracy of his nobles:
DAENERYS: I never did receive a formal education, but I could have sworn I read the last King in the North was Torrhen Stark, who bent the knee to my ancestor, Aegon Targaryen. In exchange for his life and the lives of the Northmen, Torrhen Stark swore fealty to House Targaryen in perpetuity. Or do I have my facts wrong?
JON: I wasn’t there, Your Grace.
DAENERYS: No, of course not. But still, an oath is an oath. And perpetuity means – what does perpetuity mean, Lord Tyrion?
DAENERYS: Forever. So I assume, my lord, you’re here to bend the knee. (S07E03, 10:30)
She may try to soothe her ego by saying she is the breaker of chains, but she has segregated her right to rule between her subject peoples in a way not too different from a Holy Roman Emperor. Over the peoples of Slaver’s Bay, she rules by the consent of the governed. If they wanted to leave, they are free to leave. Over the Dothraki horde, she rules because she has triumphed over her fellow Khals. She is their rulers not by consent, but because she inherited their subjecthood by murdering all other rival Khals. Over the peoples of Westeros stuck in feudal bondage, she explicitly makes it known that she rules by inherited right. None of her subjects could be considered “citizens” in any sense of the word.
Members of noble families get pretty gruesome deaths in Game of Thrones, but what they suffer is relatively mild when compared to the peasants of Westeros. Medieval warfare is a brutish affair. As cannons have not yet been invented, castles are near impenetrable and can only be starved out. A token garrison can hold out for years in relative comfort against besieging troops who do not have shelter, a steady food supply, and sanitation. Desertions also tend to be harder when an enemy army surrounded you.
Wars were thus overwhelmingly waged against the peasantry, who do not have walls and turrets to hide behind. Feudal lords are powerful because their subjects are bonded in a semi-enslaved status to the land they worked and the lords they work for; burning your enemy’s harvest and killing their subjects saps them of their power. Do remember, the first action taken during The War of the Five Kings was Sandor Clegane’s sacking of the Riverlands. Eddard Stark was forced to dispatch most of his household guard under Beric Dondarrion to defend the holdings of his wife’s house, leaving Eddard without men during his attempt to launch a Coup d’etat against Joffrey.
The Lannister army was ambushed because they spent too much time demanding peasants contribute the portion of their harvest entitled to feudal lords. The convoy was the target because it was the grain supply of her enemies.
RANDYLL TARLY: The granaries are being emptied and loaded into wagons, my lord.
JAMIE: The current harvest?
DICKON TARLY: We have teams of men collecting it from all the farms in the Reach.
JAMIE: Ser Bronn, will you accompany the Tarlys and help them accelerate this process?
BRONN: I’m not much for shoveling wheat.
JAMIE: No, but motivating reluctant farmers to hand over their harvest – I bet you’re going to have a real talent for that. (S07E04, 05:20)
Sansa Stark, immediately before Arya and Brienne sparred against each other, was telling Lord Baelish that her subjects were to hound the peasantry for the Stark’s rightful volume of harvest:
SANSA: If they haven’t contributed the right amount of grain to the stores, then I’m afraid they’ll have to make due with what they’ve brought. (S07E04, 29:11)
Daenerys is the embodiment of “high feudalism”. She rules by inherited right; subjects could not choose freedom even if they wanted to. She wages war not by quick and decisive victories nor by instituting a peasant uprising, but by wrangling the loyalties of her feudal lords and ensuring them she is not out to dispossess them of the territory and subjects they hold partial sovereignty over. She has no intention to create a bureaucracy or ministry; her kingdom is run by a small royal clique who entertains her at court and compete against each other to please their patron.
Unlike other stories told in the genre of medieval high fantasy, George R. R. Martin chooses not to paint the peasants out of the picture in his narrative. The panoply of forms human bondage took during the European Dark Ages was explored and contrasted against other social orders in Essos. The mercantile republic of Bravos is contrasted against the nomadic egalitarianism of the Free Folk and the tribal confederacy of the Dothraki. The Oriental despotism of Slaver’s Bay is contrasted with the triumvirate of Volantis, the city which is most strategically important on Essos and who claims to be the rightful successors to old Valyria.
Within the Seven Kingdoms, George R. R. Martin explored peasant resistance in all its myriad forms. The Brotherhood Without Banners fight against the abuse of peasants but are disappointingly lacking when it comes to long-term solutions. The High Sparrow and his followers become violent religious fundamentalists due to the war, while the septry at the Quiet Isle chooses to rid itself of any pretence of political power. Against this backdrop, it would be disingenuous to say that Daenerys is the shining beacon of morality the TV series increasingly portrays them to be.
Daenerys is merely the most hypocritical amongst all other pretenders to the Iron Throne. She does not treat her subjects well because it is the right thing to do, but because she 1) emancipated them from being slaves to becoming her serfs, 2) killed all of her rivals who could claim the mantle of Khal, 3) deserves loyalty because her ancestor subjugated every one on the Westeros into feudal bondage by right of conquest. She is, truly, the apogee of all that’s wrong with feudalism. Whenever faced with a subject from the Westeros, loyalty and obedience are preconditions to the privilege of being the subjects under the “breaker of chains”. Even the lowborn Lannister and Tarly infantrymen, who are most likely conscripts, are given the ultimatum to submit or die.
She is not that much different from Cersei, except she is savvy to let her subject lords exercise their rights. Except in Slaver’s Bay, where she has no inherited rights to exercise. There, she uses a slave uprising to overthrow existing power structures.
Cersei, too, has no legal right under feudalism to the Iron Throne. Robert Baratheon’s rights are not inheritable across marriages. Unlike Robert, she does not have an ounce of Targaryen blood in her veins. Rather than articulating egalitarianism to destroy existing structures that legitimise political power, Cersei chooses another path: authoritarianism, in the modern sense of the word. She has no pretence about her legitimacy to rule. She is the Queen because of power. She is queen because she has destroyed all alternative centres of power that can rival her. Above all, she tells her subjects they should fight for her not because she is the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, but because she is the sole ruler who can protect and preserve order, authority, and their civilisation.
The first two – order and authority – are variables explicitly singled out by political scientists to explain why people, even in democratic systems, hold authoritarian tendencies in our modern world. A substantial body of research has conclusively shown that Authoritarianism is widespread even in modern society. When radical political and social changes seem imminent, people legitimise the use of political force as a means to save society. Take Cersei’s speech to her lords and knights:
CERSEI: Some of you are bannermen of House Tyrell. But House Tyrell is in open rebellion against the crown. With their help, the Mad King’s daughter has ferried an army of savages to our shores mindless Unsullied soldiers who will destroy your castles and your holdfasts, Dothraki heathens who will burn your villages to the ground, rape and enslave your women, and butcher your children without a second thought. This is how Olenna Tyrell rewards centuries of service and loyalty. You all remember the Mad King. You remember the horrors he inflicted upon his people. His daughter is no different. In Essos, her brutality is already legendary. She crucified hundreds of noblemen in Slaver’s Bay. And when she grew bored of that, she fed them to her dragons. It is my solemn duty to protect the people, and I will. But I need your help, my lords. We must stand together, all of us if we hope to stop her. (S07E02, 13:37)
Note that she gives the burning of villages and castles with equal disgust and equal emphasis. Also, note that this is an argument against feudal obligations. It is also an argument that the only way for them to survive is if they submitted their inherited obligations and rights to Cersei so she can muster a better collective defence. The centralisation of power to fight defensive wars is a leading theory on why Europe achieved modernity before the rest of the world. To muster the resources needed to fight increasingly bloody and expensive wars, countries developed modern bureaucracy and institutions free from the distributed sovereignty of feudalism and shackles of hereditary slavery. Without bannermen and armies pledged to rebellious local lords, kings bypassed the distributed sovereignty and government of feudalism. It is these centralised states which conquered less bureaucratized states. And it is in these states where events such as the French Revolution occurred to give us our modern world. Cersei is a morally contemptuous person to be sure, but when viewed in the historical context the franchise wants us to see her in, she is the only moderniser who seeks to is building state institutions, even if it is for solidifying her grasp on power.
Daenerys seeks to destroy all political progress made by Westeros after the deposition of her family. The existence of her dragons alone threatens any prospect Westeros has of ending the shackles of feudalism. With the existence of dragons, there is no incentive to develop cannons and other castle-destroying technologies of war that help ended the ability of feudal lords to turtle in their castles. With the existence of dragons, there are absolutely zero incentives for the Westerosi rulers to progress the country, much less develop institutions of the modern state. The monopoly House Targaryen has on Dragons halts history from progressing.
Although Cersei and Jon could not be more different, their subjects are increasingly developing the form of consciousness that defines the modern era – nationalism. Take Randyll Tarly’s thought process when Daenerys allowed him to avoid execution by pledging loyalty.
RANDYLL TARLY: Say what you will about your sister, she was born in Westeros. She’s lived here all her life. You, on the other hand, murdered your own father and chose to support a foreign invader. One with no ties to this land with an army of savages at her back.
DAENERYS: You will not trade your honor for your life. I respect that.
TYRION: Perhaps he could take the Black, Your Grace. Whatever else he is, he is a true soldier. He’d be invaluable at the Wall.
RANDYLL: You cannot send me to the Wall. You are not my queen. (S07E06, 08:00)
Randyll articulates not his feudal obligation to his queen. He does not articulate his honour as a feudal lord. Rather, he accepts death because he is dying for his nation against foreign invaders. The implication of a burgeoning national identity is considerable; it was, before the two world wars, one of the key driving forces behind scientific and political progress. Unlike kings or lords, nations are abstract and intangible concepts. To be a nationalist is to put the collective as a whole. To be a nationalist is to be one of many servants of the national will, to be one citizen amongst many. Before nationalism developed into a force that killed tens of millions in the twentieth century, it was progressive. Nationalism in France and the United States gave the world the concept of a secular republic where citizens are not bound to royalty but bound to each other. In Germany and Italy, nationalism helped disparate peoples overcome petty feudal antagonisms. Proto-nationalism in Westeros is strangely reminiscent of those on Earth; they are elite phenomenon created in the minds of peoples who undertook common journeys, shared experiences, and faced common threats.
Faced against a foreign invader, Cersei articulated nationalism to rally her troops. Her subjects, too, have internalised it to a degree. The North, who remembers, follows a slightly different route towards national consciousness. The collective trauma inflicted in the Northern Elites by the Red Wedding continues to be felt, to such an extent that they immediately rejected Daenerys offer of revenge. They decided to be sovereign, to control and intertwine their collective future before naming Jon to be the King in the North. Outside of offering the North a king which is not a consort, it is almost inconceivable that the North will again accept vassalage. This was my reading why Tyrion looked so grave when he eavesdropped in the finale of season seven.
The subjects of Daenerys, however, follow her because of personal loyalty towards her. She is her kingdom; if she dies, there are no institutions or sense of identity holding her followers together. Personalistic rule from a single dictator is a demonstrably bad idea, both in Westeros and on Earth. Just look at the chaos she left behind in The Bay of Dragons during her rein in Mereen. I don’t see how Slaver’s Bay magically stop tearing itself apart without her dragons there as the police. The writers of the TV shows apparently doesn’t either, neglecting to even refer to news from Slaver’s Bay.
Theorising about fiction in pop culture is possibly the nerdiest thing in existence, but I believe it serves a purpose. Entertainment and the stories we tell ourselves are philosophy and theory moulded into the real world contexts. Overthinking pop culture allows us to conduct thought experiments in the parts of our brains formal education tend to ignore. It is why we take modules on women in film, on our insatiable hate for vampires, and European imperialism across solar systems. Besides, it’s fun. At any rate, it is more fun than reading and theorising on the Plantagenet pretenders to the crown of England endlessly plotting to cross the narrow English channel.
About the Author
While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of Wikipedia and Reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He would like for you to know that his major, Geography, is only not about rocks.