Where Game of Thrones misunderstands politics and religion

I am a big fan of the GOT books and series, loving Season 7 and salivating at Season 8 to come. Great escapism and fantastic acting and camerawork. Part of what I love about GOT is how it far more ruthlessly than, say, Lord of the Rings, describes blind ambition, lust, treachery, human frailties, and the game of alliances. Where LOR has lofty being holding fast on their course for whole lifetimes, GOT has bumbling killers whose moments of goodness get them killed.

Ever since reading the first book though, I did not think of GOT as a serious attempt to describe or analyse human politics and religion. My gripe was not with the existence of magic in this fantasy world, or even various plot-twists that made no sense. There were three far more fundamental aspects of the books that told me the author either did not understand humanity or had no ambition to truly describe how human conflicts might go in an environment that has some supernatural elements but is otherwise ‘realistically human’:

  1. The existence of Noble Houses that have lasted for thousands of years  in a situation where they are lords of their regions but the local religion is not about them. This simply is naive when it comes to how religions develop. The Roman emperors started to be thought of like gods within about about 100 years. The Chinese emperors and the Japanese similarly needed far less than thousands of years of dominance to become central figures in the religion of their regions. The fact that the same is not true in Westeros tells you that GOT does not have religion as humans know it and hence does not have humans as we know them. Indeed, even in the 7 Seasons of GOT, new religions have come from outside of the game of power, without its contents worshipping power itself.
  2. The longevity of noble houses for thousands of years that are constantly at war, but without constantly being wiped out and replaced by others. That is just ‘fantastical’. It has taken GOT merely 7 seasons to wipe out several ancient families that supposedly survived for thousands of years, but we’re supposed to buy into the idea that the starting line up had all these houses surviving warfare unscathed hitherto? This means GOT lacks believable history for the preceding 8000 years, whilst trying to create a believable history for 7 seasons.
  3. The existence of an independent guild of ‘Maesters’ whose institutions and roles have not been usurped by those in power. That is not how power works: such an easy source of influence would not be allowed to remain independent in any realistic game of power. Like religion hence, the independent trajectory of the Maesters and their citadel before and during the 7 Seasons belies how power games leave no avenue of influence alone.

So GOT is supposedly about the game of power, but it has left several realms of the human mind outside of it (history, religion, science). As such, it is mentally romantic escapism. I am tempted to speculate that the author left those realms alone because he couldn’t bare corrupting the realms he himself feels closest to: Tyrion could have said “If we truly love it, we lie about it.” And lie about it GRR Martin has. Deliberately, who knows?

And who cares? Long may the Games continue!

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8 Responses to Where Game of Thrones misunderstands politics and religion

  1. Alan says:

    I find it easier to just ignore the alleged longevity of the great houses and assume it is about the same level as Elizabeth II being directly descended from Woden. Chinese emperors were certainly important, but they never became divine and quite a lot were dismissed from the throne by their mothers. I am not talking about conspiracies, but about the ability of dowager empresses to issue legal decrees removing their sons from power.

    My chief problem with GOT politics is Cersei and Joffrey. It’s not just that they are clearly insane, it’s that they never deliver anything for their followers. They make a certain foreign president look like a master of the art of the deal.

    • paul frijters says:

      “Chinese emperors were certainly important, but they never became divine”

      are you sure about that? I know you love your history of that region and am hence hesitant to argue the point with you, but the concept of a flexible ‘Mandate from Heaven’ (which is the divine bit I was thinking of wrt the Chinese) always sounded a bit ex post to me. When a new mob overthrew the old one, I can image they claimed the old mob lost their Mandate, but I have a hard time believing that during their own rule the new mob would have allowed the story to remain that their rule was conditional on others thinking they did a good job that allowed them to retain their Mandate. So my hunch is that during the various dynasties the Chinese emperors did indeed claim it was totally clear and not up to anybody else that Heaven smiled on them with its Mandate to rule.
      I was also alluding to other interweavings between power and religion though. For instance, I believe the imperial throne was called the dragon throne, an emblem of divine Imperial power, and itself a divine creature (with the Imperial dragon different from lesser dragons – five digits and all that). Ditto for colour schemes and other nick-knacks. Even though no Chinese Dynasty lasted remotely as long as, say, the Martells (let alone the Starks) of GOT, their position was interwoven with divinity.

      • Alan says:

        I am absolutely certain Chinese emperors were never divine. The longest dynasty, Han, lasted 410 years with a decade long break between Western and Eastern Han when a usurper took the throne. ben during the rest of Han the Liu family were occasionally displaced by a consort clan, as when Emprss Lü effectively took over the government after the death of San Gaozu, the dynastic founder, or when Empress Wu displaced the Li family in the first half of Tang.

        Qin, which famously expected to last forever, lasted 15 years. After Han there was always quite a strong distinction between the ruling family and the empire itself.

        Some historians argue that the Japanese emperor did not become divine until 1870 when the Meiji leadership essentially invented a new religion for nation-building reasons.

        Roman emperors were divine between Augustus and Constantine but after Constantine the imperial cult, for obvious reasons, came to an end.

        Byzantine emperors most definitely were not divine and yet they had an idea that is almost exactly analogous to the mandate of Heaven. Only God could make an emperor. Rebellion was apostasy. Unless it succeeded, in which case it represented divine displeasure with the previous emperor. And just for the record, pace Gibbon, most Byzantine emperors died in their beds.

        • derrida derider says:

          “And just for the record, pace Gibbon, most Byzantine emperors died in their beds.”
          Though of course famously their younger sons didn’t …

  2. derrida derider says:

    Alan has the right idea – that the Noble Houses have been around for thousands of years is a foundational myth that need have no relation to historic reality. History tends to be written to build loyalty to the present-day powers that be; there’s a reason John Howard was so intent on getting a particular version of Australian history taught in schools. If you read Machiavelli, BTW, he was very clear on this (in fact I often think the show’s scriptwriters could do more such reading).

    If you can’t make yourself a divinity, for whatever reason, then of course you are going to claim descent from mythical all-wise and powerful ancestors (ie quasi-divinities) instead. It’s all about claiming legitimacy.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      sure, but within GOT mythology its not a myth. ‘The seed is strong’ is from the first Season, where the old Hand John Arryn goes over the characteristics of people in these bloodlines and found out that on the male line they all look the same. That’s how he finds out about the incestuous relation between Jaime and Cercei. And of course you have Bran the builder (a very old Stark). Etc.
      So whilst in our own human world continued ancestry is indeed probably made up (though you’d be hard pressed to convince a Scottish clan member of this!), its not in GOT. Which is my point 2.

  3. Alan says:

    Merely because the great houses show common genetic characteristics now does not mean that they have shown the same characteristics for the last 8000 years. After all as Craig Murray wrote in 2009:

    Sky News this morning noted that it would be an uncomfortable breakfast for Prince Harry with his father at Highgrove.

    I thought how remarkably sporting Prince Charles must be, to invite Prince Harry’s father to Highgrove!

  4. Phil Clark says:

    My thoughts on the matter are best summed up by paraphrasing Slartibartfast, “Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on in GoT are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, hang the sense of it and just enjoy the story”

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