A Game of Cowards: Thoughts on the Last Honourable Man of Westeros

(Obligatory spoiler warnings ahead for those of you who live in a hole and haven’t seen/read A Game of Thrones. Not that I have anything against Hobbits. But I’m assuming if you haven’t seen/read GoT/ASOIAF then you wouldn’t be interested in reading this blog post anyway.)

Eddard Stark. The Last Honourable Man Left in Westeros. One can say that “the game of thrones” doesn’t really start until the very end of the book. Ned’s not really a player in the game. Or, if he is, he’s playing correctly by the rules while everyone else is stealing from the bank and sleeping with each other. But Ned’s so damn honourable that he thinks everyone else is playing by the rules too. While he doesn’t trust anyone, Ned still has a core faith in people’s decency. Sure, he acknowledges that: “The Lannisters appetite for officers and honors seemed to know no bounds” (p. 258), yet when faced with the evidence of murder and treason, Ned’s still professes, “no, I will not believe that, not even of Cersei” (268).

There’s a striking difference between Ned and King Robert when they feud halfway through the book. Ned argues vehemently against the idea of killing innocents. Repeatedly Ned returns to the image of dashing the head of the infant prince Targaryen against a wall. A mere babe, snatched from the hands of his mother. To Ned, this is the ultimate act of evil. And so, when Robert demands the death of Daenerys, Ned reacts with horror at the thought of “murdering a child” (p. 294). Robert of course insists on the deed in order to secure his throne. What’s one more death in the grand scheme of things?

Yet, when the council suggests poison as a way of killing Dany (that way the Dorthraki wouldn’t even know it was murder and there would be no repercussions), Robert complains:

“Poison is a coward’s weapon”

P. 296

Ned quickly points out the hypocrisy:

“You send hired knives to kill a fourteen-year-old girl and still quibble about honor?”

P. 296

The thing that Ned still doesn’t see is that Robert’s honour is about image and perception. He needs to be seen as a strong king, a good one, even though he knows in his heart that he’s failed. But Ned’s honour is bone deep. Consider his adoption and fostering of Jon Snow. What could be more honourable than lying and sacrificing your image in order to save the life of an innocent?

The A Song of Ice and Fire series along with it’s television adaptation is a story of corruption. But with the first book, Martin delicately shows us this rot through the eyes of innocents. There’s Jon, so convinced of the bravery and honour of the Black Brothers; Catelyn, who naively thinks her sister will sacrifice safety for duty; and Sansa, who sees the court as a “beautiful dream” (p. 252), complete with Joffrey as her golden prince. Even the death of Ser Hugh doesn’t jolt Sansa out of the dream, as she compliments herself on stoically observing his death. Death means little to the court and the commoners:

After they carried off the body, a boy with a spade ran onto the field and shoveled dirt over the spot where he has fallen, to cover up the blood. Then the jousts resumed.

A Game of Thrones p. 248

Such a simple image, but so appropriate for the theme of the book: shoveling dirt to cover up blood so that they can get on with their sport.

The first book is narrated completely by people of honour and innocence. Even Tyrion Lannister has been manipulated by his family’s game. Here are our protagonists. Although later books introduce other point-of-view characters, and Martin is renowned for creating grey characters that the audience ends up rooting for, these 8 pov characters introduce the reader to the world of ASOIAF. It’s through their eyes that we see the corruption of Westeros. And through their thoughts that we set up our moral compass to read the rest of the series.

But with Ned’s death, that moral compass is shattered. With the death of the last honourable man of Westeros, honour itself dies. Each pov character from that moment on has questionable scruples. And that includes our remaining 7 pov characters because they have lost their innocence. With Ned’s death, they see the blood and rot under the mud, and each character has to adapt – and adapt quickly – if they’re going to survive the game. Which means, becoming players themselves: cheating, vicious, rotten ones.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharat, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.