Two prefatory notes: First – no, I know nothing about the books. Everything I’m going to say here draws exclusively on the HBO version of Westeros. Second, the more theoretically committed of you will note that only one of these thoughts is really about political economy proper. Fine. But I came up with a pretentious blog post title I liked and I’m not going to change it. Deal.
1. The Iron Throne isn’t worth all this fuss.
One of the most remarked upon features of the Game of Thrones TV series is its distribution of narrative energy. Unlike other shows from the golden age of narrative television, Game of Thrones has no clear protagonist – no Walter White-esque anti-hero, no philosopher warrior like Rust Cohle, no principled agitator like Sarah Manning . The focus usually reserved for a television protagonist is instead distributed over the entirety of the Game of Thrones cast, arguably with slightly more energy invested in the show’s half-dozen “A-tier” actors. Still, unlike the quest narratives common throughout fantasy genres, Westeros has no heroic main character.
To the extent Game of Thrones has a center of energy, it’s the Iron Throne itself. Cersei Lannister’s sinister invocation of the show’s title when addressing Ned Stark – “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” – sets out from the first season what all the blood and murder are meant to serve. At least three times each subsequent season, the throne is included in the background of a two-shot featuring those who desire but never sit upon it, visually reinforcing the centrality of the Iron Throne to everyone in Westeros (and, for that matter, the remaining Targaryens across the Narrow Sea). It is the object of each character’s quest and the focal point of nearly all the machinations that dominate the series.
Which is why it’s so weird that the Iron Throne is the seat of a startlingly weak monarchy.
Not only has every king remembered in the time of the show been killed – monarchs tend to get murdered, after all – but pressures both domestic and foreign render the Iron Throne far less powerful than the language attached to it suggests. Domestically, King’s Landing is only one seat of power among many. Among the many honorifics ascribed to the king are “Lord of the Seven Kingdoms” and “Protector of the Realm.” Implicit in this formulation is the notion that the realm – presumably the state – is comprised of seven distinct kingdoms, each with its own seat of power, its own monarch, and its own military. They constitute a united realm through a legacy of conquest, ancient pledges of fealty, and marriage bonds among ruling houses. While fantasy literature is replete with loose federations binding together to combat external enemies (Mance Rayder leads one such alliance), no story I can think of has invested so much symbolic and narrative force in the figurehead of that union (Aragorn may have wanted to reclaim the throne of Gondor, but Tolkien doesn’t expect us to believe anyone other than the Dead Men fight for his particular cause).
In the lectures on governmentality, Foucault attempts to give a history of modern state-formation in terms of the processes by which imagined community and institutional forms of power become self-reinforcing through the disciplining pressures of political economy. In Westeros, however, the unity of the realm under the Iron Throne’s leadership has no material basis, just over-determined rhetoric and imagined peace. The War of the Five Kings is simply the latest in a long history of struggles against the excesses of kings who believe their rhetoric (aptly, Robert Baratheon, who himself once waged war on a king, does not seem to believe the rhetoric, saying “That’s all the realm is now: back-stabbing and scheming and arse-licking and money-rubbing. Sometimes I don’t know what holds it together.”). Unlike previous skirmishes, however, this war introduces notions of independence – cracks in the imagined unity of the seven kingdoms arising chiefly among the men of The North. “Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again?” Jon Umber asks, “It was the dragons we bowed to. And now the dragons are dead.” The military dominance of King’s Landing no longer terrifies The North. Such power never scared Dorne, whom the Targaryens’ dragons never conquered. Like Dorne, The Reach could imagine itself and its fertile agrarian land free of royal interference (Olenna Tyrell threatens Tywin Lannister with as much in season four). The Lannisters themselves enjoyed relative autonomy granted by the stores of gold in Casterly Rock. Once independence is imaginable, absent overwhelming violence it becomes inevitable. Hence the violence of the Red Wedding far exceeds – at least in its symbolic flair- earlier punitive measures against the Starks. Ned was beheaded for challenging a particular king’s legitimacy; his son and wife are murdered for challenging the right of any king to rule beyond his reach. Violence ensures this challenge remains unuttered while enabling each of the Seven Kingdoms to return to an uneasy peace, keeping power to themselves while pledging pro forma oaths of fealty to King’s Landing. (Roose Bolton seems to be the only character who understands this. He carries the Lannisters’ regards to The Twins not out of obligation to the young king but to win his family the wardenship of The North from the Starks. An uneasy peace with him in power suits Bolton better than an independent North as a second-rank noble. Stannis Baratheon wages war out of a similar impulse, though his aims are higher than a wardenship.)
From the beginning of the series, then, the Iron Throne wields far less authority than all its linguistic and symbolic attachments signal. When Joffrey adorns the Great Hall and the Red Keep with cauldrons of fire and dragons’ skulls, he is figuratively drawing on the legacy of the Targaryen military conquests to project authority from the throne to all seven kingdoms. Of course, all the dragons are dead and decaying in the halls beneath the keep. The power which, according to legend, literally forged the Iron Throne can no longer grant it sovereignty. All that remains are crumbling symbols.
Two other forces undermine the authority of the Iron Throne and are worth mentioning briefly. First, the Iron Bank of Braavos holds a great deal of the crown’s debt. Littlefinger and Tywin Lannister are the only ones who really understand the full threat this debt poses. Stannis comes to know this, as well, but misinterprets the bank’s leverage as holding only over the family currently occupying the throne rather than over the monarchy itself. This sovereign debt crisis is an aspect of Westerosi politics I hope the show returns to in future seasons. The second force is, of course, the religious fervor personified by the Sparrows. I wouldn’t predict where the show will take this challenge. I would simply note that it confronts the symbolism of the monarchy – the only basis for power the Iron Throne retains. Once religion shows the words of the royals are not to be trusted – once it acquaints them with shame – the Iron Throne is thoroughly demystified.
If the Iron Throne ever had any power, it is greatly diminished by the period of Game of Thrones.
2. No one wants to be confused for nobility; social cues that signal status are illegible.
The first time I binge-watched Game of Thrones (in early-summer of 2015), I was struck by how often some version of “Don’t call me Ser; I’m no knight” is repeated. Non-nobles struggle not to be confused for nobility. Their admonition is far more common than the obverse – nobility correcting those who do not address them properly. Much of this speech is concentrated among those who could plausibly be considered elite – warriors like Brienne and Sandor Clegane, royal functionaries like Baelish and Varys, and illegitimate children like John and Ramsey Snow. Their proximity to the elite make them keenly aware of their difference from it, while to many they are largely indistinguishable from others in the upper social strata. It’s the repetition and insistence that they are not nobility that I find interesting. It’s an odd ritual with a few possible interpretations. Perhaps these non-noble elites fear being mistaken for their titled counterparts given how dangerous nobility seems to be in Westeros. Maybe it’s safer to be a royal functionary than royalty. Or perhaps there is real social power in appearing common – maybe Varys’s spiders wouldn’t whisper to a Ser Varys. What seems most likely to me is that this exchange is commonplace wherever there are non-nobles who resemble the elite because it sustains the very distinction that has been transgressed. Correcting a misattributed “Ser” is a way of ascribing power to those who “rightly” claim that title much more than it is an admonition against those who use it inappropriately.
It’s worth considering the situation confronting the transgressors; namely, no one can read the cues that signal social status. Status is both immensely significant and largely illegible. This is not a problem confined to commoners, either. Each of the Stark children, but especially Sansa early in her time in King’s Landing, struggles with the forms of address for royalty, nobility, and elite non-nobles. When even those raised in the upper echelons of Westerosi society cannot “read” nobility, patrolling the boundaries of social divisions becomes capricious and virulent. As with the legendary strength of the Iron Throne, the social power of the Westerosi nobility is asserted without being codified transparently. Rather than public signifiers of status, this culture relies upon spontaneous transgressions of the social order – e.g. addressing a commoner as “Ser” – followed by forceful correction by the misnamed party, who is more often than not a non-noble. The absence of legible social signals disciplines non-nobles through their ritual assertion of their lesser status. In this manner are the social hierarchies of the Seven Kingdoms doubly reinforced – first by the nobles who defend their status with force and second, symbolically, by the relatively powerful non-nobles who insist repeatedly on their common station. Those in closest proximity to social divisions reify them from both sides.
Of course, these divisions are somewhat permeable for those already fortunate and upwardly mobile. Davos Seaworth becomes The Onion Knight in recognition of his heroism. The mercenary Bronn becomes Ser Bronn of the Blackwater for his. Ramsey Snow is legitimated with his father’s name as a prize for capturing Moat Cailin. Baelish does his Baelish thing. (Aemon Targaryen seems to be the only character who crosses social strata in the opposite direction, though eschewing royal title when “taking the black” strikes me as not existing in the same social system as the rest of Westeros.) The ease with which title or name can be assigned could, theoretically, destabilize a social system perceived to be rigid. Of course, only one who already has a title or name can make such an assignation. One is only ever pulled up into the nobility by someone who already wields its power. When the king decides you should be called “Ser,” you shouldn’t correct him.
One last thought: the inscrutability of signs of social status and the occasional movement into the upper classes sound to me like the context of passing narratives. Indeed, it’s rather surprising there have been no such narratives to this point on Game of Thrones (Baelish comes closest, I suppose, having created his own sigil and served at court until he could marry his way into the backwaters of the aristocracy). If in future seasons, a Jon Snow or a Varys or a Jorah Mormont or a Misandre sits on the Iron Throne, it will be due in part to his or her ability to be perceived as nobility. Seemingly, this will take little mastery of codes of court; rather, it will require only refusing to correct those who misidentify one’s status. What a banal revolution that could be.
3. The absence of slavery in Westeros is unique but largely insignificant.
The bulk of Danaerys’s narrative in the later seasons of Game of Thrones is a white savior story about her endeavors to abolish slavery throughout Essos. Her violent campaign against the masters of Slaver’s Bay reveals the depth of the Westerosi fervor for abolition. While the origin of this fervor is, so far as I can recall, never explained, Game of Thrones goes to great lengths to indicate that Westeros is unique in this regard among the regions of the world. Hence, Jorah Mormont can travel freely throughout Essos without fearing condemnation or prosecution for crimes that earned him a capital sentence in The North. Hence, also, educated freed slaves in Meereen asking to be re-sold into their masters’ service and Danaerys’s half-hearted innovation of contract labor. The Essos sections of the show spend quite a bit of time revealing the institutional apparatuses that have developed to buttress slavery throughout the world outside the Seven Kingdoms (not to mention the insurgent Sons of the Harpy who resist abolition in Meereen). Only in Westeros is bondage labor not the base of the economy.
Yet there seems to be little difference between the class systems of Westeros and Essos. In both, any wealth is concentrated among the nobility, elite traders, and the apparatchiks who exploit blindspots in the purview of the overclass (e.g. Baelish, Hizdahr, Second Sons). In both, the lower classes survive on subsistence farming and crude forms of mercantilism. In neither is social mobility among classes really possible for any but the absolute luckiest. Occasionally, one of the elites of Westeros will note the small difference between slaves of Esssos and their own smallfolk. Tyrion says there is no difference. Varys believes Littlefinger’s lecture on social mobility to be delusional. Joffrey explicitly compares the commoners of King’s Landing to chattel. So why do the people of Westeros invest so much symbolic energy – and in the case of Danaerys, actual blood and capital – in their opposition to slavery? Why does the show evince so much concern for liberating the enslaved but so little thought for lifting up the poor?
What is Game of Thrones doing here? The uncharitable reading would be that the show’s writers view slavery as largely a symbolic category – a name for an economic relationship largely indistinct from poverty. I don’t believe this is the case, if for no other reason than I don’t think the show wants viewers to see Danaerys as a hypocrite, which would be the logical end of this reasoning. Rather, a charitable reading would see Game of Thrones asking more forceful questions about equality as the basis for state formation. If abolition is one of the founding tenets of the Seven Kingdoms – affirmed by both crown and church – then there is a kernel of latent revolutionary energy within the state. There is potential for a more equitable distribution of power and wealth within Westeros. That potential is waiting to be unleashed – whether by a conquering Danaerys, the Sparrows’ theocratic revolution, some zombified Jon Snow, or the curiously quiet liberators of the Brotherhood Without Banners.
A more just Westerosi state may inevitably be formed, but it will require a more robust sense of equality than the righteous cause of legal abolition Westeros’s elite easily champion.