Issue LXI: A British History of Game of Thrones

6 Aug

Upon meeting His Catholic Majesty Felipe VI, King of Spain, Castile, Léon, and Aragorn, Professor Pablo Iglesias presented him with a modest gift.  A DVD box set of Game of Thrones.

The leftist lecturer of political science and leader of the political party Podemos, professed his love for the show in 2015.  He would, like Khaleesi, ride the dragons of political power to the summit of the state.

Now what could he be talking about when ranting about Weber, Machiavelli, and Gramsci in an HBO serial?  Professor Iglesias is not off the mark at all, dear readers, and I will show you how Game of Thrones explains the creation of the modern world via British history.  But with dragons.

 From Antiquity to Modernity

George R.R. Martin has explicitly stated that Game of Thrones most resembles the War of the Roses.  The War of the Roses was an insanely complicated civil war between 1455 and 1485 for control of the British throne.  As a war between dueling relatives of House Plantagenet, there were many alliances and betrayals and short-term kings that in turn got overthrown by another.  Fighting over hereditary “legitimacy” really was a fig leaf for different groups to support different sides.

The House of York (white rose) fought with the House of Lancaster (red rose) until it ended with the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  The Lancastrians defeated the Yorkists and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.  To wrap it all up he married Elizabeth of York to unite the two families and thus claims for the throne.  The Tudors ruled until 1603.

What makes the Battle of Bosworth Field more important than other fights over kingship is that this was really the last time inheritance had to be decided by war in Britain.  We can really say that British dynastic stability begins from then until now (notwithstanding complications like Cromwell and the Glorious Revolution).

Stability is the key word in this.  A stable realm with stable rules and rulers can lead to people planning for the future.  They will not have to worry about soldiers wrecking their farm, their apprentices being drafted by the local aristocrat, and changes of religion that lead to religious persecution.  What George R.R. Martin shows, but does not tell, is how political stability will be created in Westeros by the (likely) victory of Daenarys Targaryen.

Origins of Political Order

 It all goes back to German sociologist Max Weber.  The state, in political science, is the only institution allowed to commit legal violence in a modern society in a defined geographic area.  This violence encompasses the police, prison and court system, the death penalty, or (in olden stays) corporal punishment and torture.  We are shocked at the violent actions of terrorists, criminals, or militias because, unconsciously, we believe that only the government is allowed to use violence legitimately.

This was not always the case.  In the New World, it took centuries to develop a political culture in which cowboys can’t just shoot Indians or the Hatfields shoot the McCoys and get away with it.  Being civilized means settling disputes non-violently and using the court system if disputes cannot be settled.

In the Old World, monarchs could not directly control their entire nation and had to rely on local nobles to collect taxes and draft men for their army for centuries.  These nobles could also commit violence and keep some of the tax money they collected for their estates.  They may have additional mandates to protect certain bridges, rivers, mountain passes, or borders from the king.  This is the world of Game of Thrones.

The Birth and Death of the Seven Kingdoms

A brief recap of Westerosi history draws out the parallels with British history.  The original people of the continent were the Children and the First Men.  These natives (equivalent: Celtic tribes) were disrupted by the Andal invasion of Westeros.  They are pushed to the margins of continent just as the Celts were pushed towards Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.  The First Men become the Wildings and are pushed beyond the Wall.

The Andals form the Seven Kingdoms and most likely represent the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain from Northwestern Europe in 410 AD.  These Germanic tribes form the English people who are the Anglo-Saxons.  The majority of people in Westeros descend from the Andals.  The exception are the Starks in Winterfell (which most likely represents York, England) who are mixed with Andal and First Men blood and follow the religion of the First Men and the Children.

The Seven Kingdoms were all dramatically conquered by Aegon the Conquerer who invaded from Dragonstone three hundred years before the show begins.  Aegon the Conqueror, undoubtedly represents William the Conqueror.  William the Conquerer and his Norman invasion from France conquered Britain at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD.  William the Conqueror began much of the current British state including Parliament and government records (the Domesday Book).  One can say the British monarchy as an institution began with his rule.

Like the Normans, the Targaryens are not native to Westeros but come from Essos.  They also do not speak the Common Tongue at home (aka English) but speak Valerian (French/Latin).  In some of the backstory videos on the DVDs (you can find them on YouTube), it is made clear that the Targaryens reduced the amount of warring between the different kingdoms.  By being foreigners, they could stand above any of the individual Seven Kingdoms.  By having dragons, they have the overwhelming monopoly on violence and the ultimate weapon.  You can view the dragons symbolically as the supreme power of state violence, like nuclear weapons or a very strong army, and these dragons make lesser kings submit to the Iron Throne in Kings Landing.

The Seeds of Modernity

Unification and centralization of political power into a single state is an essential precursor for advanced civilization.  The Chinese achieved this thousands of years ago under the emperors of yore while Spain, Portugal, France, and England achieved the nation state centuries later.  What George R.R. Martin’s stories metaphorically reveal are the seeds that will lead to the destruction of the Middle Ages and the beginning of Enlightenment and modernity.

In terms of learning, the Citadel clearly represents the origins of universities and knowledge that will lead to science.  Universities descend from medieval monasteries dedicated to training priests and studying religion.  Samwell Tarley’s apprenticeship (an ancient grad school if you will) shows how medicine is developing from their studies both new and old.

In terms of technology, Cersei contracts the Alchemists’ Guild to develop technology like wildfire and the dragon-slaying ballista.  Medieval alchemy tried to convert common substances into gold.  The knowledge of these thousands of failed attempts led to a body of knowledge about substances which led to modern chemistry.  Once cannon technology began to destroy medieval fortress walls, the point of using castles for defense ended and so too did the Middle Ages.

In terms of statecraft, Lord Varys represents English philospher Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan.  Lord Varys, uniquely, defines the goal of governance to be the good of the common people.  Unlike the other advisors, he is a commoner.  Furthermore, he sees stability and peace in the realm to be the primary goal of politics, not who sits on the throne.  His loyalty is not to the ruler but the realm…. or as we would call it, the nation.  His switching from supporting one ruler to the next makes no sense to the others except as a way to get or keep power.  They do not understand his goal of a commonwealth.

In terms of political power, Daenrys Targaryen represents Henry VII. Raised in exile in Essos (France), she will return to her native land to end the family feuds.  She understands that the back and forth between the different families is ruining Westeros.  When Tyrion describes it as a wheel where families rise and fall with the turn of the wheel, Khaleesi responds that she does not want to stop the wheel but to break it.  Her ultimate goal will be the disestablishment of feudalism.  It helps that the families are killing each other off anyway.

An astute marriage, like the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain in 1469, could consolidate the territorial gains (Cersei Lannister and Euron Greyjoy?  Jon Snow and Khaleesi?).  A foreign invasion by White Walkers will help consolidate her authority the way the invasions of the Moors helped unify Spain and Portugal in the 1400s.

A single, unified monarchy will rule Westeros without any challengers from below.  In essence, it will be the end of the Seven Kingdoms and the beginning of the modern nation-state of Westeros.


YouTube – Complete History of Westeros

Atlantic Monthly – “Political Order and Political Decay


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