BY JOANNA HAYES
“Game of Thrones” is no medieval fairy tale. George R.R. Martin and the writers of HBO’s series have made it clear that any romantic notions, often a hallmark of neo-medieval literature, have no bearing on the events unfolding in and around Westeros, no matter how much it may resemble the world of our fairy tales. In case you had any remaining illusions (even after witnessing nearly two seasons of emotional, physical and psychological torment), the writers remind us of this once more with this season’s aptly-titled seventh episode, “A Man Without Honor.”
It is rather brilliant that they use the singular “man,’” leaving us to debate the relative dishonor of any one of the male characters on the show. Could it be the cripplingly insecure Theon Greyjoy, who hoists the roasted bodies of two young boys before a horrified Winterfell? Or, could it be Jaime Lannister, who is complimentary and warm to a young relative, only then to kill him in an attempt to escape confinement? What about the Hound, who has never claimed to be honorable, but inexplicably flaunts his bloodlust in front of a girl he presumably cares for? There’s also Jon Snow, who seems to be sorely tempted to break his vows of chastity with the fiery young wildling woman (and internet troll in the making), Ygritte. Or could it even be Robb Stark, who probably thinks of himself as honorable, but is stumbling closer to a bone-headed decision of epic proportions (one so bad, even Roose Bolton seems to disapprove)?
The “Man Without Honor” is intended to be Jaime, though the argument could be made about any man on the show – even the beloved Tyrion. “You are a man without honor,” Catelyn says to her newest Lannister captive. This prompts him to argue that, from an alternative perspective of fidelity, he could appear to have more honor than even the “honorable” Ned Stark, who fathered a bastard.
Just before that, Jaime philosophizes on honor, duty and loyalty. “So many vows, they make you swear and swear… What if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.” He really gets to the heart of my favorite theme of this story: reality is never as simple as good versus evil, or right versus wrong. The world is morally grey, not black and white. No one side is unambiguously good nor unambiguously evil. There are no forgone conclusions, especially not in Martin’s series. Good will not always triumph over evil, because there is no such thing.
As a history teacher, every day is a fight against the oversimplification of players into dichotomous spheres. The Romans are good and the Vandals bad. Or are the Vandals good and the Romans bad? We still see this phenomenon occur today at the expense of a more nuanced view of the alternative perspectives and motivations of people who are different. As Martin is wont to point out (with the Hound, Jaime and Tyrion as his favorite mouthpieces), this misconception is highly dangerous. No one can be wholly good or wholly evil, and a dishonorable act to one may be an honorable act to another. As the Hound explains to Sansa, who still does not quite seem to get it, “You’ll be glad of the hateful things I do someday when you are queen and I’m all that stands between you and your beloved king.” Today’s vengeful murder is tomorrow’s protection of the innocent.
In many ways, the show is the perfect blend of fantasy, history, politics and psychology. It has consistently used elements of the Middle Ages to highlight its very modern ideas of psychological and political realism. Its juxtaposition with traditional, medieval fantasies and fairy tales only make the point more stark. Though modern Westerners hold classical Greek and Roman ideals, they are often only in vague terms, removed and distant from our daily realities. Instead, in our everyday lives, we continue to dwell in the institutions and structures of the Middle Ages.
This is a point that Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) made famous in his 1973 essay “Dreaming in the Middle Ages.” In it, he argues that the themes of the Middle Ages are often revived and reconfigured within modern Western culture because we continue to live in a world that is still highly influenced by the medieval era – not Greece and Rome, as is often assumed. We still wrestle with the separation of church and state, attend universities and identify with the nation-state. The classicists gave us our ideals, the medievalists our realities.
What makes “Game of Thrones” so effective is its ability to reproduce modern philosophies and politics within a faux-historical setting that is both familiar and unknown. Every week, we learn new lessons about our modern condition through the lens of a fantastical medieval setting. The simultaneous familiarity and strangeness is what gives the show its undeniable allure. It’s what keeps us coming back each week. We can use its neo-medieval framework to try to understand something of our modern existence. Though we may not often like what we see, it is too hard to look away. We’re hooked.
Other thoughts from “A Man Without Honor”:
- Tywin: “Aren’t most girls more interested in the pretty maidens from the songs? Jonquil, flowers in her hair?” Arya: “Most girls are idiots.” It is known.
- The acting continues to be outstanding on this show (except for maybe Dany and her increasingly-prominent eyebrow-acting, a la Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger). In this week’s Emmy-worthy scenes, Cersei and Tyrion have a heart-to-heart that ends in a brilliantly real and awkwardly tense silence. Lena Headey shows us Cersei’s vulnerability, and Peter Dinklage displays Tyrion’s compassion. Cersei is forced to confide in her brother Tyrion because there is no one else around who will listen, though it is clear she has no love for him. Tyrion, on the other hand, can find humanity in anyone. You can see him drawn to her (I was shouting, “Hug already!” at my television), but he doesn’t actually reach out to console her. Still, the motion itself triggers something in Cersei’s face. Is it gratitude? Revulsion? Relief? Yet again, really brilliant work from these two real-life best friends.
- Theon may be cruel and stupid, but his kind of evil is slightly more sympathetic than most. Like Joffrey, he often acts out of his severe insecurity. He’s never been a leader, not ever, and now he is desperate to make a name for himself at his father’s table. The only way he believes this is possible is by holding Winterfell and commanding the respect of his men, but since he is no leader, he has struggled from the start. He is deeply flawed and cruel in his own self-doubt, much like Joffrey has become. Yet, unlike Joffrey, there are hints of real remorse and deep, underlying psychological torment. Theon may not be a pleasant character to watch, but he is one of the most interesting.
- I’ve been thinking for a while that Arya and her sister Sansa are suffering opposite fates that are really two sides of the same coin, and the parallels continue to stack up. Arya is playing a servant in castle ruined by dragons. Meanwhile, Sansa is playing princess in a castle built by the dragons (originally, Aegon the Conqueror). Both are putting on masks and acting the part to survive. When Cersei takes Sansa aside and gives her advice, woman-to-woman (“The more people you love, the weaker you are. Love no one but your children.”), it is clear that she sees some of herself in Sansa. She, too, was once on the verge of a loveless and often-cruel marriage, and it does seem like she admires Sansa for her determined resolve to fake-it-until-she-makes-it. At the same time, Arya also reminds Tywin of Cersei, particularly when she goes on about her strong female role models from history, not the songbooks. While it is mostly clear that neither girl is a true Cersei, it is interesting (and not likely coincidental) that both get compared to her within minutes of one another.
- Worst period ever, am I right? Nothing like having your first flowering witnessed by the Hound.
- You may have noticed fans of the book series getting overly-excited after Ygritte said, It really is a perfect line, because honestly, Jon Snow knows nothing. Ygritte has always been a favorite of mine because she speaks to Jon the way we all want to speak to him. After all, has he done anything this season but pout, argue, look cold and get caught with his pants down (figuratively, of course, since he’s an infamous prude)? I have never thought Jon’s motivations for joining the Night’s Watch and remaining adamantly loyal to its vows were all that clear, and Ygritte throws this into stark relief. I don’t even think they’re clear to Jon Snow. He has no idea who he is and neither do we, which makes him a weak character in my mind. I’m excited to see if his wildling capture will inspire him to sort out his own desires and motivations, and allow him to grow out of his whiny-adolescent routine.