By Isaac Vaught
In the first part of this article, we discussed how George R. R. Martin’s intentions in writing “Game of Thrones” were grounded in both wanting to be honest about the gruesome realities of war in a genre that is notorious for sugar coating them and more generally wanting to subvert common fantasy tropes in a way that made his story more grounded in reality and actual history.
However, simply showing an audience that “War is hell,” while effective, is nothing new. There are countless novels and films that share this sentiment — “Saving Private Ryan,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “Hacksaw Ridge” — the list doesn’t end. While this is a powerful theme and one worth repeating, Martin meant to say something more. If we’ve gotten as far as “War is hell,” then the question becomes “If war is hell, then why do humans engage in it? What is required in stopping it?” These are the core questions of “Game of Thrones.”
The former question is where the White Walkers come in. About halfway through Season 6 we learned through one of Bran’s visions that the Children of the Forest, the short, green inhabitants of Westeros who lived there before the first men arrived, created the White Walkers in order to defend themselves from humans. The first men to arrive in Westeros were looting and pillaging their lands, burning down their forests and starting wars against their people. For the Children, this was all human beings did, and so they made the perfect enemy: a mirror.
In Martin’s novels, the White Walkers’ skin is described as having a reflective quality, and in every possible way they serve as a sort of funhouse mirror version of humanity — they show us how we appeared to the Children of the Forest. They are a mindless and yet intelligent destructive hive that cares about nothing more than killing, expanding their armies, and conquering more land. If this sounds like a harsh judgement of humanity — think about all the things that humanity engaged in completely of its own volition while the White Walkers were still barricaded behind the wall:
The beheading of Ned Stark to cover up incest
The Dothraki raids
The betrayal and sacking of Winterfell
The Battle of Blackwater
The torture of Theon
The red wedding
The purple wedding
The battle at the wall
The slavery in Mereen and Yunkai
The gladiatorial games in Mereen
The capture and sexual slavery of Sansa
The sexual slavery of children in Braavos
The murder of Jon Snow
The Battle of the Bastards
The burning of the Sept of Baelor (as well as the Tyrells, Faith of the Seven, and the hundreds of citizens inside)
The Loot Train Battle and subsequent burning of unarmed combatants
Keep in mind that this list only includes things that both happened before the White Walkers even crossed into Westeros, and occurred within the scope of the story timeline covered in “Game of Thrones.” The list excludes the final conflict between Daenerys and Cersei in Season 8, as well as the 8,000+ year history of war and continuous conflict prior to the timeline in which “Thrones” takes place.
In light of these events, it seems like the Children of the Forest were, on some level, right about humanity, and the White Walkers are the perfect punishment: Every time humanity does what it does and kills its own kind, the resulting dead from their conflicts can become new recruits for the White Walkers. The dead of human armies are exactly mirrored by the dead of theirs.
Not only are these sentiments about humanity not unfounded on the Children’s part, but they also echo real sentiments many of us have likely had about human history. While some of the atrocities in “Game of Thrones” are carried out with things like dragons and wildfire, this doesn’t undercut the fact that human beings have been doing many of the same things to other humans for hundreds of thousands of years. The show’s famous “Red Wedding” was modeled after the actual medieval Scottish “Black Dinner,” the War of the Five Kings was based on the “War of the Roses” in medieval England, and so on. The human characters in “Game of Thrones” sometimes share similar sentiments. In Season 4, Jorah Mormont says to Daenerys, “There’s a beast in every man, and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.”
So, when it comes to the question of why human beings engage in war, the Children of the Forest and the White Walkers weigh in first — it’s because that’s all humanity seems to care about, and as such it doesn’t deserve to exist. But Martin’s answer is more nuanced than this. As the show’s signature moral gray is keen on telling us — pure evil is rarely, if ever, an actual motivation for anything. For “Game of Thrones,” what really lies behind violence is passion. Notice that one of the most significant motifs in the story is fire — an age-old metaphor for passion. Fire in the story is heavily associated with both passion and violence — the Targaryens, the Hound, wildfire, the red priests, the Brotherhood Without Banners, the Lord of Light, the burning of Shireen, etc. One of the things that’s so profound is that the one thing that actually separates humanity from the White Walkers, who are passionless, is the very thing that makes us like them — murderous, chaotic and brutal. If we go back to Martin’s motivations in telling the story — believing that the truly important conflict is that of the human heart in conflict with itself — we can see why delving into this relationship between passion and violence is so important for the story to have a nuanced thematic understanding.
The most common of all passions, and perhaps the most significant passion in “Game of Thrones” is love. Love is the driving force behind so many of “Thrones”’ worst mistakes and atrocities. The very first episode ends with Jamie Lannister pushing Bran Stark out of a tower window and crippling him for life in order to prevent anyone from knowing about his incestuous relationship with Cersei. And what does he say right before he does this? “The things I do for love…”
What was arguably the most notorious slaughter in the story, the “Red Wedding,” was also a result of love. Robb Stark betrayed the Freys and went back on his marriage contract in order to marry someone he actually loved — Talisa (or in the books — Jeyne Westerling), and as a result he, his mother, his wife, his unborn child and his entire army were brutally slaughtered in a single night.
Even the entirety of Robert’s Rebellion — a conflict that permanently changed the geopolitical landscape of Westeros, was largely a result of unrequited love. Although she was pledged to marry Robert Baratheon, Lyanna Stark instead ran away to be with Rhaegar Targaryen, and he started a war for her. In Season 8, Tyrion and Varys have a conversation about this. “Think of the past 20 years,” says Tyrion, “the war, the murder, the misery, all of it because Robert Baratheon loved someone who didn’t love him back.”
There can also be non-romantic passionate love. After the beginning of the War of the Five Kings, Theon Greyjoy is desperate for the love of his father Balon, which he has never had, and in order to get it he betrays the Starks, the family that raised him, by sacking Winterfell, murdering Maester Llewyn, and burning two farm boys and hanging their charred bodies from the gates.
Of course, there are other passions as well. Another key passion in the show that drives violence is hate. After the beheading of Ned Stark, Arya makes a list of people she plans to kill as a means of avenging her father, and recites it to herself over and over. One of the defining features of the Hound’s story is his drive for revenge against his brother, the Mountain. This same feature is the driving force behind Oberyn Martell’s involvement in the story. And then after Oberyn dies, Ellaria Sand poisons Cersei’s daughter Myrcella, and in response Cersei eventually has Ellaria and all three of her daughters captured, after which she forces Ellaria to slowly watch one of her daughters die of poison, and the cycle continues on and on until families are devastated and kingdoms fall — almost like a wheel … sound familiar? There are, of course, too many examples of revenge to count in “Thrones,” but there are enough examples here to get the point.
There are other passions playing pivotal roles in “Thrones” that are worth mentioning too. Obviously there’s greed — Viserys Targaryen selling his sister off to gain an army, Stannis burning his daughter alive in an attempt to win the Iron Throne, Stannis conjuring a shadow demon to murder his brother Renly, etc. And also pride — Khal Drogo allows himself to be cut in a fight with an insubordinate Dothraki warrior as a show of dominance, and this same cut becomes infected and kills him, Daenerys won’t allow unarmed men to go on living without verbal surrender and has them burned to death, the Night’s Watch believe the Wildlings to be beneath them and have Jon murdered in order to stop having to protect them, and so on. These passions are central to the destructive shifting of power in the show (another major theme of the story), and often drives characters who are incredibly sure of who does and does not deserve to live to violence. We will return to this idea later.
This brings us to the uproar over the end of Jamie Lannister’s story. There is perhaps no character that is a stronger embodiment of passionate love than Jamie. He commits atrocities every which way for Cersei (and admits them all to Brienne when he leaves her), he risks execution in order to have an incestuous relationship with her, he gets his hand chopped off to save Brienne, he goes back to King’s Landing to die with Cersei, and so on. In Season 6 he even makes something of a pact with Cersei, in which he looks her in the eyes and says “No one else matters — only us.” In the final episode, Tyrion even makes a remark about this while talking to Jon Snow: “Love is more powerful than reason. We all know that — look at my brother.”
But as mentioned before, many of us approached Season 8 with particular expectations about how stories — especially fantasy stories — are supposed to play out. We all believed that even though Jamie had done horrible things in the name of love at the start of the story, he was on the path to “redemption.” It was his “arc,” as many of us are fond of saying, to go from bad guy to good guy, making his transformation from the devious and despicable knight to the one that acts for the greater good, and many of us believed that this transformation would culminate in him killing Cersei in order to save Westeros from her destruction. But there’s a problem with this: People don’t always have “redemption arcs” in real life. People don’t make clear-cut transitions from bad to good and vice versa, but instead have capacities for both that carry different amounts of strength at different times. And sometimes, in fact probably more often than not, our passions get the better of us in the end. If we can recall from earlier — Martin was interested in “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Jamie is the man who pushed Bran from the window, murdered his cousin, attempted to kill Ned Stark in the street, and had a relationship with his sister — but he’s also the man who gave up his reputation for life in order to kill the Mad King and save the population of King’s Landing, who gave up his hand to save Brienne, who charged alone into battle against Daenerys’ dragon in order to prevent more of his men from being burned, who risked his life and left his love to go north and fight against the White Walkers, and who served as Tyrion’s only friend for most of his life. Jamie’s “arc” is not so much a progression as it is an inner conflict — he’s always had both sides to him, and depending on the circumstances one might win over the other. This model for a character grounds the story in reality, and makes him far more nuanced than any clear-cut “redemption arc” could ever capture. Him sacrificing both his life and newfound love in order to try and save the incestuous sister that’s been his true love for his entire life is a beautiful end note for his character, one that adds to the depth of the story and encapsulates the essence of all the things that made us both love and hate him.
However, Jamie is of course not the only character to fall prey to his own passions. In this respect, the Hound is the flipside of the coin. While Jamie’s downfall was love, the Hound’s was hate. The Hound’s primary source of pleasure is violence — taking out his anger and rage by cutting down other people. He even says as much to Sansa in Season 2, when she finds him sitting alone in her room after having abandoned the Battle of the Blackwater: “Killing’s the sweetest thing there is.” In another scene with Arya, he says, “Hate’s as good a thing as any to keep a man going.” He has also been prone, throughout the story, to engage in cold-hearted and senseless violence. In Season 1 he hunts down the butcher’s boy for “hurting” Joffrey while playing, in Season 3 he kills the man who agrees to house and feed him and Arya for a night, in Season 7 the group that travels beyond the wall is swarmed by the White Walker army on a frozen lake because he is casually throwing rocks at one of the Walkers for fun, and so on.
When we are first reintroduced to him in Season 6, the Hound seems to be on something like a “redemption arc.” We discover that he didn’t actually die after losing his fight with Brienne of Tarth but has instead been living in a sort of medieval commune run by a Priest who’s a former soldier that has sworn a vow of nonviolence. However, the Hound doesn’t follow this path all the way through. In his conversations with this priest we get the sense that there’s some hope for change. The priest tells him that redemption is still available to him, and that “we can always come back” from violence. However, while the Hound is away collecting wood, the commune’s nonviolence is taken advantage of by robbers, who slaughter them all and hang the priest. This reignites the deep-seated anger within the Hound, and starts him back on the path of vengeance, which ultimately leads him willingly to his own death in his fight with his brother, the Mountain. This little detour for the Hound is not only great for exploring his character but it also carries incredible thematic depth — there’s hope that humanity will move on from the cycle of endless violence, and yet violence perpetuates itself — being violent towards others, as the robbers did, only necessitates more violence in return.
Violence begetting more violence is a core pillar of Martin’s criticism of violence. Daenerys describes the cycle of violence on a societal scale in Westeros as a “wheel”: “This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.” When the Hound is living in the peaceful commune, the priest says to him, “Violence is a disease, you don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people.” As a side note, notice that the Night King’s spiral symbol, which appears throughout the show, is also wheel-like and made of dead bodies and body parts — a very powerful image of a violent cycle.
But violence also begets more violence at the individual level as well. One of the most famous historical quotes on this is perhaps Mahatma Gandhi’s “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” In “Game of Thrones,” there’s an incredibly strong and common recurring link between revenge and blindness. In Season 4, Oberyn Martell returns to King’s Landing to take revenge on the Mountain for the rape and murder of his sister, Elia. In the trial by combat, he apparently defeats the Mountain, only to be taken off guard while boasting, knocked down, and have his eyes crushed in. He is blinded before he’s killed. Notice also how Oberyn is perhaps one of the most deeply passionate characters in the entire story — he’s lustful, ambitious, bold, proud, vengeful — and these passions end up being the death of him. In Season 5, Arya violates her contract with the Faceless Men and brutally kills Janos Slynt, a former Kingsguard member who she finds purchasing very young girls as prostitutes in Braavos. When she kills him, she stabs out both of his eyes, and as a consequence when she returns to the house of the undying, the Faceless Men take away her sight, and she remains blind until Season 6. This connection between revenge and blindness is most potent at the end of Season 8, when the Hound and the Mountain have their final showdown in the Red Keep. During the fight, the Mountain presses the Hound up against the wall and begins to try and gouge his eyes out in the same way that he did to Oberyn Martell, and in order to get out of his grip the Hound takes his knife and stabs it through the Mountain’s eye. When the smoke clears from this, both of them have been blinded in one eye — a literal exchange of an eye for an eye. And in the end, the Hound’s quest for vengeance comes to fruition when he sacrifices his own life to take away the Mountain’s.
Another layer here that adds tremendous nuance to the characters and themes of the story is the fact that characters can know that their passionate pursuits will be the death of them, and still pursue them anyway. In their final scene together, Arya and the Hound are in the Red Keep looking for Cersei, and before moving forward, the Hound tells Arya to turn around and leave, while Arya still insists on getting her revenge on Cersei. But the Hound holds her by the shoulder and says, “You think you’ve waited for revenge a long time? I’ve waited for it all my life — it’s all I care about — and look at me … you wanna be like me? You come with me, you die here.” So while the Hound believes he’s too far gone, he’s able to use his own experience to set Arya on a better path, setting us up for a hopeful note: even if some among us might’ve been too corrupted by violence, it is possible to leave a better world for the children. Throughout “Game of Thrones,” the children have suffered the most — the War of the Five Kings destroyed the lives of the Stark children, the Children of the Forest were almost wiped out by the first men, and so on — and in the end things can start to be made right by leaving something better behind for them. We’ll return to this idea later.
However, when it comes to passion and violence, there’s one character who embodies these above and beyond all others. Not only is she incredibly violent and passionate, but she is the embodiment of fire itself — Daenerys Targaryen.
In the third part of this article, we’ll continue by first discussing her ending and how it fits into the bigger picture.
Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.