A Game of Thrones and the ambiguity of history

Over at The American Prospect a number of smart bloggers have joined in a roundtable headed-off by former Gentlemen, Jamelle Bouie. The subject is A Game of Thrones in both its TV and book iterations.

The subjects range from the role of women in the series to the lack of clear moral divisions and hero archetypes. Adam Serwer has an interesting bit riffing off of this interview with Martin, who discusses the scouring of the Shire in Tolkien’s:

I was very satisfied with the end of the Lord of the Rings, let us say. Talking about predictability here–I had a sense, even as a kid, that the ring was going to go in the volcano. They weren’t going to let Sauron take over the world. But he surprised me in that Frodo couldn’t do it. Bringing in Gollum the way he did was an amazing part of the ending, and then came the scouring of the Shire. And when I was 13 years old, reading this, I didn’t understand the scouring of the Shire. They won–why are there all these other pages? But I reread these books every few years, and every time my appreciation for what Tolkien did there grows. It was this kind of sad elegy on the price of victory. I think the scouring of the Shire is one of the essential parts of Tolkien’s narrative now, and gives it depth and resonance, and I hope that I will be able to provide an ending that’s similar to all of that.

I will never forgive Peter Jackson for cutting this from the films. Ever.

But that’s beside the point. Serwer writes:

Martin is talking about the conclusion to the series here, but the series itself dwells on the concept of what happens after the war in which “the good guys win.” Game of Thrones is like if Tolkein had gotten involved in the messy politics of post-conflict stability: Imagine Middle Earth being flooded with Hobbit refugees whose home no longer produces enough food to sustain them, or King Aragorn facing a crisis of legitimacy as the aftermath of the war causes an economic downturn he’s powerless to ameliorate.

Indeed, the story in A Game of Thrones is set years after Robert’s rebellion in which the “good guys” won. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. As we know from the current line-up of characters, there is a good deal of gray area between “good” and “evil” and such was the case when Eddard and Robert rode to war against the Mad King. We know that Aerys was insane and cruel – as evil as they come – but what of his son, Rhaegar?

The ambiguity of history is present in Martin’s books as well. We don’t know what happened, not really, not everything. Certainly not enough to make strong moral judgments about what’s happening now, about whether justice has been done. Unlike many fantasies, there is no glorious war between good and evil sitting as the backdrop for current conflicts. The rebellion was a bloody affair, but the victors were not just the Starks and the Baratheons, but the Lannisters, too. The truth of it all, I suspect, will be very ugly, but it won’t shine any brighter a light on questions of justice or honor.

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.


  1. Scouring: I have to say that, of all the questionable storytelling choices, this is what puts it over the edge for you? Really? This is what makes you go all Angry Tolkein Nerd?

    I agree that it kind of damages the story, but not so much for the Scouring itself as for the fact that they obviously didn’t think about how to handle Saruman without it.

    Besides, if people were fussing about the ending being overlong, then the Scouring would have needed to be at LEAST an hour by itself. (The filmmakers actually do address this in the commentary for the first movie.) There’s a lot going on there, and a quick “oh snap Saruman wrecked our shit, yay he died, cut to a year later and everything’s fine again” wouldn’t have done anything to mollify the Angry Tolkein Nerds (who, as people point out elsewhere, ought to be more upset about Denethor anyway.)

    • ought to be more upset about Denethor

      Word. That was a complete travesty.

  2. You know, this reminded me of something I’ve been thinking since I started rereading the books. Did the good guys win during Robert’s Rebellion? I mean we’re introduced to Robert under a fairly positive light but the more I think about it (and read about the Targaryens) the more I think that the bad guy was Aerys but Rhaegar and his family were really the good guys.

    After all, the Targaryens did rule benevolently through a number of kings. And the Baratheons? Well Robert ran up a huge debt, didn’t arrange marriages that would have maintained stability in the realm (including, you know, his own) and then gets killed because he allows himself to be surrounded by enemies. That’s after he fought a war because he lost his girlfriend.

    We don’t really know if Robert knew he liked war more than ruling and politics prior to becoming king but there’s a possibility he did. And if he did, then he should have passed the crown on to someone who would have been a better king (Ned? Howland Reed who we haven’t met yet? Jon Arryn? the list goes on.)

    If you look at it from this angle Robert doesn’t seem that good at all. He seems pretty clumsy, foolish, and downright conceited.

    • Well it’s complicated; Robert didn’t exactly lunge for the throne. As Cercei observed: the throne was Ned Stark’s for the taking but he didn’t want it. The Lannisters wanted the throne but Ned didn’t want them on it. So Ned wouldn’t take the throne, he wouldn’t let the Lannisters take the throne so into that gap came Robert. I’d imagine that Robert Baratheon would have been the happiest man in Westeros if Ned Stark had hopped on the Iron throne.

  3. Having been saturated with very clear cut good vs bad fantasy stories, Game of Thrones is a welcomed site. The show inspired me to read the books, and so far i’m loving them.

    No ones perfect, good guys have bad sides and bad guys have good sides. This makes for a very interesting show to watch, and now a very good story to read. I like not being able to know the ending right form the beginning, or stories with a “twist” near the end. These books twist and turn so often I don’t know who to be rooting for.

    Although shocked and disappointed, killing who I thought was the main character in the first season was well….new to me, I’m not sure if I like it yet or not. Could be because I liked the character and wanted to see more from him, but like in life…you don’t get what you want all the time, and sometimes the hero dies.

  4. First, there were too many Targaryens named “The Cruel” or “The Unworthy” to consider them purely benevolent. Even Egg, who I expect was a good king, had enough of the family insanity to burn himself and Dunk to death.

    King Aragorn facing a crisis of legitimacy as the aftermath of the war causes an economic downturn he’s powerless to ameliorate.

    Gosh, who could that be based on?

    Third contains
    Vast spoilers for Dance.
    Twice now.

    Storm had two happy endings: Jon being elected leader of the Watch and Dany deciding to free the slaves and remain as their benevolent ruler. Again, neither worked out too well. Jon was a strong, capable, and far-seeing leader, but still inherited the Stark genius for being outmaneuvered. Dany, after driving away her best adviser, was about as competent a ruler as you’d expect of a 15-year-old girl not played by Natalie Portman. She can’t even make the dragons into a positive.

    I’m wondering if the original plan for a several-year hiatus between Swords and the next volume was to once again give time for the great victory to turn to dross.

  5. Eddard Stark was my favorite character aswell. Despite being killed in only the first volume of the series, his persona lingers throughout the entire saga.

    Robert was described as a true warrior that towered over others, wielding his warhammer and vanquishing those that got in his way.

    To some he seemed foolish, but a closer inspection would reveal that his stagnation was actually brought about by a lack of challenge before him.
    Despite what others thought of him, he lived his life the way he wanted, and in some measure, still died in his own terms.

    • Of a festering wound sustained after being gored by a pig? No, Robert Baratheon would have preferred to have died in combat with a knight of ability and skill (e.g., the young Jamie Lannister), or in his sleep immediately after pleasuring himself with a prostitute.

  6. Much of history is morally ambiguous, to be sure. But that ought not to stop us from saying that there are net goods and net evils. The drive to stamp out slavery in the 19th century, including both the flexing of British imperalist muscle globally and the American Civil War, were good things and well worth the price paid on balance. Despite many moral transgressions made by the Allies during World War II, the defeat of the Axis powers was a moral imperative.

    • Aerys was a net evil, by the end. But his son was good And great, which are not the same thing at all

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