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“Game of Thrones”: Cynicism Rules

By Maria CromptonApril 4, 2014

“Game of Thrones”: Cynicism Rules

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

DAENERYS TARGARYEN is everyone’s favorite liberator: beautiful, blonde, bold and just. Over three series, she has acquired an army and three fire-breathing dragons, and looks set to take on the corrupt powers of Westeros. But an unnerving seam of cultural imperialism runs through her quest for freedom; her combination of conviction politics and cult leader status jars with the ruthless, faithless pragmatism of the show’s other characters as they grasp and cheat their way towards sovereignty. So when she tremulously wonders, outside the gated city of Yunkai with her army, whether its inhabitants, in fact, “don’t want to be conquered,” we may feel that concern for her subjects could be holding her back. Good thing she has Ser Jorah on hand, with a semantic sleight of tongue, to help her out. “You didn’t conquer them,” he assures her. “You liberated them.”

Daenerys’s rise, through three seasons, is from abused chattel to neocon messiah. We first encounter her as she is sold in marriage by her brother to Khal Drogo, leader of the Dothraki, an imaginary nomadic brown-skinned people represented on screen through a hotchpotch of Orientalist clichés for savagery and ethnic otherness: the Dothraki revel in rape and pillage, admire physical strength above all other virtues, engage in violent public sex games, paint themselves with blue stripes and dance around ritual fires, eat raw animal flesh, and have no expression meaning ‘thank you.’ Daenerys cannot beat them through physical strength; but her mission is cultural as much as it is martial, and her most important early battles are won on these terms. Instead of killing Drogo, she tames him, teaching him about mutuality and consent: how to look a woman in the eyes as you make love to her, instead of raping her “like a hound takes a bitch.”

As Daenerys’s power grows, she acquires a set of values to impose; values that oppose those of the Orientalist fantasy communities that surround her on the foreign continent of Essos. Essentially, she believes in protecting the weak and in a vaguely defined notion of ‘freedom’ (which mostly seems to mean freedom to join Daenerys’s imperialist army, although freedom from (implicitly Asiatic/African) brutalities such as forced labour and rape figure too). Her transformation culminates in a phoenix-like rise from the ashes of her own pyre, emerging unscorched and naked, having birthed three dragons. She is now a full-fledged messiah, her unique status ratified by miracle, and she spends the rest of the series gradually amassing a dedicated armed force as she travels from city to city murdering slave owners, imposing “freedom,” and imperiously informing slaves that she is not at liberty to free them herself, telling them instead: “the only person who owns your freedom is you.”

Yunkai’s residents, it turns out, do want to be conquered – just as long as it is by a conqueror who denies the conquest, whose most vital battles are evangelical crusades of ideology and rhetoric, won in the hearts and minds of new subjects. The scene ends with Daenerys joyously crowd surfing her new converts, lifted skyward in a mandala of reaching brown hands.

Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, in Westeros, it is quite another matter. Everybody is white here, for a start. There are no slaves. Aesthetically and politically, this is medieval Europe, with touches of Greek revenge tragedy: endless cycles of public violence used to proclaim power and dominance, fractious filial political alliances, feudalism, an excellent line in embroidered surcoats, a fascination with incest, eunuchs, and doomed dynasties.

Here, Cersei and Tyrion, ruthless but beleaguered inheritors of the ruling House of Lannister (read: Atreus), share a moment of intimate enmity over a glass of wine as their kingdoms are rent by rebellion. “How long will it go on?” he asks her. “Until we have dealt with all our enemies,” she replies, with an expression of blank endurance. “Every time we deal with one of our enemies, we create two more,” says Tyrion. Cersei: “Then I suppose it will go on for quite a long time.”

There are no messiahs here. Almost everybody we meet in Westeros believes her or himself to be a leader, though none are. They are all thwarted, in each plot and maneuver, each scheme and attempt, by the endless web of connectivity to which they are beholden and belong. Political power is contingent and shared; it is a matter of outwitting your enemies before they outwit you. Nobody has the pure forward momentum of Daenerys and her accumulating army. Nobody has ideology on their side. The best are Machiavellians par excellence, out-thinking and out-acting one another; but any agency they may feel they possess is swiftly quashed, refracted or redirected by the constantly competing agency of others.

So Daenerys’s story is divided from the interdependent narratives of Westeros, politically, culturally, and geographically. But we know a clash is coming. Daenerys believes herself to be the one true queen of Westeros, an entitlement that is hereditary and rests on the authority of the law of genetic succession, which the current Westerosi elite consider a sham. The reigning king is the incestuous offspring of the last king’s wife and her twin brother; but the last king was only king himself because he deposed the previous one in a rebellion. Everywhere in the kingdom, men are declaring themselves king, with or without the genes to power. They pay rhetorical dues to the received idea that power comes through lineage and then do whatever necessary to claim it for themselves. Here, cynicism rules. Everybody has a different story to tell about what constitutes power. “Knowledge is power,” says Littlefinger, upstart master of coin. “Power is power,” counters Cersei, queen regent. “Armies give you power,” asserts Tyrion, hand of the king. “Power is a trick, a shadow on the wall,” says Varys, master of whisperers.

What will happen when Daenerys hits Westeros? How will her (apparently) unstoppable imperial messianism be received there, where nobody believes in the idea that one exceptional person can change things for everyone? Where slavery and rape are outlawed, and Eurocentrism is already the order of the day? Perhaps it will be a revelation, the curtain swept back on her cultural campaign, the true locus of her power exposed: superior military capability. Those dragons really do help convince a people to be free. Or perhaps the messianism will continue, uncritiqued: after westernising the backwards Orient, Daenerys may set about modernising medieval Westeros, and by the end of series four, every peasant in King’s Landing will have clean water, access to education, and the vote.

But the true strength of GoT is its relentlessness — the unending cycles of cynically-employed violence and betrayal that ripple through its world, reginiting time and time over as everybody vies for the center of power and finds themselves excluded. Even the title sequence riffs on this, soaring over a map of Westeros and Essos to a galloping theme for nearly three full minutes, repeatedly tantalizing its audience with what sounds like the closing bars, only to roll back and start over. Perhaps, too, the mordant preoccupation amongst the book’s fans with the early demise of its author (at a mere 65 years, you might think he’s some way from death’s door yet) conceals a deeper wish for the sequence to never conclude, a sense that completion would be a diminishing, forcing resolution on a brilliantly widening gyre. Daenerys hasn’t made it yet. And who knows what will happen when she does, but hopefully triumphalist, transcendent leadership won’t turn out to be where history stops. 


Maria Crompton is a writer based in London.

LARB Contributor

Maria Crompton is a writer based in London.


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