Content Note: Spoilers for the book and first season of Game of Thrones.
The first book of a Song of Ice and Fire, the series that has been adopted into Game of Thrones on HBO, follows virtuous Ned Stark to the capital of a tenuous confederacy of Medieval kingdoms. It is a generation after a Civil War where Stark himself helped to put the current king on the throne. Though his friend was an excellent warrior and general—and we learn their cause was against a king who was cruel by even the brutal standard of Martin’s Westeros—he is a terrible ruler. He would rather whore, drink, and hunt than “count coppers” and see to the justice of the land. By contrast, Ned Stark is virtuous, judicious, and concerned with ensuring the safety and security of his people.
It is a nod to the dynamic that emerges in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. In it, Aragorn, the distant descendant of the last king of Gondor, at last returns to his ancestral home with the intent of taking the throne. He finds the descendants of the Stewards, who have been on the throne for 3000 years, unwilling to let go. Aragorn’s personal virtue and noble blood (yes, there is some racism involved) allow him to retake the thrown when the corruption of the Stewards is laid bare. Whatever you think of it as an allegory, it has little resemblance to our own history.
Another character in the book Game of Thrones who grapples with these ideas of honor is Sansa. The show is criticized for its sexism, but Martin built a sexist world and then showed us the thoughts of women navigating it*. Sansa is thrown into the capital with her father and must reconcile her education about chivalry, the right way for a man of status to act, with the actions of the men she is surrounded by. She wants Joffery to be her kind and gentle protector, but his budding sadism manifests in tormenting her. She witnesses one knight murder another with an underhanded trick. Her father’s friend, the King, is transparently lecherous and lazy. Again and again she sees the men she was taught to idolize break their chivalrous oaths.
Chivalry was the human rights of the middle ages—the latter is indeed a descendant of the former. There are critical differences, particularly in how common people were treated. The expectation was that the nobility would act, well, nobly to protect them. But they had an enormous amount of power and protection that meant if those ideals were not met, there was little recourse. except war between nobles and the king. (And this happened! The way Italian principalities turned on Caterina Sforza for murdering children is instructive.) If it was not expedient, horrors could unfold. But this is not so different than our own time, where some human rights violations are dealt with swiftly and other breaches are tolerated, albeit with condemnations.
As Martin moves towards the final act of Game of Thrones, he has a potent cocktail of themes. He has set up both a formidable cast of villains and the expectation that Ned Stark’s virtue can overcome them a la Tolkien. His daughter is trying to find a way to cling to her beliefs about the men in the capital. The king dies in an “accident” orchestrated by his wife. Ned Stark accurately accuses the queen of treason and is imprisoned for his efforts. To save his family, he confesses to the crime and agrees to go into exile.
And then King Joffery has him executed because he could.
Martin is in conversation with both Tolkien and human rights here. He is saying that ultimately, he (or she!) with the power decides what rights are. At the dawn of the 21st century, we are not used to thinking of human rights as a construct, something that exists simply because the powerful allow them to. But for years, a show essentially premised on that conceit (albeit, through chivalry) has captivated American audiences. Likewise, he is saying virtue is a frail and fickle answer to the vilest whims of the powerful; Aragorn would have been beheaded and the Stewards would have consolidated power.
Importantly, we are Sansa Stark. We believe in Human Rights with all the intensity Sansa believed in the chivalry of her world. Sansa is often criticized for being naive and willfully ignorant at the start of the series, but for me she hit close to home. I buy into the ideals of Human Rights, though I’ve soured to any idea they are literally real. Like Sansa, I’ve seen them ignored too many times for reasons that were too self-serving to believe that we have those rights in any intrinsic way. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the man I idolize did not always rise to the full heights of those ideals. Sansa feels essential to me because she shows me something about myself I do not like.
So, as you watch the new season of Game of Thrones, keep in mind Martin’s point: Human Rights exist only as long as we are willing to defend the lie.
*I will leave it to other commentators to discuss Martin’s obligation to build a world that transcends sexism, but I find his exploration within those constraints to be at least adequate. Lady Stark, Circe Lannister, and Brienne of Tarth are also perspective characters in the book and each shows a different facet of living with the sexism of the world.