Dominant Themes in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." So goes the famous statement by Lord Acton. Arguably, there are many themes in any work of fiction as lengthy and rich as George R. R, Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been successfully adapted for TV as Game of Thrones. I would argue that four of the driving themes in Game of Thrones include the moral ambiguity, the corrupting influence of power, realpolitik and religion.
George R. R. Martin has stated that his intent with A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones was to present a realistic portrayal of life in the Middle Ages. Based on this realism, many people assume that the series represents the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' assertion that life "nasty, brutish, and short." However, I would argue that Martin actually takes an Aristotelian view of character, rather than a Hobbsian one.
George R. R. Martin writes using the perspective of various characters' points of view. He shows characters from the inside; what they are thinking and feeling, and how their morality is colored by their own point of view. Martin does not use an omnipotent narrator or take a direct moral point of view, which is an Aristotelian perspective. Aristotle recognized moral ambuiguity; some people are motivated by virtue, others are motivated by pleasure, wealth, and so on.
Martin does take an indirect moral position in A Song of Ice and Fire, however. As a former conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, Martin believes in examining the true cost of war and violence. The 4th novel in the series is titled A Feast For Crows, which is an overt reference to battlefield dead. The novels subtly explore the ethics of pacifism and non-aggression.
The Corrupting Influence of Power
George R. R. Martin does not subscribe to a Manichean view of the world. Rather, he espouses the idea that good an evil are both present within the individual. In keeping with this individualist view of humanity, many of the characters in Game of Thrones are defined by their use and misuse of power. In fact, the nature of power is directly discussed by several characters in Games of Thrones, and each has a different take on it. Littlefinger makes the Baconian assertion that "Knowledge is power," to which Cersei replies, "Power is power." According to Varys, “Power resides where men believe it resides…It’s a trick…A shadow on the wall…And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” Interestingly, none of the characters directly make note of the Actonian assertion that power corrupts, but I would argue that the corrupting influence of power is one of the major themes in games of thrones.
A person’s use of social and political power usually reveals the limitations and moral boundaries of that person. One limitation is the belief that there is a separate set of laws for those who have power and another for those who do not; as is reflected in the behavior of Cersei and Joffrey Lannister in particular. Abuse of power occurs when a person’s psychological problems undermine their moral principles. This is clear when Theon takes Winterfell - he has always felt like an inadequate outsider because his father sent him away to become a ward as punishment for the Greyjoy rebellion. Theon's sense of weakness and insecurity corrupt his exercise of power once his is given command of a ship by his father. Power also magnifies both a person’s virtues and his vices. Robert Bratheon has endless access to whores, food and drink, and as King he is able to indulge his appetites more excessively than a person not in a position of power. Joffrey's psychological problems manifest themselves as violence turned outwards against others who are more helpless than himself. So for him, power becomes the means to achieve self-validation.
Ned Stark is an example of the rare man who is not tempted or corrupted by power. The writings of the French republican poet and politician, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine include the following quote:
It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free... the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,... for absolute power corrupts the best natures.
This is to say that a Lord releases himself from the tyranny inherent in his position when he frees those subjects under his control, or seeks to make them more equal with himself. These qualities are manifest in Ned Stark's more restrained use of power. He performs executions himself, because “a ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.” Ned tells Robb, “If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”
Realpolitik is a German term for the type of diplomacy which is based on practical objectives rather than ideals. Realpolitik endorses a pragmatic, no-nonsense view and a disregard for ethical considerations. Those engaged in realpolitik emphasize immediate practicalities and self-interest over principled ideologies. The term has become synonymous with unscrupulous and coercive political tactics, particularly since its popularization by Henry Kissinger.
Much of Game of Thrones deals with the theme of realpolitik; closed door scheming by the ruling elites at the top of society without regard for ethical concerns. These type of back room dealings are a major driving force in the the plot of Game of thrones. The common people have no say in strategic decisions made by the elite, yet their fates are often determined by them. Tyrion Lannister recognizes the reality that, “Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” As Ser Mormont says, "The common people who “pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends” and do not care “if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace” by the political elite of Westeros.
A third overarching theme in Game of Thrones is that of a plurality of competing religions. Multiple faiths are a more realistic presentation in fantasy literature which mirrors the current state of the world. There are seven new gods in the primary religion of Westeros. Faith in the Seven were brought over by the Andals, at a time when the dominant religion was a pagan faith in the Old Gods, the spirits of nature. Northerners still worship the Old gods, and their septs are outdoors. They keep a Godswood with a sacred heart tree, representing the indwelling spirits of nature. The Iron Islanders worship the drowned god. Stanis Baratheon becomes a follower of R'hllor, a prominent god across the narrow sea. He is also called the Lord of Light.The followers of R'hllor worship him as the god of light, heat, and life. There are also characters in Game of Thrones who appear to operate from a position of skepticism such as Maester Pycel and Maester Lewllyn, and from a position of rationalism and self-reliance such a Tyrion Lanister.