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Opinion Valar dohaeris: The Game of Thrones that rulers must play for power

Photo Illustration: Lauren Heintzman

Marie-Eve Desrosiers, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, researches authoritarian regimes. Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University, researches military affairs and the Westminster system of government.

An election is looming in Canada, but we needn’t worry too much about who will have the authority to govern and on what basis. In regimes such as ours, liberal democratic principles and the rule of law ensure that the constitution of government is well-established and transitions of power are relatively peaceful.

This isn’t the case in the mythical world of Game of Thrones – spoilers ahead! – where politics is literally a matter of life and death. Known for its land-spanning campaigns of blood and betrayal, and its gratuitous nudity, the television series takes us at the heart of the jockeying for the title of Ruler of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. But the battle for the Iron Throne and control of Westeros is also an illustration of something more prosaic: the foundations of political authority, that is, the right of rulers to make decisions for the realm and command compliance.

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Game of Thrones is fundamentally about what the strongest bases for authority and political rule are, in the face of relentless challengers and in a world where authority rests on personalized power, not democratic institutions.

In addition to heredity, claimants to the Iron Throne rely, each in their own way, on classic pillars of authority: strength, both military and economic; justice and principles; and loyalty and solidarity on the basis of traditional ties, charisma or divine intervention (as Lord of the Light adherent Stannis Baratheon knew well). As they’ve fought and schemed, the warring factions in Game of Thrones have demonstrated that each of these sources of authority is necessary, but that none alone is sufficient. Those who relied too much on one saw their ambitions thwarted, while those who’ve succeeded, even if fleetingly, have tried to find the proper balance between them.

Armed force, for starters, is ubiquitous in Westeros. Soldiers impose order, executions are commonplace, and disputes are resolved with violence, while military defeat ensures your opponents bow to your authority. However, those who rely too heavily on force to rule, or apply it unjustly, don’t fare well in the long term. Rebels led by Robert Baratheon warred against the Mad King when his reign devolved into wanton cruelty. Then came King Joffrey Baratheon’s short and sadistic reign; even his mother, Cersei Lannister, noted that his rule would’ve been awful. Of course, Cersei herself was prone to heavy-handed uses of force, which led her people to hate her. Acts of revenge awaited others who relied on ill-considered and even extra-lethal violence to get ahead, from Ramsay Bolton to the Freys; Arya Stark even recited her own vengeful mantra, underscoring that a reckoning often accompanies unjust violence.

But force can be acceptable, however, when it is applied to uphold justice and the good. Ned Stark is presented as the paragon of a just and honourable man, but nonetheless executes a deserter. However regrettable, force is an unavoidable reality, one that rulers must be prepared to wield when it’s right and necessary. The threat of punishment or application of armed force underpins compliance to authority, even in the most law-abiding societies.

Game of Thrones also reminds us that military strength often relies on economic power. As Tywin Lannister seeks to consolidate his family’s rule, he turns to the Tyrells, an economic powerhouse in Westeros. It’s an object lesson in the literal costs of power: Wars and coercion-based rule are expensive, especially when you need to buy your friends and allies, as the Lannisters often do. The intrinsic ties of security, order and finance have long been recognized by scholars, such as Charles Tilly, who outlined the close relationship between war-making and state-making.

Moral principles, including justice and freedom, can be a basis for authority, too. Mance Rayder, for instance, earned the command of the wildlings by protecting their right to be the “free folk,” while Daenarys Targaryen upheld equality for all, as she built her reign across the Narrow Sea on abolishing slavery. But the pursuit of justice can be dangerous when it’s divorced from other considerations. The spymaster, Lord Varys, is adept at using realpolitik to advance what he sees as the good of the realm. But when Varys senses the threat posed by a high-alert Daenerys before her ultimate assault on Queen Cersei and King’s Landing, the capital, he moves against her with uncharacteristic imprudence, leading to his brutal execution. His commitment to the good of the realm leads to a painful downfall, a reminder – as Ned Stark’s fate also reminds us – that commitment to principle isn’t always a salvation from an ignominious end.

But authority is only an abstraction unless it is recognized, as studies of state-formation remind us when speaking of covenants, contracts and fealty as critical sources of legitimacy. In Westeros, claimants to the throne need champions and followers, and lords need vassals.

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As was the case during the emergence of European states, Game of Thrones stresses the importance of having bannermen show up and fight, the symbolism of “bending the knee” to establish hierarchy, at the core of authority as argued by political theorist Hannah Arendt, and the necessity of effective coalition-building. Loyalty and solidarity are essential for success in Westerosi politics, and weak or flawed alliances are unlikely to succeed when up against powerful adversaries, especially those with deep pockets. The infamous Red Wedding, where Walder Frey betrays the Starks, is a case in point. Even today, few countries feel secure without some allies on their side.

Loyalty is well personified by Lyanna Mormont, who provides the Starks under Jon Snow with a critical ally in the fight against House Bolton. Jon Snow’s campaigns rest on her support and her sense of duty and honour.

Loyalty doesn’t only stem from duty, however, but also from charisma and affection. Indeed, these are at the heart of Jon Snow’s ability to command Castle Black and wield authority over his brothers of the Night’s Watch. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen – who has a hereditary claim to the throne but little else, and so for whom authority had to be carefully built and curated – spent years establishing herself as a maternal figure for the slaves she frees.

But loyalty has a flip side, too. Theon Greyjoy betrays the Starks in an effort to prove his loyalty to his father and House; he gets captured instead and is horribly mutilated in the process. He only redeems himself when he reconciles his loyalty to the Greyjoys with his love of the Starks. The loyalty Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister show Daenerys Targaryen in the penultimate episode may prove to be their biggest mistake: As Tyrion recognized too late, the people of King’s Landing would have been better off had loyalty been balanced against justice and protecting innocent lives.

Is it better to be loved or feared? Daenerys Targaryen seems to ponder this on the eve of the battle of King’s Landing. Ultimately, she burns the city to the ground.

But the bases of authority and rule are never quite as stark, or simple. Few capture the precarious balance of political authority as well as Tywin Lannister, his House’s patriarch and éminence grise. When Tommen Baratheon ascends to the throne, his grandfather asks him: What makes a good king? Is it holiness? Justice? Strength? None, he declares: Wisdom is the answer. For us, he is referring to the wisdom to balance the requirements of political authority.

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And for all that, Tywin is killed by his own son, Tyrion, when the latter finally cuts his ties with House Lannister. It’s proof that, for all the kings, queens, maesters and policy academics in the world, the secret to successfully maintaining political authority may be the only thing for which we have no real spoilers.

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