Saturday, 25 April 2015

“Let Us Read, And Let Us Dance; These Two Amusements Will Never Do Any Harm To The World”

Spoiler warning: I won't talk about this at all.
This week's theme: how to do the absolute minimum possible damage whilst in charge.

(TV spoilers below the fold. Book spoilers entirely absent.)

It's looking a great deal like this season is going to be focussing on changes of and within regimes. This is most obvious here in the election of Jon Snow as the 998th Lord Commander (a number that concerned me the moment I heard it - it just seems so inevitable that the series won't finish without us getting to the 1000th, with all the bloodshed that implies), but we also have Cersei's first steps in creating a new status quo following Tywin's death, and Daenerys encountering problems as she tries to settle on a post-liberation approach to keeping everyone from killing everyone else (naturally, her solution involves killing). Even our Dornish newcomers seem on the verge of packing in a regime we've only just met. And around it all circle Littlefinger and Varys, who between them have directly or indirectly caused the deaths of two kings, a Lady Paramount, and the most successful hand in two decades, shifting and destabilising regimes at the rate of approximately one a year. Varys we know is hoping to make it five for five, and who knows where Baelish plans to take what all of Westeros (save the Boltons) might consider the true ruler of Winterfell?

One of the central questions of Game of Thrones, like the novels it sprang from, has always been how one can rule well.  Martin has said explicitly that despite adoring Lord of the Rings he was always left wondering how exactly King Aragorn The Rarely Bathed would actually go about keeping the realm in good nick:
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
As Martin points out, there are an infinite number of ways to judge a ruler, based on an infinite number of different situations in which that ruler can find themselves. My own position would be to suggest a good ruler minimises the harm they cause, but then the definition of "harm" is not always easy to pin down on a national level. Let's start by simplifying massively, though, and divide those many situations into times of war, and times of peace.  It should be clear that the skill sets necessary to rule well in each of those states at best contain little overlap, and may even act in tension with each other. Gendry Renly points out in season one how completely his eldest brother has demonstrated good soldiers need not - perhaps cannot - make good kings. We could consider that from a slightly different angle and say Robert proved being a great War King - ask Balon Greyjoy whether Robert was shit as his job, or rather don't, because he'll drown you in a butt filled with seawater or possibly his own bitter worthless tears - doesn't suggest anything about how good a Peace King you'd make. Or at least it doesn't suggest anything good.

But what would suggest something good about how a ruler deals with problems not solvable with bravery and cavalry charges? With the first sword drawn in the War of Five Kings only four episodes into the show, and with most of those episodes being centred on world building, travel and scheming, there was never much chance to explore what being a good Peace Ruler really meant, though, other than not spending so much money you have to hit your father-in-law up for a loan. But now the dust has more or less settled, we have our first opportunity to consider how ruling in peacetime differs from ruling in the midst of open war.

I mentioned last time that this shift of focus from swirling battles and desperate stands to the prickly issue of keeping everyone happy enough to hang their swords on the wall for a while wasn't met with universal praise amongst readers. After two and a half books of escalating violence an extended period of calm felt like a thrilling fairground ride suddenly brought to a juddering halt (in truth, a sudden explosion of Martin's already advanced case of edit-avoidance compounded the issue). But I also mentioned that this is a feeling likely to fade once The Winds of Winter at last arrives and kicks off with the REDACTED-way REDACTED at REDACTED and the REDACTED in the REDACTED. Spending some time in this a series of novels already twice as long as War And Peace on the peace as well as the war seems entirely reasonable.

But then, how different are war and peace in the first place? If even Admiral Fitzwallace can't tell the difference any more, what chance do the rest of us have?  There's always someone to fight, something to overcome. Perhaps when Varys mentioned "the wars to come" in the season opener he wasn't warning us the peace couldn't last. He was warning us everyone was still at war. Last week we met the Sons of the Harpy - insurrectionists fighting a war in all but name. How long will it be before Dany's peacetime gains a higher body-count than her conquest/liberation of Slaver's Bay? How long will it be before the next outbreak of shambling corpses arises just beyond the Wall, or worse, the White Walkers themselves finally come knocking?

But right now it isn't the active enemies that are the real problem.  The White Walkers are taking their time (Seven Hells, are they taking their time), and there's potentially some rather impressive landscaping between them and much more in the way of fresh meat (though it's not clear how many Wildlings remains on the north side of the Wall). The Sons of the Harpy show no indication of having the manpower to do anything but very slowly chip away at Dany's Unsullied, and even that won't work for long once she has sufficient ex-slaves trained up to use as her own City Watch.  The real problem is holding together loose affiliations of widely differing people whose goals only overlap in the most general sense. Dany for example has to juggle not just the wishes of the former slaves, but the former slavers, whose thoroughly despicable crimes don't stop them from retaining sufficient power in the city-state for Dany to need to listen to them at least on occasion (as demonstrated by Hizdhar no Loraq's inclusion in her strategy sessions).

Nor can she ignore the wishes of her own men. Mossador is proof enough of that, but the Seconds Sons too could cause trouble should they not be allowed to the field again soon. There is a reason they became mercenaries instead of city guardsmen, after all. All that really brings these groups together is a desire to keep Daenerys happy (either through love or fear, or probably most commonly both) and the knowledge that, all things being equal, it is probably preferable that Meereen not consume itself in a bloody civil war.

At the other end of the world, Jon has inherited a similar problem. The once under-populated Castle Black has become decidedly crowded of late. Jon too must keep his own men happy - the last Lord Commander got himself murdered by his own men, after all, and that was without people like Ser Alliser Thorne and Lord Slynt to stir up ill-feeling. The majority of the Night's Watch voted for someone else, mainly Thorne, and as nice as it would be to think Ser Alliser would lever his own popularity to shore up Jon's position, ambition and hatred do strange things to a man's sense of duty. At the same time, Jon has two armies and their leaders to keep happy, the small veteran force of King Stannis and the ill-equipped but still gargantuan horde of... well, we don't really know yet. Tormund? Rattleshirt? Whoever ends up in charge of the Wildings (itself a process that doesn't strike me as liable to be peaceful) may see little reason to honour Rayder's truce, leaving Jon in the middle of two armies that fought just days before, whilst commanding at most fifty fit fighting men in a castle built to repel attacks from only one direction, and which is now rather missing a useful gate to its central tunnel.

Both Dany and Jon are in similar positions, then; they've won major victories which have led to them being placed at the top of the pyramid (literally in Dany's case, though the Wall is surely taller) but now face themselves dealing with beaten people they wish to keep on-side without too greatly offending the combination of forces that powered their victories in the first place - of minimising the harm caused by choosing one side fully over another. This of course is not at all far from what Robert Baratheon faced following his rebellion, which makes his complaints of how the Seven Kingdoms had collapsed into "backstabbing and scheming and arse-licking and money-grubbing" rather appropriate here. How can our heroes proceed, if they want to keep their new kingdoms (metaphorical or literal) from collapsing in on themselves? At least Robert got to use the Greyjoy Rebellion to point everyone in the same direction for a while.  What happens if knowing about White Walkers and fire-breathing dragons turns out to be less scary than actual squid-Vikings landing on your actual shores with actual axes?

This being primarily a second episode of set-up, we're still in the stage of outlining the problems Dany and Jon must face, rather than exploring the possible solutions.  The best we can manage here is by counter-example, as Cersei fills the Small Council with what her own uncle sneers at as sycophants. It's it both entirely fitting and darkly ironic that the Queen Regent, who as early as the third episode of the show announced that "everyone who isn't us is the enemy" has managed to chase off the only family member she had yet to partially or fully alienate (by fucking, or stopping fucking, or by fucking over, or by admitting to them about who they were fucking) by filling the council with lickspittles who will never do what her actual family did: stand up to her. But then this is Cersei all over, as the books perhaps make clearer than the show. She never could see someone disagree with her without assuming they were actively plotting against her. Narcissism is a common trait amongst the Lannisters, but Cersei may display the most dangerous iteration of all. There's not a trace of concern evident for any of the five hundred thousand people in the capital or the millions in the Seven Kingdoms as a whole. It's not even that Cersei isn't interested in minimising harm. It's that she doesn't understand what harm is unless it befalls a strict subset of her family.

But as is so often the case in this show, just because one position is clearly untenable doesn't mean its exact opposite is any great shakes either. Whilst Cersei has stacked the Small Council with yes men because she gives not one shit about anyone but herself and her surviving children, Prince Doran Martell is ruling an entire country which is screaming for him to change course (or so his dead brother's paramour insists, at least). And just as the situation is inverted, so too is the motivation (though I suppose both are born of a refusal to give the populace what they want). Doran's caution is born of the desire to not see his countrymen - or the young granddaughter of the man who ordered his sister murdered - hurt or killed. Which I entirely support as an attitude - Prince Doran is one of my favourite characters from the later books, and I'm quite ridiculously excited about Alexander Siddig playing him - but there's an obvious drawback with this approach, which is that it's likely to get you assassinated, at which point the war will happen anyway without you to apply the brakes.

It's not immediately obvious how Doran can navigate this particular situation, admittedly, but that just makes the situation in Dorne something to avoid if at all possible. How that can actually be done is still somewhat up in the air. The proper application of power is like threading a needle that's currently on fire with thread that is also currently on fire. It may well be that ultimately the show offers no solutions to the problem. But there are at least nods in what seems like the right direction. No matter how despicable Tywin was to his youngest child (to all his children, really), his advice to Tommen beside Joffrey's body was well-taken: a ruler needs wisdom, and wisdom most often comes from others. Whether it be from listening to one's counsellors or by voracious consuming books (one can only hope Samwell Tarly will compile a reading list for the new Lord Commander when he's done reading about Ostrich Stork), there is little downside to inhaling all the knowledge one can.

Whilst this is a necessary condition, though, it is not a sufficient one. Ultimately here is an unavoidable disconnect between those who want to underline the past and those who need to forge the future. The buck never stops with the historians. And it may be that Daenerys at least has found the best solution possible to the Mossador problem. Every ruler must sooner or later make an unpopular decision, and doing so in the course of attempting to codify a fair justice system seems like one of the very best times to do it.

But as much as we might agree with each individual decision, their combined weight can topple rulers.  We might want to see Jon and Dany (and Doran) succeed as much as we want to see Cersei fail, but if the first season of this show demonstrated, there is nothing in the world of Game of Thrones that matters less than good intentions. We should try to minimise harm because harm is always coming.

It is always coming to everyone.

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