Alberto Mingardi  

Varys, Tyrion and limited government

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Game of Thrones is back. The HBO series (not to mention the novels by George R.R. Martin) is an exciting part of our popular culture, but it is also obviously about power plays and, er, politics. So, for once, searching for its political message is not perhaps reading too much into it, but somehow consistent with the very nature of this spectacular entertainment product.

A couple of years ago I linked to a good post by Mike Rappaport on Games of Thrones and styles of leadership. Now I've run into this article by Robert Coville at CapX. It is very good indeed and gives a non-cynical interpretation of Martin's stories.

For Coville, the gist of the series resides in a couple of dialogues between Tyrion and Varys, one and the other the most politically savvy - but, at times, the most Machiavellian - of Martin's characters. He argues that

Martin's real preference, I would argue, is revealed in another on-the-nose conversation between Varys and Tyrion (taken from the TV series, admittedly, rather than the books).

"What is it you want, exactly?" Varys asks. Tyrion responds: "Peace. Prosperity. A land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless." "Where castles are made of gingerbread and moats are filled with blackberry wine," scoffs Varys.

Both Tyrion and Varys are political realists, who have been close enough to sovereign and powerful men to see how human and, indeed, selfish they are. But they both join the cause of young Daeneris Targaryen not only because she has, er, dragons, nor because her dynasty has a claim to legitimacy much stronger than others, but because they see her as a champion of good government, understood as moderate government, moderate in the sense of self-limiting when it comes to what the powerful can actually do to anybody else.

If the series evolves like Coville argues, it could turn out to be about capable political operators turning to the service of leaders they consider the best not for their career, but for the land and the people.

This may sound naive, but anybody who either read or watched Game of Thrones knows that Martin is not naive indeed. He doesn't spare any of the cruelty and pettiness of politics. I think somehow this apparent inconsistency is familiar to many of us who follow political matters closely. We know that self-interest and political incentives are the almost infallible umpires of the great trends in politics. But any of us can also name quite a few people who, though being fully aware of the problems and shortcomings of playing politics, are nonetheless trying to go against the grain and to what they sincerely believe it is the good thing. Martin, an arch-realist, suggests that the very same people who played safe and cynical can, under different circumstances, become forward-looking and generous. Let's put it in different terms: perhaps the more you see how arbitrary and capricious government can be, the more you long for limited government. I don't know if, whenever Game of Thrones ends, this will emerge as one of its messages. But it will be interesting if it does.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

I'd love to see a post on everything that is wrong with the political economy of The Walking Dead.

That said, I'm not too sure about Tyrion's motives. Seems to me that some of Daenerys followers are there simply because they have no other options. What choice does Tyrion have? Join the Starks in the north, who might well execute him themselves? He's got to join Daenerys because there's no other ruler around who can protect him, and as a courtier, he's got no skills other than as a political advisor. It's the only job he can get.
Also Daenerys is only kinda benevolent, she's also quite capable of being a ruthless tyrant, as you can tell from plenty of instances where she was willing to massacre lots of enemies to enforce her rule.
She's not an example of limited government, but of a benevolent dictator.

J Mann writes:

Martin does a nice job of writing ambiguous characters and situations, to which people then ascribe their own interpretations and declare Martin a genius. (Compare Shakespeare).

Coville's completely wrong about Varys. Unless you grant conspiracy theory levels of foresight and manipulation, show Varys supported VISERION for the Iron Throne, back when he had that basement conversation that Arya overheard. VISERION!!! Remember season one for a moment, and tell me that Show Varys is an idealist aiming for a better form of government.

For that matter, Varys really has no reason to believe that Danerys has developed into some kind of wise non-monarch - he's barely spent any time with her, the adviser he sent her is a pardoned slaver. It's true that she's been tearing across Essos burning down cities, killing slavers, and freeing slaves, but that doesn't particularly show she'd be a better ruler than, say, Robert Baratheon, who also liked conquering cities and presumably likely freeing slaves.

I do think that Show Varys is an essentially well-meaning character, although I question whether all the lies and assassinations would actually lead to an improvement in actual reality, but I don't think you can say that he represents enlightenment virtues.

LD Bottorff writes:

I think George Martin has done a masterful job of explaining, in an entertaining story, how politics really works. The books are better than the show in terms of explaining all the compromises and deals, but you can still learn a lot from the show. No king's power is absolute. Robert thoroughly misunderstood the king's job when he said (and acted as if) the king gets to do what he wants. Stannis thinks that people should support him just because the rules say he is the rightful heir if Joffry is really not a Baratheon. But few are willing to fight against the Lannisters just because the rules support Stannis's claim.

The story is full of insights into real political power.

IronSig writes:

@ Hazel Meade Anarchy,State and Zombie Dystopia.

@J Mann Coville is wrong, in so far as Varys is a consistent character. After season 4, the show loses its credibility to show consistently-motivated characters drawn from the books and will instead pander to contemporary conventions to advance the plot, rather than use the conventions necessitated by feudalism. The result is plot holes papered over by bold visuals. For example, you rightly recall Varys and his co-conspirator in Season One are very different from the teleporting benevolent baldy from seasons 5, 6 and what will likely be a nauseating season 7.

To expand, the reason for the contradictions is that

a) the books use more characters, so the show must distill and combine to reach the same major plot beats,

b) showrunners failing to replace motivations missing thanks to plot changes. Book Tyrion does flee the kingdom and finds himself influenced by Varys, but only through Varys' co-conspirator, Illyrio Mopatis. Varys and Illyrio have a book!conspiracy that can't be realized in the show because of point a) [Illyrio has been missing since season one], so rather than create a substitute plot for Varys, he's recast as a Targaryen supporter down to his core.

c) the plot panders to audience values to advance the plot. An excellent example is when Margaery is put on trial. In the books, Cersei sets-up Margaery by seeding rumors that not only is Margaery is sexually experienced, but is cuckholding King Tommen. These are allegations that a king can't dismiss because these are crimes against the institution of monarch, unlike the show, which relies on viewers to be outraged when Margaery is arrested on perjury for concealing her brother's homosexuality. The showrunners hope that the audience will have their sensibilities so offended by the injustice, they won't have the time to question why Tommen just can't wipe the arrest clean and claim that Margaery was motivated by the family devotion and maternal protectiveness that the Faith assigns to women.

The show! Daenarys plot uses similar crutches: not only are the audience meant to support Dany when she tells Tyrion she means to "break the wheel" thanks to our modern political philosophy, but we are expected to be satisfied that when Dany says she has cleaned Slavers Bay of the slavery institutions, it will actually happen. We are also expect to take Tyrion's speech that Dany has learned the lessons of good government from her time on the Bay at face value.

I find the Slavers Bay plot over seasons 5 and 6 incomprehensible at best and irresponsible at worst, because the reliance on audience expectations to fill in plot momentum is itself inconsistent. Season 6 says "Dany, with the assistance of Tyrion and her armies, has ended injustice in the East and is leaving the region supported by more just and democratic institutions." It would be reasonable to ask if her method could be translated to the real world, where our governments are desperate for the exact recipe to Middle East democracy, but the answer is "superior firepower," which has been demonstrably insufficient.

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