The Most Conservative Game

By Daniel Stratford


“When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die – there is no middle ground.”

So proclaims Queen Cersei Lannister to Lord Eddard Stark in one of the most memorable scenes of the first season of HBO’s acclaimed series “Game of Thrones.” “Thrones,” adapted from a series of novels by George R. R. Martin collectively entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire,” dons simultaneously the hats of epic fantasy series and political thriller. Many, including the humble author of this column, regard Martin as not just the premier fantasy writer of his generation, but as a deft genre-bender and iconoclast. He has demonstrated time and time again his willingness to mix sorcery and statecraft, and has shown a delicious lack of compunction in killing off characters that are adored by the audience in a graphic fashion.

To the thinking person, however, there is a deeper appeal to the series than the wanton violence and multitudinous depictions of lust that sates the prurient thirst of so many college students. Upon a careful analysis of the series and its assorted decadence, one readily concludes the impossible – that “Game of Thrones” is very much a parable of traditionalist conservatism.

If many are incredulous at the thought of “Game of Thrones” representing anything other than decapitations and depravity, then they will be in good company – many film and television adaptions of beloved works are reduced to mere caricatures, designed to entertain and delight rather than stimulate and entice. However, “Game of Thrones” is one of those adaptations that encourages the viewer to think, to inquire, and, most importantly, to imagine. Consequently, it finds a sympathetic home in the hearts and minds of those well-versed in the richness of history, and those, in the words of conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, “…who [find] the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.”

This sentiment finds a happy home in Westeros, the continent on which much of “Game of Thrones” takes place. Westeros is divided into seven Kingdoms, who attempt to cajole and strong-arm each other. These plentiful factions operate under the aegis of a King, who attempts to inveigle and conquer them all. For centuries prior to the opening of the HBO series, the glue that held these disparate fiefs together was the Targaryen dynasty, descendants of the inhabitants of an eastern empire and of an altogether different ethnicity than the inhabitants of Westeros. Originally subjugating the continent with the use of dragons, the Targaryen dynasty has, at the opening of the series, been relegated to the ash-heap of history after a centuries-long reign. Their demise was not unlike that which befell the Russian Romanovs – after an uprising led by an impassioned Robert Baratheon and aided by noble houses of varying stature, King Aerys II and most of his family are brutally slaughtered, with the few survivors forced across the sea into exile.

The perils of revolutionary upheaval are where conservatives can claim a philosophical home-court advantage. Traditionalist conservatism views humanity as a fallen species, and civilization and government as attempts, albeit imperfect ones, to hew transcendence and order out of barbarism and incivility. Though any one system of government or social organization may not be perfect, it is oftentimes far better than the alternative. The foibles of the status quo are always far more preferable than the destructive, revolutionary attempts to alter it.

The world of “Game of Thrones” illustrates this to a proverbial “T.” After the Targaryen dynasty is vanquished, and Robert Baratheon is crowned King, the various Westerosi factions fall victim to the strife and chaos that defined their existence prior to the Targaryen conquest. The Targaryens not only subjugated the noble families of Westeros, but served as the continent’s permanent and exclusive ruling class – its Ancien Régime. Their ethnic aloofness served as the adhesive that kept Westerosi society from regressing into conflict and provided a transcendent and stable hierarchy. Matters of state were, by and large, well-ordered, and everyone, from the lowest commoner to the King himself, knew their place. Despite occasional outbreaks of violence, such as a civil war that split the Targaryen family, the dynasty was synonymous with the state. Despite the centralized, monarchic order of things, people were relatively free – free from political strife, and free from the restless ambition and uprooting that oftentimes accompanies it. Stability was liberty, and the Targaryens tended the garden of the complex social structure that abetted it.

However, centuries of relative tranquility beget complacency, to the point where people are easily bewitched by the novel and the strange, and lose appreciation of the roots of social order. This was very much the case in Baratheon’s uprising – the insurrection was raised against the supposed tyranny of the king, with no conception of what would be needed to fill the shoes of state in the aftermath. After the violent Targaryen deposition, society was catastrophically uprooted – Baratheon and his house became the new ruling family, the air of aloofness and majesty was thoroughly dissipated, and the various noble families attempted to leverage the power of the throne for their own gain. The continent went from a complex and hierarchical state to a Balkanized multiplicity of petty fiefdoms, all torn asunder by strife and civil war, with the only equality being equality of misery. So lamentable was the situation that Varys, the intelligence chief of both Aerys II and Robert Baratheon, inquired of Eddard Stark “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your Game of Thrones?”

This is not to say the Westerosi status quo was permanent. Even Edmund Burke, that prototypical modern conservative, said that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Oftentimes, gradual reform is the mechanism through which we preserve that which is most dear to us, without ruining that which makes it dear to us. Reform elevates, but revolution destroys, as even a fantasy HBO series can clearly evince.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]