“Come for the incest, stay for the dragons.”
– Seth Meyers on Game of Thrones
The second time we see Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, he shoves ten-year-old Bran Stark out a window because Bran has just seen Jaime making love to his twin sister Cersei. (Bran does survive, but that wasn’t what Jaime intended.) In most works of fiction, there’s no coming back from something like that – incest and attempted child murder gets you branded as a monster for the rest of the story. But as Game of Thrones progresses, readers learn to like and, in some ways, even admire Jaime. How does George R. R. Martin do it?
It’s because he is a master of the technique we talked about last month – creating sympathetic characters in a culture that is decidedly unsympathetic. Martin has managed to create a plausible medieval-like society. But he goes far beyond the usual physical details of a swords-and-sorcery world and into the deep roots of the culture. The different rules he has built into Westeros shape the lives of his characters and make Jaime Lannister possible.
Incidentally, if you haven’t read the books – or seen the HBO series, which follows the books closely – you might want to stop reading. I intend to throw around spoilers with wild abandon.
The first difference is that life is cheap in Westeros. From the time Eddard Stark, one of the most sympathetic characters in the first book, lost his head, Martin became infamous for killing off likable characters, often in wholesale lots. But this isn’t just a bad habit on his part. It’s a realistic portrayal of the world he’s created.
Martin’s Westeros, like medieval Europe, is a place where solders in the winning army feel justified in raping and pillaging their way across the countryside because, hey, who’s going to stop them? So unless you lived in a walled city or were rich enough to hire a sellsword to protect yourself and your family, roving bandits or bands of soldiers – including the ones who were theoretically on your side – could simply show up and slaughter you and yours. Starvation was commonplace as well, both during sieges and during the years-long winter. And I’d guess that disease was also rampant, given the description of waste disposal in Fleabottom, the poor section of the capital city, King’s Landing.
Against this backdrop of short and brutal lives, the attempted murder of Bran, just one of Eddard Stark’s three sons (four, counting his bastard Jon Snow), is not that much of a tragedy. As the oft-repeated High Valyrian saying runs, valar morghulis. All men must die. [Read more…]