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So there is this book by the 16th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called ‘Leviathan’. As one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory, Leviathan is at its most basic level an attempt at answering the grand old sociopolitical question; “What holds society together?” What holds people together? Why aren’t we all killing each other right now?
Now in the book, Hobbes, having lived through a bunch of civil wars himself, asserts that humankind’s ‘state of nature’ is one of all-out war, of every man for themselves. All against all. He posits that while small communities can function, larger societies cannot exist peacefully unless mankind relinquishes a degree of control or self-governance to a Leviathan. In mythology, a Leviathan (Hebrew for ‘whale’), is a large sea monster or dragon, a demon often associated with envy. But in this metaphor it’s any sovereign power which promises security from the chaos of all-out war in exchange for submission to its will. Hobbes characterizes the Leviathan as the ‘killer of the children of pride.’ And the children of pride are all of the other smaller factions who think they can be leviathans by establish control themselves, and consequently end up killing one another and creating all out chaos in the process. Of course Hobbes does not consider the children of pride an anomaly, but an inevitability of mankind’s natural desire for power. Essentially the leviathan is a big fish in a small pond that makes all the other fish stop fighting, and though that sounds like a big bully, once that big fish is gone everyone starts killing each other, trying to take its place. It’s like a big game of King of the Castle…. with sea monsters.
And we can actually look at society and history and see this premise play out time and time again. Take Iraq, a nation of multiple ethnic and religious groups who’s borders were drawn according to foreign economic and colonial interests, and consequently didn’t have a strong Iraqi national identity. The brutal dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein was essentially a leviathan for that country, enforcing peace and building a nation through totalitarian control. And look what happened when someone went and killed the Leviathan; we got the chaos every faction for themselves, killing each other for dominance as a result of conflicting interests. The Assad Government of Syria is another obvious Leviathan, where we have a horrible dictator holding together a volatile situation. Assad is the leviathan, and ISIS are the children of pride. Now of course I am paraphrasing here, but at its core Leviathan is an argument for absolute power to the monarch, and an undivided government to save mankind from itself. The leviathan is the absolute monarch and the children of pride are the reason to have one.
Now why am I bringing up Leviathan? Why am I asking what keeps society together? Because when it’s all said and done, I think that is what A Song of Ice and Fire is all about.
Why We Need Monsters
Let’s apply this concept to our story. Westeros has a 7 kingdom feudal system where oaths of fealty are sworn to lords who swear fealty to high lords who swear fealty to kings. The King really owns all of the land in Westeros, and the highest lords or ‘wardens’ govern their regions in the King’s stead, because Westeros is too big for the King to govern on his own(and because even that is such a huge responsibility, Westeros even has a ‘Hand of the King’ so that the monarch can appoint a more capable individual to govern or help govern). And because those regions are too big for the wardens to really govern, that process is repeated downwards. These allegiances are unstable because they are from one individual to another, and oaths must be sworn over again when a lord or king dies and is replaced, hence the pressure placed that there be succession and legitimate heirs. Hence why bastards are largely considered to be so unwanted. Not only are bastards particularly difficult to verify the paternity of, but if bastards could inherit ahead of trueborn children, then that would undermine all marriage alliances, taking away not only what little power and prestige wives have, but also the capacity for fathers to use women as currency on the marriage market. Now one could argue that bastards are hated for religious or moral reasons, but I think it’s more likely that the religious stigma against bastards actually derives from how problematic they can be in upholding society. See without a legitimate heir from a legitimate marriage, feudal society collapses under pressure of itself, as there is no way to determine who governs, and thus civil war potentially breaks out among those who have the will and power to rise up and take control, or as Hobbes would put it, ‘the children of pride’.
“So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.” – (Jaime, ACOK)
Furthermore, the pressure on upholding these oaths is so immense because a single breaking can have a huge ripple effect. For instance, if the Starks of Winterfell break their oath to the crown, or if the crown breaks it’s oath to the Warden of the North (because oaths work both ways), then the Northern Houses sworn to the Lord of Winterfell have a conflict. They must either break their vow to their liege lord, or they must break their oath to the king who supposedly owns everything (because they are sworn to the crown too). Now in the North allegiance usually falls to the Starks, but it’s not so simple everywhere, and these decisions often come down to self interest. No one wants to be on the losing side, and refusing to take a side is often not an option.
We also have to keep in mind that Westeros is a continent not only of seven separate Kingdoms, but of multiple cultures and ethnic groups which all have to be held together. Notice how the King’s title has to remind us that he is ‘King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.’ The First Men trace their history differently from the Andals (though hardly anyone is truly fully Andal or First Men, people tend to affiliate with one or the other) while the people in Dorne are largely influenced by the Rhoynar (their part Rhoynish ancestry from the migration of princess Nymeria is the reason why the Dornish have equality in succession between men and women, and thus less of a stigma against bastards). Religiously we have practitioners of the Faith of the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, and now R’hllor. Culturally the Ironborn are outright antagonistic of the customs of the rest of the Kingdoms, which themselves each have customs which are distinct from one another. Meanwhile the former Targaryen monarchy was actually very recent in Westeros and brought their own foreign secular customs from Valyria which resulted in friction with the faith of the seven, which you now see making a political resurgence. And then you have the Free Folk (technically outside of the Seven Kingdoms), who’s refusal to be governed has caused them to develop their own separate customs from their neighbors, which also vary from clan to clan.
So the people of Westeros cannot be said to identify by a common religion, ethnicity, culture, or even necessarily a shared history. There is just no unifying idea. In the Seven Kingdoms people tend to identify by their smaller geographical region, and there certainly isn’t actually a concept of a Westerosi national identity. Westeros is just too big. Notice how no one in our story identifies as “Westerosi.” One major reason for this is because power in Westeros’ is very stratified. Feudalism places too many layers of separation between the smallfolk and the Iron Throne, and thus common people do not feel represented by the monarchy, and by extension feel distance from the idea of a unified nation which that monarch is supposed to represent.
Because 1 is the bigger number
So. Because it is very very very important. Same question. What holds the realm together? What inspires loyalty and upholds order? What stops people from killing each other? This question has been posed by characters throughout the series. In fact it is so important that it has been central to multiple key scenes written specifically for the show:
- Littlefinger challenges Varys’ loyalty to the preservation of the realm with a perspective of social Darwinism.
“Chaos is not a pit. Chaos is a ladder!” – (Littlefinger, S3E06)
- King Robert expresses to Queen Cersei his disillusionment with the lack of purpose and unity between the kingdoms.
“Now we’ve got as many armies as there are men with gold in their purse, and everybody wants something different: your father wants to own the world. Ned Stark wants to run away and bury his head in the snow …..We haven’t had a real fight in nine years. Back-stabbing doesn’t prepare you for a fight. And that’s all the realm is now: back-stabbing and scheming and arse-licking and money-rubbing. Sometimes I don’t know what holds it together.” – (Robert Baratheon, S1E05)
- Cersei tries to sell the High Sparrow on the importance of partnership between the crown and the faith.
“The Faith and the Crown are the two pillars that hold up this world.” – (Cersei Lannister, S5E03)
- Tywin Lannister explains to Cersei the monumental importance of economic alliances, gold, and the ultimate supremacy of the Iron Bank.
“One stone crumbles and another takes its place and the temple holds its form for a thousand years or more. And that’s what the Iron Bank is, a temple. We all live in its shadow and almost none of us know it. You can’t run from them, you can’t cheat them, you can’t sway them with excuses. If you owe them money and you don’t want to crumble yourself, you pay it back.” – (Tywin Lannister, S4E05)
- The High Sparrow challenges Olenna Tyrell‘s belief in the necessity of stratification of power and privilege.
“Have you ever sown a field, Lady Olenna? Have you ever reaped a grain? Has anyone in House Tyrell? A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few, we are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few….” – (The High Sparrow, S5E07)
- Tyrion talks about the importance of alliances with wealthy nobility when he meets Daenerys in Meereen.
“Here in Slaver’s Bay you had the support of the common people and only the common people. What was that like, ruling without the rich?” – (Tyrion Lannister, S5E08)
- Mance Rayder describes how the many clans of the free folk were united out of an urgent sense of self preservation.
“Do you know what it takes to unite ninety clans, half of whom want to massacre the other half for one insult or another? They speak seven different languages in my army. The Thenns hate the Hornfoots. The Hornfoots hate the ice-river clans. Everyone hates the cave people. So, you know how I got moon-worshippers and cannibals and giants to march together in the same army?… I told them we were all going to die if we don’t get south. Because that’s the truth. ” – (Mance Rayder, S3E02)
And those are just scenes that were written in specifically for the show. The question of what brings people together and holds a society together, is ever present behind the events of our story, and in fact it’s so significant, that when the show runners (who have to communicate the overall story in a far more condensed form) are given an opportunity to write conversations which are not presented in the books, they make a point to address this question directly.
What is it that really keeps the realm together? Is it bloodlines? Was it dragons? Or loyalty to the Targaryen name? Is it honor? Borders? Duty? Gold? Family? Friendship? Common purpose? Religion? Power? Belief? Lies? Robert and Cersei’s Marriage? It’s a terrible question to ask, and it can have even more terrible answers. I mean it’s the terror of knowing what this world is about. And at the core of everything is an exploration of this question. Different characters all have their answers and many live and die by those answers while kings and lords and priests lead armies to kill and be killed for them. Martin has famously quoted Faulkner in stating that “The human heart in conflict with itself, is the only thing worth writing about,” and just as this theme plays out for each individual character in our story, it also plays out among society as a whole. Westeros is fighting to keep itself together, and thus the heart of humanity is in conflict with itself over this question.
And if you’d ask this question to say… Brynden Rivers, I think he’d tell you the answer to the question is fear. Fear of the Leviathan. Fear of an absolute sovereign power to save mankind from themselves. And I am here to tell you that this paradigm applied in world, is the general basis for the events of the current story as a whole. That A Song of Ice and Fire is a story of the last greenseer’s last chance at keeping the realm together, no matter what the cost. And the cost is the events of our story. The pressure it puts on our characters as they unknowingly dance to the song of ice and fire. Under pressure, that burns a building down. Splits a family in two. Puts people on the streets.
In part 2 we’ll talk about Bloodraven. Who is he and how does he mean to save the world from itself?