Described as the ‘cult IR series of 2011’, the second season of HBO’s medieval fantasy epic Game of Thrones is now in full swing. GoT, adapted from George R.R Martin’s series of novels, depicts the conflict-riven fictional worlds of Westeros and Essos where power-hungry rivals manoeuvre for control of the Iron Throne set against a gritty backdrop of feudalism and magic.
Time’s James Poniewozick says, “Thrones is a complex narrative with a simple theme: power — scheming for it, keeping it and suffering from it or the lack of it”.
In addition to being influenced by fantasy writers like Tolkien, Martin loosely based his narrative on the Wars of the Roses and other bloody dynastic struggles for power but does it have any relevance to contemporary international politics? Or is ‘the Sopranos in Middle-Earth’ just pure entertainment?
The IR blogosphere was quick to apply an IR lens to GoT’s power dynamics and murky morals.
Drezner sees season one’s protagonist, Ned Stark, as a casualty of ruthless realpolitik. Ned may be honourable and brave but he is a guileless politician. This proves to be a fatal combination in a Hobbesian universe which produces zero-sum outcomes as Cersei Lannister (one of the female leads) bluntly affirms, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”.
Power in GoT doesn’t necessarily equate to physical strength on the battlefield. To succeed and survive requires a Machiavellian streak and a Carr-like fixation on power best exemplified by the dwarf Tyrion Lannister (season 2’s antihero). Tyrion is well-versed in political intrigue which exponentially increases his chances of outlasting the competition and he pragmatically states, “I’m not Ned Stark, I understand the way this game is played.”
Although realists will find plenty to agree with in terms of GoT’s ‘might is right’ power politics, the powerful are frequently disempowered through shifting alliances and changing fortunes. And often when power is wielded, it can reside in unexpected places for a medieval setting, with women, children, ‘cripples’, ‘bastards’ and eunuchs all important players (not just kings and warriors).
Carpenter takes a nuanced stance encompassing cultural norms, gender relations and even environmental disaster in rejecting a realist reading of GoT. She regards Martin’s use of multiple points-of-view as a humanising technique, which lends readers/viewers insight into the perspectives of characters in different social strata:
According to Carpenter, GoT is, “a parable about the consequences of unchecked realpolitik, it does not celebrate power and the powerful but challenges and interrogates them. Society is complex, roles and identities are varied and contingent, and division risks disaster”.
Martin’s own view of power is maybe symbolised by the game’s ultimate prize, the Iron Throne, which is made of wrought sword blades. It is literally a double-edged seat of authority that both empowers and endangers its incumbent.
Does anyone else watch GoT? Can it be properly debated in terms of IR theory? Or is this just a case of academics over-theorising in order to hop on the pop-culture bandwagon?