Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No Justice in Westeros

It's cool how Game of Thrones is anti-chivalry propaganda, and people like talking about that, but T.H. White's The Once and Future King was anti-chivalry propaganda a million years ago, so I don't think that's the coolest part of GoT.

The coolest part of Game of Thrones is that Martin thinks through the consequences of living in a society without a rule of law. Fantasy writers screw that up all the time. They either give their setting a robust rule of law (a legitimate choice, but one that often sticks out weirdly from the rest of the setting), or they don't follow through on the whole "these people are barbarians" thing.

By "rule of law" I mean the understanding most of us modern people have that laws come from, well, laws (fixed rules written down somewhere) rather than directly from our rulers. We know that ultimately law comes from the threat of force, but we place buffers and cushions between our leaders and the application of their power, because the alternative is tyranny or anarchy. (You can usually spot political lunatics because they try to strip away the barriers of intermediation: they try to give everyone guns and banish fiat currency, for example. They want to get rid of the barriers and let power flow directly, and most people instinctively recoil from that.)

Westeros is a setting without as many layers of intermediation as our own world, and the buffers between the people who wield raw power and the people who suffer it are vanishing one by one. Westeros hasn't had the rule of law since Joffrey offed Ned Stark. Or since Jaime Lannister killed the Mad King. Or since Robert Baratheon fought a rebellion against the Targaryens. Or since Aegon the Conqueror showed up and decided that since he had dragons, he deserved a kingdom...

...Okay, Westeros has basically never recognized "law" as most people today understand the concept. It's all people wielding power directly. That's why the rift between the Starks and the Karstarks was so disastrous to Robb's hopes of winning the Iron Throne, and while it's easy to dismiss the Northerners as a bunch of pseudo-Scottish barbaric clansmen, the South is no better: North or South, power is just a bunch of rich families.

George RR Martin, unlike most fantasy authors, actually follows through on the promise of his setting, like a hard science-fiction author. He doesn't even use magic as the primary source of disintermediation. Obviously people who wield magic make it hard to have a rule of law (what do zoning ordinances matter to someone who can conjure castles and demons from thin air?), but Martin uses that trick sparingly. Instead he just shows the consequences of his setting's assumptions, without chickening out. Martin doesn't have a suspiciously modern senate moderating the excesses of kings; he doesn't have a bunch of barbarians re-create the United Federation of Planets; he doesn't even give you the solace of a modern-thinking viewpoint character looking smugly down on the savages (Tyrion may be ethical, but his ethics are purely interpersonal; he's no Seneca). People credit Martin's unflinching look at the cruelty of Westeros as his story's most interesting feature, but Martin's greatest strength is his meticulous exploration of a world with one key difference: not the magic, not the seasons, but the lack of law.

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