What is Queen Rhaenyra's tax policy?
We need to see the strong and slow boring of hard boards in Westeros
Quick programming note — Wednesday’s post is going to come later than it normally does so I have time to figure out what actually happened in the election. But I am going to use Substack’s shiny new chat feature to kibbitz with subscribers this evening as we see results rolling in. To participate you are going to need to download the Substack iOS app. If you’re an Android person then I apologize, but it’s an iOS-only feature for now and Substack doesn’t tell me what their product roadmap is. But I imagine if chats prove to be popular they’ll crank on creating an Android version.
It’s Election Day, and I’m not sure how much there is to say about politics that’s meaningful at this particular moment in time.
I would encourage everyone to participate in the democratic process and vote, and I do especially want to urge people (perhaps too late) to try to actually learn something about your local candidates for office. Political parties are crucial to structuring democratic politics, but it doesn’t work well to have tons of independently elected state and local officeholders if people are in reality just going to reflexively vote based on how they feel about the president.
Today, though, I want to talk not about Democrats and Republicans, but about the Greens and the Blacks.
I refer, of course, to the HBO series House of the Dragon, a kind of Game of Thrones prequel that wrapped up recently. The show has its good qualities and its bad qualities, but one particular quality really bothers me: the show has been denuded of politics to the greatest extent possible, given that it is at its root a story about the origins of a continent-wide civil war. I’m a dedicated listener of a recap podcast by Mallory Rubin and Joanna Robinson, and for their final episode they interviewed executive producer Greg Yaitanes. His big point was that it was important to them to make the show about character, not just spectacle, which I think is what all highbrow genre writers are supposed to say.
But I think they took this way too far and made the war that begins in the last episode of the season too much about the characters and their interpersonal dynamics and not enough about the political dynamics in Westeros and the burdens of leadership. And in doing so, I think they betrayed a lot of what is most interesting about the world George R.R. Martin has created.
George R.R. Martin’s mission statement for fantasy
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Martin offered his classic critique of Tolkien and Lord of the Rings abstracting away from questions about government and governance:
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
The Song of Ice and Fire saga is not obsessed with tax policy minutia, but it does take these questions seriously. Part of the original backstory to Game of Thrones is that Tywin Lannister did, in fact, have the Targaryen children murdered in order to shore up Robert Baratheon’s claim to the throne after his successful rebellion.
Ned Stark, the initial protagonist of the story, was a key leader in Robert’s Rebellion, but clearly disapproves of Tywin’s act of cruelty at the end of the war.
Yet for Ned, the choice is purely hypothetical. He can tell himself he would have acted differently from Tywin, but the fact is Tywin acted so that Ned didn’t have to. Ned now gets to hold the moral high ground without bearing the potentially destabilizing consequences of leaving the children alive. That’s how Ned gets to be set up as an archetypical fantasy saga hero.
Except it turns out that’s not what Ned is in the world of Game of Thrones. Ned Stark is a good father and a man of honor and even of some wisdom, but promoted to serve as Hand of the King, he proves to be bad at his job. He stumbles and is defeated because he chooses honor over ruthlessness. And though he pays the price, the price is not limited to him personally — the whole realm is plunged into chaos and war and untold suffering. Later his son Robb, while participating in the civil war that Ned’s bumbling touches off, breaks a vow to marry a key vassal’s daughter in favor of an affair of the heart paired with a sense that duty and honor compel him to marry this other woman. To our modern sensibilities, Robb seems like the good guy here. But his betrayal is not only a fateful choice that sets off further betrayals and his downfall, but it really is a profound breach of the Westerosi social contract.
To us, of course, arranged marriages seem absurd, even abhorrent. But they are critical to binding this fictional quasi-feudal realm together. Without credible marriage pacts and fostered relationships, it’s not possible to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, in Essos, another putative hero rises: Daenerys Targaryen, who seems to have a lot of good ideas (slavery is bad, etc.) but who really struggles with the practical aspects of how to lead and manage a social revolution.
House of the Dragon loads the dice
House of the Dragon is based on portions of a weird book called “Fire and Blood.” Unlike Game of Thrones and its sequels, it’s not a conventional novel. Instead it’s written in the style of a non-fiction history book, as a work of synthesis drawing on several different sources. As such, it doesn’t have a ton of character work and dramatic scene-setting, meaning that though the adaptation pulls its plot beats from Fire and Blood, it’s necessarily filling in a lot of blanks.