Game of Thrones: a song of revenge and redemption

Game of Thrones
BagoGames/flickr, CC BY 2.0

‘Valar Morghulis’. This greeting, that can be heard through the streets of Braavos, is High Valyrian for ‘all men must die’ and is commonly responded to with ‘Valar Dohaeris’ (‘all men must serve’). Death and service seem to underpin the long-running HBO series Game of Thrones. Criticised for its gratuitous violence and ahistorical fantasising of a medieval past, it has also been appropriated by politicians eager to show their credentials as doyens of popular culture as they whimsically use the politics of GRR Martin’s world to reflect upon their own political machinations. And yet the finale of this hit show divided fans, who took to Twitter to express their consternation as their favoured character was either killed, exiled, or left to restlessly travel across the seas while Sansa Stark governed the North, Bran the Broken and Tyrion Lannister rebuilt the other six kingdoms under a new political order, and Jon Snow found himself back keeping watch on the Wall.

Yet valar morghulis echoes memento mori (‘remember death’), a trope that dates back to antiquity and continued to have currency through to the Victorian period. Paintings such as Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) by Pieter Claesz have at their centre a skull and objects that depict the brevity of life. At the time Claesz was painting, this type of artwork was popular, particularly when the memento mori was combined with the vanities of life. Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas (‘vanity of vanities, and all is vanity’) comes from biblical teachings about the futility of earthly pleasures: the vanitas painting would marry the memento mori with worldly possessions such as books, musical instruments and wine to remind us of the vanity, futility and ultimate worthlessness of worldly possessions. In Claesz’s painting, the wick of the oil lamp is about to burn out and the empty wine glass has toppled. The text that is written in the book is open to conjecture, but the inference is that life’s short narrative could be found within the dusty cover. We are presented with the end of worldly enjoyments and reminded that death awaits us all. Arya Stark might have vanquished the Night King who is described as the face of death itself in Game of Thrones, but this is not the end of death in the series; there are another three episodes after the long night in which the living overcame the dead and in these episodes more characters are imaginatively, gruesomely, and implausibly killed. Remember death as all men must die.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) by Pieter Claesz. Met Museum cc0 1.0.

The bleak message of Game of Thrones thus seems to be that violence pays, yet, if we consider the series from the context of the vanitas tradition, a more complex message may be presented to its viewers. From the late sixteenth to the early seventeenth century, London theatre goers were titivated by gruesome revenge tragedies. In these plays, a failure of justice and morally questionable governance leads the protagonist(s) to desire revenge and take the law into their own hands. The tragedies would end in elaborate and implausible bloodbaths where all the corrupt characters were killed. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, first performed in 1606 and now attributed to Thomas Middleton, the memento mori serves not only a memory of death and for the need to live a good life in preparation for death and the afterlife, but also as a weapon of death: Vindice, the key revenging protagonist, carries the skull of Gloriana (his betrothed) around with him as he plots the death of the Duke who had poisoned Gloriana when she refused to sleep with him. Many members of the Duke’s family are sexually corrupt and plot against each other in an attempt to seize power. In disguise, Vindice gains the confidence of this morally moribund ruling family and is asked to procure a concubine for the Duke. Seizing the opportunity, he attaches Gloriana’s skull to a dress and puts poison on the mouth, which the Duke ingests when he kisses the skull. Vindice and his fellow revengers then bring about the deaths of all the other corrupt characters. Gleeful at his success, Vindice confesses to the new Duke, Antonio. Instead of rewarding the revengers, Antonio sentences them to death. In the bleak world of revenge tragedy, revenge does not reap rewards.

The statesman, essayist and natural philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) referred to revenge as a ‘kind of wild justice’. In seeking revenge, the revenger has taken the law into their own hands; a justice of sorts has been served, but it is one that goes against the law and therefore should not go unpunished. Vindice accepts this judgement: he acknowledges that he has been revenged and stoically recognises it is time to die. In revenge tragedy, as in Game of Thrones, violence has a price. At the end of series seven, a secret is revealed that most readers and watchers of the saga had already guessed: Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark and this makes him the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. As Tyrion Lannister observes when the secret is told to him, Robert Baratheon destroyed the house of Targaryen and took the Iron Throne in revenge as he loved Lyanna and could not accept that she did not love him. What then follows is an unsteady reign as various people seek power or seek revenge. This is eventually ended when Daenerys Targaryen raises King’s Landing to the ground and slaughters its inhabitants to show Cersei Lannister that there are limits to her mercy. This marks a turning point where Daenerys no longer frees the enslaved and fights for justice and instead is a seeker of revenge. She transforms into a tyrant and Jon then becomes her reluctant assassin. Whereas Robert Baratheon’s love for Lyanna Stark led him to revenge, Jon tempers his love for Daenerys to prevent more slaughter. In anger at the death of his mother, the dragon Drogon then smelts the Iron Throne while Jon holds Daenerys’ lifeless body. Valar morghulis and valar dohaeris converge in this tragic image as nephew prevents aunt from ruling as a tyrant and vanquishes someone who desired to hold power purely for the sake of holding power. In this death, an entire political order is thus obliterated as the power structure had that underpinned it had become consumed by violence and revenge.

The cycle of violence, revenge and taking the throne by force established by the saga would point to Jon then assuming his role as rightful King of Westeros by right of inheritance and by might of the sword, but instead he is returned to the Wall. In killing Daenerys and breaking the cycle, Jon has also relinquished any claim he might have to the throne. Jon returns to the life he had before the outbreak of civil war and Bran the Broken is elected as king of the six kingdoms while his home kingdom of the North remains independent from his rule. Bran, with Tyrion as his Hand, is presented as the ideal sovereign because he does not want to rule. In Plato’s Republic, strife is identified as happening as a consequence of cities being governed by people who do not know what is for the civic good and by the desire of others who seek earthly vanities and political power. Philosophers are identified as the ideal rulers because they are wise and do not want to rule. In Bran, we therefore have the philosopher-king who abjures power for power’s sake and instead acts for the civic good. Yet Jon also does not want the throne, and, in spite of his love for Daenerys, he murdered her for the good of her subjects. His reluctance to be king and willingness to act against his personal desires implies that he too would make a wise and just king, but taking the law into his own hands means he has entered into the cycle of revenge. Conversely, at various points in the final series, the surviving Stark siblings each magnanimously forgive their oppressors and stoically observe they would not be the people they are if it was not for the violence they had experienced. Arya, who spent much of the saga plotting revenge and training to be an assassin, kills on the battlefield but is prevented from carrying out her ultimate plan to assassinate Cersei, and is warned by Sandor Clegane to not be consumed by revenge. Ultimately, for all its violent content, Game of Thrones seems to ask its characters to reject violence and value the capacity for forgiveness. Under the rule of Bran, who was paralysed in the first series, the suggestion is that the future for the continent of Westeros will be more inclusive and less violent than its past. Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.

Interested in studying English Literature and Cultural History? Take a look at our 5 reasons to study English Literature feature.


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