Important Note to Readers: This article contains potentially ruinous SPOILERS about “Game of Thrones” Season 3, Episode 9, “The Rains of Castamere.” If you are waiting to see the episode somehow unsullied by the knowledge of what transpires, please turn away now. Otherwise: Abandon every hope, who enter here.
“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” –Tennessee Williams
“Oh [there is], plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” –Franz Kafka
On the first Sunday in June, the fans of HBO’s popular “Game of Thrones” witnessed the abomination of desolation generally referred to as the Red Wedding. For those who saw the massacre coming, the entire episode weighed as heavily and cruelly as any lingering hope with which the Old Gods may have mocked Cassandra in the last days of her ambitious warrior-king Agamemnon. For those who did not, well, there are various articles about their jilted and horrified reactions.
The first thing that people reach for, in the throes of sudden tragedy, is a reason for madness. Why do good things happen to bad people? Why are hope and good intentions so often thwarted? Why is the world so broken? What is the point or value of divine invocation if such godless cruelty prevails? Is this feeling in our hearts, as we watch the Great Cause of a Free North bleed out on the floors of degenerates, the actual murder of some kind of idea greater than the men who embodied it?
As it happens, George R.R. Martin—author of the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series on which HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is more or less faithfully based—answered the “why” of the Red Wedding himself. Like a gruesome reanimation of Cervantes’s deconstruction of chivalry, Martin purposefully sets out to mock and disabuse the idealism of his audience with the compelling guile of Lucy extinguishing the hope of Charlie Brown. And like Don Quixote before him, the original sin of Robb Stark—and his fans—is that he sincerely and cartoonishly believes the world to be other than it is. After all, the Red Wedding is, in fact, based on real atrocities committed by real people who, depending on your view, were never properly held accountable in life for their sins against God and man.
But Martin explains his motives well enough on his own in an exclusive interview with James Hibberd of Inside TV:
“People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.”
To that last bit, the Red Priestess Melisandre would add that shadow is a servant of light, and so the darkness, too, may gratify the Lord of Light, just as the trials and suffering of good men on Earth may be thought to gratify the God of Abraham. But this conversation is not, at its core, about theodicy. It is about life, in spite and because of the motives or amusements of whatever transcendent forces may exist.
Make no mistake, I hate that Robb Stark dies defeated and that wickedly self-serving characters like the Lannisters and Boltons are left in triumph to carve up a ruined world. But whether your faith is in the God of C.S. Lewis or Arya Stark, we know that we live in an unjust world where good ideas may die as easily as good men. No matter how glorious and placating the trappings of civilization, values, and good intentions may seem, we can never become so complacent as to believe that men like Ned or Robb Stark always, or even usually, win the day. Nor can we forget that some of our greatest heroes in the previous century fought just causes to virtuous ends by smearing innocent blood on their hands, the ghosts of which echo from Dresden to Nagasaki.
The ultimate promise of free, republican society is that we may build more perfect unions of secured liberty, fair laws, meritocratic prosperity, and enduring peace. To this end, it is wonderful to know that we in the civilized world maintain societies where, notwithstanding threats of terrorism, bloody events like the Red Wedding or Black Dinner are no longer imaginable (except, perhaps, wherever the lords of black markets still seek whom they may devour). But underneath it all, man is no different a creature now than a thousand years ago, and the cruel indifference of a vast universe remains the frontier into which we spin for as long as we are given.
So in the end, there will always be pain and pragmatism, atrocities and heartache, and the twin devils of cruelty and cunning will always pay their due to those industrious and fortunate enough to profit on the failings and misfortunes of others. It may not be a given any longer that our peculiar games of thrones will end in death, but there are other ways to destroy lives and break spirits in the 21st Century than to drive a sword through a heart and twist.
If there is nothing else to learn from the Red Wedding, remember this: no matter how hard you work, how noble your intentions, or how faithful your supporters, everything can still be taken from you in any instant for any reason. Though on a lighter note, we may take some solace in the corollary truth that the wicked are no more secure in their iniquity than the noble in their virtue. According to Rousseau, the intuitive knowledge of this reality once made the Ottoman Turks exceptionally gracious, whereas the ignorance of it left European gentry singularly incapable of imagining life beyond stations they learned too late were fleeting.
What it would mean for us as a society to earnestly believe any noble protagonists may readily be perspicacious Churchills or ill-fated Starks is a question too complex for me here to pretend I know an answer. Perhaps the seeds of this perspective are already present enough, as in the haunting lines with which the Hound attempted to reassure Arya Stark that she would soon reunite with her family:
“You’re almost there, and you’re afraid you won’t make it. The closer you get the worse the fear gets.”
The fear is always worst when we cannot make an end of the reasons we wrap our hearts in cold hands to numb the pain of loss. So much for our happy endings.