First, a warning: to paraphrase the author, “spoilers are coming.” George R.R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, known more widely as Game of Thrones, has captivated global audiences and earned scores of plaudits. The books have been New York Times No. 1 best sellers, and the television series has won dozens of Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. A strong reason for the success of the show is the continual (and often brutally violent) power struggle among competing factions. Intrigue, treachery, violence, and, of course, dragons, dominate the storylines. If it were just that, a traditional fantasy epic, Game of Thrones would be an entertaining yarn; however, it is much more, and the more is what continues to bring us into its world.
On its surface, a medieval society containing magic and dragons seems to bear little resemblance to our own, but once you scratch the surface, the human elements in Game of Thrones start to appear and we can see greater similarities and parallels to our own world — oftentimes much more so than we would like to admit. The universe of Ice and Fire is governed by an elaborate set of rules and laws, formal and informal, which brings us to this article. As a fan of the series, I love the drama and intrigue, but as an academic, I found myself wondering about and examining the legal structures in place that govern this highly complex fictional world.
Some of the rules and policies in Game of Thrones jump out and demand your attention, such as a wall across the northern border to keep out “the others” and brutally efficient criminal procedure such as the immediate execution of deserters. Other laws and policies are more traditional and subtly displayed, such as the laws of succession to the throne, and the determination of rulers. The more you read and watch Game of Thrones, the more you realize that you are reading about what makes our society tick. Fundamental questions about the treatment of criminals, the free movement of individuals, life in a warring nation, the right to self-determination, gender equality and many more arise and are dealt with in the background of the ever-present quest for power.
When I first conceived the idea of an article on the legal structures in Game of Thrones, I quickly realized that every narrative in the series — war, revenge, love, conquest, espionage — focused ultimately on power. Who wielded it? How was it wielded? Who desired it? Who was strong enough to take it or keep it? At its roots then, Game of Thrones is an epic in which the actions of the participants are often functions of the varied systems of governance. Among the many forms of governance in the series is a traditional monarchy in Westeros, democratically elected leaders in the north along the wall and north of it, plutocrats controlling city-states across the Narrow Sea, and a power-based meritocracy in the Dothraki Sea.
The appeal of a monarchy in medieval times is apparent. The monarch, in exchange for grants of land and title, maintains a feudal system whereby the loyalty of its subordinates is essentially purchased (and the self-interest of the lords perpetuates the monarch’s power). The feudal system provides a predictable leadership structure, and it also allows the monarch to raise an army quickly by tapping the lords for their resources without the associated cost of maintaining a standing army. Additionally, the rules governing the transition of power are clearly defined with no chance for election mishaps.
Although the rules of Westeros’ monarchy are clear, it appears that it too is headed toward a monarchical crisis of a different type. Assuming the rule of Queen Cersei will not last (which seems fair given the average tenure of past rulers), there are two contenders for the Iron Throne. Daenerys Targaryen bases her claim to the throne on the belief that she is the only surviving child of the “Mad King,” Aerys II Targaryen, the last Targaryen king prior to the conquest of King Robert Baratheon. Unbeknownst to her (and to readers of the books, since only the HBO series has progressed this far), Jon Snow is in fact the son of Daenerys’ elder brother Rhaegar Targaryen. If Jon was born in wedlock, as the books and television show have alluded to, he would be the rightful Targaryen heir, not Daenerys. However, for now, Daenerys has dragons and Jon does not. Perhaps her claim to the throne should prevail based on conquest rather than bloodline, a fact that Jon is in no position to contest.
In modern times, in our society, we have witnessed a long-term trend away from monarchy toward democratic self-governance. From the Magna Carta on, the decline of the monarchical state has been apparent. In the Game of Thrones, however, monarchy appears to be the evolved state of affairs. Democratic forms of government exist, and those societies are well aware of them, but there appears to be no momentum to widely adopt those principles — by either those in power or without. The two most obvious democratic societies on the isle of Westeros are the Free Folk north of the wall and the Night’s Watch, guardians of the wall.
Perhaps what is most interesting is that Martin has posited two of the “lowest” societies in terms of socio-economic status as the standard bearers for democracy. Perhaps the suggestion is that only those societies not concerned with the succession of wealth would allow themselves to be controlled through democratic rule. Where there is the accumulation of wealth, there comes the concern of how to maintain and protect it. In Westeros, wealth has invited attention in the form of conquerors who seek to claim it for themselves as ruler. Whereas with the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk, power exists for organizational purposes since assets are few. Removing wealth from the equation removed the single largest incentive for a potential conqueror. Why expend resources and lives on being the victor if there are no spoils? At least in Westeros, the absence of wealth has allowed for the establishment of democracy, but without any other significant shock to the system, it does not appear likely to spread.
Behind every twist and turn in the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire, we see how power, or the pursuit of it, determines the actions of the characters in Game of Thrones. The legal systems provide the rules for the game, but the game itself takes place on the battlefield, in the halls of court, through espionage and assassination, or through the use of dragons and magic. At the end of the day, though, the goal is the same — to sit the Iron Throne and wield the power of the Seven Kingdoms. Ultimately, this is where the rule of law comes in. Even in a world such as theirs, knowledge of the rules of the game is necessary to survive and prevail at the end. Knowledge of the rules allows for individuals to plan their attacks, knowing how the rule of succession works, and for others to defend against those attacks by divining the identity of their foes based on who is likely to gain. At the end of it, Game of Thrones is so engaging because it represents so much of who we are. Rules and laws dominate our lives, and there are always those who seek power and wealth through any means.
—By David P. Weber, Professor of Law