Realpolitik and Dragons

by Henry Farrell on July 20, 2011 · 15 comments

in Frivolity

Alyssa Rosenberg claims that the themes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire map well onto modern-day international relations.

It turns out that, apart from the dragons and giant magical wolves, the Westeros of Martin’s novels is a familiar place: The challenges of international relations are pretty much the same whether you’re an American president or a feudal king; whether your national debt is due to the Chinese government or to a mystically powerful foreign bank that employs professional assassins; whether your unsavory trading partners are oil cartels or slavers; and whether your enemies are motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam or by a priestess who sees the future in sacrificial fires. The novels are framed by a very sophisticated and complex IR philosophy, which questions the efficacy of moral statecraft in a world scorched by dragons and stalked by zombies—and, worse, by truly evil men and women. George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire maps well onto current international relations.

I bow to no-one in my enthusiasm for ASOIAF (the first two volumes in the series delayed the production of my final dissertation by a couple of weeks back in the halcyon days of 2000). But one of the good things for me about the series (apart from the fact that they’re good, addictive reading), is precisely how good they are at capturing the differences of medieval international society from our own. An international system based on dynastic politics works in very different ways from one based on modern sovereign states – most obviously, family dynamics play a much more important role. And Martin never forgets that – family relations – both internal, and external shape the trajectory of the book.

Marriages are the most potent instrument for creating alliances, even if they don’t always work as they should (the most recent book mentions a feud between two families that has gone on for centuries, despite numerous intermarriages which have mingled their blood. Numerous suitors believe that the way to control Daenerys’ dragons is through winning her hand.

But more subtly, intra-familial relationships have profound international consequences. Jealousies between brothers lead to the sundering of realms. Theon Greyjoy – one of the more unpleasant characters in the earlier books – becomes more sympathetic as we realize that his erratic nastiness is in part the result of his having been stranded between two families. Fostered and adopted as a hostage by the Starks after his father’s failed rebellion, he finds himself unable to find a place in his old family, but unable fully to become a member of his new family either. And none of this begins to touch on the political consequences of bastardry, of adultery (which, when committed by the queen, becomes high treason) &c&c. Martin doesn’t force this down our throats – it emerges only as necessary to the plot. But it really does speak to the differences between the mediaeval world and our own (he’s less successful by far at portraying non-Western societies – but that’s a whole different set of questions).

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