Game of Thrones, the brain-child of George R. R. Martin, David Benioff, and D. B. Weiss became one of the most significant cultural sensations in the last 50 years, up there with Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter books, Dungeons & Dragons, Big Bang Theory, etc. It is amazing to me that a mere “fantasy” could be so well-written by Martin (what he titled A Song of Fire and Ice, and many spin-off books) and so well produced by Benioff and Weiss (and, essentially, adapted for the screen), and backed by HBO, that it holds such remarkable cultural sway. When I was playing D&D as a teenager, it was almost like a dirty little secret; I am sure that many “geeky” types feel that way about their obsession. However, let’s face it, Game was one of the most popular and well-regarded and most critically-acclaimed phenomena in American life. Yes, I’m sure that Will Rogers or Mark Twain or The Tonight Show or the Lord of the Rings Trilogy movies will perhaps be more vaunted and venerable names as time wears on, but for anyone alive today either knows of or loves Game of Thrones. This blog explores the idea that, amazingly, amongst the sex, violence, gore, and scheming, the 8-year series so brilliantly woven together by the trio I mentioned, wisdom in Game of Thrones reigns supreme.
“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.” ~ George R.R. Martin
Here I am at 4:15 a.m. writing about wisdom. I guess the old nerd in me — from back when I thought “playing a wizard” or “watching Captain Picard” were the very best things one could do with one’s time — has never abated.
Wisdom is my constant companion, but one that I do not cherish. That is, it has been my abiding interest/obsession/love for so many years now. When some people dig down they find God. Others, it is money and power. Love and marital commitment run deep in some. Still others have children and extremely fond relations with their parents.
Though I love my wife, I have a sneaking suspicion that wisdom alone will be with me on my deathbed. “Sooner or later, life makes a philosopher out of us all,” a wise person once said.
It was so for the Medieval figure Anicius Boethius. His story — how it relates to wisdom and to philosophy — is amazing, and can be read about here.
“A bruise is a lesson… and each lesson makes us better.” ~ George R.R. Martin
When pastors preach, they are attempting to impart wisdom to their flock. CEOs making momentous decisions and professing from their capitalistic thrones are attempting to divine the best route forward, the way of the future, the most powerful play, and that is wisdom. When parents instruct, punish, teach, and mold children, it is wisdom at the heart of the matter. The “ice ax” that Tolstoy referred to when he claimed that “A book must be an ice ax to break the frozen sea within” is, at bottom, wisdom.
When Martin/Benioff/Weiss have a character utter a line such as, “Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it”, you guessed it: wisdom in Game of Thrones is what they are imparting to the avid reader and obsessive fan.
For those of you who do not follow GOT, it won’t probably make much sense; I don’t follow Harry Potter, and so it just doesn’t “hit” when someone references something; one has to share the love of the lore in order to make that connection. For example, I’m very into Star Trek, but really only the series and movies that came out prior to, say, 2000. Nor am I a Star Wars fanatic. I also don’t obsessively follow a sports team am not a devotee of a religion, so those are out. So these other juggernauts might work for some, but I’m just not going to read a blog about Star Wars, personally. If you are still reading, you must find GOT — and specifically, wisdom in Game of Thrones — to be of some interest. Well-met, as they say; well-met (yes, that is Renaissance Faire lingo, thereby making me seem even weirder, perhaps!)
“Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.” ~ George R.R. Martin
Reality can be so dispiriting and enervating, can’t it!? If I think for one more minute about the coronavirus, or Trump, or Sanders/Biden, or national debt, or mainstream media, or billionaires, or my stock value, I might go insane. These guys (Martin, Benioff, Weiss) knew this well, and HBO believed in them, and thus the enterprise took off in ways that were probably once unimaginable. People long for myth, for stories, for something that reaches them deeply. It’s not just about escaping from reality, it’s also that there is something quite compelling about a great story. It has always been so. Think of Lord of the Rings, or the great success of organized religions such as Christianity or Islam.
There is wisdom in Game of Thrones; I feel it in my bones. It’s obvious to a very careful reader of the books, and watcher of the show.
Think of Tyrion Lannister; I just watched the last episode of the last season the other night. I was quite struck by a disheveled, humbled Tyrion. He was brought from dungeon, following Danerys’s death, by Grey Worm. He was almost broken by the isolation, the depravation. Yet, he stood tall (at 4′) and looked all those lords and ladies in the eyes and told them what was up. He suggested Brandon of House Stark as an elected executive; the King of the Six Kingdoms, specifically. They bought it, and he once again became Hand of the King.
Tyrion personified wisdom in that exchange. He pointed out that Bran has the story that is necessary to engage the hearts and minds of the people of Westeros. He has the vision; the sight. Brandon’s very being exudes wisdom: he sees, he knows, he observes, he understands.
“What is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.” ~ George R.R. Martin
But Tyrion was also humble. He knew he was not the person to be king; he didn’t feel he deserved it, let alone wanted it. He demurred; he declined; he deferred. Tyrion had the self-knowledge to admit that he made serious mistakes in judgment, and that people died because of it (think Vaerys; think the many people of King’s Landing). True to form, Tyrion felt he could not be a king or anything special, since he was so flawed. It reminds one a bit — just a bit — of Socrates and of Jesus.
The Three-Eyed Raven (as Brandon) accepted the position. He would lead the kingdoms to a better place. One of his first declarations is that Tyrion is ready, is suitable, is ideal for the position of Hand of the King. Then Grey Worm objects, and he holds great physical/military power. It was tense.
Grey Worm says justice is more important than anything; Tyrion betrayed his Queen and must die (or something). Grey Worm says something akin to “He must have justice done to him!”
Bran replies, calmly, matter-of-fact-ly, “That is exactly what was done to him.” (or something similar; I’m recounting this not quoting it exactly). The raven points out something along the lines of “Tyrion has made many mistakes and he will spend the rest of his life making up for them.” See, there is wisdom in Game of Thrones for sure.
“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” ~ George R.R. Martin
It is said that the only person suitable to hold great power is one who doesn’t long for it. Bran obviously fits the bill, but so does Tyrion.
Tywin Lanniser? No. Cersei Lannister? Negative! Robert Baratheon? Definitely not. These characters personify power more than wisdom. Yes, even though they can glimpse wisdom. To wit: recall the conversation between Tywin and Tommen; it was wisdom that a ruler should have above all, even though strength, courage, justice, and love are contenders.
Martin chose Bran the Broken to be ruler of the six kingdoms on purpose (I think he wrote Bran as the winner of the “game of thrones”, though I’m not sure, because I didn’t get all the way through the book A Song of Fire and Ice) (some of you probably just closed your browser!).
But whether you consider him Bran or “the Three-Eyed Raven”, what that person/entity possesses above all is wisdom. There is wisdom in Game of Thrones, and Martin did that on purpose. Kelly Russo on Quora put it succinctly: “I think Brandon Stark as the Three-Eyed Raven was the wisest character on Game of Thrones. He has the knowledge and wisdom of thousands of years.”
Wisdom is about seeing what is true, what is useful, what is right, what is helpful, what is good, what is strategic, what is noble, what is just.
“Some old wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word.” ~ George R.R. Martin
“My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer and I have my mind…and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge,” Martin wrote. He crafted Tyrion’s character to be a man who could see patterns, who could plan, who could adapt, who could out-think opponents. I think Martin, who is quite uncomely, if you will, sees in Tyrion a person he imbues with a great power: that of attempting to pursue wisdom. Like Socrates, perhaps the fact that Tyrion, eventually, realizes just how unwise he is (or feels he is), is an indication of his potential to grasp the highly nuanced idea of wisdom itself.
Martin wrote, “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things.” It is no surprise, then, that he paints tragic characters who are stronger than they are wise, such as Robert Baratheon or Cersei.
I quite enjoyed how Martin/Benioff/Weiss depicted various characters as claiming to have wisdom, such as Stannis Baratheon, but who, in the end, failed to succeed (they died, or they didn’t prove worthiest of all). Certainly, Vaerys got close. Danerys was overcome by rage, but sought wisdom in many ways. The Three-Eyed Raven personifies pure wisdom, if you will, and various characters were vying not only with each other, but with their very natures. With Tywin, or Baelysh, or Cercei, for example, you see wisdom as cunning, and they meet with death. Aemyn might have had the chops, but he didn’t have the other traits and opportunities that, say, Jon Snow did, so he couldn’t rise as far. In the end, Jon Snow being banished to the Wall was a beautiful tragedy that left many fans slapping their foreheads, for they were banking on Snow/Stark/Targyrian to ascend to the throne. That is not what Martin/Weiss/Benioff had in store for us. Many were dismayed at the outcome, not the least of which was the actress who played Danerys (Emelia Clarke); the actress, who loved her character for 9 years, was appalled of what became of her Danerys when the script was finally revealed to her.
“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’ ‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.” ~ George R.R. Martin
Many fans have had many ideas about whom the wisest character was, and of course, Aemyn, Samwell, Davos, and even Petyr Baelish. One can also see wisdom in many of the characters, from Jon Snow, of course, to Danerys, to the female knight, I forget her name. Clearly, Lord Mormont exemplified wisdom, as did perhaps the character nearest and dearest to my heart, Eddard Stark.
Bottom line, there is wisdom in Game of Thrones, I swear on my honor. Perhaps as much or more so than great epics such as The Iliad, Lord of the Rings, or (and you’ll now see the atheist in me), even the Old Testament or the Baghavad Gita.
Put George R. R. Martin (and to some degree, Weiss and Benioff) in the category of Sophocles, Plato, and Homer, if you ask me. He might be a bit heavy on themes of sex, violence, and lust for power, but he beautifully ties values and virtues into his writing, and it clearly touched the hearts and engaged the minds of millions of viewers who have no background in fantasy per se. As I am a sucker for the idea of wisdom, the fact that it figures so prominently in GOT, and that GOT has been so incredibly well-watched, are wonderful; truly a marvel of the art of storytelling. Ω
“A craven can be as brave as any man, when there is nothing to fear. And we all do our duty, when there is no cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose.” ~ George R.R. Martin
Here is a link to the Quora page that I found helpful in asking myself what evidence there was for wisdom in Game of Thrones.