Game of Thrones: ‘Machiavelli meets magic’.

Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat born in 1469. He is most famous for authoring The Prince which was published in 1532. From The Prince, the term ‘Machiavellian’ comes: a strategic term that requires one to separate morals from politics. The Prince is an instructional text on how to perpetuate power, although there are several interpretations which will be explored in this essay. Game of Thrones is a HBO television show described as ‘Machiavelli meets magic’ (MacNeil, 2015, p34); it is based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel series: A Song of Ice and Fire. In Westeros five noble families are at war; across the sea the daughter of a usurped dynasty raises armies and dragons; all whilst an eight hundred foot tall wall protects the land from approaching dark forces (http://www.hbo.com/game-of-thrones, 2017). I aim to outline what The Prince teaches and identify how Machiavelli’s ideas manifest in Game of Thrones. I will refer to and expand on the works of Isaiah Berlin, Marcus Schulzke and William MacNeal and try to establish how not only Game of Thrones’ characters are Machiavellian but how the show itself is.

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The man himself: Niccolo Machiavelli

          Interpretations of The Prince are diverse and are many. It is also renowned for its ‘terse, dry, clear prose’ (Berlin, 1971, I). One would assume a correlation between clear writing and unambiguity but this is not the case regarding The Prince. This transgression only strengthens the link between the text and and the show because there are as diverse a number of Machiavellian characters in Game of Thrones as there are readings of The Prince. Reasons for chasing the throne include: honour, duty, personal gain and the good of the realm. Each player applies different aspects of The Prince to achieve their goals; aspects that would be used by theorists to substantiate their interpretation. Bennedeto Croce sees Machiavelli as an ‘anguished humanist’ who ‘wrings his hands over a world in which political ends can only be achieved by means that are morally evil’ (Berlin, 1971, I); like Daenerys anguishes: she must, against her morals, open the fighting pits (a gladiator arena where men fight to the death) (Game of Thrones, S05E09, The Dance of Dragons) and consistently hold court to keep the peace. Cassirer, Renaudet, Olschki, and Hancock read Machiavelli as cold, technical and neutral: ‘an objective analyst of politics [and] a morally neutral scientist’ (Berlin, 1971, I). This profile resembles Lord Varys who, when asked by Ned Stark who he truly serves, replies: ‘The realm, my lord. Someone must’ (Game of Thrones, S01E08, The Pointy End) and of himself states: ‘Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling’, a truly Machiavellian analogy.  Finally, for Herder, Machiavelli first and foremost understood his time and was willing to speak truths that others would not. He was an ‘inexhaustible mine of acute contemporary observation’ who understood men’s make-up and reasoning and was able to put aside religion in order to establish a centralised principle of reason and politics (Berlin, 1971, I). Tyrion Lannister’s intelligence is renowned in Game of Thrones and he frequently offers Machiavellian advice to others, e.g. to his sister: ‘You might find it difficult to rule over millions who want you dead’ (Game of Thrones, S02E02, The Night Lands); this echoes Machiavelli’s advise: ‘a prince can never make himself secure when the people are his enemy’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p35).

          According to Machiavelli: ‘all principalities are either hereditary, in which instance the family of the prince has ruled for generations, or they are new’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p7). At the beginning of Game of Thrones the longstanding Targaryen dynasty has been usurped by Robert Baratheon. A fitting starting point for a television series as, for Machiavelli, it is the new principality that is the more difficult to maintain; thus, a more dramatic point in time. ‘It is sufficient simply to not break ancient customs’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p7) in order to maintain an inherited principality; unless, as with the Targaryen’s, the prince’s ‘unusual vices’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p8) lead to him becoming hated. Aerys II, the Mad King, was obsessed with fire and blood (Game of Thrones, S06E06, Blood of My Blood). ‘But it is in the new principality that difficulties arise’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p8). In this case enemies are inevitably made of those who supported the previous regime; and of friends who helped obtain the principality who begin to call in favours (Machiavelli, 2005, p8-9). When Robert takes the throne, enemies are made in the surviving Targaryens who begin to form an army across the sea; and in friends such as House Lannister who plot to take control from within.

          Two of the key components of The Prince are Virtue and Fortune: these, in Machiavellian terms, equate to skill and luck. Machiavelli directly correlates lack of difficulty in maintaining a principality with increased Virtue (Machiavelli, 2005, p21). Although Fortune is necessary: for the best rulers it manifests only as opportunity which is then shaped by their Virtue. Machiavellian Virtue is easily confused with virtue (the quality of being honourable), which is only an example of Virtue when it is productive. We can explore this through the actions of Ned Stark. MacNeil states that it is ‘no wonder Lord Eddard loses his head… one would be very surprised indeed if he kept it’ (MacNeil, 2015, p42). Ned was an effective prince in his home of Winterfell due to both Virtue and virtuousness. Virtuousness, however, became his downfall and no longer an example of Virtue when he allowed Cersei Lannister the opportunity to flee rather than execute her upon discovering her secret. Regardless of the moral caliber of his actions, when they jeopardised his life they ceased to show Virtue. Had he executed her, he would have ceased to be virtuous but would have continued to show Virtue (Game of Thrones: S01e09: Baelor).

neds head
virtue isn’t Virtue

          The Machiavellian lion is fierce to scare away the wolves but he gets caught in traps, the fox recognises and avoids the traps (Machiavelli, 2005, p60). Regarding this, Machiavelli cites trainer of Greek heroes such as Achilles: the centaur, Chiron. Chiron was half man half beast so it can be assumed that they were sent to learn to utilise the qualities of both. Robert Baratheon was a lion: a fearless warrior. Peyter Baelish is a fox: forever pulling strings from the shadows. The key to Machiavellian success is to know when to act as a lion and when to act like a fox, fluidly utilising aspects of both as and when necessary. Jon Snow is a successful example. In order to infiltrate the enemy he murders an ally, thus gaining their trust. His prowess in combat makes him a lion but his ability for deception makes him a fox (Game of Thrones, S02E10, Valar Morghulis) and he does not let personal emotions affect his actions. He must be neither good nor bad yet able to act either when necessary (Machiavelli, 2005, p53).

          Should a prince be loved or feared? Both would be ideal but since this is difficult the latter is safer. In this case, Danerys Targaryen and Tywin Lannister are especially Machiavellian. Tywin is, as Machiavelli would advise, disinterested in all but maintaining his family’s rule. He tells his son: ‘The house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its sons and daughters first. A good man does everything in his power to better his family’s position, regardless of his own selfish desires’ (Game of Thrones, S03E10, Mhysa).  A prince must also ‘make himself feared in such a way that he will avoid hatred’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p58). Tywin manages this incredibly well for he is rarely spoken ill of and certainly never spoken ill to. The people know that his tactical mind will keep them safe and the nobles know not to ire him. Daenerys on the other hand rules with compassion, abolishing slavery and holding court with her people. Yet she is able to show extreme cruelty in circumstances in which it is beneficial. She invokes fear by setting her dragons on those who mock her (Game of Thrones, S03E04, And Now His Watch is Ended).

          Although successful characters in Game of Thrones emulate The Prince almost to the letter there are some divergences. This is especially the case with Daenerys who is, in many ways, an example of a Machiavellian ruler although some chapters of The Prince suggest that her actions would lead to failure. Machiavelli states that to maintain a new principality one must dispose of its original rulers and must not alter its laws and customs; if a ruler is to make changes then it is advised that they live within the principality (Machiavelli, 2005, p10). Daenerys does, in fairness, delay her plans to invade Westeros in order to live in newly conquered Meeren, thus acting in accordance with Machiavelli. Allowing her to oversee any troubles that arise. Although, abolishing slavery, the backbone of Meereen’s infrastructure would invoke a much larger response than she receives in the show. Following on from this, she relies on Fortune to defeat the cult-like Sons of the Harpy. When they are clearly about to kill Daenerys and her allies her estranged dragon appears and kills all of the attackers. According to Machiavelli, a good prince would not allow a situation for which Fortune was necessary to prevail to arise; he gives the example of Philopoemen, Prince of the Achaeans who constantly questioned his troops and analysed every situation so that ‘no unforeseen incident could arise… for which he did not have the remedy’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p52).  Characters in Game of Thrones do not always act in accordance with Machiavelli but when they fail to, they usually die. Daenerys is the anomaly as she manages to deviate from his rules more so than anyone else and survive.

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Good timing, Drogon

          Possibly the most famous and most Machiavellian scene in Game of Thrones is The Red Wedding (Game of Thrones, S03E09, The Rains of Castemere) in which, on behalf of the Lannister’s, House Frey and House Bolton murder King Robb Stark and his allies. Tywin Lannister managed to dispose of his enemies in one brutal sweep whilst remaining in the shadows. Of seizing power through wickedness Machiavelli speaks of Agathocles the Sicilian, a potters son who became King of Syracuse and Oliveratto of Fermo who’s actions were similar to those carried out at The Red Wedding. Agathocles arranged a ‘discussion’ between his enemies and himself then gave the signal for his troops to murder them all, thus ruling the city unopposed (Machiavelli, 2005, p31). Considering the orchestration of such a wickedness as The Red Wedding, one can ask the same question of the Lannisters that Machiavelli asks of Agathocles: ‘How after so many betrayals and cruelties, [they] could live for such a long time… without being plotted against by their own citizens?’. According to Machiavelli the key is that the cruelty was ‘well used’(Machiavelli, 2005, p33). ‘Those cruelties that are well used are carried out in a single stroke, done out of necessity to protect oneself, and then are not continued’. So, the Machiavellian success of The Red Wedding lies in the gathering of Robb, his closest advisors, his mother, his pregnant wife and in executing them simultaneously. Machiavelli explains that one should commit all cruelties at once so the effect is less felt (Machiavelli, 2005, p31).

          Due to the Machiavellian tendencies of those vying for the throne: death is constant and unceremonious in Game of Thrones when compared to other television shows. This attitude was subsequently incorporated into the marketing campaigns for the show. Taglines for seasons have included: ‘You Win or You Die’ and ‘Valar Morghulis’ (all men must die). Although, from day one Game of Thrones incorporated Machiavellian situations into its marketing as can be seen in the trailer for the first season: in which Peyter Baelish coldly advises King Robert to slay the child Daenerys (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=522l0YE9hRQ). Interestingly, season two’s trailer dubs the season one footage of Ned being executed with audio taken from when he executes a deserter; giving the effect that he has sentenced himself to death. This contributes to the idea that Ned got himself killed by refusing to act dishonourably i.e. his failure to act Machiavellianly.

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Baelish has definitely read The Prince

          Through The Prince we can analyse why people not only win but lose the Game of Thrones. For example, Viserys Targaryen acquires an army of Dothraki savages by trading his sister’s hand in marriage with their Khal (chief). In doing so he becomes reliant on them. Those who acquire power in this way do so with ease but maintain it with great difficulty and rely on: ‘the will and the Fortune of him who granted them the state’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p24). In Game of Thrones, Viserys’ sense of entitlement causes him to anger Khal Drogo to the point where he is executed (Game of Thrones, S01E06, A Golden Crown).  Robert Baratheon on the other hand manages to successfully steal the Iron Throne but fails to maintain it. His temper leads him to become isolated from honourable men who will not tolerate his tantrums: e.g. Ned Stark leaves him surrounded only by those who abide him for personal gain such as his wife and Peytr Baelish, both of whom desire the Iron Throne. As Ned has no desire for the throne, he will happily retreat back to the North taking his objective counsel with him. The young King Joffrey also fails as a Machiavellian ruler by engaging in fetishistic violence and cruelty. As Robert’s son he should have little trouble maintaining his inherited principality. Had he simply maintained ancient customs and restrained his ‘unusual vices’ (Machiavelli, 2005, p7-8) he would have avoided assassination. It seems that those who fail to abide by Machiavellian standards, in Game of Thrones, tend to end up dead.

          Death has ceased to be surprising in Game of Thrones and is now expected. The massacre of The Red Wedding became an internet meme: a cartoonish joke that displays the desensitisation of its fanbase. This flippancy towards horrendous violence is the essence of Machiavellian writing. Whilst Machiavelli might not find it funny he never discusses murder, lies and betrayal with the hesitance or attitude that one might expect.

          In the age of the internet Game of Thrones’ rabid fans consume drip-fed information about the next season. To consider Game of Thrones itself as a Machiavellian prince would be to acknowledge its status as king amongst TV shows. It must, with its content, be a lion and use its ten million dollars per episode budget (Forbes, 2016) to display massive production value; to tell interesting stories and to maintain its core audience. After the episode and between seasons, though, it must be a fox. Viral marketing campaigns, teasers, memes and engagement with its massive online community allow it to control its fans, keep itself trending and maintain its power between each season.

          On television in the USA there are two Machiavellian narratives running parallel; one is on HBO and features kings and dragons, the other is on the news and features a contemporary prince. He is president of the United States of America. Machiavelli said ‘a wise ruler… should not keep his word when such an observance would not to be to his advantage (Machiavelli, 2005, p60). ‘Fake News’ and ‘Alternative Facts’ are rife, endorsed by politicians and those on the left and the right, they can also be called lies. Machiavelli would have a lot to say about both narratives. The Prince’s teachings are apparent in current affairs and in popular culture and whilst in reality those who fail to heed its teachings might not die, they are never as successful as those who do. The predominant readings of The Prince are that of a guide and that of a warning, regarding contemporary politics Game of Thrones could also be either of these.

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Bibliography

  • Machiavelli, N (2005). The Prince. Oxford: Oxford University Press. MacNeil
  • MacNeil, W. (2015). Machiavellian fantasy and the game of laws. Critical Quarterly. 57 (1), 34-48.
  • Schulzke (2012). Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli in Game of Thrones and Philosophy. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Videography

  • Game of Thrones Season 1-6. (2017). [DVD] USA: Benioff, D& Weiss, D.B.

Webography

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