Breaking the Wheel: Games of Thrones and the American Zeitgeist
The selection below is taken from my article "Breaking the Wheel: Game of Thrones and the American Zeitgeist," which is included in a collection of writing about the series titled Power and Subversion in Game of Thrones, soon to be published by McFarland Books. I don't do much academic writing anymore, but this project was intriguing because the editor gave me license to write in a style that is more akin to magazine writing. This selection explores the anarchic culture of the Wildlings in Game of Thrones.
The symbolism is not subtle.
Drogon, the last living dragon, lumbers up through the ruins of the Iron Keep, and upon seeing his dead mother in Jon Snow’s arms, unleashes fire on The Iron Throne. Literally forged from swords, the Iron Throne is the most visible symbol of the game, the ultimate prize. Drogon incinerates it and then flies off with Dany’s body (S8,E6).
On one level, the lesson is quite poignant and clear. The Iron Throne is a symbol of political ambition run amok. The quest for it killed Dany. Drogon literally illuminates this fact in dragon fire. But bathed in the afterglow of Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the Syrian Civil War, the throne takes on wider significance. It represents the state itself and everything embodied by it—hierarchy, bureaucracy, patriarchy, inequality, the monopoly on violence—all of the things under fire at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Drogon’s protest (and I think it is safe to call it that) is aimed at the very idea of the state. He is the weapon of mass destruction in revolt against the system of power that would use him to incinerate cities. If I were to put a contemporary political label on his protest, I would call it anarchist.
The “A” word is hanging in the background of Game of Thrones, quietly animating everything. For one thing, the hierarchical power structure in Westeros exemplifies everything anarchists hate about the state. Anarchism takes many forms, but most anarchists espouse a radical concept of human freedom and depict the state as a coercive force that restricts freedom and organizes society in a fundamentally unequal way. These are the facts on the ground in Westeros. “Almost everywhere in Westeros is governed badly,” Totten observes, “not just by modern standards but by its own.” The violent and chaos-inducing “game” is partly to blame for the bad governance, but the highly stratified, unequal social order is also a culprit. Dany’s wheel analogy is so apt because it accurately depicts the plight of the common people regardless of who sits on the throne. In its brokenness, inequality, and freewheeling violence, Westeros conforms to the anarchist’s grim portrait of the state.
The word “anarchy” is derived from the ancient Greek word “anarchia,” meaning without a ruler (Marshall x) and for many centuries, it was used as an unambiguously negative term to describe the condition of chaos and disorder that often follows the collapse of a political dynasty. There is plenty of this kind of anarchy in Westeros, but anarchy in a modern political context has another, more positive connotation. Modern-day anarchists tend to believe that the best society must be a stateless one. Russian geographer, political activist, and writer Peter Kropotkin says it best when he defines anarchism as:
The name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government—harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being. (284)
Anarchism never shows up as a serious political philosophy in discourse that revolves around traditional political parties and partisan politics, but it is nevertheless one of the animating political forces in American history, often expressing itself in popular movements on the left. At the end of the 19th Century, anarchists were key members of the coalition driving the labor movement, affiliating with socialists, communists, and labor organizers. Hundreds of American anarchists fought alongside the leftists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Anarchist ideas drove the counterculture in the 1960s and brought thousands of demonstrators to anti-globalization actions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. More recently, anarchists were early organizers of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, where they conducted experiments with alternative forms of direct democracy. Anarchists are keen to demonstrate that they can live outside of the confines of state control, living in small collectives and communities and participating in direct action protests.
While showing the negative side of anarchy, Game of Thrones also highlights positive alternatives to the state. The showrunners and writers clearly possessed a sophisticated palette for political philosophy that shows up in the political texture of Westeros and its environs. The state-centered politics of King’s Landing—with its institutionalized religion of the Seven modeled on Catholicism—is but one political reality among several. Priscilla Walton has correctly observed that the fictional universe of Game of Thrones is a mashup of political ideologies and governmentalities, part medieval because the novels were inspired by England’s War of the Roses, but also mixing in other influences (she argues that the “raison d'état” of 16th and 17th century European monarchies is the basis for the monarchical rule of Westeros, rather than the theocratically sanctioned rule of medieval monarchy). There are city states governed by oligarchies, a nomadic tribal society akin to the Mongols, and the animistic people North of the Wall. Additionally, there are elements of democratic rule in the Night’s Watch, where leaders are chosen by vote (Walton).
But the state in Westeros is tenuous. For one thing, the ring of state control appears to fray the further North one travels in the realm. In the North, the political ethos is older, more tribal, with an ancient animistic religion to go along with it (the pagan counterpoint to the Seven). The north is an honor-shame society, far less cosmopolitan, and therefore far more difficult to control from afar.
The Wall marks the official Northern boundary of the realm, and beyond it, all of the old hierarchies dissolve. There, the Wildlings live a hardscrabble existence in small bands, stateless and also more democratic than any other system of governance south of the Wall. “We don’t kneel for anyone beyond the wall,” Mance Rayder proclaims to Jon Snow upon their first meeting. Politically, Wildings are the shadow version of Westeros, the “free folk” against the “kneelers” who respect abstract rituals of obedience to authority.
Some scholars have complained that the Wildings are depicted as lacking attributes of Western Civilization. John Wilkinson writes, “the journalistic and political discourse on 'failed states' (and there are plenty in Westeros) [are] marked as exactly the negation of Western civilization” throughout the series (qtd. in Walton). Wilkinson wants us to consider that the Wildings and the Dothraki are depicted as uncivilized when compared negatively to the norms of Western Civilization, but this is an overly simplistic critique, I think. In Game of Thrones, brutality reigns on both sides of The Wall. Civilization is less a moral distinction than a matter of fashion and custom (ladies in silk dresses that Ygritte mocks when she is teasing Jon Snow).
What if you shift the lens through which you view the idea of civilization? Insert the new lens—an anarchist one—and a different picture emerges. Writing in Time in 2012, Tony Karon aptly compares the Wildlings to 17th Century pirates who had slipped both the moorings and mores of European civilization:
Wildling culture, as depicted in Game of Thrones, shares some features of Caribbean pirate culture in the late 17th century, when deserters from the colonial navies of the time made common cause with freed slaves, indigenous people and others who had no stake in heeding the laws of Europe’s distant crowns, and instead struck out for themselves—creating on-ship and onshore communities that transgressed many of the conventions on race, class, gender and property that prevailed in European societies at the time. (Karon)
The article (amusingly titled “Where the Wildlings Are: In Game of Thrones, the Anarchists Have More Fun”) suggests that the Wildings are less a threat for their raids across the border than for their unwillingness to bend the knee. They flaunt the rules and norms of the Westerosi. They choose their own leaders (Karon). They live successfully, and quite happily, without the state. They call themselves the “free folk,” which is a claim few South of the Wall can credibly make. David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist and key organizer of the Occupy Movement who studied stateless societies in Madagascar, once defined anarchism as simply “living as if you are free.” This seems to be the Wilding credo as well.
Game of Thrones teases other alternatives to the state. The Brotherhood Without Banners, for example, functions as a kind of mutual aid society fighting for the poor and defending the common folk against the violence and deprivations of the various houses. The Brotherhood reflects the essence of anti-state politics. Like Robin Hood, or Zorro, or the hackers from Anonymous who volunteered to help Arab Spring protestors organize online, they live in the spaces created by the failure of the state to control everything. The “realm” in Westeros, for all of its sound and fury, is a failure, and the “game” an elaborate farce that pretends at the act of governing.