A Song of Ice and Fire: On Honor
I am still working my way through the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, inspiration for HBO’s A Game of Thrones. According to my Kindle, I still have 14 hours and 23 minutes left, despite hacking away at it for roughly a month.
I am enjoying having the time to contemplate different themes in this set of works, however rather than whipping through shorter books and dashing off a quick blog post before moving on to the next. “A Song of Ice and Fire” gives me a chance to experience what I often long for — a hugely complex story full of vibrant characters that seems as though it will never end.
The series has often been compared to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but I would argue that it is actually more complex. J. R. R. Tolkien was a linguist, a world-builder. I would argue he was less interested in plot than he was the context of the world he created, though there are some who would disagree with me. George R. R. Martin, however, has built a world and then peopled it, creating fantastically complex characters who cannot be easily defined.
Out of those characters rise complex plots and twists and turns that, in my opinion, are far more interesting than Tolkien’s work. (For example, as much as I like Tolkien, his women all seem to be elves on pedestals, otherworldly beauties with wisdom far surpassing anything man can achieve. While this is sweet, I prefer Martin’s human women, with faults and fallacies and facets as complex as the male characters’.)
So. This complexity leads to one of Martin’s themes — what is “honor”? This question of honor comes up continually, whether regarding fathering illegitimate children, breaking vows of one sort or another, or murder.
In the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, Ser Arys Oakheart is torn with guilt about sleeping with a princess and breaking his vows of chastity–despite the fact that others have done so–but the fact that he has beaten up a little girl on the orders of his king gives him little shame. Jon Snow is not bothered by forswearing his oath to the Night’s Watch, insisting he “never turned his cloak.” Jaime Lannister is bothered by the fact that he murdered the king he was sworn to protect, but still believes it was the right thing to do. Ned Stark, in contrast, is continually derided as being a man with too much honor, though he apparently fathered an illegitimate son shortly after his wedding to Catelyn Tully and despite the fact that he forswore himself and pledged to be loyal to a family he knew killed the rightful king (two of them, actually).
In light of all of that, what does “honor” mean? It’s very hard to say, of course, but I think that’s Martin’s point. Cersei Lannister certainly doesn’t have honor; but what about her twin, Jaime? They share similarities, of course, in that they are both hiding the fact that Cersei’s children seated on the throne were actually fathered by Jaime, not Cersei’s late royal husband from which they gained their claims. Both make promises they don’t keep. But somehow, one gets the sense that Jaime is more honorable than Cersei.
The root, I think, lies in an idea of a contract. Jaime nearly killed a child. Why? For love of Cersei and their children, who would have been exposed. He killed a king. Why? Because he saw that king turn mad, killing Ned Stark’s father and brother in unspeakably cruel ways. He rescued Brienne of Tarth from a bear pit, at great risk to himself. Why? Because they had an agreement. He frees his brother from a prison. Why? Because he owes him something.
Not all of these decisions make sense unless you assume that Jaime has essentially entered into a contract with these people. In the case of Cersei, Jaime has pledged himself to his sister. He’s never touched another woman; he’s faithfully made decisions that have been in her best interest. He has no such contract with the child, who has to be sacrificed. One can argue that King Aerys broke the contract with Jamie when he grew insane. Once a king proves himself to no longer be worthy of protection, in other words, the contract between him and his guards is broken. Aerys did not hold up his end of the bargain. In contrast, Brienne and Jamie are linked by unified oaths; he had to return to her. In the case of Tyrion, one falls back on the Lannister saying: A Lannister pays his debts.
Each character falls back on his order own moral code in many ways. For Sandor Clegane, the only thing he feels guilt about (presumably) is killing Mycah, Arya Stark’s young friend. But when one assumes that Sandor Clegane is in the business of protecting children, it all makes sense. He killed Mycah in the service of then-Prince Joffrey, a child who later proved to be damaged beyond saving. His later actions with Sansa (protecting her a great deal) and Arya (protecting her, in his own way) show his true character. What Jon Snow says about the wildlings–that they have “their own sort of honor”–is ultimately true of Sandor as well, even though Sansa can’t see this and constantly insists that he is “no true knight.”
No one would argue, of course, that these characters are solely good. But Martin is making a bigger point than that, I think. That the nature of honor, and indeed, humanity, is far more complex than usually portrayed in stories.