The books are known for portraying an exceptionally violent rendition of life in the Middle Ages, to which many people ascribe the famous Hobbesian maxim, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” What may not be readily apparent to both readers and TV show viewers, is that there is strong evidence suggesting that Martin is in fact actually trying to convey a non-aggressive or pacifist message, more consistent with his own conscientious beliefs, than a cynical or Hobbesian perspective.
In creative writing, the gold standard is “show, don't tell.” Martin does this so well and so subtly, that many people are not even aware of the novel's pacifist themes. In fact, many readers assume the opposite. Both the novel and the TV show have often been criticized for being too violent. There is a good deal of rage, bloodshed, war, cruelty, death, tragedy, rape, incest, profanity and sex. On account of this fact, it's no wonder that some derive a cynical or “everyone is evil” mindset from the books and show. However, Martin has stated that he wants to make A Song of Ice and Fire realistic like the Middle Ages and real life. Some people tend to mistake this realism for proof of the novel's amorality, but it is not actually amoral.
Ironically, you don't often come to higher order understanding about non-aggression or ethics by refusing to address the fact that people are capable of aggressive and unethical acts, and that there are consequences to such actions. (Before you continue reading, please note that this essay contains mild book 1-3 spoilers, and Season 1-4 TV show spoilers.)
When asked about his novels, Martin states: “Like much fantasy, it's concerned with the battle of good versus evil, but where I think I differ from a lot of other fantasists is, in my view, the battle between good and evil is waged every day within the individual human heart.” In other words, the real evil in A Song of Ice and Fire isn't the Others or dragons, its in the hearts of so many in Westeros.
George R. R. Martin, Conscientious Objection, and Non-Aggression
Consider that the title of the 4th book in the Ice and Fire series, is A Feast for Crows. This overt reference to battlefield dead, is what the quest for the Iron Throne (a red-herring) has actually yielded; slaughter and chaos. The message here is pacifist. Aristocratic vendettas and war have ruined Westeros, decimating both the noble houses and the smallfolk alike. Catelyn Stark's point of view also frequently talks about how pointless war is.
During the War of the Five Kings, many people who submitted to their liege lord's authority by following their lord to war, are abused or slaughtered. This occurrence shows that a strong centralized authority is not sufficient to provide freedom and safety to the people; in fact, allegiance to a lord or king has actually brought about the opposite for many. Considering that Martin himself refused this kind of submission to authority, I think it safe to say that in addition to the human costs of war, two themes which the books also explore are the abuse of power, and the morality of dying in the name of a ruler.
Martin's views on violence may be similar to the conscious non-initiation position, also known as the non-aggression principle. It is a normative ethical position which condones self-defensive force, and simultaneously condemns the initiation of violence. Non-aggressionists generally believe that diplomatic problems should be solved without recourse to war.
Moral Choice, Mercy, and Honor
Jon Snow is a character who struggles to make the right choices, but he generally does the merciful thing. When the wildling band of raiders that he is with order him to kill a defenseless old man, he chooses to flee rather than do so. In refusing to murder an unarmed man, he shows a strong sense of morality and mercy. By refusing to follow unethical orders, he puts himself in danger by exposing his enduring allegiance to the Night's Watch. Jon seems to believe that true chivalry is about protecting the weak.
When Jon's father is killed, and his brother Robb Stark declares war on Iron Throne, Jon discusses the difficult choice that lies ahead with Master Aemon and Lord Commander Mormont. Jon has sworn an oath to the Night's Watch. He can either keep his oath, or leave to fight for his family. Mormont advocates the chivalric code of keeping oaths and following orders, as being the honorable choice. Master Aemon asks Jon what his father, Ned Stark, would have done. Jon says, “he would do what is right.” For Jon, honor is about doing the right thing in accordance with a merciful chivalric code of ethics, even when the right thing is hard to do.
Revenge, Causality, and the Externalization of Evil
Yet another theme Martin explores is causality, and the unintended consequences of various actions. Theon Grayjoy makes a series of poor choices, including attacking Winterfell, which land him in jeopardy. "I skinned two miller's boys because I didn't want to look weak,” Theon says. His desire to look tough in front of his men, leads him to commit atrocities, and puts him in a position where he is eventually captured and tortured by Ramsay Snow.
It has been said that the road to hell paved with good intentions. Daenerys Targaryan is yet another character with no scruples about using violence and war to get what she wants. Though she seems to have noble motives, and she overthrows slave masters in various free cities, she is also responsible for creating chaos and unrest in the vacuum that she leaves behind after burning the slave masters alive using her dragons.
That the struggle for the Iron Throne is a red herring, becomes explicitly clear from perspective of Mirri Maz Duur. Daenerys and the Dothraki have killed and raped her people for an iron chair. For Mirri Maz Duur, there is a huge causal and ethical disconnect inherent in these actions. Daenerys decides to burn Mirri at the stake, and the reader begins to wonder if Daenerys ' character is actually a hero or a villain. The means that she uses to achieve her goals simply do not justify the ends.
Finally, Martin explores the externalization of evil, via the threat of the Others or White Walkers. A zealot like Melissandre, who adheres to a polarized world view where fire represents the only good, is a perfect example of a character ironically loosing the internal battle for good within her own heart. In her quest to save the world from the external evil represented by the Great Other, Melissandre is actually causing evil herself by burning people at the stake.
The Endgame of A Song of Ice and Fire
Is evil, or the imbalance within the hearts of those in Westeros, ultimately what is causing the imbalance in the seasons? Is man's evil bringing on the long night? Is that why the center of the supposed external evil threat is called the Heart of Winter?
Such a conclusion is what I would like to see personally, but even if that doesn't happen, many ethical themes have already been sufficiently explored in the novels.
Martin has stated that lesser fantasy always presents clichéd versions of magic, the all-good hero, or the evil villain. Not magic, but character is what allows Martin to explore the following themes:
Are people innately good or innately evil? What constitutes good and what constitutes evil? Is war or aggression justified? What happens if our good intentions produce unintended consequences? Why do rulers abuse power? Does a strong centralized authority protect or abuse people? What is honor? What is moral choice? Do the ends justify the means?
Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like all good literature, compels us to address these important questions.
*Credit posters on the Forum of Ice and Fire with some of the ideas in this post.
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