HBO’s Game of Thrones: Family, Honor, and Legacy in Westeros

June 23, 2014 Pop Culture, Science Fiction & Fantasy Comments (0) 1888

“Your father grew up in these same halls. We hunted together many times. He was a good man.”
– Lord Yohn Royce, to Sansa Stark

“Your father was an honorable man…what would he have done?”
– Stannis Baratheon, to Jon Snow


**SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t caught up on the HBO series through the end of Season Four, be forewarned. There are no book spoilers past “A Storm of Swords.”

One of the most interesting things about HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has been seeing the cultural rules of Westeros at play. Life in a feudal medieval society is core to the book series, which George R. R. Martin meant to present something more grounded in reality than his beloved Tolkein, but seeing actual humans act out the same scenes shines a brighter spotlight on the way the people of Westeros must live, and how they choose to act within the confines of their society.

Family and reputation play heavily in all the lives of highborn Westerosi, and we’ve seen that throughout the series. Tyrion’s live is saved by his family’s wealth and reputation in Season One, just as Brienne is saved by her family’s (fabricated) wealth in Season Three. Family names and heraldry often stand in for individual identity–a Lannister becomes “a lion” in conversation, or a Stark “a wolf.” Questions of parentage and family allegiance loom large in the series–including one question many viewers don’t yet know they should be asking [I’ll say no more about that here, however].

In Season Four, the role of family and lineage became particularly interesting as it begins to turn some assumptions on its head. Specifically, what is the end result of Eddard Stark’s commitment to honor above all?Ask most American viewers, and they’ll tell you Ned was stupid. He got himself killed, his family deposed and scattered and killed, and his ancestral home burned. His greatest family rival, the Boltons, have taken over as Wardens of the North after 6,000 years of Stark rule. Taken that way, Ned’s honor looks like the losing choice. But what we begin to see, as time passes and the Stark children interact with those in power in Westeros, is that honor may win out in the long run.

Remember that Westerosi dynasties go back multiple thousands of years*. Those 6,000 years that a Stark has ruled the North? There are no civilizations on Earth that even approach that. Our longest-lived civilizations, arguably either the Japanese Emporers or the Roman Empire, lasted 2,000 and 1,500 years at their most generous estimates, and both were ruled by multiple families and fractured forms of government. In Modern Earth terms, having a single family sit the throne of a society for 6,000 years would take them back before recorded history, before known rulers in Ancient Egypt.

* I will note here that, within the fictional world, the Maesters of Westeros question commonly accepted historical estimates. Six-thousand years may be a gross exaggeration.

When, in Season One, Tywin Lannister lectures Jaime about the importance of family and legacy, he isn’t kidding. Any single lifetime is a mere blip, but an individual’s conduct within that lifetime can have a ripple effect that last millennia. Remember that most major families can trace their heritage back to the “Age of Heroes,” and an ancestor who achieved superhuman feats.

So we see, as the Stark children come to have adult interactions with other Lords of the Realm, that Ned Stark’s sacrifice, while fatal, has won a powerful respect and allegiance for the Starks that most other families don’t enjoy. In Sansa’s case, it’s enough to inspire three Lords of the Vale to keep her identity a secret, at least so far–we’ll see how that plays out in future seasons. In Jon Snow’s case, it grants him a sort of authority over matters north of the Wall and at Castle Black.

Contrast that with the “allegiance” we see to the Lannister family. Despite their frequent lip service to the importance of family, the Lannisters are feared, not respected. That fear comes from their wealth, which we learn in Season Four is now mostly illusory, and from their reputation for ruthlessness, which wins them as many enemies as it does friends. One has to wonder whether the Tyrell family would feel as comfortable poisoning a member of the Stark family.  One might even argue that the Lannister legacy of pride and brutal retribution was one influence on Joffrey’s particular brand of rule.

When Cersei decides in the Season Four finale that she will go against her Grand Maester’s advice and try to resurrect Gregor Clegane, the reason why should be obvious. She knows her family has already lost its wealth, and it stands on the verge of losing a powerful symbol of its strength. Without wealth or strength, the Lannister name is not worth much, and Cersei will go to any length to salvage what she can. She does not yet know, of course, that her worst fears have come to fruition when the Iron Bank backed Stannis’s claim.

I would posit that even Jaime Lannister is affected by Ned’s death, as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau portrays him torn between the desire for a legacy and his baser urges. When he speaks Ned Stark’s name, it is with a sort of reverence, perhaps an admiration for the man who achieved a kind of consistency Jaime finds himself incapable of replicating.

The ultimate consequences of Ned Stark’s decisions remain to be seen, both on television and in the book series, but there’s no disputing that we are still seeing the ripples. While many fans and viewers will off-hand say that Ned’s stupidity damned his family, it may in fact be that he bestowed a strength that will outlast any of their lives.

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