George R.R. Martin’s Warning against Wars of Succession
(and an Argument for Democracy?)
By S.E. Barcus
October 27, 2022
Streaming Fantasy Smackdown
I’ll be honest. When House of the Dragon and the LotR prequel, Rings of Power, went head-to-head, I was WAY more excited about Rings of Power. I loved the three LotR films, loved the books, had never been such a nerd as to have read The Silmarillion, but had enough nerd friends that I couldn’t wait to watch a big-budget version of all the old myths, from Morgoth on down. And GoT, while it was amazing when it ran with Martin’s novels, dropped off fairly precipitously at the end, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
Well – turns out Rings of Power hath screwed the pooch, and Dragon won the Battle of the Streamers. Amazon’s creators just never learned the ‘George Lucas rule’ – no matter what else you do, have some action about every 10-15 minutes. Amazon let their showrunners circlejerk along with all the old Silmarillion nerds, who all just wanted to bathe in the glory of Tolkien myths and characters without demanding enough background or dramatic action. Dragon can be experienced and enjoyed by anyone, those who saw GoT and also those who did not. It is riveting from the opening episode and throughout the entire season. Rings is for 50-and-up hardcore J.R.R. Tolkien nerds, a pretty small fan base comprised of maybe just Stephen Colbert. Thus, Dragon is easily the victor of the Fantasy Smackdown (as much as Martin doesn’t like such storylines, as described by Variety).
Human, All Too Fallibly Human
But more than delivering a fun ride, House of the Dragon surprised me with having a great message for our time, intended or not.
Where the original Game of Thrones(GoT) took from bits all over European history, from the War of the Roses to the Italian Renaissance to the Mongol raiders and so on, Dragon steals from the historical events within one monarchy – and manages to spin an amazingly complex and riveting story while doing so.
George Martin has said the plot stems from the real medieval events of “The Anarchy”, as wonderfully analyzed by critic Gillian Brockell for the Washington Post. But I’ll bet you Martin was not as emotionally attached to this particular moment in history as he was excited that it gave him fodder for his main thesis. I’m betting this particular moment in history inspired him, and fellow Producers Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, because it serves as empirical evidence that concisely captures the fallibility of inheritance as a method of transferring power, or succession.
(I do wonder how much Martin really contributed besides the story idea. He has no writing credits for any of the shows. Man, that guy is living the life! But do you know who DOES have writing, and directing, credits? Several friggin’ WOMEN! — Including Clare Kilner, Geeta Vasant Patel, Charmaine DeGraté, Sara Hess, and Eileen Shim. This, along with the better publicized inclusion of people of color in prominent roles, shows a production team obviously dedicated to diversity and inclusion, which is very, very cool. And any bro-boy racist criticism of this philosophy is now officially refuted by how awesome the season was.)
Art Imitates Life, Still Today
Similar to GoT, Dragon has part of its critical focus on Autocracy. It shows time and again that Autocrats more often than not make poor decisions, with poor outcomes for the masses of ‘their’ people (it’s just one, fallible human being’s decisions and whims that people are forced to suffer through during that Autocrat’s entire lifetime, right or wrong), and they are also easily manipulated (see the King’s Hand, Otto’s, positioning of his daughter, Alicent, in front of the widower-King) and invariably corruptible (‘absolute power corrupts,” etc…). And this still happens despite this season having arguably the most well-meaning King that Westeros could probably ever have, with Viserys. Therefore, hence, ergo, etc, — people should not put up with such forms of government in today’s Enlightened world. (From the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”) (And Viva Ukraine/Slava Ukraini.)
But with Dragon, there is the added focus and critique of how power is transferred – here, namely by inheritance. All of the ways in which inheritance as a mode of transferring power is fallible and stupid are dramatically captured, with all of the inevitable messiness due to human nature, in terms of the variability of who we love and when we love and with how many we love and who we reproduce or don’t reproduce with and on and on. Inheritance is shown to have a proclivity to produce confusing and thus often-contested successions, which often throughout history has led to our species’ greatest evils, murder and war. The point is made so well in this series that it makes a powerful case that it is not only a fallible system, but also very dangerous, and therefore, again, very stupid as a system of transference of power — if people put up with it. (Sorry, Charlie, I love your environmental activism, but the Monarchy still has to go.)
General Secretary Xi, of the PRC, for example, has no ‘heir’ or plans for a successor. What happens if he dies suddenly of a heart attack? Goodness help us, what a dangerous mess that could be. Putin, also, has no named successor, and the oligarchs who would fight like dogs to take the job are, mostly, equally scary.
I was initially missing the cool older intro of GoT, that flew us all over the world to the various kingdoms. The new intro initially seemed much less interesting, with blood running through Viserys’ model of old Valyria. But as I have come to realize that this series is a treatise criticizing blood inheritance — and the blood that can run through the violent streets when one accepts such a stupid form of succession — the intro becomes so poetically appropriate in this light, with blood streaming out of and into the various family sigils, that now I quite enjoy it.
Have you been watching the show, and been confused by all of the nuances as to who has a claim on succession, and why? Have you said to yourself, “wait – why do they have the claim, again? How are they related to King Viserys again?” Good – that’s the WHOLE point. You should be confused, and each claim should be valid, because that’s exactly how and why such a system is fallible and leads to wars. Need a “simple” chart? In a ‘picture is worth 1000 words’ kind of way, this Vox media file nicely captures how ridiculous and complex an inheritance can be, as demonstrated in this series.
So…. Yeah. …. Great series so far. And subversive for the People! This season — with its underlying message of how pathetic and dangerous short-sighted, ego-driven modes of succession are — has already infiltrated tens of millions of minds, and likely emotionally/subconsciously persuaded them toward the benefits and intelligence of Constitutional democracies, if they were not ‘woke’ to that fact, already. It therefore does far more good moving us all toward an Enlightened humanity than any essay out of Foreign Affairs could ever dream to do. And it does it all while being cool and beautiful and intense. House of the Dragon is a nice example of the subversive “soft power” of Art and Culture at its finest. … Your move, Wolf Warrior 3. Try to have a plot and characters that are not laughably unrealistic, this time.
House of the Dragon dramatizes the foolishness and dangers of caveman Autocracy and poorly thought out means of power-succession, taken straight from real events in human history. As Santayana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”