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Three Trials of Jon and Daenerys: Justice or Revenge?

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Hey Westeros.org! In this essay I compare the ways in which Jon and Dany deal with dilemmas regarding justice, particularly the ones that involve execution. You may have seen it before on reddit or youtube but I thought why not share it here too. I know this community is more focused on the books than others so I'm also really interested in your thoughts. I don't know how else to analyze the story to the detail that I like to analyze it without having us all rereading important passages from it together, so because of that it is longer than what might be considered normal. Estimated read time is 28 minutes. Okay that's enough intro...see you on the other side!

Dany is smart as a whip like Tyrion. If you pose her a problem where there are only two options, she will think of a third. However, Dany struggles to tell the difference between justice and revenge, and that's echoed in the story of Aerys, the father she doesn't want to be like.

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The truth is, I wanted to watch you for a time before pledging you my sword. To make certain that you were not . . ."

". . . my father's daughter?" If she was not her father's daughter, who was she? (ASOS Daenerys VI)

Each of the main characters is struggling with identity. They need to figure out who they are, where they belong in the world and they absolutely must accomplish that in a way that does not neglect their history or heritage, but incorporates it. Their history and heritage is their House, childhood, home castle and home town, their animal sigil, the color of the sigil, the house words, previous friendships, enemies, noble deeds and crimes. Characters who deny their heritage and history are punished severely for it. They get lost in the wilderness. They're captured and mutilated. They're forced to live at court beneath the cruel thumb of a tyrant and, in some cases, they simply die. If you want to survive this story, embrace your heritage and find a way to make it work for you.

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"He is part of you, Robb. To fear him is to fear you."

"I am not a wolf, no matter what they call me." Robb sounded cross. (ASOS Catelyn II)

Dany's heritage is dragons, Fire and Blood, incest, the proudest of all Houses, Dragonstone, exile, Khal Drogo, slavery, rape, passion, rapid conquest, and betrayal. It's burning ambition, red and black and hot.

Jorah is a useful guide for helping Dany accomplish the things she wants to accomplish, but he is not a moral compass. Barristan is her first advisor to serve as a proper moral compass. A gift from ye goode olde days. But I suspect Barristan is too late. So here is an idea that currently has me.

Daenerys is the antithesis of Ned's code of justice.

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Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him. “Do you understand why I did it?”

“He was a wildling,” Bran said. “They carry off women and sell them to the Others.”

His lord father smiled. “Old Nan has been telling you stories again. In truth, the man was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile. But you mistake me. The question was not why the man had to die, but why I must do it.”

Bran had no answer for that. “King Robert has a headsman,” he said, uncertainly.

“He does,” his father admitted. “As did the Targaryen kings before him. Yet our way is the older way. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

“One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.” (AGOT Bran I)

In the first chapter of the series when Ned explains the ethic, it's mentioned in the same passage that the Targaryens use executioners. The contrast between the Stark and Targaryen approach to justice is established immediately.

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“Why do the gods make kings and queens, if not to protect the ones who can’t protect themselves?”

“Some kings make themselves. Robert did.”

“He was no true king,” Dany said scornfully. “He did no justice. Justice... that’s what kings are for.” (ASOS Daenerys III)

Justice sounds good, but what is it? Or perhaps more importantly, what is it not? That's what Jon and Dany are going to explore!

First Trial

Jon

Jon's first hands-on experience with justice is Ygritte. During a ranging with Qorin Halfhand, the group encounters and fights some wildlings. Jon notices at the last second that one of the wildlings is a young girl.

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His hand froze. “A girl.”

“A watcher,” said Stonesnake. “A wildling. Finish her.” Jon could see fear and fire in her eyes. Blood ran down her white throat from where the point of his dirk had pricked her. One thrust and it’s done, he told himself. He was so close he could smell onion on her breath. She is no older than I am. Something about her made him think of Arya, though they looked nothing at all alike. “Will you yield?” he asked, giving the dirk a half turn. And if she doesn’t?

“I yield.” Her words steamed in the cold air.

“You’re our captive, then.” He pulled the dirk away from the soft skin of her throat.

“Qhorin said nothing of taking captives,” said Stonesnake.

 

Right away I can see that he doesn't want to kill her. He's hoping that she'll yield and fearing that she won't, because he doesn't know what he will do if she doesn't. It shows me that he doesn't consider killing her an option even if she resists. I don't blame him. I would have difficulty sticking a knife in a strange girl's throat too. Jon holds back from killing her for now, against the advice of his companion.

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Stonesnake gestured at the long-hafted axe that lay beside her sleeping furs. “She was reaching for that when you grabbed her. Give her half a chance and she’ll bury it between your eyes.”

“I won’t give her half a chance.” (ACOK Jon VI)

 

Jon accepts the responsibility and risk that comes with his decision, perhaps unwisely. Ygritte goes on to tell Jon the story of Bael the Bard, which I think humanizes them in each other's eyes. Qorin and the other members return and lay down the law.

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“Tell me true. If I fell into the hands of your people and yielded myself, what would it win me?”

“A slower death than elsewise.”

The big ranger looked to Jon. “We have no food to feed her, nor can we spare a man to watch her.”

“The way before us is perilous enough, lad,” said Squire Dalbridge. “One shout when we need silence, and every man of us is doomed.”

Ebben drew his dagger. “A steel kiss will keep her quiet.”

Jon’s throat was raw. He looked at them all helplessly. “She yielded herself to me.”

“Then you must do what needs be done,” Qhorin Halfhand said. “You are the blood of Winterfell and a man of the Night’s Watch.” He looked at the others. “Come, brothers. Leave him to it. It will go easier for him if we do not watch.”

 

All four Night's Watch men have chimed in, and the order is clear. If Jon can't bring himself to do his duty, he'll consider himself a failure. His brothers will consider him a failure as well, and there's the risk of Ygritte getting them all killed. Then the blood will be on Jon's hands. Nobody will condemn Jon for killing her and in fact his deed may be celebrated. He will have killed an enemy of the Night's Watch.

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He raised Longclaw over his head, both hands tight around the grip. One cut, with all my weight behind it. He could give her a quick clean death, at least. He was his father’s son. Wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?

“Do it,” she urged him after a moment. “Bastard. Do it. I can’t stay brave forever.” When the blow did not fall she turned her head to look at him.

Jon lowered his sword. “Go,” he muttered. (ACOK Jon VI)

 

Is this a case of misplaced compassion, or Ned's principle in practice? He looked into her eyes, listened to her words and could not swing the sword. Perhaps she did not deserve to die.

[[ It may very well be the case that Jon should have beheaded Ygritte. Maybe Jon needs to become a more stoic man if he wants to minimize suffering in the world. It's arguable, but the purpose of the ethic is not to define the appropriate course of action or even to guide one towards it. I think the purpose might be to guide one towards the proper guide. To ensure that the execution of a sentence must always pass through the conscience of the person who passed the sentence. It postulates that human life is more valuable than the cost to one's conscience, reputation, time, or bloody sword. When that cost is too heavy a burden for you, then maybe you are not fit to rule, pass sentences or swing the swords of justice. ]]

Dany

Dany's first dilemma with justice is with Viserys. Her brother is cruel and abusive, but he's still her brother.

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"You do not understand, ser," she said. "My mother died giving me birth, and my father and my brother Rhaegar even before that. I would never have known so much as their names if Viserys had not been there to tell me. He was the only one left. The only one. He is all I have." (AGOT Daenerys V)

 

Dany tries to protect him by nudging him in the right direction.

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Viserys picked up the cloak and sniffed at it. "This stinks of manure. Perhaps I shall use it as a horse blanket."

"I had Doreah sew it specially for you," she told him, wounded. "These are garments fit for a khal."

 

The power dynamic between them is reversed by Dany's khaleesihood, and it all comes to a head in Vaes Dothrak.

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"He can keep his bloody foal. I'll cut the bastard out and leave it for him." The sword point pushed through her silks and pricked at her navel. Viserys was weeping, she saw; weeping and laughing, both at the same time, this man who had once been her brother.

 

Viserys has drawn steel in a sacred place where steel is forbidden, and carved the skin of the Khal's pregnant queen in front of the Khal and five thousand Dothraki riders. If at some point in this scene there was a chance for Viserys to walk out of this hall alive, I think this is the point where Dany recognizes that chance has all but vanished. From this point on, she thinks of Viserys as "the man who had once been her brother." Dany has withdrawn from the sense of family duty she described moments before, and Viserys has certainly provided plenty of reasons to be disowned.

Jhiqui is afraid to translate what Viserys said, but Dany volunteers.

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"Don't be afraid," she said. "I shall tell him."

She did not know if she had enough words, yet when she was done Khal Drogo spoke a few brusque sentences in Dothraki, and she knew he understood.

 

Did Dany give a word-for-word account of all the horrible things Viserys said? Or did she try to protect him one last time by omitting certain ugly details and injecting courtesy where it might be the difference between life and death? I have no way of knowing the manner in which Dany translated except to observe what happens next.

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"What did he say?" the man who had been her brother asked her, flinching.

It had grown so silent in the hall that she could hear the bells in Khal Drogo's hair, chiming softly with each step he took. His bloodriders followed him, like three copper shadows. Daenerys had gone cold all over. "He says you shall have a splendid golden crown that men shall tremble to behold."

Viserys smiled and lowered his sword. That was the saddest thing, the thing that tore at her afterward … the way he smiled. "That was all I wanted," he said. "What was promised."

 

With Dany's chilling translation she seems to understand that what is about to happen is not good for Viserys, though she doesn't bother to convey Drogo's intent to Viserys. So far, Dany has been a passive bystander to her brother's execution, but does her silence and inaction mean she is complicit? To what extent do you think Dany is a bystander or a participant?

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When the sun of her life reached her, Dany slid an arm around his waist. The khal said a word, and his bloodriders leapt forward. Qotho seized the man who had been her brother by the arms. Haggo shattered his wrist with a single, sharp twist of his huge hands. Cohollo pulled the sword from his limp fingers. Even now Viserys did not understand. "No," he shouted, "you cannot touch me, I am the dragon, the dragon, and I will be crowned!"

 

He's not my brother anymore. I owe him nothing.

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Viserys began to scream the high, wordless scream of the coward facing death. He kicked and twisted, whimpered like a dog and wept like a child, but the Dothraki held him tight between them. Ser Jorah had made his way to Dany's side. He put a hand on her shoulder. "Turn away, my princess, I beg you."

"No." She folded her arms across the swell of her belly, protectively.

At the last, Viserys looked at her. "Sister, please … Dany, tell them … make them … sweet sister …"

When the gold was half-melted and starting to run, Drogo reached into the flames, snatched out the pot. "Crown!" he roared. "Here. A crown for Cart King!" And upended the pot over the head of the man who had been her brother.

The sound Viserys Targaryen made when that hideous iron helmet covered his face was like nothing human. His feet hammered a frantic beat against the dirt floor, slowed, stopped. Thick globs of molten gold dripped down onto his chest, setting the scarlet silk to smoldering … yet no drop of blood was spilled.

He was no dragon, Dany thought, curiously calm. Fire cannot kill a dragon.

 

It's difficult to tell one way or another, but I dare say Daenerys enjoyed that. And it's hard to fault her considering what an asshole he was.

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"I'd let his whole khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too if that was what it took to get my army. Be grateful it is only Drogo. In time you may even learn to like him. Now dry your eyes. Illyrio is bringing him over, and he will not see you crying."

 

Since Dany did not technically or entirely pass the sentence or swing the sword, and since it isn't clear whether or not she took pleasure in it, Dany has enough plausible deniability that there's nothing to criticize with regards to Ned's code of justice. Still, I can't help but feel gross about the situation. Surely the method was unnecessarily cruel, but that's just the Dothraki way. Besides, if Dany had insisted on a less agonizing mode of execution, it may have caused unnecessary problems between her and the Dothraki.

Dany took the easy road, but it isn't clear that she took the wrong or right one. Where Jon shouldered the moral responsibility toward a stranger, Dany avoided the moral responsibility toward a brother. The circumstances are such that Dany and the sympathetic reader can easily defend that Dany was a helpless bystander, that this is not a fair comparison to Jon's situation at all, and that Viserys deserved excess suffering anyway. I would have done everything Dany did.

Second Trial

Jon

The wildlings present Jon with a test of loyalty. They capture an old northern man south of the Wall and tell Jon to kill him, no questions asked.

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He might have said a thousand things, or wept, or called upon his gods. No words would save him now, though. Perhaps he knew that. So he held his tongue, and looked at Jon in accusation and appeal.

You must not balk, whatever is asked of you. Ride with them, eat with them, fight with them... But this old man had offered no resistance. He had been unlucky, that was all. Who he was, where he came from, where he meant to go on his sorry sway-backed horse... none of it mattered.

He is an old man, Jon told himself. Fifty, maybe even sixty. He lived a longer life than most. The Thenns will kill him anyway, nothing I can say or do will save him. Longclaw seemed heavier than lead in his hand, too heavy to lift. The man kept staring at him, with eyes as big and black as wells. I will fall into those eyes and drown. The Magnar was looking at him too, and he could almost taste the mistrust.

 

Jon knows that the man is going to die whether Jon does the deed or not, because someone else will do it instead. Jon tries to rationalize himself into action. The man is old anyway, he thinks. He had a good life. But Ned's words are already in effect. Jon is looking into the man's eyes with apprehension.

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The man is dead. What matter if it is my hand that slays him? One cut would do it, quick and clean. Longclaw was forged of Valyrian steel. Like Ice. Jon remembered another killing; the deserter on his knees, his head rolling, the brightness of blood on snow... his father’s sword, his father’s words, his father’s face... (ASOS Jon V)

 

Jon tries to convince himself that it would be merciful, in fact, to do the deed himself, because he knows that he can do it in one cut.

[[ The ability to behead a person in one stroke is an admirable trait in this setting I think because it's an intersection of the traits required to properly shoulder the responsibility of rule and to deal justice. Those traits are strength of character and strength of body. It's both knowing what needs to be done and having the ability and fortitude to do it. One stroke against the back of the neck severs the brain from the nervous system, getting the job done efficiently while minimizing suffering. ]]

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"Do it, Jon Snow," Ygritte urged. "You must. T' prove you are no crow, but one o' the free folk."

 

Jon knows that if he does not kill the man, Ygritte will consider it a betrayal of love.

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"An old man sitting by a fire?"

"Orell was sitting by a fire too. You killed him quick enough." The look she gave him then was hard. "You meant t' kill me too, till you saw I was a woman. And I was asleep."

"That was different. You were soldiers . . . sentries."

"Aye, and you crows didn't want t' be seen. No more'n we do, now. It's just the same. Kill him."

He turned his back on the man. "No."

 

Ygritte points out the similarities between this situation and the situation when they met. Ygritte attributes Jon's mercy toward her to the fact that she's a girl. It must be her wild red hair and crooked teeth. She accuses him of some kind of hypocrisy, double standard or inconsistency in character. As it turns out, the thing in Jon that compelled him to mercy toward Ygritte is the same thing that compels him to mercy toward the old man. Not her sex, but his conscience.

Unlike the execution of Ygritte, where Jon's companions left him to do the deed in privacy, now people are watching him. The Night's Watch's job certainly does not include killing smallfolk. He knows that if he doesn't do the killing, somebody else will do it anyway. He also knows that this is a test of loyalty and his own life likely hangs in the balance.

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The Magnar moved closer, tall, cold, and dangerous. “I say yes. I command here.”

“You command Thenns,” Jon told him, “not free folk.”

“I see no free folk. I see a crow and a crow wife.”

“I’m no crow wife!” Ygritte snatched her knife from its sheath. Three quick strides, and she yanked the old man’s head back by the hair and opened his throat from ear to ear. Even in death, the man did not cry out. “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” she shouted at him, and flung the bloody blade at his feet.

 

Ygritte's denial tells me that she feels betrayed. Despite great immediate risk to his life, Jon remembered Ned's words and could not bring himself to swing the sword.

[[ I think this scene demonstrates an elaboration of Ned's code of justice. Do not swing the sword for sentences you did not pass. Another elaboration seen here might be along this line. Even when congruity with the code would certainly cost your life, the cost of deviation is still greater than the cost of congruity.

That is a hell of a claim. It proposes that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Or that the path of minimum suffering for everyone might include your death. ]]

Dany

At the market in Vaes Dothrak, Jorah catches a wine merchant selling poisoned wine to a pregnant Daenerys.

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"You will drink," Dany said, cold as ice. "Empty the cup, or I will tell them to hold you down while Ser Jorah pours the whole cask down your throat."

The wineseller shrugged, reached for the cup … and grabbed the cask instead, flinging it at her with both hands. (AGOT Daenerys VI)

"Take this one away to await the pleasure of the khal," he commanded, gesturing at the man on the ground. (AGOT Daenerys VI)

 

The Merchant Captain places the wineseller in the custody of Khal Drogo.

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Dany was near tears as they carried her back. The taste in her mouth was one she had known before: fear. For years she had lived in terror of Viserys, afraid of waking the dragon. This was even worse. It was not just for herself that she feared now, but for her baby.

 

Jorah tells Dany that Robert Baratheon offers lands and lordships for her and Viserys's death.

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"My brother?" Her sob was half a laugh. "He does not know yet, does he? The Usurper owes Drogo a lordship." This time her laugh was half a sob. She hugged herself protectively. "And me, you said. Only me?"

"You and the child," Ser Jorah said, grim.

"No. He cannot have my son." She would not weep, she decided. She would not shiver with fear. The Usurper has woken the dragon now, she told herself … and her eyes went to the dragon's eggs resting in their nest of dark velvet.

 

The thing about Drogo's lordship is actually pretty funny, but the inclusion of her unborn baby in the bounty takes Dany from sadness, humor and fear to righteous fury. She has Jorah light a fire and sends him away so that she can try something a little crazy. She places her eggs in the fire and watches it for a long time until it burns out. Though the eggs glow, she's saddened by the result. I think Dany is nurturing some kind of revenge fantasy. She wants these old stones to hatch into real living dragons, even though she knows that doesn't make any sense. I think that's why she wanted to be alone to try this.

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"This seller of poisons ran from the moon of my life. Better he should run after her. So he will. Jhogo, Jorah the Andal, to each of you I say, choose any horse you wish from my herds, and it is yours.

 

Drogo passes a strange sentence for the wineseller, and it isn't clear what it means until the very end.

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The wineseller hurried behind them, naked, on foot, chained at throat and wrists. His chains were fastened to the halter of Dany's silver. As she rode, he ran after her, barefoot and stumbling. No harm would come to him … so long as he kept up. (AGOT Daenerys VI)

 

Though the fate of the man seems obvious in retrospect, Martin obscures that this was an execution at all until A Storm of Swords.

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She had dragged the wineseller behind her horse until there was nothing left of him. (ASOS Daenerys VI)

 

Dany is slightly more involved with this execution than the first. Drogo was the one to pass the sentence, and I could easily make the case that Drogo swung the sword. He tied the man to the horse, after all. But Dany rode the horse, may have set the pace, and as far as I know, she did not insist upon a less cruel form of execution. To be fair, that objection would have been out of place among the Dothraki.

Once again, Dany is shrouded in plausible deniability. The reader is shielded from the knowledge of whether or not Dany enjoyed justice, in no small part because I enjoy it on her behalf. Nobody poisons my khaleesi! Her emotional state and social environment are such that her silence on the matter comes easily. And, of course, an excess of suffering is what pregnant-queen poisoners deserve anyway. I don't know if I would have done what Dany did, but I could definitely see myself doing it.

Third Trial

Jon

Jon decides to execute Janos Slynt, to everyone's surprise, but notice Jon's thoughts before, during and after.

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Jon slid the oilcloth down his bastard sword, watching the play of morning light across the ripples, thinking how easily the blade would slide through skin and fat and sinew to part Slynt's ugly head from his body. All of a man's crimes were wiped away when he took the black, and all of his allegiances as well, yet he found it hard to think of Janos Slynt as a brother. There is blood between us. This man helped slay my father and did his best to have me killed as well. (ADWD Jon II)

 

The temptation of vengeance is evident in Jon. Janos is fat, ugly, and Jon is loath to call him brother. Janos helped kill Ned and tried to kill Jon too.

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"Keep your ruin, bastard."

I am giving you a chance, my lord. It is more than you ever gave my father. "You mistake me, my lord," Jon said. "That was a command, not an offer." (ADWD Jon II)

 

Janos continues to disobey and begins spewing venomous insults, kicking furniture and storming out. Jon's thoughts reveal how he really feels, but so far those feelings don't seem to have influenced his judgement.

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He could only hope that a night's sleep would bring Lord Janos to his senses.

 

After all that, Jon still hopes that Janos will come around.

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"Please take Lord Janos to the Wall—"

—and confine him to an ice cell, he might have said. A day or ten cramped up inside the ice would leave him shivering and feverish and begging for release, Jon did not doubt. And the moment he is out, he and Thorne will begin to plot again.

"—and hang him," Jon finished. (ADWD Jon II)

 

Jon has spent some time in the ice cells himself, so he knows first-hand how torturous they are.

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They had pulled him out this morning, after four days in the ice, locked up in a cell five by five by five, too low for him to stand, too tight for him to stretch out on his back. The stewards had long ago discovered that food and meat kept longer in the icy storerooms carved from the base of the Wall . . . but prisoners did not. "You will die in here, Lord Snow," Ser Alliser had said just before he closed the heavy wooden door, and Jon had believed it. (ASOS Jon X)

 

In fact, Janos is the one who sentenced Jon to the ice cell to suffer while he awaits his hanging.

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“Your father died by the sword, but he was highborn, a King’s Hand. For you, a noose will serve. Ser Alliser, take this turncloak to an ice cell.” (ASOS Jon IX)

 

How sweet would it be to give Janos the same treatment Janos dealt to you? But Jon is a better man than I. He foregoes the option to inflict certain suffering upon Janos because he believes it will be ineffective at reforming the man. The pursuit to minimize unnecessary suffering is a consistent characteristic of Ned and Jon's justice.

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"This will go easier if you stay still," Jon Snow promised him. "Move to avoid the cut, and you will still die, but your dying will be uglier. Stretch out your neck, my lord." The pale morning sunlight ran up and down his blade as Jon clasped the hilt of the bastard sword with both hands and raised it high. "If you have any last words, now is the time to speak them," he said, expecting one last curse. (ADWD Jon II)

 

During the execution, Jon is genuinely committed to minimize Janos's pain. He's listening to his words and giving him the opportunity to speak.

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Janos Slynt twisted his neck around to stare up at him. "Please, my lord. Mercy. I'll … I'll go, I will, I …"

 

Oh no. But there are two sides to this coin. Jon is resisting the temptation of revenge magnificently, but here is the temptation of compassion and it's heartbreaking.

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No, thought Jon. You closed that door. Longclaw descended.

 

He passed a clear sentence, looked into his eyes, listened to his words, swung the sword, took no pleasure in the task, did not look away, minimized suffering and bore the burden of justice on behalf of society in a manner that will minimally corrupt his conscience in future judgements. Well done from start to finish.

Dany

After Dany's conquest of Yunkai, she travels to Meereen.

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Worst of all, they had nailed a slave child up on every milepost along the coast road from Yunkai, nailed them up still living with their entrails hanging out and one arm always outstretched to point the way to Meereen. Leading her van, Daario had given orders for the children to be taken down before Dany had to see them, but she had countermanded him as soon as she was told. “I will see them,” she said. “I will see every one, and count them, and look upon their faces. And I will remember.”

By the time they came to Meereen sitting on the salt coast beside her river, the count stood at one hundred and sixty-three. I will have this city, Dany pledged to herself once more.

 

The temptation of revenge is building up, one slow mile at a time, and Dany demonstrates her fortitude. She's committed to absorbing the emotional impact of her enemies' crimes, and by the time the 163rd mutilated child is taken down, she is on fire.

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She rode past burned buildings and broken windows, through brick streets where the gutters were choked with the stiff and swollen dead. Cheering slaves lifted bloodstained hands to her as she went by, and called her “Mother.”

 

Dany rides in glory through her conquered city, through piles of bodies and rubble as liberated slaves reach out in worship.

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In the plaza before the Great Pyramid, the Meereenese huddled forlorn. The Great Masters had looked anything but great in the morning light. Stripped of their jewels and their fringed tokars, they were contemptible; a herd of old men with shriveled balls and spotted skin and young men with ridiculous hair. Their women were either soft and fleshy or as dry as old sticks, their face paint streaked by tears. “I want your leaders,” Dany told them. “Give them up, and the rest of you shall be spared.”

 

These masters are disgusting to her because of their decrepit bodies. Wait, no. I mean because of their horrible deeds.

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“How many?” one old woman had asked, sobbing. “How many must you have to spare us?”

“One hundred and sixty-three,” she answered.

She had them nailed to wooden posts around the plaza, each man pointing at the next. The anger was fierce and hot inside her when she gave the command; it made her feel like an avenging dragon. But later, when she passed the men dying on the posts, when she heard their moans and smelled their bowels and blood...

Dany put the glass aside, frowning. It was just. It was. I did it for the children.

 

One hundred and sixty-three "great masters" were crucified in Meereen's plaza on Dany's orders. How many of them did she meet eye to eye and listen to their words? How many of the nails did she hammer through their limbs? Is it true that queens are incapable of using a hammer? Or is it that Ned's code of justice does not apply to female rulers? Plausible deniability has gone out the window. Yet still, I may have done the same thing Dany did.

Maybe it's no big deal to ignore the code every once in a while. I mean come on. A ruler can't be expected to do all of the executions. She might then be constrained to lopping off heads every waking hour of the day!

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“Flies are the dead man’s revenge.” Daario smiled, and stroked the center prong of his beard. “Corpses breed maggots, and maggots breed flies.”

“We will rid ourselves of the corpses, then. Starting with those in the plaza below. Grey Worm, will you see to it?”

“The queen commands, these ones obey.”

“Best bring sacks as well as shovels, Worm,” Brown Ben counseled. “Well past ripe, those ones. Falling off those poles in bits and pieces, and crawling with...”

“He knows. So do I.” Dany remembered the horror she had felt when she had seen the Plaza of Punishment in Astapor. I made a horror just as great, but surely they deserved it. Harsh justice is still justice. (ASOS Daenerys VI)

 

Revenge makes dead men. Dead men breed maggots. Maggots breed flies. Flies are the dead man's revenge.

Revenge begets revenge.

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We will rid ourselves of the mess I have created, but I won't dirty my hands. Do not burden me with a descriptive reminder of the horrors I have wrought in the pursuit of justice. (Not in the book)

I kill your cousin, you kill my brother, I kill two of your brothers, and around and around it goes. I think that is the situation Dany is dealing with in Meereen.

Crucifixion is unnecessarily cruel where a simple beheading would accomplish the same thing. Or would it?

[[ There is a strong case to be made in favor of maximizing the suffering of a person before executing him. That is: to amplify the effect of the punishment as a deterrent to crime. That's compelling because the world would certainly be better if no crimes were committed in the first place. So there is a moral case to be made for cruel justice. And sure enough, we can observe and measure that benefit on a shorter timeline. As short and quick as the lash of a whip.

One point that Ned's code of justice posits, I think, is something along this line. The cost of deviating from the code is always greater than the benefit of deviating from the code.

However, such a thing cannot be easily proven because (1) the full scope and magnitude of the cost and benefit cannot be easily measured. For example, to what degree does the cruelty in crucifixion of a master cause the unnecessary suffering of his son and his daughter after him? (2) Life is too short for the cost to be observed over the duration of a civilization or evolutionary time.

So Ned's position is not only a hypothesis, it's a plea. It says "I cannot prove to you that this is true, but for the love of god please behave as if this is true." It requires a down payment of faith, which is troublesome because competing codes, such as those involving a hammer or a whip, do not. ]]

In Dany's pursuit to match the cruelty of the slavers and give them the suffering they deserve, Dany has learned first-hand what it feels like to commit the horrors that the slavers committed. Her conscience is screaming at her that it's wrong, but she can't reason why or how. When I look back on events, I think her conscience was signaling her all along.

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Viserys smiled and lowered his sword. That was the saddest thing, the thing that tore at her afterward … the way he smiled.

But later, when she passed the men dying on the posts, when she heard their moans and smelled their bowels and blood...

Dany put the glass aside, frowning. It was just. It was. I did it for the children.

 

It's just that nobody taught her these things.

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you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.

 

What function does this part of Ned's code really serve? Do I seriously believe that Jon took no pleasure in watching the fat ugly head of Janos fucking Slynt roll across the mud? And what harm if he did? He may have. Who knows? Killing people, no matter how just, takes a toll on one's conscience. The best we can do is minimize that toll as much as possible. I imagine Jon's conscience operates through dialogue with itself, part accused and part accuser.

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You liked that didn't you, Lord Snow? You've wanted to kill him for a long time, just like he killed your father. Just like he tried to kill you. That's why you used the block over the noose. Admit it. You loved feeling the miserable life of Janos Slynt thrum up that borrowed sword and into your numb hands. Smooth as the silk that polished it. Lady Catelyn saw you for what you really are, bastard, even if you've managed to hide it from everyone else... for now. (Not in the book)

 

Man or woman, a ruler can't escape his own conscience. So he must behave in a manner such that his conscience can withstand the savage internal criticisms he wages upon himself.

An eye for an eye is a horrible doctrine, not because criminals don't deserve to suffer the suffering they've inflicted on others, but because nobody can give another person what they deserve. It's actually impossible. You have no idea what another person deserves and certainly no clue about how to give it to them. Only god can do that, if there is a god, which is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons we might want our ruler to believe in god. If he thinks there is no god, then who does he think is going to make sure the bad guys get what they deserve? Well, he has to do it.

Maybe one important function of justice is not to give people what they deserve, but to alleviate everyone else of the responsibility of revenge. Revenge corrupts the conscience, the mechanism by which we navigate the moral landscape, and then that mechanism will lead us astray.

So why not use executioners, then? If we can have the executioner absorb the psychic toll of execution, leaving the man who passes the sentences in-corrupted, that seems like a good idea.

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“Tell me, then - when he touched a man on the shoulder with his sword, what did he say? ‘Go forth and kill the weak’? Or ‘Go forth and defend them’? At the Trident, those brave men Viserys spoke of who died beneath our dragon banners - did they give their lives because they believed in Rhaegar’s cause, or because they had been bought and paid for?” Dany turned to Mormont, crossed her arms, and waited for an answer.

“My queen,” the big man said slowly, “all you say is true. But Rhaegar lost on the Trident. He lost the battle, he lost the war, he lost the kingdom, and he lost his life. His blood swirled downriver with the rubies from his breastplate, and Robert the Usurper rode over his corpse to steal the iron Throne. Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar died.” (ASOS Daenerys II)

 

At Astapor, Dany had a moral qualm with buying and using an army of slave soldiers. Jorah taught Dany that death is all that matters at the end of the day, and that's why I think Jorah is a bad moral guide. There are things worse than death. How about the death of your family? The death of everyone you know? The death of an entire city? But how could one man's deviation from Ned's ethic cause the death of an entire city?

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"I want him dead, the traitor. I want his head, you'll bring me his head, or you'll burn with all the rest. All the traitors." (ASOS Jaime II)

 

Jaime's memory of the Mad King demonstrates the degree to which Aerys had corrupted and forgotten what death is. Aerys promised to burn an entire city and he ordered Jaime to bring him the head of Tywin, Jaime's own father, on the threat of fiery death.

I think Dany's story is a sympathetic tragedy. Perhaps a lesson being that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think there is so much more to unpack with the justice theme in Jon and Dany. Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts and criticisms and see you in the comments!

Edited by rustythesmith

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Your analysis is beautiful...

I want to ask what you think about Dany's 'trial' on Mirri Maz Durr. She listened to Mirri's words about why she did what she did. She passed the sentence of burning MMD in Drogo's funerarl pyre. IIRC she lighted the fire herself. Could it be that in this case she practiced Ned and Jon's way of justice?

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Posted (edited)
7 hours ago, shameeka said:

Your analysis is beautiful...

I want to ask what you think about Dany's 'trial' on Mirri Maz Durr. She listened to Mirri's words about why she did what she did. She passed the sentence of burning MMD in Drogo's funerarl pyre. IIRC she lighted the fire herself. Could it be that in this case she practiced Ned and Jon's way of justice?

Thank you, I'm happy you liked it.

Dany's treatment of Mirri seems vengeful to me. Dany is explicit that she wants to make Mirri scream in agony when she dies. So rather than minimizing pain Dany is trying to maximize it. While Dany certainly has plenty of reasons to want revenge against Mirri, the fact that her situation is sympathetic doesn't protect her from the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of compassion or revenge. Nor, I think, from the responsibility to deliver prosaic justice.

There's something especially distasteful about burning her husband and Mirri together. On one hand, a funeral is a mournful and celebratory affair. It's mournful because it marks the end of a loved one's life, and it's celebratory perhaps because we're stopping to remember someone who once lived. Mirri's burning is mournful and celebratory for the same reasons inverted. We're stopping to remember and stew in the pain that someone has caused us, and we're celebrating the pain and death of someone we hate. The simultaneous burnings seem to profane one another.

I'm reminded of a quote from Jojen I think, about "love and hate can mate."

I think the pyre may be the event that earned Dany the "Bride of Fire" title that is used to reference her in the House of the Undying. It's customary in a Dothraki wedding for the bride to refuse her weapon-gifts and give them to her husband. Here, she gave her weapon-gifts to the fire, perhaps making the fire her husband.

As far as Ned's code goes, Dany's biggest mistake in the Mirri execution might be along the lines of "you must take no pleasure in the task."

Edited by rustythesmith

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