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Lord Varys

Toxic aristocratic values

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If we look at the books we realize (at least if we are perceptive) that the aristocratic values of the noble houses of Westeros are essentially harmful to themselves but especially the people they presume to rule. The best illustration for this can be seen in TSS, where two noble people nearly start a war that would have killed dozens or scores of people over something that was just a triviality - not to mention that the voice of the commoner harmed by Ser Bennis of the Brown Shield never actually mattered to his liege, Lady Rohanne Webber.

We have other such examples in the main series - Robb's rather pointless war to free/avenge his father (which eventually devolves into a doomed secession attempt), Rickard Karstark's obsession to avenge sons who died in a battle they rushed into, Robb's rushed marriage to Jeyne Westerling, Stannis' insistence that he must be king, Balon Greyjoy's desire for conquest, Viserys III's and Dany's determination to win back what their father lost, etc.

Reading things almost exclusively from the point of born nobility, we essentially get very few instances where this kind of thing is seen or presented as a problem (Dunk & Egg and Aegon V's attempted reforms aside). But I'd maintain that the author really does want us to see this kind of thing as the real problem of this society - that is the reason, I'd argue, why there is a group of supernatural ice demons in the far north, secretly watching how the Westerosi rip themselves to pieces, being unable or unwilling to even recognize the real threat much less to unite and face the enemies of mankind together.

That is clearly the ultimate irony of the story, something we cannot really enjoy in full at this point because we have not yet reached the point where anyone in the books has realized how much the protagonists have fucked themselves.

Does anybody agree with that view? And if so, do you think George is actually deliberately trying to portray feudalism and the noble class as shitty people over all? And if so, to what degree he succeeds at that?

The only noble rulers taking into account the interests of their subjects in their wars (to a point) are the Martells, since Daeron II's sister Daenerys taught them this in the Water Gardens. Other alternatives to feudal are briefly discussed in the triarchy rule of Volantis (three elected kings who ruled jointly), in Stannis' eventual realization to win the throne by saving/serving his people, rather than the other way around, in Dany's desire to free slaves in a corner of the world she has literally nothing to do with, and (possibly) by Varys' desire to create a king who would rule for the common people because he lived among them.

Aside from that, most other smart rulers or lords take their own petty interests first (which are shaped and defined by their aristocratic values), and the common good come later, if they consider that at all.

Even the seemingly nice trait of the Starks to eat with a different retainer/servant each day didn't seem to have the purpose to better the lives of the smallfolk (of Winterfell) as such, but to instill a deeper sense of loyalty in them by allowing them to get to know and bond with their masters, rather than actually overcoming boundaries. It is an approach George took from Frank Herbert's Dune where the Atreides do exactly the same kind of thing (and for the same purpose).

But then - would you agree that those aristocratic values are supposed to be seen as problematic? Or would you say they should be seen as 'the normal setting of this world' and 'the proper way for a nobleman or knight to conduct himself'?

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I agree to an extent. I think there is a criticism, but not simply to do w/ a feudal society. To me it’s much broader, and it’s a criticism of human societies in general, where the ruling classes don’t give two fucks about anyone but themselves. 

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50 minutes ago, Lord Varys said:

If we look at the books we realize (at least if we are perceptive) that the aristocratic values of the noble houses of Westeros are essentially harmful to themselves but especially the people they presume to rule. The best illustration for this can be seen in TSS, where two noble people nearly start a war that would have killed dozens or scores of people over something that was just a triviality - not to mention that the voice of the commoner harmed by Ser Bennis of the Brown Shield never actually mattered to his liege, Lady Rohanne Webber.

We have other such examples in the main series - Robb's rather pointless war to free/avenge his father (which eventually devolves into a doomed secession attempt), Rickard Karstark's obsession to avenge sons who died in a battle they rushed into, Robb's rushed marriage to Jeyne Westerling, Stannis' insistence that he must be king, Balon Greyjoy's desire for conquest, Viserys III's and Dany's determination to win back what their father lost, etc.

Reading things almost exclusively from the point of born nobility, we essentially get very few instances where this kind of thing is seen or presented as a problem (Dunk & Egg and Aegon V's attempted reforms aside). But I'd maintain that the author really does want us to see this kind of thing as the real problem of this society - that is the reason, I'd argue, why there is a group of supernatural ice demons in the far north, secretly watching how the Westerosi rip themselves to pieces, being unable or unwilling to even recognize the real threat much less to unite and face the enemies of mankind together.

That is clearly the ultimate irony of the story, something we cannot really enjoy in full at this point because we have not yet reached the point where anyone in the books has realized how much the protagonists have fucked themselves.

Does anybody agree with that view? And if so, do you think George is actually deliberately trying to portray feudalism and the noble class as shitty people over all? And if so, to what degree he succeeds at that?

The only noble rulers taking into account the interests of their subjects in their wars (to a point) are the Martells, since Daeron II's sister Daenerys taught them this in the Water Gardens. Other alternatives to feudal are briefly discussed in the triarchy rule of Volantis (three elected kings who ruled jointly), in Stannis' eventual realization to win the throne by saving/serving his people, rather than the other way around, in Dany's desire to free slaves in a corner of the world she has literally nothing to do with, and (possibly) by Varys' desire to create a king who would rule for the common people because he lived among them.

Aside from that, most other smart rulers or lords take their own petty interests first (which are shaped and defined by their aristocratic values), and the common good come later, if they consider that at all.

Even the seemingly nice trait of the Starks to eat with a different retainer/servant each day didn't seem to have the purpose to better the lives of the smallfolk (of Winterfell) as such, but to instill a deeper sense of loyalty in them by allowing them to get to know and bond with their masters, rather than actually overcoming boundaries. It is an approach George took from Frank Herbert's Dune where the Atreides do exactly the same kind of thing (and for the same purpose).

But then - would you agree that those aristocratic values are supposed to be seen as problematic? Or would you say they should be seen as 'the normal setting of this world' and 'the proper way for a nobleman or knight to conduct himself'?

You forgot to include Wayman Manderly's plan to restore the Starks, who chose to rebel and lost, to their former place.  Peace finally has a chance and he instead chose to continue the fighting.  Mance Rayder wanted to save his people.  He knew they have to get to the other side.  He could have led them to the gates and knelt, swore to obey all of the laws, and avoided bloodshed.  He chose to fight.  

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GRRM is both writing a self-consciously modernist take on a pre-modern society in which modern readers are expected to judge that past negatively, while also putting us in the heads of characters who live in that society with the expectation that we will share the Stark family's abhorrence for the perfidy of the Lannisters, Boltons and Freys, as even the Lannister POVs tend to share that negative evaluation of their own side but keep fighting out of self-interest. I will also say in defense of Robb Stark that the smallfolk weren't being spared when he rebelled, but rather that Tywin had sent thugs like Gregor Clegane, Amory Lorch and Vargo Hoat to pillage the Riverlands. Robb became the King of not just the North but also the Riverlands because he defended them against the Lannister forces. It was also infeasible for him to make peace with the Lannisters: Tyrion sent false emissaries who tried to free Jaime via violence. Any deal to exchange Jaime for Robb's sisters was a non-starter because the Lannisters didn't actually have Arya and married Sansa to Tyrion.

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Characters ignoring the threats to Westeros from outside its borders and concerning themselves with meaningless titles, conquests, and power plays isn't a product of feudalism or nobility. This is going on now. Just look at how people respond to climate change. They are more worried about scoring political points for their team rather than human ecological catastrophe. This goes for leaders and the masses, who have a responsibility to each other in a representative democracy. I don't think the author set out to stick it to feudalism. I think he had to work with that system because he's writing in the fantasy genre. Although he does expose some hypocrisies like knighthood and how the smallfolk are used to fight in wars to make kings, I don't get the sense that GRRM takes a radical Marxist perspective and intentionally portrays all nobility as shitty people. 

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5 hours ago, kissdbyfire said:

I agree to an extent. I think there is a criticism, but not simply to do w/ a feudal society. To me it’s much broader, and it’s a criticism of human societies in general, where the ruling classes don’t give two fucks about anyone but themselves. 

There is certainly a difference between Westerosi society - where the powerful do not only give no shit, but actually flaunt that they give no shit in everybody's eyes - and modern societies - where there is at least a pretext or the fiction that the powerful do care.

Westeros is portrayed unrealistically blunt (or perhaps even trivial) in the sense that the peasants are nothing but sheep who even 'm'lord' their masters when they break in their teeth and rape their daughters.

4 hours ago, Only 89 selfies today said:

You forgot to include Wayman Manderly's plan to restore the Starks, who chose to rebel and lost, to their former place.  Peace finally has a chance and he instead chose to continue the fighting. 

It was not supposed to be thorough list - but, yeah, the present war and plotting in the North also serves no one but the petty ambitions of the noblemen up there and the ultimate goal of the Others. They do most definitely not serve the interests of the common people.

4 hours ago, Only 89 selfies today said:

Mance Rayder wanted to save his people.  He knew they have to get to the other side.  He could have led them to the gates and knelt, swore to obey all of the laws, and avoided bloodshed.  He chose to fight.  

Mance and the wildlings I'd exclude from this thing. They do have different values beyond the Wall - even crueler and stupider ones, of course, but nevertheless different ones.

53 minutes ago, FictionIsntReal said:

GRRM is both writing a self-consciously modernist take on a pre-modern society in which modern readers are expected to judge that past negatively, while also putting us in the heads of characters who live in that society with the expectation that we will share the Stark family's abhorrence for the perfidy of the Lannisters, Boltons and Freys, as even the Lannister POVs tend to share that negative evaluation of their own side but keep fighting out of self-interest. I will also say in defense of Robb Stark that the smallfolk weren't being spared when he rebelled, but rather that Tywin had sent thugs like Gregor Clegane, Amory Lorch and Vargo Hoat to pillage the Riverlands. Robb became the King of not just the North but also the Riverlands because he defended them against the Lannister forces. It was also infeasible for him to make peace with the Lannisters: Tyrion sent false emissaries who tried to free Jaime via violence. Any deal to exchange Jaime for Robb's sisters was a non-starter because the Lannisters didn't actually have Arya and married Sansa to Tyrion.

This is not supposed to be a discussion about particulars but rather about the concepts and values behind that. And the fact there remains that (1) the common Northman has no reason to kill or die for some Riverlanders are brutalized due to the petty machinations of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn (it is like saying we should go to war because the wife of a governor has a private feud with the son of another governor and who then decided to send out some men into the state where the wife of the first governor was born in) - that kind of thing is no proper justification for a war; (2) Robb was never proclaimed king by the smallfolk of the Riverlands or the North, meaning there is no indication that he as king either cared about or acted in the interests of that particular class.

The principal criticism about Robb's actions rests on the issue that (1) it wasn't his place to go to war against a superior foe which he would most likely not be able to defeat in the circumstances he was in if we look at it from the POV of his people (the fact that he may have been seen as 'weak' by his lords bannermen is the kind of toxic aristocratic value I'm talking about), and (2) he actually got information that could have enabled him to investigate/properly assess and prepare for the real danger - the Others - considering that Osha was at Winterfell when he started the war. He also has a half-brother at the Wall.

The issue is not about making a peace with the Lannisters eventually (which certainly would have been possible if Robb had offered to exchange Jaime for his sister(s) - which he also refused on the basis of aristocratic values (as highborn a knight as Jaime Lannister is simply worth much more than two girls).

By any standard the worst king for his people (both the Riverlands and the North) was Robb. He dragged the North into a pointless war he would eventually lose (and could reasonably expect to lose from the start), crippling the ability of his people to defend themselves against wildling, Ironborn, and brutal fellow Northmen (like the Boltons), and inadvertently ensuring that the Others are not going to face a strong united front when the Others finally arrives. And the Riverlands are in ruins, too, in no small part thanks to Robb's war.

That there are worse lords and some such who aren't as bad as those worse lords goes without saying. That's how we differentiate 'the good aristocratic pricks' from the 'villains', so to speak. But the fact remains that their values are overall the same - they only differ in their methods and in the means they employ or the lengths they dare to go to achieve their ends.

But men like Tywin and Eddard are very much alike in principle - when talking about what it means to be a lord and to rule a lordship or the Seven Kingdoms as Hand they would find more agreement than difference. In their private lives those men are more different and Ned certainly is more capable of compassion and empathy for his enemies, but those are, in the end, rather trivial differences.

23 minutes ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

Characters ignoring the threats to Westeros from outside its borders and concerning themselves with meaningless titles, conquests, and power plays isn't a product of feudalism or nobility.

Pointing the finger at other things doesn't change the shittiness of Westeros. And the interests of greater fractions of the overall populations certainly do play a role in modern conflicts.

23 minutes ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

This is going on now. Just look at how people respond to climate change. They are more worried about scoring political points for their team rather than human ecological catastrophe. This goes for leaders and the masses, who have a responsibility to each other in a representative democracy.

Climate change is ignored both on the producer and the consumer level - western capitalism depends on the exploitation of the Third World states, especially if the goods produced there (and consumed in the West) remain cheap enough that the Western rabble can buy the stuff.

This is a much more complex (and also less tangible) problem than actual ice demons planning to eradicate human beings.

23 minutes ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

I don't think the author set out to stick it to feudalism. I think he had to work with that system because he's writing in the fantasy genre. 

He certainly didn't have to create as shitty a feudalism as he did create. This level of contempt for the commoners is rather unique in fantasy literature.

23 minutes ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

Although he does expose some hypocrisies like knighthood and how the smallfolk are used to fight in wars to make kings, I don't get the sense that GRRM takes a radical Marxist perspective and intentionally portrays all nobility as shitty people. 

We are talking about structural issues, not 'shitty people'. The very way of life of the noble class of Westeros is wrong. They do not work for the common good, they constantly fight each other over trivial issues. This has nothing to do whether the lord in question is a Roose Bolton or an Eddard Stark - they both don't give a damn about their smallfolk and would force them to die in their stupid and pointless feuds and conflicts when their honor or ambition or personal agenda demanded it. The overall societal framework and the reason why the ruling class do what they do is the problem.

And in quite a real sense George does portray all nobles as shitty people in his books (aside from the few people who actually do not follow feudal and aristocratic values but rather try to work for the common good). Because he does pretty much explain why the various 'good aristocratic guys' do conduct their wars.

A very prominent example for the shitty values of the nobility is Arya Stark murdering Dareon - her only reason/motivation and justification for that act is the fact that she, as a Stark, considers herself entitled to 'execute' a deserter of the Night's Watch. Which even in Westeros would have never been her call to make unless she was actually the Ruling Lady of a castle and said deserter caught on her lands. On foreign soil even the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch wouldn't have had a right to kill Dareon. She is of this opinion because of the things her father and brothers taught her what it means to be a Stark. This is the result when you prepare your children to execute people with your own hands at the age of seven.

[Of course, Arya's violent and murderous tendencies also go back to her war experiences - but the way she expresses those tendencies in this case go back to the aristocratic values she learned at Catelyn's breasts and on Eddard's lap.]

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1 hour ago, Lord Varys said:

We are talking about structural issues, not 'shitty people'. 

You asked:

Quote

do you think George is actually deliberately trying to portray feudalism and the noble class as shitty people over all?

And I said no, he's not making class based judgements to the point where every noble is a "shitty person." Structure and individual action must be discussed with care, social life is patterned by caste but it isn't deterministic or monolithic. There are nobles who are kind and wise, and smallfolk who are short-sighted and murderous. Compare Sam to Chett.

Also, one of GRRM's favorite books is A Tale of Two Cities about the lead up to the Reign of Terror. Thankfully, Dickens was smart enough to know that all aristocrats weren't assholes who deserved to be imprisoned. 

1 hour ago, Lord Varys said:

A very prominent example for the shitty values of the nobility is Arya Stark murdering Dareon - her only reason/motivation and justification for that act is the fact that she, as a Stark, considers herself entitled to 'execute' a deserter of the Night's Watch. Which even in Westeros would have never been her call to make unless she was actually the Ruling Lady of a castle and said deserter caught on her lands. On foreign soil even the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch wouldn't have had a right to kill Dareon. She is of this opinion because of the things her father and brothers taught her what it means to be a Stark. This is the result when you prepare your children to execute people with your own hands at the age of seven.

Executions done by hand, by the Starks, is set up as a contrast to Daenerys, Joffrey, and others who order people to do their killing for them. The lesson isn't wrong, it's just hard to determine who deserves to be executed. That's why looking someone in the eyes is so important - the executor may come to stay the decision based on what they see. When a person has to do it himself, killing is harder and takes a toll. When you hire other people to do it, you get the ability to distance yourself from that horror. This could lead to a person deciding to kill more freely  and to value human life less, because they don't experience a personal cost. 

Arya doesn't have a role model to help guide her. She is learning some messed up lessons from her current mentor (who is for all we know, a member of the "smallfolk"). I dont think her murder of Daeron represents an inherent flaw in the feudal system, I think it's a future plot development. Something like Arya confronting a dilemma that her own brother intended to be a deserter - to save "her". She has to figure out for herself what was right and wrong, under cognitive dissonance. 

Edited by Rose of Red Lake

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8 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

Does anybody agree with that view?

As an enthusiast of popular history and great man theory, GRRM does not agree with that view.

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I see it similarly but in a more expansive way. I do think the characters will come to realize that their own way of life and their part in it will be revealed to be their downfall, but not until it's too late. 

I'm doubting there's a commentary exclusively on feudal society here. I think it has more to do with societies and systems in general. I see the books as a warning against idealizing any system or growing complacent in any system. Just like the characters have strengths, weaknesses, biases, flaws, and blind spots which affect their society, so do we as readers have strengths, weakness, biases, etc which affect our rl respective society. Societies and systems - every single one of them - are flawed because we are flawed. 

Given how often the books and characters serve as mirrors and tricks to expose the readers' biases, assumptions, etc., my view is that we're supposed to look at the books primarily through the lens of the human condition (hence character names as chapter names) and then to see those characters primarily as individuals (chapter names only show the first name, not the family name) and then to compare these characters to ourselves and our place in our own society. For example, as a Stark fan, I'm supposed to be aware of my own susceptibility to the Game of Thrones/ us vs. them mindset. Truth hurts but there it is. 

As to the question as to whether we're supposed to judge the characters by the standards of their world or by our own modern standards, I think we're supposed to do both and then compare and contrast them. I see this coming up more often lately on the forum and some people definitely have preferences for one view or the other, but I find seeing it both ways as much more educational and rewarding. I'm not sure we can understand any character solely though our own standards, nor am I sure that any writer ever decides to write with the goal of the reader completely checking their own ethics at the door. The books seem geared more to raising questions than providing answers from on high. Hence this forum ;)
 

Edited by Lollygag

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9 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

There is certainly a difference between Westerosi society - where the powerful do not only give no shit, but actually flaunt that they give no shit in everybody's eyes - and modern societies - where there is at least a pretext or the fiction that the powerful do care.

Only difference between the ruling elite of our modern era and the past. Is that they act as if they care for the people in order to gain their support. And this is because we (the common people) have gained a more broad consciousness, when compared to our medieval ancestors (whom were dumb as fuck). 

But in my personal opinion i see no difference between governments now and feudal nobles from the past. They have different methods of exploiting the people, but in the end it’s all with the same goal. To better themselves and their dynasty/political party. 

Edited by The Young Maester

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11 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

There is certainly a difference between Westerosi society - where the powerful do not only give no shit, but actually flaunt that they give no shit in everybody's eyes - and modern societies - where there is at least a pretext or the fiction that the powerful do care.

Westeros is portrayed unrealistically blunt (or perhaps even trivial) in the sense that the peasants are nothing but sheep who even 'm'lord' their masters when they break in their teeth and rape their daughters.

Of course there are differences between a fictional medieval setting and the real world. But I’d say the main one is the fact that we, the “smallfolk” of our world nowadays, have more agency. I can go to protest against whichever cause and be somewhat certain that I will get out of there alive. And that’s for some [“privileged”] parts of the world. But the ruling class, nah. Same shit, different setting. Of course there will be exceptions, as always. There will be “rulers” who are genuinely trying to improve things. But overall, I think the majority really are only interested in their own profit, their own gain, etc. Else we wouldn’t be where we are right now. 

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I suspect GRRM is more interested in criticizing the human nature itself. Isn't it obvious to anyone with half a brain that feudal society is far from perfect? anyone with any illusions about the knights must have missed school on the days they talked about Crusades. It's not awfully relevant and important to shatter our nonexistant illusions. 

Human nature however changed little, and we still have to deal with hard choices between selfish passions, desires and ambisions and the good of all of humanity. The aristocrats have more freedom of choice and so the story focuses on them most often, but the smallfolk aren't that different, we see if for example with BwwB, where the noble mission is overshadowed by (very understandable) anger and desire for revenge, not only from UnCat, but from people like Lem Lemoncloack, as well. Smallfolk rarely get much choice in their lives but if they did few wouldn't take opportunity to avenge their loved ones, enrich themselves, et cetera, even if it goes against greater good. For northerners to accept the wildlings, for Starks to work alongside Lannisters if need be, for endless cycle of revenge and war to end everyone has to rise above their base nature. People would have to be better than they are (even the good ones) to be able to fight existential threat together with their enemies.

Modern society is equally divided, and WWI would leave us as badly prepared for invasion of Others as any medieval conflict, perhaps less so. 

Edited by Agnessa Schizoid

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How about toxic capitalists values!!!!!!!  :D

Seriously, Dear Lord Varys, you should know.  Toxic values, whether you call it aristocratic, elitism, or whatever, have always existed.  So we should ask if it's due to aristocracy or basic human nature.  Humans want to establish class systems that benefit those who can create such an order.  Call it ego.  The justification to have more rights.  Maybe it's the excuse to avoid manual labor and still be able to live in relative luxury. 

We can distill the problem down to family pride and love.  Catelyn didn't really get bothered at the number of small folk children who will die if she should take Tyrion prisoner.  Bran is family, he's a noble son.  What does it matter if thousands of really innocent and so-far uninvolved children get killed.  It did not matter to Cat. It was more important to her to learn the identity of her son's attacker and bring him to justice.  The resulting conflict will not improve the lives of anybody.  It will not free people from slavery.  Nope.  It's only benefit is to punish the man responsible for injuring her son. 

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17 hours ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

And I said no, he's not making class based judgements to the point where every noble is a "shitty person." Structure and individual action must be discussed with care, social life is patterned by caste but it isn't deterministic or monolithic. There are nobles who are kind and wise, and smallfolk who are short-sighted and murderous. Compare Sam to Chett.

And those differences are so minor that they are irrelevant. The human element as such is pretty much irrelevant, since, as I pointed out, there is essentially no structural difference between Tywin and Ned on the conceptual level of feudal/aristocratic rule.

We are talking about what it means to be a noble in this world, what nobles consider to be a good and a bad or a right or a wrong action - basic human stuff like 'do not kill children' don't figure into how a nobleman actually rules and what kind of values they subscribe to.

In fact, even something as basic as murder is treated differently - if the thug of a nobleman (like Sandor Clegane) kills a peasant then this is not really an issue, unlike when somebody like Dareon seduces a highborn maiden.

Family, too, is a societal concept that is very much shaped by aristocratic values - Tywin loathes Tyrion, yet to keep face in front of his noble peers and do justice to the damaged honor of House Lannister he does have to retaliate. His society dictates that he has to start a war to save a son he has no issue seeing dead.

17 hours ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

Also, one of GRRM's favorite books is A Tale of Two Cities about the lead up to the Reign of Terror. Thankfully, Dickens was smart enough to know that all aristocrats weren't assholes who deserved to be imprisoned.

I daresay George doesn't like that book because of that reason. And it has no bearing on the current discussion.

17 hours ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

Executions done by hand, by the Starks, is set up as a contrast to Daenerys, Joffrey, and others who order people to do their killing for them. The lesson isn't wrong, it's just hard to determine who deserves to be executed. That's why looking someone in the eyes is so important - the executor may come to stay the decision based on what they see. When a person has to do it himself, killing is harder and takes a toll. When you hire other people to do it, you get the ability to distance yourself from that horror. This could lead to a person deciding to kill more freely  and to value human life less, because they don't experience a personal cost. 

No, the whole thing is very much ambivalent - commanding other people to murder for you can cause you to distance yourself from killing, meaning you kill more people than you would have killed if you were employing yourself as your headsman. But killing people yourself slowly but surely turns you into your own headsman. It is the surest way to turn yourself into another Arya Stark or a Maegor Targaryen. Because both witnessing executions done by your father as well as eventually participating in them and doing them yourself causes you to lose empathy for the people you kill.

Doing their killings themselves is the reason why the Starks are the hard and cold and cruel Kings of the North they have been in the past. This is not a positive trait if you look at it closely. A man who doesn't like to execute people wouldn't do much executions regardless whether he does his killings himself or whether he has a headsman.

17 hours ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

Arya doesn't have a role model to help guide her. She is learning some messed up lessons from her current mentor (who is for all we know, a member of the "smallfolk"). I dont think her murder of Daeron represents an inherent flaw in the feudal system, I think it's a future plot development. Something like Arya confronting a dilemma that her own brother intended to be a deserter - to save "her". She has to figure out for herself what was right and wrong, under cognitive dissonance. 

LOL, now we are going to twist the Faceless Men into smallfolk and 'unworthy role models'? If your read the books then you do know that they do not exactly approve of Arya murdering Dareon, no? She followed in her father's footsteps there - she is following the lessons of her father there, trying to do what a good Stark would do.

This action is also a plot in itself, and doesn't change or becomes less ugly when it also serves as a lesson for Arya. She murdered another human being in cold blood, and it doesn't matter if she eventually learns something for herself from that. In fact, that thing diminishes the meaning of the murder, because it caused it 'make sense' in a way - which it doesn't. It was just a pointless murder.

16 hours ago, Mithras said:

As an enthusiast of popular history and great man theory, GRRM does not agree with that view.

Great man theory would perfectly with that view - the problem are aristocratic values, not great men who shape the course of history. But it is clearly not an underlying concept of the series, since the focus there is actually, for the most part, of average people, not great ones. There are some great people in the story (Tywin, Robert, Daenerys, in a sense Jaime) but the rest are, for the most part, average aristocrats and knights who are not special in any way.

16 hours ago, Lollygag said:

I'm doubting there's a commentary exclusively on feudal society here. I think it has more to do with societies and systems in general. I see the books as a warning against idealizing any system or growing complacent in any system. Just like the characters have strengths, weaknesses, biases, flaws, and blind spots which affect their society, so do we as readers have strengths, weakness, biases, etc which affect our rl respective society. Societies and systems - every single one of them - are flawed because we are flawed.

A lot of the flaws in the world of Westeros go back to their shitty societal framework, not general human flaws. In fact, those play pretty much no role at all on the social level. It doesn't matter to the people at large whether their lord or king is a prick or a good guy. The effect of 'personal shittiness' on their life is pretty much irrelevant. But any lord or king - be he prick or saint - is going to act within the framework of the values of his class, i.e. chivalry, aristocratic honor, piety, loyalty to one's family and liege/king, etc.

And as it turns out there is a case to be made that some of the betrayals of the 'aristocratic code' are actually doing the society as a whole more good than 'doing the right thing' as per the societal rules. Think, for instance, of Stannis having Renly murdered via black magic, causing him to save countless lives in the battle he and his brother would have fought instead. Or the Red Wedding - a monstrous crime, sure, but something that ended the war and certainly saved the lives of those people who did not die in a continued war between the Iron Throne and Robb's kingdom.

Sure, we also have this kind of thing on a personal level - Sandor being a more honest man than many of the highborn knights, Dunk, a false knight, being a truer knight than any proper knight, etc.

16 hours ago, Lollygag said:

Given how often the books and characters serve as mirrors and tricks to expose the readers' biases, assumptions, etc., my view is that we're supposed to look at the books primarily through the lens of the human condition (hence character names as chapter names) and then to see those characters primarily as individuals (chapter names only show the first name, not the family name) and then to compare these characters to ourselves and our place in our own society. For example, as a Stark fan, I'm supposed to be aware of my own susceptibility to the Game of Thrones/ us vs. them mindset. Truth hurts but there it is.

I'd say that this is exactly the kind of thing we should not do. We are given the POV and biases of the characters, but we should not be sucked in by them. We should not swallow the lies they tell themselves to be able to watch themselves in the mirror. Due to the structure of the story-telling there is really no 'truth' there - Jaime did not suddenly become less of a monster because we are suddenly privy to his (quite funny) inner voice. His actions remain the same, and every well-written character as an explanation or justification for his or her actions. Or if you take Catelyn and Jon, then the issue is not the boy was too whiny and the woman was too cruel - the issue is the silly Westerosi custom to brand noble bastards as freaks who don't belong in the family, even if their highborn parent actually makes it clear that he effectively wants to properly adopt them. It is the societal framework that makes the Jon Snow thing an issue for Catelyn.

And I think by describing yourself as 'a Stark fan' you have also gone too far in the wrong direction. There are only individuals, not a house. If you take the fiction of the aristocratic house at face value then you basically play the game by the fictional rules of the book. And that is not something we are supposed to do. That is why we are eventually getting Stark antagonists as POVs. As for the Starks, there are characters (sort of) belonging to that family I very much like (Catelyn, Ned, and Sansa for me) and such I don't like that much (Jon, Arya, and Bran - although in the latter two cases this has more to do with their rather boring stories in the first couple of books - I always liked Bran most of the Starks because, in a very real sense, he is the best of them despite being a child). Arya is only likable for what she was, not for what she has become. Her most recent characters are terrific, the sample chapter contains some of George's best prose of all time, but she crossed far too many lines to be still a character one could reasonably find sympathetic.

More weird is the idea of there being 'Targaryen fans' - until TWoIaF and FaB there were very few actual Targaryens in the main series. In fact, properly said liking/disliking the Targaryens is equivalent with 'liking/disliking Daenerys' - because nobody ever cared for Viserys III, and Aemon is first and foremost the prototypical wise man/maester, not somebody the reader and the people in the books see as the member of a particular family (and it is the same with Bloodraven later on).

16 hours ago, Lollygag said:

As to the question as to whether we're supposed to judge the characters by the standards of their world or by our own modern standards, I think we're supposed to do both and then compare and contrast them. I see this coming up more often lately on the forum and some people definitely have preferences for one view or the other, but I find seeing it both ways as much more educational and rewarding. I'm not sure we can understand any character solely though our own standards, nor am I sure that any writer ever decides to write with the goal of the reader completely checking their own ethics at the door. The books seem geared more to raising questions than providing answers from on high. Hence this forum ;)
 

The issue here is that by the standards of their world - especially when you take the more cynical approach to power and politics essentially all the successful rulers of Westeros (aside from Baelor the Blessed) took - them being judged by our standards makes, overall, the losers the good guys, and the winners the criminals/villains (and I very much believe and expect that George's hints about TWoW being 'a very dark book' is essentially confirming that the remaining 'good guys' as per our standards have to become villains to defeat the actual villains.

And that would then be the ultimate cynical morale of the tale - only people like Littlefinger can truly win the game of thrones. The fact that they will have to unite to deal with the Others may undercut that morale and turn it on its head for this special circumstance, but I'm reasonably confident that nobody will be able to draw the message from that book that trying to be a good guy is going to win you anything in this world - that kind of thing essentially died with Ned when his downfall was caused by his concern and pity for Cersei's children (and Cersei and Jaime themselves).

We already see this kind of thing happening with Arya and Wyman Manderly - who essentially become monsters to defeat or survive in the company of monsters. And I think we'll see many other 'good characters' follow their examples to various degrees.

The few strong taboos the Westerosi of the Seven Kingdoms - things like kinslaying and breaking of guest right - are things more pragmatic modern readers might actually have less issues with (see above on Stannis and the Red Wedding) than the people in the novels do.

10 hours ago, The Young Maester said:

Only difference between the ruling elite of our modern era and the past. Is that they act as if they care for the people in order to gain their support. And this is because we (the common people) have gained a more broad consciousness, when compared to our medieval ancestors (whom were dumb as fuck).

Sure, I'd agree with that to a high degree, although you do have to keep in mind that a mob in a city could easily enough butcher the couple of big guys living in their midst and get away with that. The ruling elite in the middle ages and early modern days was in much more actual danger than the ruling elites of our day and age (especially in stable democracies, where people think they live in great societies and the likelihood of a violent revolution is very low).

Back then, society was trying to be totalitarian, but lacked the means to enforce complete control - today we basically have both.

10 hours ago, The Young Maester said:

But in my personal opinion i see no difference between governments now and feudal nobles from the past. They have different methods of exploiting the people, but in the end it’s all with the same goal. To better themselves and their dynasty/political party. 

What makes Westeros so fucked-up a world is that the smallfolk actually are sheep - which they never were in the actual middle ages. There were constant uprisings and rebellions and attempts of various movements to overthrow the ruling order. In Westeros there is nothing of that kind, and that certainly is a considerable issue (we got some brief hints with the riots in KL and the sparrow movement later).

But the toxicity of Westerosi aristocratic values is that their own values demand of them to go to war for pretty much no reason - they are most toxic for the commoners, of course, but being forced/expected to go to war to avenge your dead father or brother or other close relation is also inherently self-destructive.

We see this perhaps in Westeros more than in the real world considering the main - and nearly only - reason/cause for a war in this world are either a question of succession (meaning rich and privileged pricks can't get it straight which prick should be in charge, which is a non-issue for the overwhelming majority of the population) or a question of personal revenge/vengeance (which is also completely irrelevant for anyone but the close family of the guy who has issues with some other noble prick).

Foreign invasion, expansion, economic crises, etc. never come up as reasons for conflicts and wars.

2 hours ago, Aline de Gavrillac said:

Seriously, Dear Lord Varys, you should know.  Toxic values, whether you call it aristocratic, elitism, or whatever, have always existed.  So we should ask if it's due to aristocracy or basic human nature.  Humans want to establish class systems that benefit those who can create such an order.  Call it ego.  The justification to have more rights.  Maybe it's the excuse to avoid manual labor and still be able to live in relative luxury. 

Well, sure. But the point is whether the aristocratic values I tried to describe actually are (supposed to be) seen as toxic and whether that's something we should take away from the novels.

2 hours ago, Aline de Gavrillac said:

We can distill the problem down to family pride and love.  Catelyn didn't really get bothered at the number of small folk children who will die if she should take Tyrion prisoner.  Bran is family, he's a noble son.  What does it matter if thousands of really innocent and so-far uninvolved children get killed.  It did not matter to Cat. It was more important to her to learn the identity of her son's attacker and bring him to justice.  The resulting conflict will not improve the lives of anybody.  It will not free people from slavery.  Nope.  It's only benefit is to punish the man responsible for injuring her son. 

To be sure, it was that and to ensure that Tyrion Lannister (who she believed was behind the attempt on her son) went down to court and tried his best to kill her husband and her daughters there, too. If Tyrion was guilty, he would be warned that Cat and the Starks knew/suspected what he was up to and would also inform his family about what was going on.

Essentially the entire framework/theme of AGoT is rooted in aristocratic honor and other such issues - those are the reasons why the Starks get involved in things. And they are also the reason why Tywin invades the Riverlands, etc.

In fact, they were part of the reason why I nearly stopped reading this story about a bunch of politicking noble pricks because the person who gave me the books told me this was supposed to be a fantasy series.

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3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

And those differences are so minor that they are irrelevant. The human element as such is pretty much irrelevant, since, as I pointed out, there is essentially no structural difference between Tywin and Ned on the conceptual level of feudal/aristocratic rule.

They both escalated conflict to start a war, but when did Ned commit a Red Wedding? When did Tywin sacrifice his honor to save his daughter? Those differences are pretty big for the plot of the story. 

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

We are talking about what it means to be a noble in this world, what nobles consider to be a good and a bad or a right or a wrong action - basic human stuff like 'do not kill children' don't figure into how a nobleman actually rules and what kind of values they subscribe to.

Social classes don't have values, individuals do, and whatever values nobles share as a group, they will also find themselves conflicted about them. Decisions about legacy, loyalty, king, family, individual desire - not everything lines up neatly for everyone in the same social class. The Starks take actions to support their family and the Lannisters sometimes support/undermine their own family. 

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

In fact, even something as basic as murder is treated differently - if the thug of a nobleman (like Sandor Clegane) kills a peasant then this is not really an issue, unlike when somebody like Dareon seduces a highborn maiden.

The Brotherhood thought Clegane murdering a peasant was indeed an issue. Arya thought it was too. Dareon wasn't an innocent kid. He's basically a horny Jonas Slynt. He was supposed to be a replacement for Yoren. What a digression . . . 

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

 Family, too, is a societal concept that is very much shaped by aristocratic values - Tywin loathes Tyrion, yet to keep face in front of his noble peers and do justice to the damaged honor of House Lannister he does have to retaliate. His society dictates that he has to start a war to save a son he has no issue seeing dead.

Society doesn't dictate anything, it's not a person. Individuals act based on how they interpret social pressures, and no one was forcing his hand to burn the Riverlands. Social norms didn't cause him to make the choice to escalate, he decided to follow the social norm.

Escalating conflicts and retaliation are the basis for like...every war, ever so I don't really see this as exclusive to Westerosi society. 

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

I daresay George doesn't like that book because of that reason. And it has no bearing on the current discussion.

I brought it up because Dickens portrays the aristocracy with nuance. Madame Defarge wanted to cure the world of what you call "toxic aristocratic values" and dies a villain. And GRRM enjoys this tale.

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

No, the whole thing is very much ambivalent - commanding other people to murder for you can cause you to distance yourself from killing, meaning you kill more people than you would have killed if you were employing yourself as your headsman. But killing people yourself slowly but surely turns you into your own headsman. It is the surest way to turn yourself into another Arya Stark or a Maegor Targaryen. Because both witnessing executions done by your father as well as eventually participating in them and doing them yourself causes you to lose empathy for the people you kill.

It's supposed to be a serious thing - that's what Ned is trying to show his children. He wants them to feel the weight/burden of it and he doesn't want things to be easy for them. They must have been doing something right with their state executions since they ruled for 8000 years and are still popular. My guess is that they earned the respect of the people by doing it themselves. I'm not really worried about the Starks becoming people who will destroy cities, or mass murder people who didn't cause them personal harm on a genocidal scale.

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

LOL, now we are going to twist the Faceless Men into smallfolk and 'unworthy role models'? 

I don't think the Faceless Men are good for her in the long run and it's not because they're members of the smallfolk. I think Ned Stark is the hero in this story. In answer to a question about why he killed Ned Stark, GRRM said sometimes you have to die, to be a hero. And I think it's because he was one of the few characters who had respect for human life. An Assassin's Guild isn't a good place to learn how to do that.

Quote

 

If your read the books then you do know that they do not exactly approve of Arya murdering Dareon, no? She followed in her father's footsteps there - she is following the lessons of her father there, trying to do what a good Stark would do.

 

They're punishing her for acting without an order, not because they care about the guy. They would have approved of her murdering Dareon she had gotten an order to assassinate him. Arya received no lessons about killing deserters or the chain of command at the Wall. The lesson isn't wrong, it's her misinterpretation and lack of understanding of the lesson. 

3 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

This action is also a plot in itself, and doesn't change or becomes less ugly when it also serves as a lesson for Arya. She murdered another human being in cold blood, and it doesn't matter if she eventually learns something for herself from that. In fact, that thing diminishes the meaning of the murder, because it caused it 'make sense' in a way - which it doesn't. It was just a pointless murder.

#justicefordareon, we barely knew ye or who your favorite whore was. 

Edited by Rose of Red Lake

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Class values didn't demand that Tywin burn Riverlands, his pride did. They demanded for him to bring the matter to the king. His pride is aristocratic pride, but he clearly takes it to another level. and I've seen this type of "I don't even love my kid and won't spend time raising him properly but I'll push him to succeed and attack viciously anyone who criticizes him, because it's reflection on ME" in modern society as well, with less horrifying results admittedly. 

anyway, I guarantee that Martin doesn't think that there is little practical difference between Tywin and Ned. One way or another, some (usually priviledged) men will end up making decisions for many, and their choices and personal values will matter very much. I don't think Martin even shows us history in marxist view of it, it all goes down to personal decisions rather than movement of masses, his biggest attempt to show this would be Little Sparrows, in my opinion - societal movement based on new realities of the world, otherwise we're back to the fate of the world resting on decisions of Dany or Jon Snow, for example, so Ned's decision to save him (just one person) ends up being vitally important, rather than irrelevant subnote in story about inevitable movement of history which any single human can do little to change. I just don't see in him much interest in analyzing history in this way. We hear very little about middle class, clergy only now starts raising its head in any relevant way, we don't know much about economy, or even smaller matters of governing (who represents the Crown in the North?), etc, from that point of view world building is very sparse. It's almost as if GRRM is more interested in moral dilemmas of his powerful aristocratic protagonists. 

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38 minutes ago, Agnessa Schizoid said:

It's almost as if GRRM is more interested in moral dilemmas of his powerful aristocratic protagonists. 

Not "almost as if", but "is". George has reiterated time and time again that he writes about the heart in conflict, and this has been true for almost any of the stories he wrote, whether it is "horror" or "sci-fi" or "fantasy". He calls the setting "furniture". What captivates a reader in his opinion isn't the furniture, but the moral dilemmas protagonists face.

When he sent in short stories to be published in the late sixties and early seventies, some were rejected with the argument: great story, but it could have been written in any type of setting and thus isn't [hardcore] sci-fi. So, he researched "what is sci-fi" and read the standards, but came to the conclusion that even in these "true sci-fi" short stories, it wasn't about pages of the physics of temperatures in space, but about a group of people trying to survive inhuman conditions. And while a treaty about physics is neat, it's still "furniture".

He built his whole writing career on this focus, and it hasn't altered. So, no, George is not writing to critique feudal society, but to write about the human condition and moral dilemmas in a setting that is more detailed and tangible than it was in his earliest days of writing, but still not a treaty on sociology or economics.

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I know, it was irony. I am there for deep exploration of class structures and how they developed and affected history, it's just not this particular book. GRRM has richly developed history of his world, but it's still story of individual monarchs and how their particular vices and goodness affected the world, not about development of class structures, means of production and economic factors and how they affected everything - in this regard the book is pretty simplistic. Even FaB read more like soap opera about dramatic lives of particular people. He doesn't sugar coat most things - it's not in his style - but that's just sense of realism. It would be hard to have gritty and realistic medieval fantasy with rosy picture of feudalism, especially during the times of civil war. 

And do we really need to be taught that feudalism isn't all that great? Most people, if anything, demonize middle ages overmuch rather that idealize it. 

Edited by Agnessa Schizoid

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The situation was much, much worse before the arrival of the Targaryens.  Argillac, Harren, and the "great" houses were constantly in conflict.  The commoners had little break from warfare.  A strong, central ruler helped calm Westeros to allow for longer periods between conflicts.  The social values have yet to catch up but the authority of the iron throne gave rise to progressive ideas such as prohibiting the lord's right to the first night. 

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I expect that if GRRM were interested in showing that the aristocracy were "shitty people" and bad for the smallfolk. we would get more of the story of the smallfolk.  But all of the characters of any real substance are nobility, and they have a great range of characterizations.  The Starks are, as far as I can tell, pretty decent.  Others, like the Lannisters, not so much.  Sam and Brienne for example, are nobles, and are among the nicest, most decent people you could hope to meet.   Others, like the Boltons, are singularly nasty.  It is worth noting, however, that the Boltons are also disdained for their behavior. 

And contrary to what some posters have suggested, if the nobility regularly mistreat their peasants (murder, rape, etc.), we don't see it, or even much mention of it, at least during normal times.  Wartime being an exception. which it is in any setting.

I also tend to agree with @sweetsunray that his primary interest is in the internal conflict of the heart, and that the feudal setting is primarily of interest as the framework for that conflict.  

 

Edited by Nevets

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