War of the Five Kings and the Breakdown of Feudalism
The main settings for Game of Thrones are the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. Westeros is made up of seven kingdoms — the Kingdom of the North, the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale, the Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Reach, the Kingdom of the Stormlands and Dorne. The Seven Kingdoms have existed for thousands of years largely as a feudal society and undergoing periodic dynastic shifts, civil wars and invasions (the dominant religion known as the “Faith of the Seven” forbids slavery).
One of the major plots of the series is a civil war by the noble kingdoms for control of the Iron Throne following the death of the King Robert Baratheon. The “War of the Five Kings,” which begins at the end of the first season initially involves five separate claimants to the Iron Throne (currently reduced to three by the end of season four) involves bloody battles, massacres and dynastic upheavals which devastate Westeros.
The roots of the war go back to season one when Eddard “Ned” Stark, the rather sympathetic and honorable Lord Paramount of the North, receives news that his friend Jon Arryn, his mentor and the current Hand of the King, has been murdered. Eddard is chosen by King Robert to replace Arryn as Hand of the King. Although Ned considers refusing, Robert needs a loyal friend in the capital, and also promises to wed his son Joffrey to Ned's daughter Sansa (which would subsequently give the Starks a claim on the throne). However, Eddard only agrees to take the position when he receives a secret letter from his wife Catelyn's sister, Lysa Arryn (Jon's widow) that implicates the Lannisters in the death of her husband.
The Lannisters are one of the most powerful and wealthiest noble families in Westeros. They also possess a deserved reputation for ruthlessness and dishonor (and there is mistrust between them and the House of Stark). King Robert's wife, Cersei, the current Queen, comes from the Lannisters. Upon hearing this news, Eddard suspects that there is a plot being raised against the King and accepts Robert's offer in order to investigate Jon Arryn's death.
While in the capital of King's Landing, Ned learns that Jon Arryn took an interest in Robert's bastard children. Through further investigation, Ned discovers that all the bastard children (like the Baratheons) possess black hair. However, all of Robert's children have blond hair like the Lannisters. This convinces Eddard that the King's children are not his, but are actually the product of Cersei's incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie (a member of the King's Guard). This means that the children have no claim to the throne. With the King away on a hunting trip, Eddard confronts Cersei, telling her he knows the truth, and warns her to flee the capital before Robert returns as Ned will tell him the truth.
Robert is mortally wounded on his hunt and dies, but not before naming Eddard as Protector of the Realm, to rule until Joffrey can come of age. Eddard moves quickly, writing to Robert's elder brother Stannis (the rightful claimant to the throne), urging to take power. Robert's other brother, Renly, leaves the capital before the King's death--fearing a bloodbath. Eddard ignores the suggestion of his ally Petyr Baelish “Littlefinger” that they take advantage of the situation to gain more power. Eddard doesn't believe that he has a legitimate claim to the throne, but rather plans to arrest Cersei and her children once the king is dead (Eddard refuses to shed blood while Robert is dying). This gives Cersei a chance to make her own plans. After Robert dies, when Eddard attempts to have her arrested, the Guards and Littlefinger betray him. Eddard is taken into custody and is later publicly executed by King Joffrey. This goes against the express wishes of Cersei, who wanted to have Eddard banished and potentially bargain with Eddard's son Rob who is raising an army to rescue his father.
Following the death of Eddard, the “War of the Five Kingdoms” begins. Although Joffrey is crowned King, his claim is disputed by Stannis and Renly Baratheon (who are both making separate claims) due to him being the product of incest. Stannis claims that the throne is his by right since he is the elder brother of the King. Even though Renly is second in line, he believes that he would make a better King than Stannis. Eddard's son Rob Stark is crowned “King in the North” by his men and wages his own war with the Lannisters, but doesn't declare allegiance to either Stannis or Renly. At the same time, Balon Greyjoy,ruler of the Iron Islands, who had lived uneasily under Robert Baratheon, declares his independence once more.
The war rages on with shifting alliances and assassinations of key players. Although Rob Stark is military successful against the Lannisters and dubbed the “Young Wolf,” he makes a number of errors such as breaking a promise to wed into the House of Frey (one of his key allies) when he falls in love with Talisa Maegyr (a noble from the Free City of Volantis). Robb is unable to secure an alliance with Renly (who is assassinated by Stannis) or the Iron Islands (Theon Greyjoy in fact sacks Robb's home of Winterfell). Robb's missteps allow for Tywin Lannister (Cersei's father and the true power behind the Iron Throne) to make an alliance with the Freys, who proceed to have Robb killed when he attempts to mend fences.
Joffrey's claim to the Iron Throne is most directly threatened by Stannis, who has his brother killed and leads a massive fleet and invasion force to King's Landing. Despite being on the verge of victory, Stannis' forces are beaten back by the clever tactics of Tyrion Lannister and soldiers from the House of Tyrell (Margaery Tyrell is the widow of Renly and once she is betrothed to Joffrey, this cements the alliance between the two houses). Although Stannis is beaten off, he returns to his home base of Dragonstone and after securing financial support from the Iron Bank of Braavos, he raises a new army and lands in the far north.
The war not only redraws the political map of Westeros, but it also brings immense suffering to poor peasants. Peasants find themselves pillaged and raided to feed the various armies. All of the factions sack cities, rape women and massacre prisoners. The breakdown in social cohesion in the Seven Kingdoms means that there are various outlaws who can act with impunity and that the Lords pledged to protect the peasantry are unable to do so. Forces such as the Brotherhood Without Banners arrive in order to protect “smallfolk” and deserters against all who would threaten them. Although initially allied with the Lannisters, the Brotherhood winds up acting as a guerrilla band behind Lannister lines, infuriating Tywin and other commanders.
As the Seven Kingdoms are laid to waste by civil war, they risk mutually assured destruction from beyond their borders. On the far northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, there is a monumental fortification known as the Wall, which stretches for 300 miles along the border and is 700 feet tall and made of solid ice. The Wall was reported constructed thousands of years ago to protect the Seven Kingdoms from the White Walkers, monstrous beings who once ruled Westeros, but were driven away. Now most people in the Seven Kingdoms believe that the White Walkers were little more than myths to frighten children. The Wall is manned by the Night's Watch, who's members swear allegiance only to the Watch and do not take part in the civil wars of Westeros. Although the Watch was once considered an honorable institution, it is now a place to send outcasts, misfits and prisoners. And the Watch, is also understrength, numbering less than a thousand men with run down defenses with their requests for aid from King's Landing ignored.
By the time of the television series, the Watch is fighting off the wildlings or the “Free Folk.” The wildlings are free folk who live north of the Wall, coming from many different tribes and cultures. They practice a different religion than the people of Westeros “Old Gods of the Forest.” The wildlings have a much more fluid social structure with no differentiation between lords and peasants farmers. Men and women alike go into battle together And while the wildlings do at times unite and follow a “King-Beyond-the-Wall” (currently Mance Rayder) into battle, the position is not hereditary, they don't have elaborate rituals and ceremonies for royalty. Nor do the wildlings have laws or a state of their own. The Free Folk also mock the people of Westeros as “kneelers” for accepting royalty and nobility.
During the War of the Five Kings, the wildlings are moving south because of the White Walkers and the onset of winter. They engage in several skirmishes and major battle with the Night's Watch in the hopes of getting past the Wall and to safety. Although the wildlings nearly succeed in taking the Wall, the arrival of Stannis Baratheon and a fresh army is enough to stop their attack and take Rayder prisoner.
The mode of production in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros most clearly resembles what Marxists would characterize as a feudal society. Feudalism is characterized by small farming, based on traditional land ownership with clearly defined rights and duties for every member of society from the peasants to nobles to the King. Yet feudalism is very much a class society. As Marx once said, “Hierarchy is the ideal form of feudalism; feudalism is a political form of the medieval relations of production and intercourse.” For instance, the peasants in Game of Thrones are not slaves, but they are expected to surrender a portion of their labor to the lord (say by working for the lord's land five days out of the week while working on his own plot for the other day) in exchange for protection. The noble lords themselves thus gained their primary means of wealth from the peasantry who are the main producers. Feudal society in Game of Thrones does not operate according to market principles, but rather according to tradition and custom. The peasants are concerned with producing goods for the nobility and for maintaining their own subsistence. The nobility by contrast were interested in their own luxury or increasing their lands and political power – not surplus accumulation.
Unlike capitalist society, where there is relative autonomy between the state and the economic base, under feudalism the state and economy where fused. Marxist historian Perry Anderson describes the relationship in the following way: “Agrarian property was privately controlled by a class of feudal lords, who extracted a surplus from the peasants by politico-legal relations of compulsion. This extra-economic coercion, taking the form of labour services, rents in kind or customary dues owed to the individual lord by the peasant, was exercised both on the manorial demesne attached directly to the person of the lord, and on the strip tenancies or virgates cultivated by the peasant. Its necessary result was a juridical amalgamation of economic exploitation with political authority. The peasant was subject to the jurisdiction of his lord.” Thus while the state of feudal society performs the same function as the state under capitalism, it is far more fragmented as demonstrated in Game of Thrones – the noble families are all jostling for influence in order to increase their lands and hence their power leading to intrigue and wars.
However, it is clear from the War of the Five Kings that the feudal state in Game of Thrones is incapable of defending the common interests of the Lords or the social cohesion of their system. For instance, the Night's Watch is left alone (with the notable exception of Stannis) to fend off the threat of the wildlings and the White Walkers. Even though the various factions of the civil war have raised enormous armies, they are not being used to defend the common interest of the nobility, but rather the particular interests of different Houses.
Another further point of note is that the feudal society in Game of Thrones is stagnant in terms of technology and state structure (despite periodic dynastic changes). Paul Mason argues that this is a problem that “fantasy fiction adopts the conceit of a feudalism that is always in crisis but never overthrown.” And he does have a point, feudalism in Westeros has lasted for thousands of years with little appreciable advance in technology or change in the basic mode of production (aside from the abolition of slavery). And while commodity production does exist on the margins of Westeros, notably trading routes in the ports such as Kings' Landing and the Iron Bank of Braavos, only the former is prominent (since they have funded the Lannisters' war). However, the replacement of feudalism in Westeros by capitalism, which Mason predicts will occur in the series, remains an open question.
Although the War of the Five Kings remains in progress in Game of Thrones currently, it is possible to speculate on the war's outcome for the feudal system. Westeros is certainly in crisis, with the signs of “debts accumulated under a corrupt patronage system, whose sources of wealth dried up, destroyed the system in the end” as Mason argues, portending the end of feudalism. And certainly, the Iron Throne as it is currently organized is incapable of protecting the common interests and property of the nobility. By contrast, Kriss says that Mason's account of the crisis of feudalism is actually a crisis of capitalism. In fact, Kriss says that Mason neglects the role of class struggle and that “The real crisis of feudalism had very little to do with corruption and aristocratic profligacy, and everything to do with collective action on the part of the toiling masses.” And certainly in Europe, following the Black Death, facing a population shortage the peasants were able to obtain higher wages, rights to land, etc which prompted the rulers to turn to primitive accumulation and to undermine peasant rights — all of which ultimately led to the development of capitalism.
Yet there are problems with Kriss' statement that the crisis of feudalism had everything to do with the collective action of the masses. Certainly, there is the Brotherhood Without Banners who are fighting all the Kings. Yet the growth of market forces and the decline of feudalism can just as easily be brought about by outside forces. For instance, the crisis of feudalism in Japan came with the arrival of trading ships of Commodore Dewey and the threat of imperialist takeover. To forestall such a fate, the rulers of Japan instituted the Meiji Restoration to develop capitalism. A crisis of feudalism can lead to a decline in living standards for the masses, as it did in Japan with the Meiji Restoration. So contrary, to Kriss who says that the crisis of feudalism allowed peasants to get what they wanted such as higher wages, and he is certainly correct that this occurred in Europe following the Black Death, and as the example of Japan shows this was not always the case. Perhaps the Iron Bank would back a claimant to the Iron Throne, such as Stannis, who would bring a revolution from above?
Returning to the Seven Kingdoms, Mason says that with the Lannisters broke and indebted to Iron Bank, commerce needs to take hold in order to curb the power of the monarchy: “But for this to happen you need the rule of law. You need the power of kings to become subject to constitutional right, and a moral code imposed on business, trade and family life. But that won’t happen in Westeros, where the elite lifestyle is synonymous with rape, pillage, arbitrary killing, torture and recreational sex.” While Mason says this won't occur, it could plausibly be argued that the loose structure of the monarchy would need to be replaced by something like an absolutist state by the victor in the war.
In order for the lords to strengthen their hold on the peasantry and ensure surplus extraction, the powers of coercion would have to be displaced upwards towards a centralized and militarized monarchy — breaking with the previous fragmented powers of the nobility. At the same time, as occurred in our world, the emergence of Absolutism in the Seven Kingdoms could open the door for commodity production on the margins of the feudal economy to develop on their own terms with the creation of wage laborers and the bourgeoisie.
However, as we shall see there are other forces that could lead to a transition to capitalism (not considered by Mason or Kriss) in the world of Game of Thrones.
The Role of Women
Eddard Stark: "A little Lady shouldn't play with swords."
Arya Stark: "I wasn't playing. And I don't want to be a Lady." ("Lord Snow")
From: Game of Thrones.
Last seen: Rowing out to sea.
Woah woah woah, will this be full of Game of Thrones spoilers? If your definition of a spoiler is a description of something that happened on television more than four years ago, then yes. Also, you’re an idiot.
But I’m saving it up. Well, tough. Game of Thrones fans will remember that Gendry, the bastard son of dead king Robert Baratheon, was last seen escaping Dragonstone for King’s Landing on a rowing boat after being seduced by Melisandre the Red Woman, all the way back in 2013.
And he’s dead, right? He said that he couldn’t swim or row, so the implication was that he wouldn’t make it. I thought you said you hadn’t watched it.
I was lying. Fine. Nobody mentioned Gendry’s death, so his fate has been left up in the air. He has been the Westeros equivalent of Huell from Breaking Bad, left for ever sitting in that safe house without resolution.
Hey! I was saving Breaking Bad up! I hate you. The point is that Gendry’s loose end has become a meme. Some say he’s starring in a Life of Pi remake now. Another goes: “Row, row, row your boat / Gendry down the stream / Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily / Ever since season three.”
Fun. But all this speculation was in vain, because Gendry is apparently going to make an appearance in the new season of Game of Thrones.
We say “series” in this country. All right, Farage. Joe Dempsie, the actor who plays Gendry, almost definitely confirmed his return at the Game of Thrones premiere on Wednesday. And it’s rumoured that his appearance will be significant.
Significant how? You don’t want to find out here.
What about a compromise? Why is Gendry important? It’s because of his bloodline. Cersei Lannister maintained a sexual relationship with her brother after marrying Gendry’s father, so the children who took Robert’s place after he died aren’t Baratheons.
Right. But Gendry is a Baratheon by blood. If his lineage can be legitimised, Gendry has a genuine claim to the Iron Throne.
Wow, this is more complicated than EastEnders. No EastEnders spoilers! I’m saving it up!
Do say: “All hail the true king.”
Don’t say: “Game of Thrones is no Holby City, though.”