Game of Thrones has returned for its fifth season, and tuning in for the new episodes has left me with some thoughts I’d like to share.
Let me start by asking: Who is the real villain of Game of Thrones? A lot of names may come to mind. Is it the egotistical, conscienceless King Joffrey? Or is it maybe his mother, Cersei Lannister, with all her schemes and manipulations? What about the Boltons: Roose, who betrayed and murdered Robb Stark, and Ramsay his sadistic son? Or perhaps is the villain offstage, in the person of King Aerys II, whose madness and cruelty sparked Robert’s Rebellion?
I would argue that the real villain of Game of Thrones is none of the above. The real villain is the kindly, frail Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch.
For those needing a reminder about Westeros lore, Maester Aemon is also known as Aemon Targaryen. Once, many years before the events of Game of Thrones, he was first in line for the Iron Throne, and could have taken power, but refused, and let the crown pass to his brother, who became King Aegon V. Aegon was the father of Aerys II, and it was when the crown was passed from Aegon to Aerys that the troubles of Westeros began in earnest.
So if Aemon had just taken the crown when he was younger, none of the troubles we see in the story would have happened. No Mad King Aerys, no rebellion, no Joffrey, no War of the Five Kings, no Lannister coup d’etat, no beheading of Ned Stark or Red Wedding or burning of Winterfell, no journey of conquest by Danerys through Essos, and a unified Westeros ready to back up the Night’s Watch if anything went bad at the wall. The Seven Kingdoms would, to the very day we join in on the story, have been ruled by the wise and kind Aemon, and everything would be alright.
Well sure, you may be tempted to say, but that doesn’t make Aemon a villain; it just makes Westeros the unlucky victim of a choice he made long ago that seemed like a good idea at the time. But this ignores a crucial concept that should have been a factor in his decision of so many years back: the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese idea that deals with many facets of leadership, but in modern times it has been adapted by reactionaries into a deceptively simple three-step process to be followed by those in, or seeking, positions of power:
I. Become worthy
II. Accept power
One of the difficulties presented by this concept is that it is easy for people to make a very basic mistake when contemplating it; that is, to believe that this is (in order) a list of one responsibility and two rights (or even privileges). It is not. This is a list of three responsibilities. It is not the privilege, or even the right, of the worthy to accept power and to rule; it is their responsibility. Often, it is their responsibility to do so even if they must be ruthless in going about it; even if they must break vows or shed blood along the way. Because if they don’t accept power, and if they don’t rule, then someone else will. That someone else may not be all so very worthy, and if they are not, everyone will suffer.
One of the interesting aspects of the moral universe of Game of Thrones is that, in true pagan fashion (and Game of Thrones is very pagan in moral outlook) too much of any one virtue is not seen as a good thing. Instead, a balance of virtues is seen as optimal. Perhaps most notably, Ned Stark was too honorable, and the entire realm suffered because he wasn’t more cunning and ruthless when dealing with dangerous enemies. Maester Aemon had a similar flaw springing from an excesses of virtue – too much selflessness and too much humility. Certainly, it a character flaw to have too much ambition. But for the worthy to have too little ambition only results in them effectively ceding power to the unworthy. And what good does this do for anyone (other than unworthies who are not hindered by a similar lack of ambition)?
No, it is the responsibility of the worthy to accept power and to rule, even if they don’t want to. And the proof of that is hardly restricted to fantasy kingdoms full of fire-breathing dragons. Our own world is, and long has been, filled with problems caused by the abdication of the responsibility to accept power and rule by those who are worthy, and whose leadership is needed.
Our kings gave over their effective power power to parliaments, and by doing so left us all at the mercy of King Mob. The Church, through Vatican II, gave up its authority to intervene in worldly politics, thus handing its power over moral leadership to the fanatical utopian cult of leftism. The “Greatest Generation” refused to adequately rule over their own children, ensuring their unworthiness, and then, as soon as those unworthy children demanded it, ceded power over the nation and its culture to them without any real resistance. The mainstream right, as embodied in the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in Britain, suffers defeat after humiliating defeat even when they have the raw power to win because they refuse to fully accept and effectively wield the power that they have. Most importantly, their refusal to roll back even the tiniest bit of Cultural Marxism when they have the electoral majorities to do so is what makes the “ratchet effect” possible and ensures their own continued irrelevance. And why do they refuse to do so? Because they have granted the right to judge their actions to people who hate them, thus effectively handing every group of leftists that throws a hashtag hissy-fit when something doesn’t go its way the power to veto any and all of their policies.
Or consider the case of Germany in the 20th century. The Kaiser ceded power, first to General Ludendorff, who proved himself unworthy enough, and finally to the even greater unworthies of the Weimar Republic. One could say that he was forced to do the latter, and perhaps that’s true – but still, he did. Once in power, the Weimar Republic proved itself unwilling or unable to effectively rule. I carry no brief for Adolf Hitler (sorry, white nationalists), but even I will not claim that all of his complaints were entirely invalid. Hitler complained of the moral degeneracy of Weimar-era Berlin, and indeed the Weimar Republic was unable to effectively restrain that degeneracy. Hitler also complained of the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, including the disastrous and extortionate reparations to be paid by Germany to the Western powers, who demanded ever more in order to deal with their own economic problems in the face of the global Great Depression. Hitler claimed that Germany could, and should, have simply cut off these reparations and told the Western powers to go pound sand, and he was right – that’s precisely what they should have done. It was what Hitler eventually did. But what if the Weimar Republic had done it instead?
That is, of course, a moot question. They were unworthy, they only half-accepted power, and they refused to effectively rule. Because of this, the people of Germany, to borrow a phrase from The Dark Knight, turned to a man who they didn’t fully understand. He was unworthy, too, but he did fully accept power, and he did rule. Unfortunately, the results were worse, not better. It was the end of a downward spiral, in which each unworthy ended up ceding power to someone even more unworthy, until everything, predictably, came to horror and ruin.
Understanding these consequences, then, we can see why the refusal on the part of worthies to accept power and to rule not be regarded as noble or selfless, but as villainous or even treasonous. The only circumstance in which a refusal by the worthy to accept power should be seen as a credit to them is if they live under an immoral system and their refusal is motivated by a principled desire to not do anything that would perpetuate that system. Where this is not the case, any worthies who refuse to accept power and effectively rule when the time comes and the need arises must be actively shunned and shamed. The nation and its people consistently suffer when they refuse to do so – in Westeros, in Germany, everywhere – so why should that be looked on kindly? No, for the sake of all, worthies must – they must – accept power and rule. Where they demur or defer to others who are less worthy, they should be seen as, and treated as, villains.
And that is why, as gentle, wise, and kind as he may be, Maester Aemon must be seen for what he really is – the greatest villain in all the Seven Kingdoms.
UPDATE: In reflecting on this piece, it has occurred to me that there was another Targaryen who was equally guilty of causing the series of events that ended in so much calamity for the Seven Kingdoms, and for essentially the same reason: Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Ser Barristan Selmy once called Prince Rhaegar the “finest man I ever met”, and every account of him that wasn’t from one of his enemies (e.g. Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark) seems to agree with this assessment. He was brave, beautiful, kind, soulful, brilliant, scholarly, loyal, moral, and decent. And yet Prince Rhaegar twice – once through action, and once through inaction – managed set in motion the events that led to the war that resulted in his own death, the deaths of his wife and children, the end of his dynasty, and untold suffering among nobles and smallfolk alike in Westeros. The action (taking Lyanna Stark, willingly or not, away from her betrothed) was bad enough, but almost certainly would not have caused a war just by itself. The inaction was worse. Knowing that his father Aerys II had gone murderously insane, Rhaegar did nothing to stop him, long past the point where he should have taken some manner of action. Even Rhaegar himself understood this, too late, as evidenced by what he said to the young Jaime Lannister as he rode off to a battle from which he would never come back: “When the battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but… well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.”
As with so many things let go too long by people who should have been more responsible, that never happened. Rhaegar was (his indiscretion with Lyanna Stark aside) worthy, and his refusal to take power from his unworthy father came at a great cost not only to himself, but to everyone and everything he loved.