Honor, Morality And Selfishness: What The Game Of Thrones Teaches Us About The Real World

The Game of Thrones has been one of the most watched series of the last few years. I am a late comer onto the GoT bandwagon, having only started to watch the show midway into the second season, but I got hooked. The series has an engaging storyline and beautiful landscapes. It is set in the mythical lands of Westeros and Essos and follows the lives of multiple characters as they struggle to survive in this treacherous world. The story is fantasy and contains elements of magic, but it does explore many themes very relevant to our own world and lives. If you have not watched the series, then read no further, as a spoiler alert is in effect! 🙂

game of thrones lessons

The classic fantasy series (or any type of series actually) has the basic storyline of the main character (usually a hunky hero, but sometimes a loveable loser) battling many enemies and facing many pitfalls, but managing to overcome all the obstacles thrown at him to come out victorious. The bad guys are vanquished and everyone lives happily ever after. The Game of Thrones is not this type of story. Instead it explores much darker themes and has a much more sinister outlook on life. This makes it a much more realistic story and a very powerful commentary on human relations and things like honor, morality, selfishness and what it takes to succeed in this world. The different unexpected twists and turns of the storyline make us reflect on the nature of the world around us and its reality.

The story starts off by introducing Lord Eddard Stark, the Lord of the North. He is the head of the Stark family, who have ruled the lands named as “the North” for millennia. He is a strong warrior, a wise ruler and an honorable man. He does what is honorable and also what is his duty. This sense of honor and duty is what drives him and oftentimes the series portrays it as being old-school even for those times, as it is a code followed by fewer and fewer people. It seems that Eddard Stark or his family will be the heroes of the story, the righteous vanquishing the evil. Lord Stark has 5 legitimate children and one illegitimate son. Robb Stark is his oldest legitimate son and the heir to the lordship of the North. He tries to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn from his example. There are also other members of the Stark family, for example his wife Catelyn Stark and their other sons and daughters. He does have an illegitimate son as well. However that is a source of shame for him, as he considers adultery a bad thing. Yet he did succumb to the temptation, but deeply regrets it. A son was born of this and Eddard manned up to his mistake and raised the boy with his other children.

The story continues by King Robert Baratheon travelling to the capital city of the North, Winterfell, to try to persuade Eddard to become the Hand of the King, the king’s most senior adviser and basically the second most powerful position in the entire Kingdom. This is after the sudden and mysterious death of the previous Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, Eddard’s brother in law. Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark are old comrades and friends, who fought together to depose the evil king, Aerys II Targaryen. The Targaryen’s were the old ruling dynasty of Westeros. Their ancestor, King Aegon I, originally from the lands of Valyria in the east, came over to Westeros and with the aid of 3 dragons and a strong army, managed to conquer the entire continent and unite it under his rule and to become the first king to sit on the Iron Throne. The Iron Throne is central to the plot of the entire series, as the entire series is centered on the battles of several families to capture it and to become rulers of Westeros.

Aerys II Targaryen went mad and enacted a rule of terror over the lands of Westeros. Many nobles, led by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark, rose up to try to depose him. They finally succeeded in killing him and deposing his family from the Iron Throne. Robert Baratheon took over the throne himself to rule as King Robert of House Baratheon.

In the opening of the series we are also introduced to Cercei, who is Robert’s wife and mother of their children. She is originally from the Lannister family, who are from the western part of Westeros and who are also the continent’s richest family. Her father is Tywin Lannister and the other major characters from her family are her brothers: Jaime and Tyrion. Jaime is a knight in the King’s Guard, while Tyrion is a small dwarf. Unknown to all, Cercei is actually carrying on an incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime and it is him who is the real father of the Baratheon children (the eldest of which, Joffrey, is the heir to the Iron Throne). This secret will prove to be one of the central points of the entire story.

Out of the sense of honor and duty, Eddard accepts to become the Hand of the King. He is also bent on investigating the murder of Jon Arryn and a potential danger to the King himself. Once he gets to King’s Landing, the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms, he investigates this and finds out Cercei’s secret. This means that Joffrey has no claim to the Iron Throne.

In order to analyze the choices that Eddard made at that point we have to look at what type of a man he is. He is defined by his sense of honor and duty. These are bound by many different rules that are based on traditions that have come down from generations. For example, one of the first scenes in the first episode, has Lord Eddard capturing a deserter from the Night’s Watch, a brigade which is tasked with keeping a watch on the Wall separating the Seven Kingdoms, and civilization, from the wild, cold, dark and mysterious lands known as Beyond the Wall. The area called Beyond the Wall is unexplored and a source of many dangers for the lands south of the Wall. The punishments for desertion from the Night’s Watch is death. The law is the law and Eddard feels that he cannot bend it, so he decides that the deserter must be put to death. However he also feels that the honorable thing to do in a situation like this one is to follow ancient traditions. An ancient tradition of the North in this case states that the man who passes the sentence must also carry it out. Eddard reluctantly takes the sword and executes the deserter. You can see that Eddard takes his duty to uphold the law seriously and is also man enough to take the sword and carry out the sentence himself, instead of passing this act to one of his underlings. He is not one of those generals sitting back in the trenches, but is always at the forefront, suffering the hardships together with his troops. He tries to lead by example. Because of this he is both loved and respected.

Yet this sense of honor and duty is also the ultimate cause of his downfall. He is an honorable man and believes that other people share his sense of honor as well. This is one of the most common mistakes that honorable and moral people make. They assume that others are like them. They believe that the others also follow such rules as “do not do unto others as you don’t want done onto you” and that they do listen to reason. That is why they are bad at seeing treachery. Unfortunately most people do not follow a sense of honor and duty, they are often not altruistic and do not follow a voice of reason. Instead, many people put themselves first and are selfish. They think of themselves first and often resort to deceit and lies to further their own standing in life.

Once Eddard Stark discovers the secret, instead of acting upon it, he tries to do the honorable thing and confronts Cercei and tries to reason with her. He believes he has the upper hand. Her secret has been discovered and under the weight of the facts she will bow down and roll over, order and justice will be restored. However Cercei and her father Tywin are not driven by a sense of honor and duty. Instead, their primary drive is a selfish one and that is of furthering their own power. They do not hesitate to go to any lengths to satisfy this primary drive and murder and deceit are weapons of choice for them. At that instant King Robert dies and they get to work.

At this point, Eddard still has the upper hand. If he had acted upon the moment, he could have easily seized power and vanquished the Lannisters. Instead he does what he thinks is honorable once again. He refuses to spill blood and kill children. Renly had offered him his help, but he refuses. Renly knows that this act has doomed him and instead of waiting for the inevitable, flees the city. Instead, Eddard sends a letter to Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s brother, who he feels is now the rightful heir to the throne. Eddard also talks to Littlefinger, a cunning schemer and one of the most powerful men at the court, who advises him to seize the moment and gain power now. Instead, Eddard prefers to do it all in a more transparent manner and instead just gets a promise from Littlefinger that the City Guard, the troops tasked with guarding King’s Landing, will be on Eddard’s side. This is another mistake Eddard made, trusting an individual who is obviously driven by greed and selfishness. Littlefinger is driven by only doing things that will benefit Littlefinger. He calculated the risks and potential benefits and made his choice based on that.

Eddard tries to publicly denounce Joffrey and tell the truth. He orders the City Guard to seize Joffrey, but instead they turn on him, slaughter the Stark troops and Littlefinger puts a knife to Eddard Stark’s neck. Eddard is put into a cell and later executed on the orders of King Joffrey, who orders his head to be cut off by an executioner.

Eddard had a sense of honor and decided not to spill blood. He had a sense of duty and decided to try to preserve the kingdom and keep it in peace. Instead, he got himself killed and the kingdom ended up descending into chaos and warfare anyways. He was even made out to look like the bad guy by the authorities, who described him as a traitor and a bad man.

So what type of commentary does this have on the real world and what can we learn from this? Unlike other fantasy series, this one shows the cruel face of reality. Moral and honorable men do not always prevail. Oftentimes in the real world, they are beaten by the bad guys, unfortunately. The bad guys use every trick in the book to win. They are driven by selfishness and greed. They have no moral compass and instead their main drive in life is to do what is best for them, no matter the consequences or what bad things they need to do to achieve this.

Society however often tries to overlook this fact. It is taught that by being nice, honest, altruistic and honorable you will lead a great life and be a winner at the end. Unfortunately, this is not always so. The nice guys always finish last. It is often stated that the bad guys must live a life of misery, not being able to sleep at night or look themselves in the mirror, because of all the horrible things they had done. This is not true, oftentimes these people are not worried by the things they have done and sleep quite well at night, satisfied with their power and riches. Instead it is the good guy who sleeps bad at night, oftentimes worrying and putting blame on himself. This is unfortunately the reality.

Could you do better by being honorable, but shirking the sense of duty? This is what Eddard’s oldest son, Robb, does, but it serves him no better. Robb, once he hears of his father being put into a cell and then his death, goes to war. He is declared the King of the North and tries to destroy the Lannisters. He tries to follow his father’s honorable ways. However he shirks his sense of duty, when he is overcome with a sense of love. He had originally promised to marry the daughter of Lord Walder Frey, in return for Frey letting Robb’s army pass through his lands and also for Frey’s support. Instead, Robb falls in love with another woman and renegades on his promise to marry the daughter of Walder Frey, instead marrying the woman he loves. In this way he shirks his sense of duty. His sense of duty would have told him that he needs to keep his kingdom intact and he needs to have a strong army, and this means the support of Walder Frey. By renegading on his promise, he instead angers Frey. Robb makes another mistake, which proves fatal. He respects the old traditions and believes that others will honor them as well. So under this assumption, he goes into the home of Walder Frey to try to negotiate peace with him. Under ancient traditions, if someone is a guest in someone else’s home, they are protected and no harm can come to them. Instead, Frey deceives Robb Stark, and together with one of Robb’s generals who turns against him, proceeds on killing Robb, his mother, his bannermen and slaughtering their entire army who were unsuspectingly camped out in front of the castle.

You can say that you are no king and so you can be honorable and succeed. You can also say that there are no truly evil men and even if there are, they pose no danger to you. These might or might not be true, but it doesn’t matter. Most people are combinations of various degrees of good and bad and most people are driven by selfishness. Many people in today’s society have no sense of honor or morality. Their compass points at only one thing and that is themselves. Many people are selfish. Think of how many times you have tried to be altruistic and help someone you considered a friend, yet for them to forget about it the next day. How many times have you done your best to help someone else, yet for them to not even lift a finger when you needed help. How many times have tried to do the altruistic thing, yet the other people just took advantage of that and acted selfishly. How many times have you tried to be driven by your feelings and do the right thing, yet for someone just to turn around and feel no remorse when they did something bad to you? How many times have you tried to work hard, yet not be rewarded, while the lazy guy cheated and got all the rewards. How many times have you shared the fruits of your labors with someone else, yet for them to turn around and claim them as their own?

These things happen all the time and are the driving force of our society. Nice guys often finish last. Hard work often does not pay off. Being honorable and moral does not lead to a better life. Instead the bad guys, the cheaters and the people without honor or morality win.

So what can we do in order to act upon this reality and be successful? Often a sense of honor and morality is ingrained deeply inside us and you cannot get rid of it. Maybe you can lessen these senses, but it would be very hard to get rid of them. I don’t even think it would be desirable to get rid of them. I am a romantic at heart and my deeply ingrained sense of morality shudders at a world where only bad and selfish people exist. The world needs more morality and honor. However how to reconcile this with the realities that bad boys finish first? Here you can also take an example from the Game of Thrones. That example is of Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf brother of Cercei and son of Tywin.

Tyrion was born a small dwarf. He is not well-liked by his family, but tolerated since he is of their blood. His greatest strength is his social intelligence. He is smart and witty, but also skilled in the art of intrigue. However he does have a sense of honor and duty as well, which he proved by defending King’s Landing when it was attacked by the troops of Stannis Baratheon and also when he did not bed Stanza after he married her. He showed his sense of duty to defend his country and family by leading a charge to repel the invasion and he showed his sense of honor by not deflowering a lady against her will, even if that was expected of him. He is not naïve like Eddard and is well aware of the danger posed by others to him. He does his best to protect himself against them and always has a trick up his sleeve and things he can bargain with. However one thing he is missing is being tall and handsome. Because of his small stature and deformity he can never gain the respect of others. It is a reality in the world that the beautiful and the strong have it much easier in life, as people defer to them and respect them much more.

So what types of lessons can we take from this for our own lives? Stop being such a nice guy and start being a bit more selfish. There is nothing wrong with being altruistic, but keep it in check and start putting yourself in first place. If you don’t put yourself in first place, no one else will. Stop thinking that people only have good intentions and start protecting yourself. However don’t be paranoid either. Keep a healthy balance. Work hard, but keep in mind that sometimes the world isn’t about what you know, but who you know. Honor and duty have their place, but remember that a lot of people play dirty and you need to be able to counter that. Go out and enjoy life!

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