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Marginal Notes

Jaime Lannister and Sympathetic Monsters

“Come for the incest, stay for the dragons:” Seth Meyers on Game of Thrones

The second scene in which Jaime Lannister appears in Game of Thrones, he shoves ten-year-old Bran Stark out a window because Bran caught Jaime and his twin sister Cersei making love. (Bran does survive, but that wasn’t what Jaime intended.) In most works of fiction, there’s no coming back from something like that – incest and attempted child murder gets you branded as a monster for the rest of the story. Yet as Game of Thrones progresses, readers learn to like and in some ways even admire Jaime. How does George, R. R. Martin do it?

It’s because he is a master of the technique we talked about last month – creating sympathetic characters in a culture that is decidedly unsympathetic. Martin has managed to create a plausible medieval-like society. But he goes far beyond the usual physical details of a swords-and-sorcery world – small city states ruled by kings, dragons and zombies, no machines more complex than a crossbow – and into the deep roots of the culture. And the different rules he has built into Westeros shape the lives of his characters and make Jaime Lannister possible.

Incidentally, if you haven’t read the books – or seen the HBO series, which follows the books very closely – you might want to stop reading. I intend to throw around spoilers with wild abandon.

The first difference is that life is cheap in Westeros. From the time Eddard Stark, one of the most sympathetic characters in the first book, loses his head, Martin became infamous for killing off likable characters, often in wholesale lots. But this isn’t just a bad habit on his part. It’s a realistic portrayal of the world he’s created.

Martin’s Westeros, like medieval Europe, is a place where solders in the winning army feel justified in raping and pillaging their way across the countryside because, hey, who’s going to stop them? So unless you lived in a walled city or were rich enough to hire a sellsword to protect yourself and your family, roving bandits or bands of soldiers – including the ones who were theoretically on your side – could simply show up and slaughter you and yours. Starvation was commonplace as well, both during sieges and during the years-long winter. And I’d guess that disease was also rampant, given the description of how Fleabottom, the poor section of the capital city, King’s Landing, handles its waste disposal (yes, it does flow downhill).

Against this backdrop of short and brutal lives, the attempted murder of just one of Eddard Stark’s three sons (four, counting his bastard Jon Snow) is not that much of a tragedy. As the oft-repeated High Valyrian saying runs, valar morghulis. All men must die.

Another fundamental difference is that Martin’s society is held together more by personal relationships than a stable social contract. Family is central, mostly because your family members are the only ones you can trust to not stab you in the back – at least, most of the time. Even if they don’t like each other much, family members tend to choose the wellbeing of the clan above everything else.

Readers eventually learn that, when Jaime tries to kill Bran, he is not simply protecting a personal secret. If it became known that he and his sister were lovers, it might also become obvious that Cersei’s three blond-haired children are the product of their relationship (both Jaimie and Cersei are blond) rather than the work of King Robert, Cersei’s black-haired husband. And given that their oldest, Joffrey, is in line to inherit the throne, the Lannister family’s political power – something Jaimie’s father, Tywin, has fought for his entire life – is also at stake. Finally, given the tendency of other great houses to pounce on any that seem weak, the Lannisters’ continued existence might ultimately come under threat if they lose the support of the throne. Given the importance of family and the way Jaime’s is at risk, both his incest and his murder attempt almost make sense.

Especially since the peace of the kingdom is also at risk. In fact, when word of Joffrey’s illegitimacy gets out, it triggers a four-way civil war as various other claimants to the throne come forward. Given that the civil war kills thousands – soldiers, peasants, and a fair number of beloved characters – the attempted killing of one ten-year-old starts to seem like a necessary sacrifice.

Martin does more than simply justify Jaime’s act in terms of his society. He makes it clear that, despite what he’s done, Jaime has a core that is honorable and even compassionate. Jaime is a good man forced by circumstances to do something horrible.

For one thing, Martin introduces us to genuinely horrible people. Joffrey, for instance, thinks that being king gives him the right to torment whomever he wants. Both Lords Roose Bolton and Balon Greyjoy are cold enough to abandon their own sons when they are no longer useful. Lord Walder Frey enjoys sitting back and watching his men slaughter the guests at his daughter’s wedding – one of the wholesale killings of sympathetic characters that upset Martin’s fans. And Ramsey Snow, Lord Bolton’s bastard son, has made both an art and a science out of actual, physical torture, a Bolton family tradition – their banner shows a flayed enemy.

Even Jaime’s father, Tywin, cares for his family mostly in the abstract. He’s willing to manipulate his children with no consideration of their feelings in order to gain political advantage for the family as a whole. He’s also willing to torture his son Tyrion, psychologically if not physically. Against this backdrop, Jaime has a genuinely loving relationship with his younger brother Tyrion and risks his life at various times to save both Tyrion and Brienne, a female knight with whom he falls in love. His father’s coldness, coupled with a mother who died when he was young, could easily have driven him into his sister’s arms. Once you meet his family, it’s easier to see him as a good man forced by circumstances to do horrible things.

Then there’s Jaimie’s history as the “Kingslayer.” Years before the story of Game of Thrones begins, Jaimie was a knight of the King’s Guard of the former king, Aerys Targaryen. The office involved swearing a solemn oath to protect the king in a society were oaths were second only to family in holding things together – often the only thing that keeps knights from rape and pillage is their oath of chivalry. But as Jaime confesses to Brienne one night, the old, mad king demanded that Jaime kill his own father and burn down King’s Landing. Given the choice between breaking his vow and committing patricide and mass murder, he chose to stab the king in the back, an act of compassion for which he was despised for the rest of his life.

Despite what Seth Meyers says, I don’t think people are fascinated by Game of Thrones because of either the incest or the dragons – although, yes, the dragons are pretty cool. I think the story takes root in the imagination because of the spectacle of watching good people try to preserve their compassion and integrity in terrible circumstances. It’s easy to be heroic when the choices are clear and don’t cost much. The real human heroes are the ones who have to fight for their heroism. Like Jon Snow, who kills an ally, breaks his vows, and betrays the woman he loves to fulfill his duties to the Night’s Watch. Or Brienne, who is honorable enough to risk death to fulfill her oaths yet who once killed a renegade soldier slowly so he’d suffer as much as his victims. Or Tyrion, one of the few genuinely compassionate and loving characters, who strangles his ex-lover and kills his father in the privy.

Or Jaime Lannister, who once shoved a ten-year-old out a window in order protect the woman he loved (who happened to be his sister) and to save a kingdom.