Varys, Tyrion and limited government
By Alberto Mingardi
Game of Thrones is back. The HBO series (not to mention the novels by George R.R. Martin) is an exciting part of our popular culture, but it is also obviously about power plays and, er, politics. So, for once, searching for its political message is not perhaps reading too much into it, but somehow consistent with the very nature of this spectacular entertainment product.
A couple of years ago I linked to a good post by Mike Rappaport on Games of Thrones and styles of leadership. Now I’ve run into this article by Robert Coville at CapX. It is very good indeed and gives a non-cynical interpretation of Martin’s stories.
For Coville, the gist of the series resides in a couple of dialogues between Tyrion and Varys, one and the other the most politically savvy – but, at times, the most Machiavellian – of Martin’s characters. He argues that
Martin’s real preference, I would argue, is revealed in another on-the-nose conversation between Varys and Tyrion (taken from the TV series, admittedly, rather than the books).
“What is it you want, exactly?” Varys asks. Tyrion responds: “Peace. Prosperity. A land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless.” “Where castles are made of gingerbread and moats are filled with blackberry wine,” scoffs Varys.
Both Tyrion and Varys are political realists, who have been close enough to sovereign and powerful men to see how human and, indeed, selfish they are. But they both join the cause of young Daeneris Targaryen not only because she has, er, dragons, nor because her dynasty has a claim to legitimacy much stronger than others, but because they see her as a champion of good government, understood as moderate government, moderate in the sense of self-limiting when it comes to what the powerful can actually do to anybody else.
If the series evolves like Coville argues, it could turn out to be about capable political operators turning to the service of leaders they consider the best not for their career, but for the land and the people.
This may sound naive, but anybody who either read or watched Game of Thrones knows that Martin is not naive indeed. He doesn’t spare any of the cruelty and pettiness of politics. I think somehow this apparent inconsistency is familiar to many of us who follow political matters closely. We know that self-interest and political incentives are the almost infallible umpires of the great trends in politics. But any of us can also name quite a few people who, though being fully aware of the problems and shortcomings of playing politics, are nonetheless trying to go against the grain and to what they sincerely believe it is the good thing. Martin, an arch-realist, suggests that the very same people who played safe and cynical can, under different circumstances, become forward-looking and generous. Let’s put it in different terms: perhaps the more you see how arbitrary and capricious government can be, the more you long for limited government. I don’t know if, whenever Game of Thrones ends, this will emerge as one of its messages. But it will be interesting if it does.