For those of you who do not know what Game of Thrones is, just think about how some of us have no clue when you go on and on about your favourite football team. Game of Thrones is based on the series of books known as ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (ASOIAF) by George R.R. Martin. The books of ASOIAF are pretty dense and can be convoluted (an average of 700 pages each) but they tell a story of power, leadership, gender, love, sex, magic, religion, diversity, betrayal, family, loyalty, the list goes on. In essence, even though the story is based on events in an ancient, mythical land, it is a story for today.
The television series started in 2011 and has not only generated an ardent following around the world, it has also inspired academic research and enquiry. Educators are increasingly turning to popular culture to get their book-shy students to read more or understand complex concepts. According to a recent article in Vanity Fair, at least 12 universities in the United States, Canada and the Philippines are running short to full semester courses on Game of Thrones. Harvard University has also started a Medieval Studies class using Game of Thrones as a road map for students.
There are eight major families in the mythical world of Westeros, all fighting to occupy what is called the Iron Throne. The occupant of the throne rules all the Seven Kingdoms in Westeros. Over time, the fortunes of the families change as the struggle for the throne intensifies. The viewers do not know who will survive to occupy the throne and this has spawned an industry of predictions and speculation. The eighth and last season of GOT began on April 14. Here are some lessons from this beloved series:
1. Appearances can be deceptive
We go through life passing judgement on people we don’t know well or are meeting for the first time. Tyrion Lannister is an ugly dwarf, always drinking and joking and is a regular at local brothels. He is also the son of Lord Tywin Lannister, one of the most ruthless men in Westeros and head of the dreaded Lannister family. Yet Tyrion is one of the most brilliant strategists in Westeros, well read, with a mind like an encyclopedia. He is also one of the most honourable and courageous men in the kingdom.
2. There is usually more than one narrative
One of the most popular characters in the series is Jamie Lannister. He is known as the King Slayer because he killed King Aerys Targaryen, aka the Mad King. Jamie was the trusted head of the king’s guard, and for him to be the one to strike the blow to kill the king he had sworn to protect was the height of dishonour. This treasonable act followed him throughout his life and stigmatised him wherever he went. However, when he had the opportunity to tell his own side of the story, it was revealed that the Mad King had discovered something called Wild Fire, the modern equivalent of a nuclear weapon. He had given orders for the Wild Fire to be unleashed on King’s Landing, his capital city, and it would have killed thousands of innocent citizens. Jamie prevented that from happening. Before we jump to judgement on hearing half of the story, let us get the full picture.
3. Visionaries have always paid a price
Throughout the ages, there have been people who held strong convictions and died for them. Lord Eddard Stark of House Stark died in the very first season and we could not believe they would kill off the ‘Hero.’ Jon Snow was killed off too, but was brought back to life. Visionary, honest, outspoken men and women of conscience still get killed for their beliefs either literally or metaphorically.
4. You reap what you sow
If you are not one to listen to the religious instruction of turning the other cheek, or leaving vengeance to God, then Game of Thrones is for you. Lord Tywin Lannister caused untold suffering by ordering the deaths of many innocent people. He was killed by his own son. Lord Roose Bolton betrayed Lord Ned Stark’s family in the worst possible way. He was killed by his own heir. Lord Walder Frey proved to be the worst host in history by slaughtering his party guests. His sons were baked into a pie and given to him to eat before his throat was slit by Arya Stark, who avenged her family’s massacre. The biggest baddie of them all was Ramsey Bolton. For four seasons fans watched him torture, butcher, rape and murder. He left his dogs to starve for one week so that they would be hungry enough to eat his enemies. He was the one fed to them. Simple lesson here – you can’t plant cassava and harvest yam.
5. Women have always had problems
Game of Thrones has come under heavy criticism for its negative portrayal of women. Even though there are several strong female characters, the show has featured a lot of graphic violence against female characters. It has been argued that such was the life of women living in those times. Sounds like things have not changed much.
6. In the fight for power, fairytale endings are … fairy tales
The wedding between Lord Edmure Tully and Lady Roslyn Frey ended in the slaughter of Lady Catlyn Stark, Lord Rob Stark, and his wife Talisa, plus scores of his ‘banner men.’ It is known to Game of Thrones fans as ‘The Red Wedding’ and ties with the execution of Ned Stark as the most shocking episode of the series. Obnoxious King Joffrey Baratheon was poisoned to death at his wedding to Lady Margery Tyrell known as ‘The Purple Wedding.’ Daenerys Targaryen and Sansa Stark had very unpleasant wedding nights. Lesson – if you play the Game of Thrones, happily ever after is a fairy tale. Life can be nasty, brutish and short.
7. There have always been crazy people with fanatical religious beliefs
In the world of Game of Thrones, there are a bunch of people who believe in the ‘Lord of Light’ and in following his ‘signs’ and ‘instructions.’ Lord Stannis Baratheon took on the services of one of the ‘Messengers’ of the ‘Lord of Light’, the beautiful and dangerous Melisandre. Long story short, Stannis was asked to sacrifice his only child to the ‘Lord of Light,’ with the understanding that her death would clear the path to his victory. His daughter died for nothing. He died with nothing. The ‘High Sparrow’ was a moral purist who forced Queen Cersei to walk naked through the streets in atonement for her sin of adultery. He was blown into a thousand pieces when the Queen got her clothes back. Lesson: Nothing much has changed.
8. No condition is permanent
Game of Thrones is about a time when only the strong survived and the weak simply perished. Due to the balance of power and forces, the rich stayed strong and unshakeable and the poor remained vulnerable and weak. Yet, stories can change. Daenerys Targaryen was sold to a Dothraki warlord by her brother Viserys in exchange for an army. In Season One, Daenerys had no money of her own, no army, no power and three useless dragon eggs she received as a wedding gift. By the end of Season 6, she had money, an army, power, and three grown, fire-breathing dragons. Mere mortals do not know the ways of God. Things can change, hopefully, for the better.
9. Those who lust after power and glory usually end up with neither
History, ancient and modern, is replete with examples of people who lusted after power all their lives but it proved elusive. Many times, those who did not show much interest in power were the ones favoured. Jon Snow was the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark. He joined the Nights Watch, the GOT equivalent of a military monastic order. He only wanted to serve. He found himself made ‘Lord Commander’ of the Nights Watch by his peers who noted that, ‘He is the one we looked up to when the night was darkest/’ Jon Snow was declared ‘King of the North’ by popular acclaim. It also turned out that he was not a bastard after all. Stannis Baratheon, King Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsey Bolton and many others died horrible deaths in their ruthless quest for power.
10. Never lose sight of the real enemy
Perhaps the most significant lesson that Game of Thrones teaches is that humanity is always locked in battles for foolish reasons and with the wrong adversaries. While all the powerful families of Westeros are playing the Game of Thrones, there is a seemingly indestructible enemy of magical origins known as the White Walkers, led by The Night’s King, threatening their very existence. Many of the players are not even aware of the magnitude of the danger they are going to face. Today, as we watch our leaders, both global and local, engage in battles that bring little or no benefit to the person on the street, we need to figure out who and what our real enemies are. Is it exclusion, oppression, racism, sexism, climate change, fundamentalism, disease, corporate greed, selfish politics or all or most of the above? These issues have been with us since the beginning of time. The difference now is we should have the tools to respond. If we don’t, our real enemy will consume us all.
In the world of Game of Thrones, people will greet you with ‘Valar Morghulis’ (All men must die) to which you respond, ‘Valar Dohaeris’ (All men must serve). Even if you never get to watch the series, remember those words. Congratulations to my fellow ‘Gamers’, Winter has arrived.
• Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social
entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]