Yes, this post is coming on the US election day, but no, it’s not about the US elections. It’ll be political, but I’ll be talking about politics in Westeros, the continent of the Seven Kingdoms (often with a varying number of kings) in HBO’s excellent television series, Game of Thrones.
Time for the usual disclaimers: I’m not a political scholar, but if the current US election is any example, anyone can pretend to be a political expert. (Uh oh, I did say I wasn’t going to talk US politics… time to pivot hard…)
Westeros! It’s the Seven Kingdoms, not the Seven Voting Districts!
It seems weird to be talking about elections or democracy, since the political structure in Westeros seems specifically feudal, with an overlord lording it over lords who lord it over vassal lords who lord it over the common people (whom George RR Martin labels “the smallfolk” – which I think is an awesome term.)
In general, elections aren’t a thing in feudal societies, right? It’s not like the smallfolk have a say in who is leading them. Or do they?
Okay, mostly they don’t.
But there are examples in Game of Thrones of the democratic process at work, found in surprising ways. And since democracy is topical right now, let’s do this.
Throughout the realm, leadership is usually implicitly invested in the landowners, who have a monopoly (mostly) on the resources and (mostly) the ability to exercise force. The fat lord in the nearby castle doesn’t really get elected; they’re just in charge because they’re the fat lord in the nearby castle. And when they die, typically their fat lordling son takes over.
But this isn’t universal in all situations.
Every Captain a King
The Ironborn, the people of the Iron Islands at the edge of the Sunset Sea, have distinct cultural differences from the people of the mainland. Although they have noble houses and landowners on the islands, as political institutions neither are really that big a deal. Because the islands are resource-poor, the valuable assets for the Ironborn are ships.
- Ships employ the population as sailors.
- Ships provide for defense.
- Ships provide resources (either via raiding abroad, or trade. The Ironborn do trade, despite all that Iron Price/Gold Price talk.)
On a ship, the captain’s word is law, so the Ironborn notion of “every captain a king” aligns the idea of kingship of the Iron Islands as a position attainable by any captain, provided he (or she, in Asha/Yara’s case) can rise up and earn the respect of their peer captains in this nautical meritocracy. (And if there’s a vacancy.)
Okay, people who have only watched the show might be giving me a skeptical eye. That’s cool. The show really simplified the kingsmoot as presented as some kind of confirmation process for Yara Greyjoy instead of an election.
That’s fair, but I’m just going to have to bring in some book-stuff. When Asha (not Yara) made her claim to queenship of the Iron Islands, it was as one captain among many who were hoping to command enough respect from the other, less ambitious captains who would lend support. The Greyjoy name meant something, but it wasn’t a given that the next king would be from that family.
In both the books and the show, there hadn’t been a kingsmoot for centuries, before Aegon Targaryen roasted Black Harren and allowed the Greyjoys to have the lordship of the Iron Islands in exchange for sworn fealty.
But despite the long period in-between, the Ironborn knew that a kingsmoot had to be held with the death of Balon Greyjoy. Those guys don’t seem to me to be big into teaching civics, so the suggestion is that a meeting of the captains to discuss situations, to make decisions by vocal acclamation among these political leaders, was a common and traditional thing.
So, is this really democracy? Sort of. I mean, the framers of the US Constitution were worried about overly democratizing the governing process in the United States, when they were hammering out the Constitution over the corpse of the Articles of Confederation. (Sorry, international audience, for the US social studies references.)
They’d probably recognize similar principles at work with only the captains (as providers of resources, industry, and defense) having the vote. I guess the Ironborn captains are roughly equivalent to the electoral college to elect the president, or the state legislatures that originally appointed senators. (Guess whose daughter is taking AP history?)
So the kingsmoot process weakens the entrenched feudal idea of inherited power, and it does provide some limited opportunity for the common man (I assume that a very capable person might be able to work his way up the chain to command a ship, and then distinguish himself that he becomes a great captain and then earn the right to sit the Sea-Stone Chair via legendary exploits and crazy campaign promises) but it still just feels like the empowerment of an elite class with the ability to appoint their supreme executive.
To get a more equitable distribution of power, you have to head inland, and then go north. Far north.
We’re all brothers here
The Night’s Watch is famously an organization that defies the conventional traditions of the realm. By statute, all members of the sworn brotherhood are equals, or nominally treated as such.
There are obviously officers and people in charge, but it’s not necessarily dictated by virtue of birth. Except that it still kind of is. Someone baseborn will have less starting advantages at the Wall, but the opportunities still exist for them to rise above what might otherwise be considered their station. Ability, merit, and experience do carry weight. And the penalties of poor decision making by noble noobs (as evidenced in the very first scene in the show by Ser Waymar Royce) tend to be fatal and self-correcting.
But even though gentle-born second-sons sent to the Wall might have a leg up on poachers and thieves sentenced there, when the time comes for choosing the supreme executive of the Night’s Watch, each man casts an equal vote, regardless if that man is the First Ranger or the Ginger Who Digs the Latrines.
I’m not saying that the Night’s Watch is the best example of direct democracy. Although each man gets a vote, logistically not all of the crows can gather in the same place at the same time to cast their ballots. During the election of the 998th Lord Commander, delegations from the other two manned fortifications on the Wall traveled to Castle Black to participate.
Those envoys carried the absentee ballots of their colleagues left behind to man the posts, and had to act as representatives. (The Ironborn don’t do that. The captains make the trip to Old Wyk or wherever to ensure that their voices – and their crews – are heard.)
Because the show simplified the Lord Commander election, the allocation of these pockets of votes wasn’t really addressed on the show, but the books (yes, I do go on about the books a great deal) have Sam Tarly acting as a conventioneering mastermind in getting the envoys from the Shadow Tower and Eastwatch to support dark horse candidate Jon Snow.
Sam, you player. He’ll be on the Iron Throne one day. And he’ll probably be elected to the position.
So, is this post nothing but a simple breakdown of the times people bothered to vote for their boss on Game of Thrones? Maybe…
But I do find it interesting that some of the worst elements of Westerosi society (loner secessionist marauders and uneducated felons forced to serve at the Wall) have in some ways more enlightened systems of selecting the leader of their highest office than the rest of the realm.
The idea of allowing voting systems for peaceful changes in the power structure does seem like something hard to get the people of Westeros to adopt. The people in charge, I mean. What’s in it for them?
But I would have so loved something like this to happen:
Roose Bolton: I have to pack up my things and leave.
Ramsay Bolton: WHAT?
Roose: The smallfolk held an election, and voted us out. Apparently, the farmers didn’t appreciate your hunting their daughters with the hounds.
Ramsay: No one cares what the farmers think.
Roose: I thought that as well, but the tradesman and the artisans joined their No Ramsay platform.
Ramsay: They did?
Roose: It’s funny I said “platform.” I meant to say “gallows” since that’s what they’re building for you now.
Ramsay: Wait! You’re just going to let them hang me?
Roose: It’s not personal, my boy. It’s politics.
Whew! I think I made it through this political post without making too many political enemies in the process. I hope.
It’s a bit easier talking about the governmental systems of a fictional world than of the political realities of this one. We really haven’t seen good aftermaths of elections in Westeros.
We saw King Euron immediately demand reprisals against his political enemies, which isn’t good, as well as failed candidate Alliser Thorne lead a coup against his lawfully elected commander, because he felt that he knew better than his superior. (He didn’t.)
But that’s Westeros. Stuff like that happens there.
(Let’s keep it that way.)
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)
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