On the Iron Islands
Welcome back for my analysis of the historical references in the second episode of the sixth series of Game Of Thrones. Keep in mind that I am writing this as I watch the episode for the first time, so some stuff I write might not be entirely consistent with what happens later in the episode. You can read the analysis of the first episode here.
We start of with a drunk in King’s Landing reminiscing fondly of Cersei’s walk of shame. The guy has a big mouth, but when elephants dance, mice attend at their own risk.
By order of the King, Cersei is confined to the Red Keep. Note how the High Sparrow has separated the young king from the women in his life, both his wife and his mother. Controlling access to the other sex is a phenomenal lever of power. For example, medieval lords decided whether their knights could marry, which I’m sure improved their motivation to do well in battle. Tommen and Cersei did meet, but I’m betting a contingency plan is already in place. The motives of the High Sparrow are at this point open to interpretation. He could either be a cynical manipulator who saw an opportunity to use the faith to amass power, or a legitimate social reformer out to extirpate what he sees as perversion. The latter is actually infinitely more dangerous for all concerned. However if his ultimate goals might be idealistic, his methods show a remarkable shrewdness. Note how he didn’t build a sodomy case against some random guy in the streets: he went for the Queen Mother, and for the Queen’s consort brother, knowing it would lead to the fall of the Queen consort as well. Is it possible for the motives of such a calculating person to be pure? Obviously if you’re going to harass people for their (in universe) moral failings, I guess you can start at the top and use them as examples.
But if this is part of some wider power scheme, what kind of an endgame is he going for? Does he want to turn Westeros (or just King’s Landing) into a theocracy, like Iran or the Vatican? If so he needs to leverage his influence to bring the king’s guard under his control. This is potentially easy, since everybody and their brother already suspects that Jamie (Lord Commander of the King’s Guard) did the naughty with Cersei. The problem is how to get rid of Jaimie, without calling into question the legitimacy of Tommen, which besides being an ideal stooge for the High Sparrow, is the only surviving legitimate descendant OR sibling of Robert Baratheon. If Tommen is removed from the picture, it’s not clear what would happen to the Iron Throne.
If the High Sparrow doesn’t want to go the theocratic route, he could use his power to get some of his faithful into positions of power, and then use this leverage to get the faithful important government contracts. This will lead to a cascade of sudden conversion, as the movers and shakers of King’s Landing fall over themselves to accept the faith. This would be similar to what some Catholic organizations allegedly have done with the national hospital service in a few regions of Italy. If he decides to go this route, he will try to get his proxies appointed as the Master of Coin, Master of Laws, or perhaps Master of Ships (lots of ship building and maintenance contracts to go around). Of these three offices, the Master of Laws has been vacant since Renly left, while the other two are held by Mace Tyrell, father of Margaery. Filling an empty slot would be easier, but we have seen how the High Sparrow likes to kill two birds with one stone, and presumably Mace also knew of his son’s escapades, so it would not be impossible to remove him as well. If he does so, I would expect the Tyrells to break with the Lannisters for good, though perhaps having three out of four members of their family hostage under the control of the High Sparrow will keep a lid on things for some time.
The discussion about Tommen makes us realize how pissed off some families in Dorn must be at this point. Before the Sand Sisters decided to go on their little killing spree, Myrcella was on track to have a son with Trystan, which would give said son a high probability of eventually rising to the Iron Throne (given the high adolescent mortality for royals in King’s landing). So the in-laws of the Martells were within spitting distance of having a cousin on the Iron Throne, and now they have nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a spot of bother over that at some point.
North of the Wall
Bran is having visions. We see some backstory which could potentially become important, but it’s unclear what it means just now. Perhaps Bran can reawaken Hodor’s fighting instincts. Bran’s visions remind me of Caesar’s epilepsy. In the olden days epileptic fits were often seen as communication with the gods, and altogether not an undesirable trait in a leader. Bran can continue having visions as long as he wants, but eventually it is imperative that he joins Sansa.
The Wildlings save the day, so his friends don’t join Jon as corpses just yet. But the problem remains: Jon Snow was the link that could make the wildlings-south-of-the-wall thing go sort of smoothly. Even if Davos and the Wildling leader have the best intentions, will they trust each other enough? By the way, remember Mance surrendering? The situation, and the way he was shot is strongly reminiscent of Vercingetorix’s capitulation to Caesar, and funnily enough the actor that plays Mance was Caesar in the “Rome’ tv series. Though it also has echos of the US Cavalry vs Plains Indians endgame.
Tyrion in Mereen
The Sons of Harpy are almost certainly led by whatever was the second most powerful family in Mereen before Dany came along. They didn’t like how Hizdar curried favor with Daenerys, and saw the risk of being marginalized. A risk which was confirmed when they actually got engaged. They have made a decision, and are unlikely to reverse course. Come clean, and hoping for leniency would be extremely dangerous, and even in the best case scenario would see them exiled, or at least severely marginalized. No, if Tyrion wants to crack this nut, he has to either get Hizdar’s clan behind him, or else find the third most important family and help them destroy the second.
Anyway, the Mereen navy went up in smoke. This could actually be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. When Cortez reached the new world, he burnt his ships. As a result his men were very well motivated. There’s been a constant tension between Daenerys using Mereen only as a springboard for getting her and the Second Sons into Westeros, and her actually settling down to rule the place. The two are obviously contradictory. If she stays forever, the local rich guys may at some point decide it’s better to have her as an ally than enemy, and some will take a stake into her power structure, aligning their incentives. But if the expectation is that she will leave in six months anyway, there is no point in anybody putting their bets on her, and resistance will continue. The problem of course is that presumably that fleet wasn’t just there for looks, and the loss can compromise the continued viability of Mereen. Presumably most of the ships burned were warships, since merchant ships spend most of their time at sea, so losing a harbor full of them doesn’t make much of an impression on their absolute numbers. Who were they built to defend against? Will these foes decide to use their newly found control of the seas? I would expect that at a minimum, piracy incidents should become more frequent.
One of the big problems faced by the Targaryen faction is the lack of reproductive feed stock. Sure, Dany can do her bit, but if her children continue to be dragons it won’t make for a very stable court, as years go by. Even if the dragon thing is something she can turn on and off, she can only pick one spouse. She has no other living relatives, and Varys is a eunuch, as are all of her soldiers. That leaves Tyrion and Daario, and while both seem perfectly capable of producing heirs, one woman and two men is not much to start a dynasty with. Presumably some of the former slave girls, particularly the former clerical slaves such as Missandei, could be part of the foundation, but it is unclear weather former slave holders could see themselves as sufficiently invested in the status quo, just because one of their family is married to a former slave – however trusted and well-liked by the queen.
We also learn that the other cities liberated by Dany have gone back to slavery (what happened to the garrisons?), leaving Mereen isolated, and without a fleet. Troubling times. On the plus side, Tyrion seems to be making friends with the dragons. I guess the closest historical paragon would be with be with the domestication of the horse, which must have given an incredibly decisive military advantage to those first cavalry warriors.
Arya in Bravos
Arya looks very plump for a girl that’s been begging for a few months. Perhaps her friends with no face were looking after her. Anyway, she seems to have gotten on the good side of her mentor again.The whole Faceless Men things is clearly taken from the Assassin Sect.
The Boltons have some good news and some bad news. They lost track of Sansa and found the hunters (bad fieldcraft on the part of Team Sansa, they should have hidden the bodies). This makes it very hard for Ramsay to father a son, as “enthusiastic” as he was to do so. Unless of course Sansa is already pregnant of course. On the plus side, Ramsay now has a little baby brother. This is good news for the family, but bad news for him. Oooh surprise, Ramsay just killed his father (I am writing this as I watch). Well that does change things… So Bolton Sr. was retroactively “poisoned by his enemies” as the Maester will confirm (before he gets killed for being an eyewitness). Presumably we’ll get a couple of episodes of Ramsay torturing various people “he suspects of being behind this”. What follows is of course Ramsay being Ramsay. His end will be a very teachable moment.
Theon decided to go home, while the rest continue North. On the minus side, Jon is already dead, but on the plus side the Wildlings must at this point be looking for a leader from south of the wall to ease their transition. Team Sansa is actually not in a horrible place. Right now there’s only Sansa, Brienne, and Pod. Sansa has the birth, Brienne has the brawn, and Pod – well, he’s loyal, and can take care of one or two redshirts.
What they are lacking is brains, unless Sansa starts seeing sense, she gave some indication of this in the Ayre. Brienne is a great – if unlucky – King’s guard, but I don’t see her as a great military strategist. If Bran stops sitting in his cave visioning of yesteryear and decides to join her sister, they could be quite a team. The advantage they would have over the other houses is that they are remarkably free to make their own destiny. The Lannisters are in hock to the Iron Bank, the Tyrells have a high incarceration rate and an uneasy alliance with the Lannisters, Ramsay will eventually find himself buried in a burnt hole he himself dug and set fire to, Dany is going to some Dothraki temple, and her faction is busy playing cops and robbers with the Sons of Harpy. If Bran and Sansa can get together (presumably with the archery girl and Hodor in tow) they would be a pretty good special operations outfit. They could get the North to revolt to the Boltons in a heartbeat. Incidentally, speaking of Theon, what happened to him is not some weird fantasy thing. It’s called learned helplessness, and it was the basic intermediate objective in e.g. the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah (“He capitulated the first time. We chose to expose him over and over until we had a high degree of confidence he wouldn’t hold back”). So not exactly that thing, but that sort of thing actually does happen.
(clearly inspired by the Norsemen) the king and his daughter are discussing the war. They had the great idea of capturing a bunch of towns, but with the war on the mainland over, they have now lost all of their continental garrisons. Even for the Vikings, raiding was always a lot easier than holding ground. It’s true that they conquered a lot of places, but for every success there were dozens of failures we never get to read about. But loosing the garrisons to the last man sounds more like lack of planning, or bad orders. A maritime culture makes war by hit and run. I’m not saying the Ironborn have to be exactly like the Norsemen, but what’s the point of sea supremacy if you’e not going to cut your losses when outnumbered? Conversely, if they are (usually) so strong that they never needed to run, why haven’t they taken over Westeros? If the garrisons were a significant part of the Ironborn military force, why lose them for nothing? Or, if the Ironborn had manpower to spend, why didn’t they reinforce the garrisons?
Now the King’s brother comes back from sailing, raping, and pillaging elsewhere and kills the King. Presumably this is why the other ruling families have King’s guards. And nobody saw him do this, despite the event taking place on some rope bridge which presumably should have somebody standing next to it ready to cut it, for it to be of any use.
They are bringing back Jon from the dead. Historical precedents… well there was that one alleged time… Other than that, I guess the closest parallels are with literature rather than history. The whole scene had more of a Dr Frankenstein feel than anything else, but we’ll see what kind of undead Jon proves to be.
At this point, can I just bring to your attentions that in the last two episodes, three of the main ruling families in the series suffered violent changes of management brought about by their own blood? Let’s just say that by the time the Iron King met his brother, I would have been surprised if they both walked away from the scene. This level of internal strife makes it surprising that they are able to wage wars against enemies outside the family at all. I guess part of the explanation could be the brutalizing effect of the war on relationships within the family?
George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones, is famous for inserting bits of history into his novels. For example, the war between the Lannisters and the Starks is rather similar to the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The idea of this series of posts is to give a play-by-play analysis for some of the historical events which might have inspired the episodes of the TV series. In fact this is meant more as a starting point, I hope fellow history buffs who are GoT fans will suggest more references in the comments.
Today I will be analyzing Episode 1 of Season 6, “The Red Woman”
At The Wall
Well I always liked the guy, but he was not exactly the most gifted leader of men. He failed to create a consensus over what was clearly a contentious decision, and apparently all of the officers of The Watch decided he had to go.
The weird thing is that the conspirators only seem to remember about his friends after they get together, and one of them has had time to leave to seek help. A more traditional solution would have been to either commit the murder while they were away, or at least keep them from uniting until the news was brought to them (assuming of course that they couldn’t just murder six or seven members of the watch and expect the rest to accept it, as was normal during e.g. the Second Mafia War). Leaving the body exposed for essentially a random find was also not very wise. This sort of thing needs to be managed carefully. As it is, Thorne is lucky he got to make his little speech at all, rather than just being killed while trying to explain.
The historical parallel is clearly to the killing of Julius Caesar, right down to the edged weapons. A common historical option for disgruntled subordinates would have been strangulation, which takes long enough to show that the murder was not a rash act by one or two individuals, but something all those present firmly agreed upon. The Wall itself is based largely on Hadrian’s Wall, but also on a variety of other linear fortifications built to keep more mobile groups away from settled people. Peter Spring has a very nice book on this sort of thing, and I’m currently doing research on this as well.
Change of management in Dorne
Ok, so Ellaria Sand and her daughters decided it was time for some strong female leadership in Dorn. First, they poisoned Myrcella, virtually guaranteeing war with the Lannisters in due time. Then they staged the simultaneous killing of Dorne leader Doran Martell, and his suddenly incompetent bodyguard. They further succeed in killing Doran’s (only?) son Trystan, which is actually on a ship anchored in King’s Landing. At this point, it’s not clear what the Sand Sisters’ plan is. Usually when you kill one branch of a ruling family, you already have another branch in mind to take over the succession (often you ARE the other branch in question). But as far as I can tell, House Martell died with Trystan. His dad is dead, his uncle is dead, he’s dead, and no other siblings were mentioned. Ellaria was just one of many, many beautiful women (“and beautiful men”) that Oberyn took into his bed, so if she wants to maintain control of Dorne, she’s going to have to fight for it. I hope for her the Sands are an extremely well connected family in Dorne, or she has already secured consent for the takeover from all the important actors, or they are in for some trouble. Historically, it is very hard to place this kind of gambit.
Cersei has gained an inch or so of hair, but finds out her daughter was poisoned. Now, poison has a rich and varied history from earliest times. There were A LOT of suspiciously timed deaths in noble families, even given the higher mortality of the day. Knowing a good poisoner must have been a prerequisite for any family with aspirations of social mobility, and knowledge of all symptoms of poisons, and their antidotes, must have been the main prerequisite for a medical position at court. Anyway, back to our brotherly lovers. They plot vengeance against the whole world. What assets do they have to work with? They have complete trust in each other. Cersei is reasonably adept at plotting against family members, or commoners, but has consistently come out the loser when trying to play with the big boys and girls. Jaimie can hold his own in a fight against redshirts, but is hardly a decisive force on the battlefield after losing his right hand. They have the services of a sellsword (as long as they can offer him more than the opposition), and those of a soldier of frankly geological proportions, but unclear vital status. In principle having the King as your son should be good, but Tommen seems to do whatever is suggested by the last person he talks to, so in practice this is only an advantage if they can stop other people from talking to him. I am not sure how the internal succession rules of the Lannister house work (Agnatic seniority? Agnatic succession?), so I don’t know how much they can tap the private family resources. It’s also important to understand how separate the family finances are from the kingdom’s finances, especially given the massive debts towards the Iron Bank.
Down in the dungeons, the High Sparrow shows pity towards Margaery by… OF COURSE NOT! He just is pulling the classic good cop-bad cop routine on her. We’ll see whether she falls for it. Good Cop/Bad Cop is actually as old as the hills. Odysseus and Diomedes pull one in book ten of the Iliad. The High Sparrow concept reminds me of Girolamo Savonarola, and several heretic movement north of the Alps as well.
In the Dothraki Sea
The Dothraki are clearly inspired directly by the great steppe confederations of Eurasia. People such as the Parthians, the Huns, the Mongols, and the Tatars. I think the show is missing a trick here, by showing the Dothraki as more or less full-time warriors. As scary as the steppe people were while massed on their raids, the vast majority of their time was spent in small family groups herding sheep. Anyway, an enormous number of Dothraki captured Daenerys at the end of the last season, and now she’s being taken as tribute to a local leader. She tells him about her previous marriage to Khal Drogo, and they tell her that of course she is no longer a prisoner, but also that she needs to go in a temple to properly mourn her husband with all the other Khal widows for the rest of her days.
Arrangements of this kind were actually relatively common. For example in my native Palermo, 18th century (female) widows had a dedicated promenade next to the regular one, where they could walk around and socialize amongst themselves without being forced to give the impression that they were not mourning their decades-departed husband every second of every day. To an extent such arrangement may have been mandated by the significant benefits that widowhood otherwise conferred, coupled with the ease for a wife of administering poison, and the difficulties of the day in proving such substances had been used.
Incidentally, neither of the locations shown as inhabited by Dothraki, look really like nomadic pastoralist homelands. The place where Daenerys was captured looked too wet (pastoralists would eventually find out it was better to settle and raise livestock from hay). The drier areas they were walking through later had the right climate, but were a bit too hilly (hard for cavalry armies to consistently dominate a land with so many defiles). I’m guessing we still haven’t seen the real Dothraki Sea, but just its shores.