HERE BE GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS FOR THE NEW SEASON:
Justice, revenge or retribution? Which of these is really okay and which makes us less than human? A Song of Ice and Fire (or simply Game of Thrones as it’s known to you non-readers) has made me ponder this…a lot.
Was anyone else unnerved by Arya Stark’s almost cold as ice execution of Polliver in the season opener over a week ago? I mean—she was really, really enjoying that a little too much. Especially since in the books it’s actually the Hound that does the killing. Arya kills a squire and her death blow is actually a mercy since he’s dying slowly from an earlier wound she inflicted in self-defense. The show version of everyone’s favorite tomboy is much…darker. I’m not complaining but it’s definitely a different take on Arya than I have from the books.
I’ve done a fair amount of thinking in general about how George RR Martin handles the concept of revenge and vengeance in A Song of Ice and Fire. Warning I may have spoilers from the series in general here as I read all the books (before the show was cool, I am the hipster of literature okay?) and make no promises to not ruin things for you if you read onward.
Martin manages to set up a lot of really interesting characters in his novels. I noticed early on that he paints most of his characters with shades of grey—characters who are entirely good (Ned Stark*) or just entirely evil (Vserys Targaryen) don’t last very long. I’d argue that the longest living entirely evil character is Joffrey but he does eventually get his due. Then there are the characters that all fall in the spectrum of grey—characters we initially hate like Cersei take on dimensions that we can sympathize with. We might not ever entirely like them but we begin to understand them and it certainly makes things more interesting.
But what really gets to me is how GRRM uses this to make his readers really uncomfortable with the concept of retribution. Cersei, as flawed as she is, eventually gets subjected to some seriously horrendous punishments by book 5—things that make me cringe as a woman. Then there’s Theon Greyjoy. Theon is a real dipshit. He’s not a good guy. He’s spoiled, short-sighted and a murderer. I wanted him to pay for the deaths he was responsible for at Winterfell and for the slaughter of innocent farm children. Theon never seemed comfortable with the killing he did, but he did it and definitely deserved to be punished right?
But then came Reek and the revelations of Theon’s fate in book 5. At times I couldn’t stomach what I was reading and had to put the book down and walk away. Theon deserve to suffer didn’t he? Eventually I got to a point where I realized…no; this was wrong, that no matter how much evil someone had done torturing a human being like this was just wrong. Theon may deserve death—and if you’ve read up to book 5 death is a blessing for him now—but no matter how vile he was, I don’t enjoy the image of a living creature suffering. It’s just…too much. I hope that this is the point Martin is trying to make with where he’s taken Theon’s character. It certainly taught me a lot about myself. How many times have I heard horrible real life stories about murderers and rapists and wished unspeakable things upon them? How many times have I said that “death is too easy” for those who have been on trial and undoubtedly guilty of stomach churning evils?
But the desire for revenge comes in two flavors. There’s the red hot act of retribution in the moment which usually results in a bloody but swift end. Joffrey’s death last week was a long time coming but the actual act was relatively swift…compared to some other deaths in the books. It was calculated but just and poison, while painful, was chosen not to make him suffer but to kill him surreptitiously. Then there’s justice in the form of “in the moment” murder like the upcoming HUGE spoiler: Tyrion’s vengeful killing of Tywin. But then, then there’s cold revenge—calculated, prolonged and…unnerving. Ramsay Bolton does this, delivers if for the reader, upon Theon. Now Theon hasn’t actually died yet but it’s inevitable and at this point I want him to die for his own sake. After his betrayal of the Starks myself and others often wish a thousand agonies on this character and yet as it happened, I began to see what enjoying that level of punishment would do to me. Some men, and women, deserve to die for horrible things they’ve done and to spare the world from further horrors they would do. This is especially true in Westeros but it should be a clean death and it shouldn’t be enjoyed. To do that is to become like Joff or the Bastard Bolton—a disturbing mirror image of ourselves to be confronted with and I think that’s the point. I think that’s also why in many ways it’s important Arya Stark doesn’t follow through on her death list herself. I don’t think I’d like what it would do to her. I certainly don’t like her savoring it as much as she did. It’s worrisome. Justice and retribution are not the same thing. That has become painfully clear.
But that’s just me and how I respond to these events. Maybe I’m the minority on this but at least I know where I stand. Death yes. Torture no. I’ll stick with ice cream when I want a dish served cold.
*SPECULATIVE SPOILERS *Ned Stark is definitely a “white” character. Some have tried to point out that he didn’t live entirely by his code of honor because he had a bastard to which I say you haven’t been paying attention. Jon Snow is NOT Ned Stark’s son. He’s most certainly Lyanna’s (Ned’s sister) and Ned claimed him to keep Robert from killing the child since his father is most likely Rhaegar Targaryen.
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