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Friday Nerd Blogging

February 10, 2012

Yes, it’s soon to be back. Now if you’ve read A Clash of Kings, you might rightly wonder who the “priest” is in this allegory, since while Season 2 will feature kings and rich men the only important religious figure is actually a woman. But if you’re read A Clash of Kings closely and obsessively you know that the narration by Varys in the trailer is only passingly related to setting up Season 2 itself, and is instead a more generic tale about political power that serves as part of the dialogue (and not a particularly important part at that)in a particular scene on p. 50.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?”

University of Michigan’s Karsten Smolinsk unpacks this riddle through a reading of political theory:

This is a riddle from the second book of the Game of Thrones series, a story set in a place much like our own Medieval Ages. The riddle is about the nature of power. Which is greatest?

Is it the power of the law wielded by the king? As Hobbes argued, submitting to the rule of a monarch is essential to preventing the state of nature. Saving the king maintains order in society. Killing the king could create a state of nature in which life is brutal and short.

Is it the power of religion wielded by the priest? Locke argued that belief in a god is the backbone of man’s morality. Most religions express beliefs about punishment or reward based on how people follow their religion’s moral code. Saving or killing the priest could decide one’s ultimate fate.

Is it the power of money wielded by the rich man? Hobbes believes that ultimately humans are selfish beings. Saving the rich man comes with the benefits of not only potentially securing one’s own survival, but one’s own comfort as well.

Or is it in fact the power of force wielded by the ordinary sellsword? In the riddle the three powerful men are in fact powerless before the man with sword. He could kill all three of them if he wanted to. Hobbes argued that force was the most important tool of the monarch. In the end sellsword’s own beliefs will dictate who he kills, suggesting that whichever power is greatest is simply the one that people believe to be the greatest.

In other words, power is what people make of it. What I believe is that this riddle, like other subtexts in the A Song of Ice and Fire arc, suggests that the underlying story Martin is telling is most consistent with constructivism, not political realism. More on this theme later in the semester. Meanwhile, to rephrase Smolinsk’s question put to students:

So which do you believe is greatest? Do you think force underlies all power? Do you think people posses a selfish nature that grants money the true power? Does law have power without force to back it? Or is belief itself the most powerful? Think back to the beginning of the semester. How do we form our beliefs?

As a good constructivist, my argument would be that law has power even without force to back it; and despite its realist veneer, now that I’ve finished A Dance with Dragons, I would argue the ASOIAF ultimately tells this particular story of power as well. What say you?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.