A Game of Anarchy

Is a game without rules still a game? Game of Thrones is largely about power in society: who really has it, how did they get it, and what do they do with it. Since Westeros apparently has no legal system whatsoever (I am saying that with slight sarcasm, but only a very small amount) I argue that there are no rules, and thus the “game” of politics there isn’t really a game at all. It’s just a bunch of people trying to out-blackmail each other while pretending that they aren’t. This isn’t a critique of the books or the television show, both of which I love, but merely a good lesson when it comes to real life. Anarchy does not lead to a prosperous society, and unacknowledged anarchy is even worse. After all, many characters seem surprised when their peaceful lives are interrupted by the wars of nobles and kings; many characters condemn the actions of other characters, but if you look at the Seven Kingdoms, it seems pretty clear that this is a world without a unified code of law, and without any way of holding those who break a law accountable (unless starting a war counts as a form of assigning responsibility). Consistency is important, that is why precedent is such a powerful influence on the legal system. Without consistency, the basic institutions of society wither faster than the joy at a Frey wedding.  

Consistency requires a set of laws; they don’t have to be written in a constitution, and they can change or be reformed, but they do need to exist. Without laws, there can be no justice. The point of having laws to prohibit or allow different actions is to prevent someone in power from punishing whoever they want for any reason and getting away with it. It may seem pointless to say “killing people is not allowed!” since most people probably wouldn’t kill others anyway, those who would don’t care about breaking a law, and crimes of passion do not usually follow the quick perusal of the legal code.

Not all laws make as much sense as one prohibiting the murder of other people. Still, most societies have historically had SOME code to base legal decisions on; even monarchies in feudal Europe used relatively consistent processes or followed traditional laws -when they didn’t, there was a backlash from powerful nobles or other leaders, such as religious figures. Sure, laws changed over time and monarchs could introduce new ones, but my point is that there were laws and customs, and even powerful lords, even kings and queens, could not defy them without some consequence.

So what in seven hells is going on with Westeros? It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the books or watched the show or both; unless there is some kind of historical legal briefing in the fifth book that I’ve forgotten about (I’ve re-read the series up to the fourth book, about to reread the fifth) there are no consistent legal codes whatsoever and the only rules that everyone seems to agree exists are that 1.) trial by combat is legitimate, 2.) the guilty can join the Night’s Watch to avoid whatever their punishment would have been otherwise and 3.) men who abandon the Night’s Watch after taking their oaths are to be executed.

Am I missing something? I’ve read allusions to traditional laws or customs of the First Men, references to historic crimes and punishments, and the acknowledgment that different regions may have different inheritance laws (in Dorne for example, the eldest child inherits regardless of gender). I understand that to a large extent the person who sits the iron throne gets to do whatever he or she wants, what about the rest of the realm? Did anyone else think it was a bit, I don’t know, inappropriate for Tywin Lannister to start slaughtering innocent and loyal subjects of the King because a noblewoman accused his son of a crime?

Ok, so Catelyn Stark “seized” Tyrion, and took him to her sister’s court to have him stand trial. As far as we the readers know, she did not break any laws. She took Tyrion against his will, certainly, and her actions seem relatively suspicious; she realized Tywin would send men to try and free him, which is why she tricked Tyrion and the witnesses at the inn into thinking she was going back to Winterfell instead of the Eyrie. Probably not the most legal of citizen’s arrests, but we do not know for sure that she did break any laws; and she seemed to think that her sister had real evidence against Tyrion, evidence that would cause him to lose a fair trial.

But even if Catelyn Stark did break the laws of Westeros by seizing Tyrion and more or less arresting him without asking the King first, how was Tywin’s reaction any less criminal? Why was Ned Stark the only one who seemed to think Tywin’s actions were not ok. Sure, I can understand the other lords and councilors feeling nervous about defying such a powerful lord, but their shock at Ned’s demand for Tywin to appear at court and answer for his servant’s crimes in no way acknowledged that Tywin OUGHT to be punished. They seemed shocked that Ned would not immediately dismiss the possibility that a lord was responsible for a crime.

Even religious law seems nonexistent. In medieval Europe the church was a powerful institution with its own courts and laws, and in Westeros the worship of the Seven Gods seems to be a big deal, yet it does not seem to have any political influence. That is fine since this is a fantasy story and in this world, maybe there are no religious laws or religious texts that inform the legal system. But there are numerous references to people saying that certain crimes are particularly hated by the gods, crimes like kin-slaying and betraying a guest’s right to safety. Even though everyone seems to acknowledge that both crimes are extremely heinous, to the point that those guilty of the crimes will be punished by the gods, everyone’s reaction to the Red Wedding seems to be “oh gosh, how awful” rather than an expectation that those who caused it would be held accountable for their actions. Yes, the Starks were traitors and would probably have been executed for seceding anyway, but no one says that the gods would forgive someone for killing a guest if that guest was a criminal. And the will of the gods does seem to play some role in the legal system, since the point of trial by combat (considered a legally legitimate form of trial) is that the gods reveal the truth of someone’s guilt or innocence.

If the only law of Westeros is that those who are powerful enough can do whatever they want, that’s fine. I just think it’s strange that sometimes there are laws that everyone follows, religious beliefs that seem to be legally accepted as real, and yet no reference to any kind of consistent law code. Without a systematic code of some kind, there is no process to achieve justice. The process can be illogical; trial by ordeal seems very primitive and inefficient to modern Western societies, but at the time it was accepted. As long as a society agrees that the process, any process, is fairly carried out, then the outcome can be accepted as just. Considering the lack of consistency in the legal system of Westeros, the constant war and violence seems pretty inevitable.

In other words, without a legal code, the Freys are probably going to get away with (spoilers)murdering Robb and Cat (and Talisa) unless someone with a sword goes to the trouble of trying to kill them and manages to succeed before.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *