Some Thoughts on The Prince and Game of Thrones

Peter Baelish infamously described chaos as a ladder which he will climb; in reality, Baelish is not worthy of breaking the wheel, and he’s merely going around in circles. He will soon meet the bad end of fortuna.

George R.R. Martin confirms in this BBC documentary, “Who’s Afraid of Machiavelli?” that The Prince heavily influenced his writing of A Song of Ice and Fire and the general depiction of political intrigue amongst the lords of Westeros.

Some of Machiavelli’s most important and famous lessons on governing come from chapters 15 to 19 of The Prince; they cover those things for which men and especially princes are praised or blamed, of generousness and parsimony, whether it is better to be loved than feared, how the Prince should keep faith, and how to avoid being hated. The quotes below come from Mansfield’s English-language translation of The Prince). 

Lord Eddard Stark plays the honourable fool who never understood Machiavelli’s lesson in chapter 15: “a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence, it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and thus this and not use it according to necessity.” Acting good and honourably against enemies who do not share in or reciprocate those virtues is akin to unilateral disarmament and surrender.

Tywin Lannister best grasps the basic fundamentals of politics and Machievelli’s lesson that it is better to be feared than loved, because “love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you.” In other words, love depends upon reciprocity, and the people can unilaterally fall out of love with a Prince and stop obeying him, but fear is unilateral and favours the Prince; only his subjects must fear him and keep their own behaviour in line in order to avoid punishment. Ultimately, fear is more rational than love and relies on the self-interest of the Prince’s subjects. But above all, the Prince must not practise wanton cruelty or pettiness, or else he will soon find himself hated by his subjects  — as Aerys II and Joffrey both discovered to their chagrin. They should both have read chapter 19 of The Prince, “How to Avoid Contempt and Hatred.” Hatred, like love, is irrational. Hatred unleashes forces which overcome fear in a way that the Prince cannot control.

As a side note, I like how Martin subverts the nobility of the lion by making it the sigil of House Lannister, a family renowned for its guile and cunning and not reputed for its honour. Machiavelli likens the Lion alone to the strength but makes clear that a good ruler also needs to possess the guile and cunning of a fox. So Tywin’s personal arms ought to be a combination of a fox and a lion!

More fundamentally, I see another important analogy between Game of Thrones and The Prince, namely with the latter’s last chapter in which Machiavelli advocates the unification of the various Italian city-states into one modern centralized State, which would allow Italy to repel the invasions from other recently unified modern States like Spain and France. In chapter 26, Machiavelli believes that the stars have aligned and that the Medicis can forge a unified Italian State because they possess the virtuosity and the good fortune by holding Florence and the Papacy: “Nor may one see at present anyone in whom she [a united Italy] can hope more than in your illustrious house, which with its fortune and virtue, supported by God and by the Church of which it is now prince, can put itself at the head of this redemption.” Machiavelli probably did sincerely believe in the necessity of Italian unification in principle, but we might take his exhortation to the Medicis in particular with a grain of salt given that in chapter 23, he counsels that flatterers are to be avoided.

Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli discusses virtu and fortuna, literally “virtue” and “fortune.” By fortune, he’s referring to luck more than wealth per se, though good fortune will often bring a monetary fortune along with it. But “virtue” would be a false cognate here. By “virtue,” Machiavelli really means something more like the English word “virtuosity”, which shares an etymology with “virile,” the Latin root vir, literally “man,” (person of the male sex rather than “man” in the anthropological sense of Homo sapiens). For Machiavelli, “virtue” refers to a kind of manliness, skill, or valour (for a Latinate word) or worthiness (if you prefer a Germanic word).

Fortune has often been represented as a wheel. And Danaerys has on many occasions declared her intention to “break the wheel” that rolls over everyone in Westeros to the benefit of no one. She has already demonstrated her worthiness and mastery of fortune in acquiring and raising her dragons, seizing the Unsullied by fooling the slavers and then burninating them to death, and breaking the back of slavery in Essos. Only one possessing the virtuosity and mastery of fortune would have been able to achieve something so monumental. Tywin Lannister was too instrumental for this task. Cersei Lannister is unworthy of it and too hated by too many factions.

As Missandei said, the Valyrian word for “Prince” is gender-neutral and could therefore refer to either a male or female ruler. Danaerys Targaryen is the “Prince Who Was Promised;” she possesses the virtuosity (worthiness) to become the Master of Fortune, to make her own luck, to “break the wheel” and unite the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros under her rule and against the Night King and the Others who would destroy everyone and everything in their path.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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