ASoIaF has always had to walk a tightrope in its subversion of the high-fantasy genre in that it portrays people and events closer to the way they really work in real life, but in doing so risks coming across as an endorsement of the way things really work in real life.
Martin has always been clear, for example, that good men (eg. Ned) don’t always make good rulers. But to me the second part of that statement has always been an implicit but clear “and that really sucks.”
I’m not sure everyone sees it that way, though. Time and time again, we see fan backlash against some of the main characters when their attempts to behave decently backfire or fail in some way — Ned giving Cersei the chance to flee rather than die; Dany using her dragons and burgeoning following to liberate slaves and attempt to create a just peace in Meereen rather than leveling everything between her and King’s Landing; Jon’s increasingly status-quo-threatening attempts to get the wildlings south of the Wall and on the side of the rest of the realm. You end up with arguments that life would be better under a despot like Tywin Lannister than under a liberator like Daenerys.
In other words, many readers seem to take Martin’s realpolitik approach to how the world works in his writing as a reprimand against those with a more idealistic outlook. I don’t think that’s the case at all, in large part because of the issues of war and peace that provoked this thread.
Martin has unfailingly portrayed war as a grotesque folly, a crime against our common humanity. He does this by setting up a supernatural antagonist of whom most of the warring parties are unaware but who we know (to the extent that we can know anything of GRRM’s longterm plans with this series) is the enemy of all humanity, such that every time people raise their swords against one another, or burn each other’s towns and crops, or sack each other’s strongholds and rape and torture and murder their families, they are doing the enemy’s work.
Obviously, war against the Others and their wights will be necessary — but it’s striking that the only necessary war Martin allows for is one that can’t possibly have a counterpart in real life. We have no white walkers to worry about. We only have each other.
The above quote is my contribution to a provocative thread on how Martin’s characters “wage peace,” started by Westeros.org’s Elio García in response to the Curt Purcell post I talked about earlier.
I would also add that part and parcel of how Martin has humanized epic fantasy by fleshing out heroes and villains into characters less easy to identify as either is similarly fleshing out the humanity of the people who die in the wars waged between the two. That’s why it’s so weird to me to see people endorsing Tywin Lannister or, god help me, Roose Bolton as a superior ruler to Daenerys Targaryen or Eddard Stark — or to see people arguing that Victarion Greyjoy — wifebeater, gaybasher, rapist, war criminal, mass murderer — is the Prince Who Was Promised or Azor Ahai reborn. These men dehumanize others, and humanizing others is the project of the entire series.
Just to throw my own two cents here - firstly, I really wish Hymn for Spring was out already because I have a long essay in there on this very topic that is hard to sum up in a few words. Secondly, one of the major reasons why I started Race for the Iron Throne is that I don’t think the major characters acting decently is the reason for their political failings - I think the reason is that they fail to understand institutional power and how it is gained and lost.
So, to do a short version:
Ultimately, Ned’s godswood chitchat with Cersei would not have hurt him in any way had he used the power of his office to ensure military hegemony in King’s Landing, because people often forget how utterly vulnerable Cersei was at that moment. He didn’t need to buy the Gold Cloaks and entrust that to Littlefinger; he could have replaced it’s officer corps with Jorey Cassel and other trusted Northmen from the get-go, or hired mercenaries en masse. Moreover, he could have gotten to the bottom of things much sooner, i.e before Robert’s death, had he sent Jorey Cassel with a legal summons to Ser Hugh or Stannis.
Likewise, Dany’s mistake in Slaver’s Bay wasn’t to overthrow slavery - it was that she took every last soldier out of Astapor so that the government could be overthrown by a butcher, that she took the slaves of Yunkai but left their masters in control of most of the city’s wealth, that in Meereen she freed the slaves but left the economic resources of the city in the hands of the Wise Masters, and then tried to make a conciliatory peace. She didn’t need to go full scorched-earth to win, but she did need to follow through on her revolution.
Similarly, Jon Snow’s mistake in ADWD wasn’t that he tried to bring about a social revolution on the Wall (although when it comes to Hardhome he was suffering from a bad case of tunnel vision) - it’s that he followed the maxim of “kill the boy and let the man be born” and utterly failed to build a constituency for his agenda. Jon Snow should have been eating with his men all the time so that they came to like and trust him, rather than systematically sending away every friend and ally (although he did need good people to staff the castles) he should have been building up a base of supporters, moving them into positions of power where they could help him, and most importantly reproducing his initial network of allies by recruiting. But most of all, he should have regularly and loudly explained to everyone what he was doing and why BEFORE he did it in order to persuade them that this was a good idea and to make it clear what his motives were, rather than waiting until the very last moment to chew out his subordinates for not getting the plan.
In other words, it’s not that being a good person makes you a bad politician and vice versa, it’s that being a good person isn’t enough - you also have to learn how to be a good politician.
But the vice versa doesn’t have a better track record - Tywin’s dead and his legacy will die with him because no one will march for the memory of Tywin Lannister; Walder Frey is watching his family die all around him and his carefully-hoarded strength dissipate in futile attempts to take the North; Roose Bolton faces rebellion and siege that threatens to topple him within the first year of holding the North, his attempts to rebuild Winterfell are being visibly undone around him, and his son Ramsay will destroy everything the day after he dies.
Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives… and to the ‘good life,’ whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.