This article is from Matthew Blair, owner and author of Cambrian Comics. Please give him a warm welcome.
It’s widely known that Game of Thrones has drawn quite a bit of inspiration and thematic material from history, current and ancient politics, and culture. However, the show’s reverence for the past also extends to more abstract themes like philosophy and world outlook, which is what we are going to be looking at today.
One of the most prevalent and widely discussed themes in Medieval philosophy was the Rota Fortunae, or Wheel of Fortune.
Besides sharing a name with the game show, the Wheel was a key part of Medieval life and worldview, showing how Fortune can spin the wheel of fate that all men are attached to. One minute a man can be riding high and happy at the top of the wheel whereas the next minute he is cast down into despair. In between he is either working to rise to the top or being cast down after losing favor.
The idea wasn’t especially new in the Medieval Ages. Like a large portion of medieval learning, the Wheel of Fortune took its inspiration from the Romans. One of the first philosophers to put this idea into words was the late Roman philosopher Boethius. Boethius lived during a time when Rome was still an Empire, just not an Empire the Romans ruled. After a long and successful career in Theodoric the Great’s court, Boetius was accused of treason and thrown into prison. During this time he wrote the hugely influential Consolation of Philosophy in which he describes the gifts of Fortune in this way.
“Inconstancy is my [Fortune’s] very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require1 .”
This is one of the first examples of the Rota Fortunae in medieval literature. The idea would later be used in the period’s other great literary works, including Dante’s Inferno and, The Carmina Burana (satirical and bawdy works collected and written by students and monks disillusioned with Church corruption)2 . Their view on the Wheel went something like this:
|OFortunavelutLunastatuvariabilissempercrescisaut decrescis;vita detestabilis
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem
dissolvit ut glaciem
|OFortuneliketheMoonchangeable instatealways waxingor waning;detestable life
at one moment hard
and at the next cares for
the witty games of the mind
it dissolves like ice..
Source for the translation.
If it doesn’t look familiar you may recognize it’s Carl Orff’s more famous musical adaptation:
No matter what the time, place, or genre the overall theme remains the same. Fortune is cruel and can raise men up by turning the wheels of fortune in their favor and cast them down just as quickly.
In the beginning of his Season 2 story arc, Stannis starts at the bottom of the wheel, a lord with little besides the company of the Red Priestess Melisandre. He has no claim to the Iron Throne other than his relation to the now deceased Robert, no land holdings of any importance to speak of. Stannis has to compete for the throne with his more charismatic younger brother Renly which rankles Stannis’ sense of order and morality. By law and custom (primogeniture), Stannis is next in line.
Once Melisandre conjures a shadow assassin who dispatches Renly, the entire Baratheon army flocks to Stannis’ side allowing the wheels of fortune to rotate towards the top for him. Nonetheless, at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, the Lannister/Tyrell forces route Stannis.
Defeated and bereft of most of his allies, Fortune has once again flung Stannis to the bottom of the Wheel faster than any character in the show. With a little luck and a lot of help from his trusty friend Davos, Stannis wins the Iron Bank’s support. Fresh funds allow him to assemble another army, which he intends to use to conquer the North and assume his rightful place as the Seven Kingdom’s true ruler. Now the wheels of fate are lifting Stannis up from the bottom yet again and how far he will go this time depends on Lady Fortune’s whims, or maybe just his own skill as a ruler and leader.
Clearly, Stannis is not the only character to suffer or benefit from the Wheel of Fortune but his story is one of the best examples of how Fortune turns for each character. So while you are watching Tyrion wander in Essos or Baelysh gather his own forces in the North remember how any character can rise to the top of the Wheel, or be crushed on their way down.