The Tully family’s motto is Family, Duty, Honor. While Catelyn Tully perfectly embodies these virtues, her fate seems to be a slap in the face to these ideals. In a turbulent time like that in ASOIAF, doing the right thing can get you killed — a recurrent theme of the series.
George R.R. Martin’s body of work suggests that he is not a cynic. But, in the ASOIAF series, Martin is brutally honest about the gap between perception and reality: following a moral code provides no protection. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and sometimes one cannot even tell what is a bad or good choice. This is one of the qualities that make the series both frustrating and irresistible.
===This article contains TV spoilers ===
Honor and Chivalry: Life is Not a Song
Although Shakespeare’s time was on the heels of the Middle Ages (~ 500 CE to 1500 CE), his works are surprisingly short on honorable knights and chivalrous deeds like the ones in Arthurian legends or romantic tales popularized by later poets like Sir Walter Scott.
Rather, one would be pressed to find any heroism in the multi-play series from Richard II to Henry IV or plays set in older periods. The kings do not resemble Arthur or Richard the Lionheart and the nobles and knights aren’t like Sir Lancelot or Robin Hood in the stories. Even the characters who are supposed to be good guys, such as Henry V, have done some disturbing things; Henry locked up his friend Falstaff and later hung his pathetic old buddy Bardoff (Henry V, Act 3, Scenes 6-7). The good guys never rescue any maidens or protect the weaklings. Rather they spend most of their time waging wars and worrying about their crowns. Where is the honor?
Jaime Lannister knows all about this “honor” business. When he became a Kingsguard at fifteen, he wanted to be a proper knight like Ser Arthur Dayne: to be strong and loyal, to protect the weak and innocent, to be true and honorable, and to always do the right thing. Life has other plans.
To be loyal to his king, Aerys, he had to listen to Queen Rhaella being raped and abused by her husband and do nothing. At seventeen, Jaime did what he thought was the right thing and killed the Mad King to protect the citizens of King’s Landing as well as his father Tywin.
Did Westeros greet the young man like a hero? No, thereafter Jaime is universally despised as an oathbreaker and kingslayer. Even Ned Stark, whose father and brother’s deaths were avenged by Jaime’s act, looked upon him with contempt.
By the time Jaime pushes an eight-year-old boy out of the Tower window at Winterfell (A Game of Thrones), he is beyond caring about his honor. He has to do it for the love of his family. By then he has learned that adhering to the Kingsguards’ code of honor is simply not possible if one wants to survive the real world. What he believed in emphatically was but a dream.
While Jaime is disappointed by the impossibility of upholding his honor, Sandor “the Hound” Clegane has been burned by knights’ chivalry. “I like dogs better than knights,” he says to Sansa in A Clash of Kings. “Knights are for killing… Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers.”
The Hound’s rage is fueled by the hypocrisy — most people, from small folk to noble girls like Sansa, believe that knights are honorable and glamorous, and behave like the heroes in songs and fairy tales. They go to tourneys and cheer for these men in shining armors and galloping horses and dream of being rescued and protected by the knights. Sansa soon learns the ugly truth about knights to her sorrow. Ser Meryn Trant beats her bloody at the order of King Joffrey while the other white cloaks watched. Only Sandor Not-a-Knight makes an effort to protect her.
Indeed, knights were armed men, trained in the skills of violence, used by their kings and lords on battlefields and raids, to kill and maim their masters’ enemies. They were not bred and groomed to protect women or children, the weak or the innocent. As the Hound points out, “Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers… so you better get used to looking at them.” (Game of Thrones TV series, S2E9). He knows them well, for his own brother, Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, is one of the most efficient killing machines in Westeros and has not a shred of mercy in his massive muscles.
In Shakespeare’s plays, knights and noblemen also do their real jobs in the kings’ wars, and chivalry is as rare as it is in real life. The best example of a knight is the inimitable Sir John Falstaff. He drinks, whores, lies, cheats, and commits highway robbery.
When called upon by his master to fight in wars, he shows up only when victory is assured and claims the body of Hotspur — already cut down by Prince Hal in a duel — as his own kill (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 5, Scene 4).
In Henry IV, Part 2, Falstaff is sent on a recruitment tour in the villages by Prince Hal. Men who can afford to bribe him are allowed to go home, while those who can’t become a member of his ragtag platoon that are better at dodging battles than fighting them. Despite the rousing speech Henry V gives to his generals, on the Agincourt battleground there is no glory or honor, only death, severed limbs, and puddles of mud and blood (Henry V).
Sir Falstaff knows exactly what a knight’s honor is —-
“Well, ‘tis no matter; honour pricks me on.
Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then?
Can honour set to a leg? no; or an arm? No; or take away the grief of a wound? no.
… What is honour? A word.
What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning!
Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.” — (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 4, Scene 1)
The same question comes up in A Feast for Crows, if not in exactly the same words. When Jaime arrives at the siege of Riverrun and tries to persuade Brynden “Blackfish” Tully to surrender, the latter sneers, “Your word of honor? Do you even know what honor is?”
“A horse,” is Jaime’s unspoken reply. It’s a joke; Jaime’s squire named the horse “Honor,” and Jaime has it dressed in the colors of Kingsguard. Perhaps in the depth of his heart there remains an aspiration to be a good knight, but right now Jaime does not know where to put his honor but in his horse.
Family Feuds Drive Wars and Mayhem
George R.R. Martin, like Shakespeare, tells stories of large-scale wars through intimate family struggles and, by doing so, makes the average reader care.
The heroes and leaders are portrayed as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, with psychological issues resonating with everyone. In a way, these issues seem to imply that even massive conflicts can be understood as tribal (familial) competitions and struggles.
The entire Wars of Roses series of plays (Henry VI, Parts 1 to 3 and Richard III) are driven by blood feuds between the York and Lancaster families. The same cycles of escalating revenge and mutual destruction also form the basis for Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, the War of Five Kings over the Iron Throne is as much about individual ambition as it is about the legacies of great houses of Westeros.
The plots are also frequently driven by conflicts within a family. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy observes (Anna Karenina). Hamlet is a confused son facing troubled relationships with his mother and stepfather. Lear is an unwise father of three daughters, each with her own priority. Even the heroic Othello is brought down by domestic failures.
In ASOIAF, war is triggered by Joffrey, a boy king spoiled by his mother Cersei, and Cersei’s fierce protection of her children at all costs. Love for their children causes Catelyn and Ned Stark make foolish decisions. A desperate pursuit for his father’s approval leads Theon Greyjoy down a road of hell. In a most Freudian event, Tyrion kills his own father. Like Shakespearean plays and like real life, Martin’s world is full of unhappy families, each with their own bickering and bitterness, because unhappy family relationships are the bottomless goldmine of universal drama and conflicts.
The structure of the Lannister family is similar to that of the Lear family: an absent mother, a self-centered father, a pair of closely-knit older siblings, and the lonely and misunderstood third child. The father tries every trick in his book to get his children to obey him and become an extension of his will, but the children all have their own calculations. The father rules a kingdom but cannot rule his children. A family is torn apart by their conflicting needs from and unfulfilled demands for each other. The world may batter you with slings and arrows, but those that hurt the worst always come from your own family.
Epilogue: Behind the Curtains
Earlier in 2014, Martin released a chapter entitled “Mercy,” intended for inclusion in The Winds of Winter.