Sunday, May 19, 2019

Game of Thrones’ Peasants are a Problem of White Supremacy—and Its Victims, too

Peasants are the Real Victims of Game of Thrones’ final episodes, and in the real world, so are we.

By Cord J. Whitaker

In Game of Thrones, as the Mother of Dragons soars above and burns everything in sight, the huddled, pleading peasantry sets the scene for a showdown between Jon Snow’s ethics and Daenerys’ desire for vengeance. But the battle is really between a convenient plot device and historical reality. The peasants are that battle’s victims. 

Courtesy of HBO

Combustible as they are, they are also fuel for white supremacy.

Season 8, Episode 5 begins with Cersei enacting a plan we knew was coming. The peasants who live outside King’s Landing are racing to get inside the city walls. Even a casual viewer who has only started watching in this, the show’s final season, would know that Cersei is planning to use the people as a human shield. She, as Daenerys flatly puts it, considers her rival’s mercy a weakness. Dany has learned a few lessons about weakness, though, since she nearly lost the Slaver’s Bay city of Mereen because she freed the slaves but did not kill the masters. She was too merciful. She will not let that happen again. Cersei, of course, considers Dany’s signature act, the act of freeing slaves—let alone sparing their defeated masters—already too merciful. Too weak.

Soon the camera pans in from the racing crowd to focus on a mother and her young daughter—six or seven years old perhaps. As the mother drags her daughter along, attempting to keep her from being trampled in the fray, the girl clutches a wooden horse figurine. We know these characters will be minor but significant. The viewer already wants them to survive.

The feeling is only amplified when the same mother-daughter duo helps Arya Stark. Our trained assassin Night King-killing heroine is apparently no match for a stampeding crowd of Kings Landingers when she is nearly trampled to death. Until the mother reappears in the crowd and offers her hand and pulls her up. Arya is soon separated from the duo again. A significant time passes before Arya encounters them once more. Now, Dany and Drogon, her nearly eponymously named dragon, have almost completed their task. The city is in ruins, death is all around, the killing is no longer discriminate. Dany and her forces—even the usually quite moral Unsullied general Greywormare burning, stabbing, and beating unarmed men, women, and children. When Arya, careening through the ash-strewn streets, stumbles into an entryway, she finds a mass of huddled women and children. Ever the hero, she commands, “You can’t stay here. You have to keep moving.” “We can’t go out there,” one woman responds. “You have to,” says Arya. “Everyone out there is dead,” the woman retorts. “If you stay here, you’ll die!” Arya exclaims. She grabs the only two people willing to trust her—the peasant mother and daughter. The three flee down the street together, until the mother is injured by a passing horse ridden by what appears to be a Dothraki warrior—i.e., a member of Team Daenerys. Arya and the daughter help her up, but she is too injured. They can’t move quickly enough. She begs Arya, “Take her!” Arya pulls the girl along, but she resists and runs back to her mother who is now collapsed in the street. Dany and Drogon approach from the air. Fire engulfs everything. When Arya awakes at the end of the episode, she and the viewer are treated to a view of the mother and daughter’s bodies, charred black and in a death embrace. The girl still clutches her horse figurine, also charred black. 

If Arya is dismayed by the indiscriminate killing, Jon Snow is all the more disturbed. The episode features more than a few scenes of Jon staring at one atrocity, and then another, in horror. It is as if he has never participated in the violence of war. But he has. In one case, Jon catches a member of Team Daenerys preparing to rape a pleading woman. Jon stops him, and then kills him. 

The near rape scene, along with Arya’s mother-daughter duo, draws an ethical comparison between Jon, and with him Starks in general, and Daenerys, who burns and pillages from the air. We get the sense that Dany and Jon’s romantic relationship probably won’t survive. The viewer would do well to remember that Dany, a victim of assault herself, certainly would not approve of any of her retinue committing rape. But she is busy burning everything and everyone in sight and is not on the ground to witness war crimes or punish warriors for them. Jon is left to avenge the peasant where he can and to wrestle with his girlfriend-aunt’s willingness to treat them as collateral damage. By the end of the episode, Jon looks like the good guy.    

Cersei is defeated and, presumably, dead. (The Sopranos-style fade-to-black leaves one to wonder.) In Episode 6, the throne of the Seven Kingdoms will fall to its Targaryen heir, and whether that will be Jon or Dany is playing out on the backs of Kings Landing’s peasants. In Season 8, the peasants are but pawns in a queen’s, and king’s, game. 

The peasants are not only Dany’s victims. They are Jon’s, too. Even more importantly, they are also the victims of Song of Ice and Fire writer George R.R. Martin and HBO showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff.

Martin, Weiss, and Benioff have claimed that they want to combine “the realism of historical fiction with some of the appeal of fantasy,” and that they seek to present something like the ‘real’ Middle Ages. But the huddled masses of peasantry we encounter in Episode 5 are a simplistic and unrealistic representation of medieval tenant farmers. The so-called ‘peasants’ revolts’ that rocked England and Europe in 1380 and 1381 are a prime example of peasant power. In response to what they considered unfair taxation, farmers in England rose up against their lords, the members of the burgeoning merchant class, and Church and secular officials. In England, they streamed into London, murdered well-to-do merchants, brutally beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury, and negotiated with the king from the banks of the Thames. He floated on a barge in the middle of the river from what he hoped was a safe distance. The peasants had identified and threatened his mother and her retinue as they returned to London at the end of a journey. These peasants were not people who feared royal power. 

Nor were they afraid to use institutions to challenge their superiors. We have records of litigation in which farmers challenged lords who behaved too oppressively, and local manor courts made up of peasants had the right to fine the lord. As medieval historian Christopher Dyer points out, medieval peasants lived in “substantial houses” and preeminent British historian of the Middle Ages Terry Jones points out that “the amount of work required to pay rent and taxes was probably pretty similar to that needed now.” While the show has had some moments in which stereotypical power dynamics were inverted—such as Cersei’s walk of shame when, not yet on the throne, she was paraded naked through the city and pelted with rotten food and excrement as an act of forced contrition for her sins—for the most part, the common people have been presented as hapless and in awe of, or grateful for, the power of their lords, ladies, kings, and queens. This is not the real Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, Martin, Weiss, and Benioff are not the only people who believe that the peasant cowering before a nobility with unchecked power represents the real Middle Ages. I tip my hat to Helen Young of Deakin University in Australia; she has spent countless hours examining white supremacist websites for their medievalism. One telling comment on the well known site Stormfront reads:

If serfs were happy as serfs, it is because they were not the weaklings bowed before the power of lords and kings that Game of Thrones presents. On the contrary, the Stormfront writer longs for strict and simple hierarchy. Martin has claimed that “the class structures in places like [medieval Europe] had teeth. They had consequences. And people were brought up from their childhood to know their place and to know that [sic] duties of their class and the privileges of their class.” The Stormfront writer wants us to return to this Middle Ages. 

Martin’s interpretation and the Stormfront commenter’s ideal of the Middle Ages is not one in which power is shared. Perhaps this is why, despite many speculations that Dany and Jon could marry and many viewers’ hopes that they would, the idea is quickly dashed by Dany’s longtime advisor Lord Varys in Season 8, Episode 4 when Tyrion suggests it. Dany, Varys opines, would never share power. Why would she? After all, Game of Thrones’is not a medieval world in which a court made up of peasants can decide to fine their lord on behalf of other peasants.   

Game of Thrones comes to its end in an age when the Middle Ages have become a rallying point for white nationalism and supremacy. When white nationalists marched on Charlottesville in August 2017, they bore medieval-style shields; the insignia of the Holy Roman Empire, founded in the Middle Ages; and banners emblazoned with medieval runes. On March 15, 2019, an Australian man stormed into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and killed 51 people. He injured another 49. His arsenal and battle gear were covered with references to the Middle Ages, from the black sun inspired by the designs on early medieval Merovingian discs—Heinrich Himmler made it into a symbol for Nazi Germany’s SS in the 1930s—to the name of Charles Martel, the Frankish leader who in 732 defeated a Muslim army that was advancing on the French city of Tours. Martel was grandfather to Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. How we interpret the history of the Middle Ages is a life and death matter. 

And so is how we interpret its peasantry. Much white supremacist medievalism draws its power from two ideas: first, that medieval Europe was homogeneously white (and the peasant masses in Episode 5 were, from what I could tell, all white); and second, that a young white man can and should can claim spiritual nobility, a spiritual knightliness, and the entitlements that come with it. In fact, the Italian philosopher and self-appointed medievalist who inspired Benito Mussolini’s fascist racism has been connected with Steve Bannon and is cited outright by alt-right leader Richard Spencer. According to him, the “exoteric tradition represented by devotional Christianity” was of an “inferior character” to the “higher forms of spirituality” practiced by the likes of the Knights Templar. A peasant could attain knighthood if he only tapped into his superlative spiritual worth. It is known that economic disadvantage plays a role in the development of alt-right and other white supremacist attitudes. As long as peasants are portrayed as downtrodden masses, then young white men in America, Europe, and the West more broadly who feel economically disadvantaged due to geographical location, educational level, or multi-generational poverty are encouraged to fashion themselves the peasants who will rise to become knights. The narrative is seductive. To a certain extent, it is the narrative animating Jon Snow’s character, and even King Arthur’s. But it is faulty and, when pushed to its extremes, deadly.   

Game of Thrones has made for exceptional TV precisely because it has shied away from facile conclusions and instead has focused on the uncertainty—between justice and injustice, between lies and truth—that characterizes the real world. The depiction of a completely powerless peasantry readily herded into the killing fields is not in keeping with the more complicated spirit of a story of political intrigue. You can never really know whose side someone like Varys—or Tyrion—is on, so why should you know that the peasants will fall for Cersei’s tricks or suffer at the hands of any king or queen? Worse yet, the depiction fuels the fire for white supremacists who wish to see the world in black and white. They can easily imagine themselves peasant victims, and they can delightfully imagine themselves hero knights who rise up to defend their people. That fantasy is what was behind carrying faux medieval shields at Charlottesville, but it shouldn’t be what’s behind an interest in watching Game of Thrones

If the showrunners can right the ship for a final episode in which Dany doesn’t have to viciously kill Jon to retain the throne, or in which Jon doesn’t have to save humanity from the Mad King Redux by killing Dany, Game of Thrones has the chance to do a new thing by showing its viewers that power in our world doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. If there can be room for more than one person—representing various genders, races, creeds, and class backgrounds—sharing power at a round table à la King Arthur’s, then racist ideologies become a whole lot less attractive. 

If, on the other hand, Game of Thrones concludes while doing TV business as usual, then racism and the Cersei-style manipulation of class that feeds it will continue uninterrupted. The peasants will remain victims even when they think they’ve become knights, whether in the show’s world or ours.

Cord J. Whitaker researches and teaches late medieval English literature and studies medieval religious conflict and the history of race at Wellesley College. He is one of the bloggers at In the Middle. His book entitled “Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking” will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in September 2019.