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“In the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” – much of the fandom seems to internalize the cynical logic that ruthlessness is the prime determinant of success. We can see this most vividly in the “Stupid Ned” meme, where the doomed protagonist of the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) is mocked for his hapless naiveté in the midst of King’s Landing’s “nest of vipers.”
But is it accurate that ruthlessness, pure and simple, is the key to victory and survival in Westeros? The thesis of this essay is, in so far as we can take success or failure in the narrative of ASOIAF as a hint to George R.R Martin’s own political theorizing, that this is not the case. An idealistic attachment to codes of honorable behavior can trip up politicians who fail to guard themselves from the unethical, but it’s also the case that those who embrace Machiavellianism for Machiavellianism’ sake ultimately find their achievements last no longer than their ability to inspire fear. More lasting success ultimately comes from those who can marry pragmatism in their methods to an overarching purpose that can inspire the hearts and minds of Westerosi.
After all, if brutality was the only measure of a prince, why is it that the blood-soaked Maegor the Cruel reigned for only six years, failed to sire an heir, and ended up murdered on his own throne, while the peaceful Jaehaerys the Conciliator ruled for over fifty years, sired the Targaryen dynasty, and is remembered three hundred years later as the best of kings?