Zebra Ethics: The Amazon Second Age Series and Lessons from Game of Thrones
Today I stumbled across a genuinely interesting reddit article, which looks at the (positive) influence Game of Thrones may have on the upcoming Amazon Tolkien series:
Essentially, the argument is that the framework of Tolkien’s Second Age material inherently lends itself to “Machiavellian Thriller” stories, rather than to the Adventure-focused stories of the Third Age. Fantasy Machiavellian Thrillers, of course, being personified by Game of Thrones… and thus, to paraphrase Gandalf, the Amazon series might well become “Game of Thrones as it should have been.”
Now, in one sense, the article is entirely right. The two major plot-lines of Tolkien’s Second Age (Numenor and Eregion) do inherently lend themselves to inter-character political conflict – squabbles over the gaining and use of power, rather than heroic efforts to reject power. In the case of Numenor, there is even arguably an amorality to proceedings, at least until Numenorean Interventionism becomes full-scale Imperialism.
However, having thought about this some more, I personally see the comparison as a tad superficial. Because, ignoring the sex-and-gore of Westeros, there are a couple of fundamental differences between Tolkien’s Second Age Machiavellianism and Game of Thrones’ Machiavellianism.
First off, political action in Tolkien is often subservient to a Wider Moral and Social Question. The characters are in service to an overarching Idea about the role their society plays in the greater scheme of things. Game of Thrones, by contrast, tends to focus on political action for its own sake. The Idea is in service to the characters, who are intriguing for their own personal interests first, and a wider cause second. Indeed, the entire thematic point of Thrones is whether these characters are capable of putting aside their (fundamentally unimportant) differences in the face of an existential threat. The closest Tolkien comes to that sort of question is the squabble over the Hoard in The Hobbit… and that ends damned quickly once the Goblins turn up.
Recall that the great split in Numenor is the King’s Men versus the Faithful. There is genuine political jockeying between the two factions, over a substantial period of time, with the King’s Men growing ever more dominant. But there are also important questions at the heart of the split – the question of how to regard the Valar and the Elves, and at an even more metaphysical level, whether Death is a Gift or a Curse.
As such, when Ar-Pharazon launches his coup d’etat against Miriel, he is representing more than the individual interests of himself (though that is obviously part of it). He is representing a particular Numenorean way of viewing the world… as is his predecessor. Pharazon is the champion of Imperialism and a Human-centric order – indeed if I were being particularly cheeky and edgy, I might even say Humanism. His coup brings more than a change in governmental personnel to Armenelos… it brings a change in governmental ideology, one that deepens his society’s rejection of its original values.
In the case of Eregion, the scheming is less clear-cut, at least within canon, but one can assume pro and anti Annatar factions. The wider question at stake here surrounds the merits of the Rings of Power, and the essential slowing of time. The Elves do not concern themselves with Death like Men do, but they do face a world of change and decay, one where the future no longer holds a place for them… so should the Elves use Annatar’s help to do something about it? As one can see, there are some genuinely deep issues at stake, ones that are more complex than the immediate merits of co-operating with a mysterious stranger offering gifts, or the question of which character will come out on top.
By contrast, the factions in Game of Thrones are not fundamentally ideological actors. They are actors who operate in accordance with their own interests, fighting for power in order to wield it for the benefit of themselves and their allies. The Starks are fighting for the Starks, the Lannisters for the Lannisters, Littlefinger schemes for Littlefinger, et cetera. Sure, Daenerys Targaryen adopts an ideology of liberation, but that is merely what she wants to do with power when her House is restored. She is not really part of an on-going social dialogue of the sort we see in Tolkien, but rather a factional leader who asks themselves “what does one do with the power of dragons.” And while Varys claims to be acting for the good of the realm… his real focus is on what a Perfect Ruler Should Be, not on articulating a stance on an Important Question that transcends mere rulership.
The second major distinction gets to the heart of the moral distinction between Middle-earth and Westeros: Ethics.
Now, contrary to popular belief, the real distinction is not about Black and White Morality versus Grey. Both settings are actually pretty Black and White in terms of their moral framework, and Martin most certainly does not portray Evil as a mere point of view issue. If you haven’t figured out that Gregor Clegane is a Bad Guy, then you haven’t been paying attention.
The real distinction is that Middle-earth’s Ethics are Intentionalist (“morality is to be judged by intentions”), whereas Westeros’ are Consequentialist (“morality is to be judged by consequences”). Tolkien’s characters find themselves beset with the difficulty of Being Good in a world where Being Good is often very, very hard – sometimes impossible. Martin’s characters find themselves beset with the problem of not being able to foresee consequences. The Road to Hell and all that. Similarly, Saruman is Tolkien’s comment on consequentialism, whereas Ned Stark is Martin’s comment on intentionalism.
As such, when Game of Thrones shows characters scheming for political advantage, it is able to focus on outcomes. Winning matters, since it enables a character to achieve their objective. The real moral difficulties come when someone like Daenerys realises that their good intentions have inadvertently caused disaster, but Jon Snow can take comfort that his actions have had the consequence of keeping the realm safe (even if he feels guilty afterwards. Jon is an intentionalist at heart).
A series that wants to stay true to the underlying morality of Tolkien’s world cannot have the same focus. Rather than mere winning, it becomes about how victory is achieved, or rather mere victory is actually less important than one’s own moral conduct. A character who compromises themselves in order to attain their objective is, of course, entirely consistent with Tolkien’s world (it’s the whole point of Boromir)… but that character should not be presented by the series as having done a Good and Clever Thing. Similarly, when a character suffers a negative consequence for Good actions (a la Ned Stark), the series should not present it as something foolish. One ought to recall the message of Socrates from Plato’s Gorgias dialogue – it is better to suffer than to inflict suffering.
Of course, if one wants to delve into the weeds further, one can’t very well castigate Tolkien characters for having slipped up. The Stoics may say that one controls one’s will, but Tolkien’s world does have an Augustinian tinge – it’s a Fallen World, and no-one can fully resist Evil. Even Frodo’s will fails at the last, and poor Denethor’s failure is in the face of extenuating circumstances. Having “Good” screw up now and again would thus be something to be welcomed in the upcoming series, because Being Good in Tolkien is Hard. Similarly, Tolkien uses the Neoplatonist notion that Evil is an absence, not a force unto itself. Even Sauron was not Evil in the Beginning. As such, having the likes of Ar-Pharazon have admirable traits would also not be contrary to the underlying moral system. Objective Morality does not preclude Grey characters.
In truth, I have actually been wanting to write something on Tolkien vs Martin Ethics for a while, but this reddit article has provided a decent excuse. It is certainly true that if one wants to portray a decadent (or even depraved) setting in Tolkien, the Numenor of the late Second Age is actually a good candidate. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with having our characters become morally compromised in their Machiavellian scheming. It’s just that there are still enough differences between Second Age Tolkien and Westeros that one ought to tread carefully. Not all politically-charged stories fit the same thematic and ethical mould.