Daenerys Targaryen Burns the Tarlys

After the Battle of the Gold Road, Daenerys Targaryen has the defeated and captured Lannister soldiers rounded up and delivers the following ultimatum:

I offer you a choice. Bend the knee and join me and together we will leave the world a better place than we found it or refuse and die.

Their plight and some admonitory roaring from Drogon convince all the Lannister men to bend the knee, except for Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon. Tyrion pleads for their lives, suggesting that they might be sent to the Wall. Randyll doesn’t refuse the offer but insists that because Daenerys isn’t Queen, she doesn’t have the authority to send him to the Night’s Watch.

Daenerys carries out her threat and Drogon roasts both Randyll and Dickon. The episode touched off a great deal of discussion about whether or not Daenerys was justified. Randyll wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t defying the law but rather a foreign conqueror and her pet monster.

Under every code of law, threats made by private individuals under threat of force have no legal standing. If this were not so, every mugging would be a legal appropriation. For Daenerys’ ultimatum to be justified, she must be more than a private citizen; she must be a ruling sovereign.

A government may conscript its own citizens into the army. These measures are unpopular but they’re often regarded as legal and constitutional. Any citizen who refuses the conscription is breaking the law and is liable to legal penalties. Since Daenerys sees herself as the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she may conscript the men of Weseros into her army.

The Lannister soldiers are men of Westeros but they are also prisoners of war. Daenerys may counter that since she is the rightful Queen and they took up arms against her, they aren’t really prisoners of war but rebels and traitors. And from a strictly legal standpoint she may be correct.

The British Crown faced a much similar situation in regard to the prisoners of war taken during the American Revolution. They could never grant these captured men the status of prisoners of war because that would concede that the Colonies were a sovereign nation and these men were soldiers of that nation. Yet to deny that they were soldiers at all meant that they were rebels and traitors and their condign fate was execution in the gruesome fashion of the age. And to draw and quarter captured colonial troops would make any reconciliation with their lost colonies utterly impossible. The British simply ignored the whole question, neither according them the status of prisoners of war or punishing them as traitors. Although they didn’t execute the captured colonials, they kept them in conditions so appalling that a great many of them died anyway.

Throughout most of history, those captured in war were either slaughtered or enslaved. Those combatants who were taken didn’t enjoy any legal status as prisoners of war until the Napoleonic Wars. The Mongols and Tartars frequently butchered whole populations without bothering to consider whether this was lawful or just.

The samurai almost never kept prisoners. They believed that the losers of a battle should either die fighting or kill themselves out of shame. Any warrior so cowardly as to be taken alive didn’t deserve to live.

 

After the ghastly wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants, echoes of chivalry still lingered in the secular wars between nations. A captured officer may give his parole, his most solemn word, that he will do nothing either to harm his captor or attempt to escape. His parole given, he was permitted to move about freely and even to go home to return at an appointed time with his ransom. The officer is still no less a prisoner but he is held by his honor rather than by bars and fetters. We may admire the humanity and gentility of such an arrangement, but we must remember that it was a courtesy extended by aristocrats to aristocrats.

Prisoners of war were sometimes permitted to change sides and enlist among their whilom captors. But they didn’t do this because they were threatened with death but to win their freedom and improve their condition. These defectors were rarely fully trusted. Having switched sides once, they might well do so again and they were often sent off to distant postings in order to free up more dependable troops for the main theater.

I have never heard of anybody forcing an entire body of prisoners to switch sides and fight for their cause under threat of death. In modern times, international law mandates that very soon after hostilities are ended, prisoners of war are to be released or repatriated.

Daenerys’ father was overthrown by a rebellion and he was killed as a direct result of that rebellion. Daenerys invasion may be regarded as the last act of a civil war. The Tarlys fought against the Targaryens during Robert’s rebellion.

Charles II returned to rule a kingdom that had risen against his father and deposed him. Some of the men who had overthrown his father later tried and executed him. His Restoration and Daenerys invasion share many points of similarity. Although the Tarlys fought to overthrow King Aerys, they had nothing to do with his death. Aerys was killed by Jaime Lannister and because his killing was neither planned nor even really political, it was a murder and not an assassination.

Charles I was tried and executed by a large body of signatories and many of them were still living and fell into his son’s hands after the Restoration. While many of these regicides were executed, those who simply fought against his father or were part of the government that replaced him were spared any punishment. Neither were they compelled to swear an oath of allegiance to the restored King.

After the American Civil War, the general populations of the seceding states weren’t forced to swear their allegiance to the Union. The most important and recalcitrant of the Confederates were barred from holding public office and voting, but they weren’t fined or imprisoned.

During the occupation and rebuilding of Germany, many former Nazis were imprisoned and punished. Some were executed after the Nuremberg Trials. Yet the Allies made a distinction between Followers, Lesser Offenders, Offenders, and Major Offenders. They held only some of those who were officially members of the Nazi Party responsible for the crimes of the Nazi state. Former Nazis may be barred from public office and the civil service but only the most culpable were punished for their country’s crimes.

The defeated can scarcely help but admit they’ve lost. Yet to force them to declare that they were wrong ever to have fought in the first place is another thing entirely. Few conquerors have ever been so arrogant or foolish as to wring such a fruitless and costly admission from the vanquished.

Bells, Runways, Stark Reunions, and Love Scenes

Nearly all of us, whether in television or in a movie, have watched a situation in which two actresses are running lines from a love scene, and after uttering professions of passion, devotion, and everlasting fidelity, one or both of them will collapse into laughter. Shaking her head, and finally catching her breath after her fit of giggling, she wonders what sort of imbecile can write such nonsense and how they can possibly recite such drivel in front of an audience without ruining their careers. I remember one scene just like this from one of the later seasons of Mad Men in which Don Draper’s second wife, an aspiring actress, mocks the pages she’s been sent and despairs of ever performing anything so ridiculous?

Going through these derided scenes, word by word, line by line, what exactly is so terrible? Show, don’t tell is one of the few really useful maxims applied to writing, so are these passages are full of adjectives like: steely, piercing, ravishing, or irresistible. No, in the instance just mentioned and most others, the prose is quite lean. Furthermore, there are no obvious solecisms or mistakes in usage. Then what is it that is so mediocre or contemptible in these scenes that the actresses shudder to perform them? In every case, the scene is read all by itself, and it consists of two names, names without faces, names of complete strangers, names that don’t bear the weight of any regret, pain, loss, or confusion. These two phantoms sigh out their passion, swear to be true forever, weep to be parted, and every word of it is dreary.

Tender love scenes, sweet reunions, and anguished partings don’t twist and tear our hearts because of the beauty and precision of the language. There are no insights into the human condition, no observations on love, no profound wisdom in what the characters are saying. Nothing needs to be said. When Jon Snow walks out and sees Sansa Stark standing in the courtyard, he rushes down the stairs and she runs to him, throwing herself in his arms. As Jon picks up his sister and holds her, grown men and their less stoic wives and girlfriends alike weep together. We are so deeply moved by what is happening only because what has already happened. We have seen these two mocked, held captive, manipulated, beaten, stabbed, fleeing from certain death. We have seen them suffer so much that if they somehow live, they may survive but they can never again find happiness. That hug lasts for only a few seconds. It takes fifty some hours of superb storytelling to buy those few seconds.

A story needs to build up an enormous emotional charge to allow such a huge, and yet brief release. That flash of joy is the result of hours of despair, fatigue, pain, grief, loss, regret, and every other shadow that has ever darkened the human soul. Has anything ever been more silly and mawkish than the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life? It should be laughable but instead it’s devastating. That ending exhilarates us because of the dark story that’s just unfolded. The film has its lighter moments, high school seniors jump into a swimming pool, Donna Reed huddles naked in a bush, Sam Wainwright can’t refrain from incessantly blatting ‘hee-haw’.

Yet there is far more darkness than light, and the most frivolous and light-hearted moments are haunted by death. One moment, George is holding an empty bathrobe, relishing a very interesting situation, the next he’s rushing to his father’s deathbed. One moment, children are sledding on a hill, the next one of them nearly drowns in an icy pond. We sometimes forget that a grief-stricken pharmacist nearly poisons innocent children. We forget George Bailey shaking his uncle by the collar, berating him, shrieking about prison and ruin and scandal. We forget George’s smoldering resentment, his dreams relinquished for the sake of a town remarkable only for its ingratitude, a town that George both loves and hates. Frank Capra’s shading is impeccable. He can’t make Bedford Falls into a Gomorrah but he makes sure that there are almost no profusions of gratitude to take away from the ending. George gives up college to run the Building and Loan and the sacrifice is mentioned only right before he’s called upon to make a second terrible sacrifice. He gives away the money for his honeymoon to once again save the Building and Loan, and the depositors seem quite pleased by the deliverance, but they don’t bother to thank their deliverer. Capra doesn’t want to make his characters monsters of ingratitude, and Martini and Gower are sincerely grateful and loyal to George, but he’s sparing with the appreciation holding nearly everything back for the ending. Because It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about poverty and loss, dreams deferred and then destroyed, that beautiful ending is overwhelming.

Think back to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing on the runway as the propellers that will carry her away forever splutter to life behind them. The words he speaks, by themselves are quite ordinary, and if read aloud by someone who’d knew nothing about the movie, they’d seem unremarkable.

Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true.  Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor.  You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.  If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with it you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Ilsa: What about us?

Rick: We’ll always have Paris.  We didn’t have-we lost it-we lost it until you came to Casablanca.  We got it back last night.

Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you…

Rick: And you never will.  I’ve got a job to do too.  Where I’m going, you can’t follow.  What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.   I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  Someday you’ll understand that.  Not now.  Here’s looking at you kid.    

These words are meaningful because of the themes of duty, sacrifice, and the clash of good and evil so masterfully evoked in what has come before. Their idyllic yet perhaps selfish tryst in Paris, the figure of Victor Laslow, the Marsellaise out-throating Die Wacht am Rhein in the cafe. Every line, every image, every scene has led up to this goodbye. Two people who love one another, and whom we love, must give up their lives together and their happiness to do the right thing.

As a fan of Joss Whedon, I can’t help but close with Buffy and Angel. We have seen Buffy and Angel fight together and fight one another. We have seen her run a sword through him and hurl him into hell to save the world. Every great joke, every brilliant line, every superb scene from the first episode to this, has brought them closer and closer together, and bonded us to them as well. That narrative momentum makes the simplest declarations of love heart-rending.

Angel: No matter what, I’ll always be with you.

Buffy: How am I supposed to go on with my life, knowing what we had, what we could have had?

Buffy: I felt your heart beat.

Angel: I love you.

Buffy: I love you.

Angel: Nothing will ever change that.  Not even death.

The words themselves are short, often used, and unremarkable. The sentences are simple, with none of the mirroring, balancing or antitheses of the rhetorical arts. But these words are now imbued with an immense force, and all Joss Whedon must do is not to ruin the effect he’s labored season after season to create. It may seem a thankless chore that it costs him thousands and thousands of words carefully chosen and perfectly arranged to make a few dozen resound, but these fleeting outpourings of grief or joy are earned only by hard work, sweat, and pages and pages of stupendous story-telling. Joss Whedon’s a writer and that’s the price every writer must pay, but I’m sure he feels such moments are worth that price.

X Men, Avengers, and Titus Pullo

In the 2016 film X Men Apocalypse, the villain, actually named Apocalypse, recruits a cadre of disgruntled mutants to destroy the world. As anyone may guess, the X Men set out to stop him and there follows a climactic battle between disgruntled and gruntled mutants. Apocalypse is enormously powerful, as are the mutants arrayed against him, and he easily disposed of the world’s nuclear arsenals and then nearly wipes out all life on the planet. This plot has become a familiar one, but this movie in question is a particularly blatant example. The scale and the stakes involved are ramped up to the highest level possible. The issue is the eradication of all life on the planet, and yet the struggle is kept between the two parties of mutants alone. Despite facing their own extinction, none of the leaders, governments, or armies of humankind take any part in the fight, and stopping Apocalypse is left to the superheroes. Everybody who isn’t enhanced is strangely and unpardonably passive throughout. This passivity shows itself in the X Men and the Avengers movies, and it has become one of the principal features of the whole genre. These movies make it clear that ordinary humans are hopelessly overmatched and it’s best for everyone that the world’s militaries and law enforcement agencies stay out of the fray and leave the work to beneficent superhumans.

In the final acts of these films, the laws, courts, governments, and armies of mankind disappear for all narrative purposes, while the demigods fight it out. The stage is emptied of everything except famous monuments which are left to be wrecked in computer generated spectacles. This void is conspicuous and it precludes any interactions between the superheroes and their ordinary allies. The series of Marvel comics shows on Netflix seem aware of this drawback and they try to avoid setting their final acts in a global vacuum. To keep some sort of context, they’ve scaled back the scope of the conflict and the stakes involved. The amphitheater is now one neighborhood in New York rather than the entire globe, and the villains aren’t out to destroy the world. Kingpin wants to run Hell’s Kitchen, not unleash Armageddon. KIllgrave wants to eat at fancy restaurants and play house with Jessica Jones. This allows the show writers to keep the institutions, players, and settings of ordinary life: courts, politicians, lawyers, journalists, prions, and they all can play an integral role in the story, which can then be more complex and be made up of more moving parts. Kingpin’s empire is threatened by a newspaper reporter. Jessica Jones can’t simply assassinate Killgrave because she needs to exculpate the girl he made kill her own parents. Netflix has cut down the stories and made them smaller, but by doing so, they can tell stories where crooked politicians, district attorneys, cops, journalists, and lawyers can be prominent in the action. The whole world doesn’t need to vanish during the final act, and the ending can unfold in the same world we ourselves inhabit.

This restriction in scale seems to be worth the sacrifice if the payoff is a more complex and interesting narrative. Yet is the reduction really necessary? Must the setting become parochial, and the struggle lessened in its importance? Can’t a larger superhero story keep its human context and not become a saga of titans battling in an empty firmament? There is an approach that will achieve all of this but the narrative vehicle isn’t found in comics but instead in the HBO series Rome. Like Matt Murdoch and Jessica Jones, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are formidable without being invulnerable or all-powerful. Yet the actions is spread over a wider scene, and Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony are fighting for control of the entire known world. And like their Marvel counterparts, they must contend with rules, laws, and figures of authority. And like their Marvel counterparts, they’re citizens rather than demigods. Matt Murdoch went to university, took and passed the bar exam, argues cases in a court of law, rents offices in one building an apartment in another. Jessica Jones is arrested by the police and is held pending trial. They have Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, credit histories, bank accounts, and the myriad other connections with the organizations and institutions of the modern world.

Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are members of the Thirteenth Legion, and as such they are subject to military discipline and regulations. On the social ladder, they sit near the bottom and they are far below many of the other characters. Not only in their dealings with Julius Caesar, but even in interactions with lesser characters, they must remain deferential and obedient. Dangerous men and capable killers, they are nevertheless figures of little importance. In the very first episode, they come to the rescue of a very creepy Octavian, a boy with the mind of Tywin Lannister in the body of Joffrey, winning themselves the gratitude and patronage of his reptilian mother, Atia who herself closely resembles Cersei. When taken out of the urban setting and marooned in the wilderness, these constraints of caste and birth are removed. Pompey is surpassingly and unquestionably their social superior, but far from Rome, away from its mores and its laws, acting on their own, they kill his captors and set him free. Yet once they return to the world and report back to Caesar, they must confess their effrontery in taking it upon themselves to save and then release his archrival and suffer the consequences. In their lowly station, they must be humble and biddable, doing as Atia bids and defying her only at the behest of someone yet more powerful than she.

Not only must they obey their aristocratic betters, the two men are also at the mercy of forces more powerful than they are. Vorenus follows Mark Anthony out of duty but he’s incapable of deciding or even of significantly influencing their shared fate. He sees his leader giving way to dissipation, losing his fighting skills, and leading them both down a path that will end in their death but he’s powerless to do anything about it. He doesn’t have the rank or the power to alter the outcome and he can only keep his word and faithfully attend his master as Anthony sets about getting them both killed. Neither he nor Pullo are in control and they’re borne along by irresistible tides of history and destiny. They aren’t strong enough to save the world all on their own.

 

They’re not simply spectators, but they’re also actors in the greatest events of their time. They stand at the elbow of the high and mighty, and they are pulled into the biggest happenings of their age. In this respect, they’re much like Forrest Gump. Like the affable Alabaman, they’re in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they’re in the thick of things as history is made all around them. They encounter and serve JFK, John Lennon, LBJ, Elvis, Octavian, Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey. Rome shows us both ends of the social spectrum, queens, imperators, and consuls, and their lowborn bodyguards and assassins.

One of the earlier episodes is entitled “How Titus Pullo brought down the Republic” and it recounts how one small action of Pullo’s has enormous repercussions. Pullo didn’t set out to bring down the Republic but he inadvertently touches of a series of events that change the world forever. He doesn’t turn the course of history because he has godlike powers, but through the butterfly effect. One step leads to a cascade of mistakes, chances, and accidents which results in the collapse of the Republic. This was one deed of one small actor among many, rather than the colossal heroics of a tiny number of nearly omnipotent saviors. Titus Pullo inadvertently destroyed a system of government, and in much the same manner a protagonist might save a life, avert a disaster, or diffuse a crisis and end up saving a country or the world.

Rome HBO DVD Polly Walker Kerry Condon Kevin McKidd Ray Stevenson James Purefoy

Tyrion Lannister and three other Silenuses

For most who watch Game of Thrones or read the books, Tyrion Lannister is their favorite character. A dwarf, with a jutting forehead, a squashed in face, and mismatched eyes, Tyrion is often disliked or mistrusted by the other characters because of his ugliness. George R. R. Martin does everything he can to sharpen the contrast between the hideous face and the great mind behind it. In much the same manner, Plato wrote of Socrates in The Symposium:

I shall try in this way, men, to praise Socrates, through likenesses. Now he perhaps will think it’s for raising a laugh; but the likeness will be for the sake of the truth, not for the sake of the laughable. I declare that he is most strictly like those silenuses that sit in the shops of herm sculptors, the ones that craftsmen make holding reed pipes or flutes: and if they are split apart and opened up, they show that they have images of gods within. And I declare, in turn, that he bears a likeness to the satyr Marsyas. Now, that you are like them at least in looks, Socrates, surely not even you would dispute;

Like Tyrion, Socrates was remarkably ugly, and if we are compiling a list of great men with unsightly faces we must not omit Abraham Lincoln or Henry of Navarre. Lincoln characterized himself as the homeliest man in Illinois, and Henry was the ugliest man in the French court. All these men have come to be revered for their wisdom and compassion. When the generals had returned to Athens from the Battle of Arginusae and were going to be put on trial for the lives lost, Socrates serving as president of the assembly for the first and only time in his life, stood against everyone and refused to put the measure to a vote, and the generals were unconstitutionally and illegally tried and executed in spite of his opposition. Lincoln was famous for pardoning deserters who were to be shot, and Henry went so far as to pardon men who’d just tried to assassinate him.

The four men are also alike in being unfortunate in their marriages. Xanthippe is reported to have been a termagant. Neither Socrates nor his wife ever wrote anything down, but Plato and Xenophon wrote a great deal about them and the picture handed down is of Socrates as the patient, afflicted husband and Xanthippe as the shrew. The Greeks believed that a good wife should be submissive and perhaps Xanthippe was merely forthright and independent but she’ll never get to tell her side of the story.

We know a great deal more about Mary Todd Lincoln and while we must feel pity for a woman coping with mental illness and suffering the loss of a child, her fits of rage and prodigal spending were hard to bear.

Tyrion so repulsed his second wife, Sansa, that, too proud to endure her revulsion and too kind to force her to submit to a touch she found so distasteful, he gallantly forewent his conjugal rights. Despite his intellect, wit, wealth and station, he’s always been denied any female affection or intimacy. Never knowing the tenderness of a mother, sister, or lover, he’s always resorted to prostitutes.

Henry became estranged from both his wives, and Marguerite of Valois and Marie de’ Medici hated him in the end, but he was a faithless husband and the fault was his own. An enthusiastic, in fact a compulsive philanderer, he adored beauty and many of the most ravishing women in France welcomed him in their beds. Even if he were not a king, it’s hard to believe that a man with his wit and charisma would stay lonely for long.

Socrates, the ugliest man in Athens was pursued by Alcibiades, the most beautiful man in Athens. In another part of the Symposium, Alcibiades tells of his flagrant yet unsuccessful attempts to seduce Socrates. The other Silenuses found love, and it’s hard to believe that some woman won’t come to love Tyrion for his wisdom and kindness and see past his grotesque appearance. Perhaps Sansa will come to appreciate him for the man he is and they will reunite to live as man and wife. Millions across the world fervently wish for Tyrion to find the love and happiness he so richly deserves.

There is one respect in which Tyrion is very different from the other three men. Socrates, Lincoln, and Henry all enjoyed good health and were gifted with great bodily strength. In his youth, Lincoln worked as a rail splitter and legends abound testifying to the tremendous strength of his long arms. Socrates was famed for his indifference to cold and fatigue, and it is said that he never became drunk no matter how much wine he drank. It is difficult to credit that he was unaffected by alcohol, but his vitality and endurance were obviously exceptional. Henry was renowned both for his prowess on the battlefield and in the bedroom. In contrast, Tyrion’s stunted body brings him terrible pain and he walks long distances and climbs stairs only with great difficulty and discomfort.

As we review the great benefactors of mankind down through the ages, not all the saints and sages of history are physically repulsive. Galileo, Ashoka, FDR, Pasteur, Hillel, and many others are unexceptional in looks and indeed some are quite handsome. Yet as a rhetorical species, we delight in paradox and antithesis, and for this reason were fascinated by the idea of a Silenus, a twisted, grotesque figure hiding something wondrous and divine within.