Game of Thrones in an Age of Greed

 [Avidly is very avid about Game of Thrones.  We’ll be running discussion pieces today and tomorrow, anticipating Sunday’s premiere. –Eds.]

JoffreyGame of Thrones depicts a cutthroat world driven by brutal self-interest and unabashed greed. The show also boasts a growing number of disabled figures whose missing limbs and diminished abilities remind viewers of the violence it takes to get what you want. But by the end of season three, disability begins to look like an unexpected resource for reforming a selfish world.

To understand this relationship between disability and greed in Game of Thrones, it’s helpful to think about Martin’s series in line with a long history of mythic texts–particularly oral stories by indigenous peoples of North America, that portray greed as a form of gothic horror. The northern Algonquian peoples tell stories of demonic ice monsters called windigo (or wendigo). Tribes like the Cree and Ojibwe who inhabit the continent’s subarctic region traditionally experienced brutally cold and inhospitable winters, when the lack of game and other food sources led to starvation and death. Windigo are individuals who respond to such desperate circumstances by choosing to eat human flesh to stave off their own deaths. Having turned to cannibalism, they become gigantically tall and yet indescribably thin ice skeletons plagued by an eternally insatiable hunger and a relentless impulse to consume. In other words, windigo are those who choose the individual over the group, and short-term satisfaction over long-term survival.


Viewers of the Game of Thrones series will recognize the White Walkers who haunt the frozen north as windigo. If these are the icy figures implied in the title to Martin’s original book series The Song of Ice and Fire, then dragons are their fiery counterparts. Indeed, Cree and Ojibwe stories insist that the only way to kill a windigo is with fire, since its heart of ice can only be melted and destroyed by pouring fire down its throat. The only White Walker death we’ve seen in the series is when Samwell stabs one with a piece of dragon glass he finds in the snow. And what is dragon glass other than fire, the product of the intensely powerful flames of a dragon’s breath? 

white walker
White Walker

The rather pathetic and incapable Samwell may seem an improbable character for such an act. But Samwell is perhaps the show’s most resolutely selfless character, who slowly gains a kind of virtuous nobility by continually choosing others (loyal friends, abused women, helpless babies) over himself. It is Samwell, more than Jon Snow (or even Daenerys, the mother of dragons), who is the antithesis to Joffrey, the ruthless child-king everyone loves to hate. Joffrey’s cold-hearted selfishness is the internal version of the condition embodied externally by the cannibalistic ice zombies. He epitomizes the violent greediness of those with too much wealth and too much power. Joffrey is wendigo.

Thought about in this way, the series is everywhere about the contest between self-interest and fellow-feeling, between individualism and collectivity, between hoarding and sharing. Jaime’s evolving story suggests that it may be possible to travel from the former to the latter, but that the only route out of ice is through fire. He moves toward selflessness not because his sword hand is sawed off, but because losing his hand requires that he learn to trust and depend on others–like Brienne, whom he later rescues from the bear pit in his first unselfish act of the entire series. 


Once you start to notice it, disability is everywhere in Game of Thrones, from Bran’s lame legs to Sandor Clegane’s scarred face to the amputations suffered by Jaime and Theon. In the end, these experiences of disability demand a collaborative redistribution that is critical to counteracting the ruthless competition, self-indulgent excess, and gluttonous greed that otherwise drives Westeros. The simpleminded Hodor physically carries Bran on his back, while they are led topographically by the wilding Osha and spiritually by the seer Jojen Reed. This group is a ragtag bunch of misfits who create collectively what each might be missing individually. They represent, at least so far, the best alternative Game of Thrones has to offer to the windigo selfishness that haunts life within the castle as much as it does beyond the wall.

Game of Thrones looks like medieval fantasy on the outside, but on the inside it just might be a hardcore realist depiction of our own neofeudal present. If so, then the best antidote it has to offer to our own coming winter is a vision of community as an assemblage of partial selves, who depend on each other because they have to.


Michelle Burnham: Eats her vegetables.