Life is Full of Possibilities - Lessons from Game of Thrones
Many fans and critics of Game of Thrones believe the show is about how the quest for power and holding onto power is a dirty “game.” Their take away from the series is that power corrupts (or makes you go mad). That’s the moral of the story.
So many dismissed a show that was about politics and power and corruption as there's enough of that currently in the news, and understandably people feel the need for more of an escape in their entertainment.
For me, the best stories are the ones that reflect real life, and despite being a show set in an imaginary land, in an imaginary time, with imaginary dragons and magic ravens, Game of Thrones offers so much more than a rendition of a political power struggle.
The individual characters’ stories are of striving over obstacles, disabilities, and sickness, despite the limitations in their bodies, minds and spirit.
Those restrictions and their struggles so resonated that I came to love and admire many of these imaginary people who were dealing with very real and very familiar problems.
From the very first episodes, we know that the story about to unfold will question and examine whether the myriad of hindrances inherent in the human experience make life worth living or make death a worthwhile choice.
In the very second episode, the Lannister brothers have this exchange ::
“Well, even if the boy lives, he’ll be a cripple, grotesque. Give me a good, clean death any day.” - Jaime
“Speaking for the grotesques, I’d have to disagree. Death is so final. Whereas life - life is full of possibilities.” - Tyrion
The point mirrors my own mantra. When I am having a very difficult time and feel that my life is grotesque and a cruel joke, I tend to think like Jaime in these first episodes. I yearn for a good, clean death. Any day.
My mantra to counter that desire is - “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
As Tyrion rightly says - life is full of possibilities ::
As long as I am breathing, there may yet be a cure.
As long as I am breathing, my disbelieving friends and family may learn and understand someday, and our relationships can heal.
As long as I am breathing, some celebrity may make it her life purpose to fund and help find an effective treatment.
As long as I am breathing, it’s possible an effective treatment will be discovered and end this prison.
As long as I am breathing, I can uncover a purpose, rediscover my dignity, figure out a meaning.
The fourth episode in Game of Thrones' first season is called Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things and now that the series has ended, the stories, trials and experiences of many of the characters offer lessons we can glean for those of us who today feel like '‘broken things.”
Many, most really, characters faced some sort of adversity, but five main characters endured life-changing trauma with lasting effects - Tyrion Lannister, Bran Stark, Jaime Lannister, Jorah Mormont, Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy.
I offer a brief survey of some of the other characters, too.
Obviously, there are spoilers ahead.
TYRION LANNISTER - SMALL PERSON
As a small person, his family, excepting for his brother Jaime, loathed Tryion and both his sister Cersei and his father Tywin seemed to be embarrassed by him and at best tolerated him. In fact, his sister and father tried to have Tyrion executed for a crime he didn’t commit. But having one person who believes in you and appreciates you and loves you can make all the difference.
Tyrion cultivated his mind and made reading cool. When Jon Snow asked Tyrion why he read so much Tyrion replied, "A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge."
Tyrion - being limited by his body in a world where physical prowess was often the difference between life and death - honed his mind and made his cleverness a valued currency. We see how his knowledge saved King’s Landing at the Battle of the Blackwater and how Daenerys’ valued his insights so much she insisted he retreat to the crypts to stay (relatively more) safe during the Battle of Winterfell.
Tryion was not perfect. He miscalculated in his advice in several key respects when he served as Daenerys’ Hand. His emotional reaction to seeing his lover Shae testify falsely against him resulted in one of his most riveting speeches and would have resulted in his death but for Jaime who loved him and Varys who valued him helping him escape.
And yet, Tyrion’s arc showed me that even if most of your family hates you, even if you feel you don’t have the right skills to move in the world you find yourself in, you can be creative and discover something else you can do and can be that is valuable, worthwhile and even indispensable.
From Tyrion we learn the value of creativity and that those who do believe us and believe in us can make all the difference.
BRAN STARK - PARALYSIS
In a riveting final scene of the very first episode Bran became paralyzed when Jaime Lannister pushed him out a window. Bran was a long time recovering and escaped death many times. His mother and his direwolf Summer saved his life when an assassin was sent to kill him at Winterfell, and the Children of the Forest saved him when he nearly reached the Three-Eye Raven.
Bran ends up becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, the keeper and seer of the past, present and future, but even before that Bran’s dreams show him images, scenes and occurrences. He had precognition of his father’s death, dreaming that Ned Stark was in the Stark crypt. His dreams only became more vivid, more powerful and more revealing as he travels north through the Wall on his quest to meet and learn from the Three-Eyed Raven.
During that journey, he sees his beloved brother Jon Snow, but does not call out to him. This moment is a step on path to becoming someone unattached - unattached to his family and to desire. Later, Bran declares to Tyrion that he doesn’t “want” anything - in both senses, neither desire nor lack.
Some viewed his manner as a weird flat affect, but I saw his demeanor differently. His conduct struck me as similar to the Buddhist way of being unattached. Bran embodied calm. He seemed unaffected by news and responded to his experiences with an equanimity.
That ability came from his broader perspective and understanding. He is quiet, thoughtful and through his calm knowing and wisdom, he becomes very powerful. His mind is also a influential and indomitable tool, but in a very different way from Tyrion.
From Bran we learn the value of understanding and seeing the broader perspective.
JAIME LANNISTER - AMPUTATED HAND
Jaime started the series as the golden boy. His sister was queen, and his father was a powerful lord. When his nephew/son became King of Westeros, Joffrey appointed Jaime as Lord Commander of the King’s Guard.
But then Robb Stark captured him during the Battle of Whispering Wood, and so began his journey to becoming a more complex and honorable man. In hopes of seeing her daughter’s Sansa and Arya, Catelyn freed him and had Brienne of Tarth escort him to King's Landing to trade for her daughters.
His relationship with Brienne changed him as he is first amazed, then bemused and eventually admiring of her rigid sense of right and wrong. He tried to cajole her into seeing nuance when they come across Stark men who killed tavern girls for the crime of laying with Lannister soldiers. Jaime also admired her fighting skills. Once, when they are captured by the Boltons' soldiers, he advocated for her and tried to protect her. Then he miscalculated and promoted his noble status his efforts to free them both.
And then Locke, his captor, annoyed at Jaime for flaunting his status, chopped off his right hand in a shocking moment for Jaime and for viewers. Roose Bolton allowed Jaime to be tended to by Qyburn. And Jaime in the tender aftermath of that trauma, confided in Brienne his deepest secret - the true and more noble reason why he killed Aerys the Mad King.
Jaime is allowed return to King’s Landing but Bolton insisted on keeping Brienne. Still, Jaime returned to save her, and we had our first clue that Jaime had been affected by his time with Brienne and by the loss of his fighting hand.
His identity had been as a soldier, a guard, a fighter. He was called the Kingslayer. Now suddenly he couldn’t slay any one. He was broken and his sense of himself punctured.
And in the aftermath of that, he began to see others in ways that the arrogant bully he had been did not.
While still loyal to his family, he gave Brienne the sword she named Oathkeeper, made from part of Ned Stark’s Valerian sword. He then sent her off to find and protect Catelyn’s daughters - honorably to keep his part of the deal he had made.
He freed his brother from certain death because he sees the trial has been unjust. He used words instead of force and by empathizing with Edmere Tully’s predicament, he gained control of Riverrun and avoided a deadly siege.
And Jaime argued for and succeeded in giving Olenna an easier death by poison rather than the humiliating and torturous death Cersei craved.
And critically, when the love of his life, his sister and his queen revealed she was not going to keep her promise to fight the army of the dead, Jaime left her to fight for the army of the living, because, as Brienne had reminded him, somethings were more important than loyalty.
Yes, in the end, Jaime was still filled with self-loathing and still attached to his family and to his sister. But his complexity and decisions and fate did not alter the fact that his experiences and encounters changed him.
From Jaime we learn the power of empathy and that people can and do grow.
JORAH MORMONT - GREYSCALE
Eddard Stark sentenced Jorah to die after Jorah was discovered selling poachers on his land into slavery. Instead Jorah fled Westeros. We first meet him during Daenerys Targaryen wedding to Khal Drogo, He became her guardian and educated her about her homeland as well as the customs of her husband’s people.
Yet, in fact, we learn he was a spy for King Robert Baratheon in hopes of gaining a pardon for his own return. Witnessing Daenerys’s bravery and character, he fell in love with her. After she emerged from fire with her baby dragons, he was the first to pledge his loyalty to her.
Eventually, Daenerys discovered his earlier treachery and banished him because of this betrayal. Still, he did not give up trying to gain her forgiveness. In the course of that effort to win her back, he kidnapped Tyrion, was captured as a slave, fought in the Meereen fighting pits and caught greyscale. He saved Daenerys from an assassination attempt and then travelled to Vaes Dothrak to find her. After, he revealed that he caught the dreaded greyscale, and she ordered him to go, leave her, and to find a cure for himself.
He went to the Citadel, the place of greatest knowledge, where he meets Samwell Tarly who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sam healed Jorah who then reunited with Daenerys on Dragonstone where he again returns to her service.
Jorah was resilient. He refused to forsake his fidelity to his queen even after she banished him twice. And when he got sick, he went in search of a cure and got help with someone likewise not prone to give up. Jorah was rejected repeatedly, yet he did not recoil. His strength was an ability to rebound and return.
From Jorah we learn the value of resilience and endurance.
SANSA STARK - PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PHYSICAL ABUSE
Sansa Stark started the series as a young girl who wished to become queen in the south of Westeros and ended as Queen of the North. She faced much treachery including psychological and physical abuse, including rape. She spent years in peril and faced danger from Joffrey, from Cersei, from Littlefinger, from her Aunt Lysa Arryn, and from Ramsey Bolton. Constantly, she lived with and in fear, and she adapted.
One way she adjusted was in her appearance. In the beginning, her dresses naturally resembled her own mother’s. Over time, Sansa’s attire and hairstyles mirrored whomever was threatening her in order to make herself a less visible target and to avoid scrutiny and to deflect attention.
When she was in thrall to Cersei and her wicked son, Sansa’s hair and clothes mimicked Cersei. When she escaped with the help of Littlefinger, she died her hair dark and wore a cape just like Littlefinger’s. And when she returned to Winterfell, she embraced her heritage; her wedding dress includes fur in honor of her father and fish clasps in honor of her mother. Once she escaped Ramsey’s clutches, her clothing increasingly becomes like armor until her very last scene when she is crowned Queen of the North. In that scene, she used style to make a statement too - one of power and of heritage.
Her choice of clothing was often the only way she could express and protect herself. And yet that was not the only manner in which she was pragmatic. She also observed quietly and wisely learned from everyone she encountered - Cersei, Shae, the Hound, Tyrion, Margaery, Lady Olenna, Littlefinger, Ramsey, and Brienne.
Her clothes also often had the symbol of the dragonfly on them. The dragonfly is a delicate creature and moves through the world uniquely. This was a deliberate chosen metaphor for Sansa, and indeed scrappy and sensible Sansa survived.
From Sansa we learn the value of pragmatism and learning from everyone.
THEON GREYJOY - PSYCHOLOGICAL Abuse, PHYSICAL ABUSE AND CASTRATION
Theon was the hostage and ward of Eddard Stark, raised as part of the Stark family. As a result, he felt at various times outsiders in both his actual family and amid the family that raised him. In an effort to impress his birth father and the Ironborn, he rebelled against the Starks and took Winterfell during the War of the Five Kings, which sent Bran and Rickon Stark into exile.
Meanwhile Theon allowed everyone to believe that he had executed them. Winterfell fell into the hands of the Boltons, and Theon was taken prisoner by Ramsey Snow, Roose Bolton’s bastard son.
Ramsey tortured Theon. He allowed Theon to believe he has successfully escaped only to bring him back. Ramsey eviscerated his identity as noble lord and gives him a new meek personae - Reek. Ramsey castrated him too.
When Sansa returned to Winterfell betrothed to Ramsey, Theon was shocked and at first could do nothing to help her. But eventually after he admitted that he did not in fact kill her younger brothers, they helped each other and supported each other emotionally. Eventually, they made a bold effort to escape by jumping from the ramparts in a mad dash north to find her brother Jon Snow.
In the end, Theon returned home to the Iron Islands to reunite with his sister Yara. He protected Sansa and rescued his sister Yara. His recovery of his sense of himself and of feeling whole was not linear; he still had moments of fear that caused him to flee. But in the end, he was the one who protected Bran Stark from the Night King.
From Theon we learned the value of protection, protection of ourselves and of others, and how redemption is always feasible.
Here are from a few other lessons from other characters —
From Grey Worm, despite enslavement and castration, we learn that love is still possible.
From Sheeren Baratheon, despite greyscale scars, we learn the value of teaching others. (She taught both Davos and Gilly how to read.)
From the Hound, despite burn scars and sibling abuse, we learn the value of facing our deepest fears.
From Hodor, mute, we learn the value of loyalty and service.
From Varys, whose gentiles were cut off by a sorcerer and thrown into a fire, we learn the value of the greater good.
Did I miss any?
What do we say to the god of death? - Melisandra to Arya
Not today. - Arya replies
Death is so final. Whereas life - life is full of possibilities.
Most of all, from Game of Thrones we learn that being hurt, being broken, being maimed, being paralyzed, abused, scarred, castrated, outcast, and/or abandoned does not have to be the end of our story.
And that is the moral of the entire series, of all the stories, and of all the subjects. The game of thrones and the game of power, the ups and downs, the murders and revenges, well, all that was a nice enticing narrative entryway in, but meanwhile we are reassured that as long as we are breathing, life is full of possibilities.
What lessons have you gleaned from Game of Thrones?
Broken Bran became Bran the Broken; what would your tag be?
Which character do you feel most successfully overcame his or her obstacles?
Which storyline did you most inspired you?
EXTRA ELEMENTS OF INTEREST
The Details Hidden On Sansa's Costume In The "Game Of Thrones" Finale Will Actually Make You Emotional
A Battle for My Life I had just finished filming Season 1 of “Game of Thrones.” Then I was struck with the first of two aneurysms.
The New Yorker
Daenerys Tells All!
The New Yorker
An illustrated guide to all 6,887 deaths in ‘Game of Thrones’
The Washington Post
Even Classicists Hated the Game of Thrones Finale
Town & Country
An Art-Historical Analysis of Cersei Lannister Sipping Wine
The New Yorker