“Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a Prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires”. – Nicolo Machiavelli
The season one finale of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” aired on HBO last night, ending with a handful of cliffhangers, and a clutch of baby dragons. It is going to be a long year of anticipation until the next season airs (and hopefully Martin will have released the long-awaited next book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” saga in the meantime.)
A great number of viewers who had not read the books (yeah, shocker…I thought any nerd worth his/her pocket protector had read all four books at least twice by now) were shocked/dismayed/outraged by Ned Stark’s untimely beheading in the penultimate episode. Some even threatening to boycott the rest of the saga.
Okay, I’ll admit…When I got to that point in the book I was pretty much shocked. After all, Ned Stark was the hero, the main protagonist, the good guy…right? How could Martin just snuff him and continue to go on from there? Seems kind of like the ultimate reader/fan wank, no?
No. Not really.
The biggest realization I had after watching the series was just how much of a hero Ned Stark wasn’t. In fact, as Lord Varys points out in the dungeon prior to Stark’s execution, he was an utter fool, whose actions, and steadfast adherence to an intractable moral code, brought about civil war, chaos, and the death of thousands…Including the destruction of his own family. Rather than rolling with the punches and, as Varys suggests, doing what is necessary to serve the peace and the greater good of the realm, Stark’s unwillingness to take anything other than the moral high road was his complete undoing.
Poor old Ned just didn’t have the proper knowledge and social skills necessary to survive in the real (mythical) world of Westeros’ political machine. If he would have just been able to lay his hands on a copy of Robert Greene’s, “The 48 Laws of Power“, or even a dvd of “The Godfather” saga, he might just have been able to pull his cookies out of the fire.
Greene’s book draws upon a wealth of stategic and political theory from throughout history, including the ideas of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Casanova, to create a how-to guide for acquiring and maintaining power in your interactions with others. All of this wisdom is condensed into the 48 Laws which can only be viewed as a guiding light for courtiers, politicians, would-be dictators, and despots of all kinds.
If one looks at a few of these laws, it’s easy to see just where Ned Stark went astray, and why:
Law #1 – Never Outshine the Master: Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite—inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.
Okay, so he and King Robert the Loud (and Libidinous) were buddies BITD…That’s no reason for Ned to presume that he could throw his own moral superiority in Robert’s face. So Robert wants to murder the teenage Daenerys Targaryen before she can assert her claim to the throne. He’s the King, and he can damn well murder who he likes if he thinks it will avert war and catastrophe (I think Seal Team Six would have come in handy here.)
Ned’s behaviour with Robert, not to mention all the verbal sparring with the Queen, was the beginning of his downfall.
Law #2 – Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies: Be wary of friends—they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies. If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.
E.g., Lord Peter Baelish. You meet a guy who is a pimp, has a life-long thing for your wife, and got his ass kicked by your older brother in a duel. He tells you not to trust him, and you do. You’d think that after Baelish lured him to one of his brothels and Jaime showed up with his personal army Ned might have gotten a clue. What does a guy have to do, hold a dagger to your throat while you’re surrounded by the King’s Guard with swords drawn?
Law 3 – Conceal your Intentions: Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.
Ned Stark was about as subtle as a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. How about when he told Circe he knew that she and her brother, Sir Jaime, had been playing “Hide the Godswood”, and had produced all of her children that way. He might as well have sliced his own throat open right then and there.
Law 14 – Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy: Knowing about your rival is critical. Use spies to gather valuable information that will keep you a step ahead. Better still: Play the spy yourself. In polite social encounters, learn to probe. Ask indirect questions to get people to reveal their weaknesses and intentions. There is no occasion that is not an opportunity for artful spying.
Yes, indirect questions, not, “Hey Littlefinger, did you know Circe has been banging her brother for years, and all her kids are Jaime’s bastards?”
Law 15 – Crush your Enemy Totally: All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely. (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way.) If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out. More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation: The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge. Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.
Playing his hand with Circe, and telling her to get the hell out of Dodge was stupid. He should have rallied the troops, called her on the carpet in front of forces loyal to the King (or his little brother), and gotten her and her illegitimate offspring offed.
These are just 5 out of the 48 Laws of Power that could have saved Ned’s ass…If he would have known about them.
More to the point though, as regrettable as it may be, without Ned’s death, the resulting war, with all of its twists, turns, and adventures, would never have taken place, and there wouldn’t be five books telling those stories—Ned’s fall was essential to telling the story and, in fact, George R.R. Martin’s willingness to take a perfectly viable character, endear him to the audience, and then kill them off in a shocking, and totally unexpected manner is what makes The Song of Ice and Fire such a great collection of tales.
As for “The 48 Laws of Power“, we can only assume that they were present, in some form, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, and they served as the basis for the Sith school of philosophy…Which would account for why the Sith were so much better equipped to run a galactic empire than the Jedi, from a particular point of view.
But that’s an entirely different Monomyth…
Note: I originally wrote this post in 2011. It was intended as an exercise in satire, ala Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” This post comes up often in search engines, and it always astounds me how many folks will contact me believing that this is real.
Well, if you have to explain the joke…
I’ve flipped through the 48 rules, and find them to be a handbook for narcissists… And that has nothing to do with me. I’m just here for the trying to get the laughs. – DL2013