When Robert Greene published “The 48 Laws of Power” twenty years ago it was an instant success. The four dozen amoral rules for outwitting, undermining and ultimately conquering your enemies became the new handbook to achieving power.
When applied correctly, each law will help raise the shrewd and calculating individual to greater success and achievement; however, when the laws are misapplied or ignored, ruin inevitably follows.
Cersei Lannister says it best: “When you play the game of thrones you win…or you die.”
In Greene’s book each law is given its own example from history. In today’s article we’re going to demonstrate how some of these laws work in the hit HBO show Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R. R. Martin.
Spoiler Alert: There will be extensive details of various plot elements throughout Seasons 1 – 7. However, if you haven’t seen the newest episode that aired Sunday night (“Winterfell,” released April 14), don’t worry. We won’t be covering any of Season 8 in this article.
Law 46: Never Appear Too Perfect
Eddard “Ned” Stark is one of the most noble characters in the show – perhaps the most noble. He always does the right thing. He is a good husband to his wife Caitlyn, he is a loving father to all five of his legitimate children as well as his “bastard” Jon Snow (who is actually the son of his sister Lyanna), he is a strong and just leader of the Stark castle Winterfell and is respected and honored as the most powerful man in the North.
However, when King Robert Baratheon appoints Eddard as ‘Hand of the King’ and sends him to King’s Landing, Ned’s previous asset of nobility quickly becomes a major liability. Eddard openly disdains Petyr Baelish’s houses of prostitution and considers “Littlefinger” dishonorable and weak, making an immediate enemy. Then he alienates all of House Lannister by arresting Tyrion, fighting Jaime (and killing several of Jaime’s guards), shaming Cersei and ordering the arrest of Tywin.
He also a makes a critical error and does not make friends with the soldiers of the City Watch. Instead he orders them to do what he believes is obviously the right thing to do – arrest Cersei and the new king Joffrey. But the City Watch is controlled by money or power and Eddard has neither. The Watch turns on him and takes him to jail. There in the dungeon Ned is visited by “The Spider” Varys who advises him to admit he is a traitor. Ned refuses.
Only when he is about to be executed and his family destroyed does Eddard realize how deeply ignorant he has been about the true nature of the Game of Thrones. If you act too perfect and assume everyone will act nobly like you do, you will not survive very long.
Samwell Tarly is also a very noble man. He trusts and supports his friend Jon Snow when no one else will and saves Jon’s life on several occasions. Sam rescues the wildling Gilly and her young baby boy from many dangers, including Gilly’s mad father Craster, the mutinous Rast and even a white walker. Sam protects his little family and travels with them across the continent to Oldtown to learn about dragonglass and become a maester for the Night’s Watch. In Oldtown he ignores the commands of the maesters and risks both his life and reputation to save Jorah Mormont from a fatal infection of Greyscale.
Sam considers himself fat, weak and a coward. He doesn’t brag about his abilities, even though he knows more history and science than most maesters. Sam continues to grow in skill, knowledge and courage but he keeps his abilities to himself and only reveals them when absolutely necessary.
Even at the end of Season 7 when almost every major character has fallen prey to their egos, Samwell Tarly has remained humble and has never appeared too perfect. As a result he is still alive and continuing to help save his family, his friends and the world.
Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean
After King Robert Baratheon is murdered during a hunting trip, his brother Stannis Baratheon is the next in line and rightful heir to the throne. On paper it seems logical that Stannis will easily win the Game of Thrones and become king. He is strong, determined and smart. His claim to the throne is backed by thousands of supporters and soldiers. He has trustworthy advisors, including the saavy Onion Knight, Ser Davos. He also has a very powerful witch, the Red Priestess Melisandre.
Unfortunately for Stannis, Melisandre’s power comes at a high cost. Not only does her magic require blood, the Red Priestess openly announces each sacrifice, praising her god R’hllor, the Lord of Light. At first it is only the soldiers who are unnerved but soon the word spreads to the public at large. After Stannis’ campaign is devastated by wildfire in the Battle of Blackwater, Melisandre requests darker and darker magic. When Stannis finally allows the Red Woman to burn his own daughter to death in front of his people he loses all credibility with the few supporters he has left. His wife hangs herself in grief. The army, believing it is cursed, disbands.
When he is killed soon after this, Stannis Baratheon dies alone and unloved. It must be said that Stannis had the courage to do the dirty work. He did what he felt was necessary to win, no matter the cost. But even if his gamble had paid off, the second he killed his daughter his reputation was destroyed.
A man in power can’t afford to be seen dirtying his hands.
Lord Varys, “The Spider,” the Master of Whispers, is a man who accomplishes great things and yet never seems to be involved in any of them. He controls a network of information and influence using his Little Birds throughout Westeros and across the sea in Essos.
Among his achievements:
- He facilitates Daenerys Targaryen’s rise to power in Dothrak, helping Ilyrio and Viserys to wed her to Khal Drogo. Later he joins Dany directly as an advisor in her attempt to become Queen of Westeros.
- He helps Tyrion by installing Tyrion’s prostitute lover Shae safely in the castle as a handmaiden to Sansa (whores are illegal in the castle but handmaidens are highly valued)
- Against the commands of King Joffrey, Varys helps Tyrion save King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater
- Varys facilitates Tyrion’s escape from King’s Landing after Tyrion is framed for the murder of King Joffrey
The Spider has legs that touch everywhere in the kingdom but nothing can be traced directly to him. Better still, his network of information makes him invaluable to everyone, friend and foe alike. Of all the players in the Game of Thrones, Varys’ position is one of the strongest, and, because he never does anything himself, is practically invincible to direct attack.
Law 18. Do Not Build Fortresses To Protect Yourself — Isolation Is Dangerous
Lysa and her sister Catelyn were both born into House Tully in Riverrun. Catelyn married Ned Stark and moved to Winterfell while Lysa married Jon Arryn and lived in King’s Landing for many years. After Jon was poisoned, Lysa escapes with her son Robin to The Eyrie, an impregnable castle and seat of the Arryn House high in the Mountains of the Moon.
After Jon’s death, Lysa walls herself up in the Eyrie and soon begins to lose her mind. She devotes all her attention to her son Robin; At one point Catelyn sees Lysa openly breastfeeding Robin when he is six years old. When Petyr Baelish comes to the Eyrie with Sansa, Lysa admits that she killed Jon with poison. Then she insists that Petyr marry her that same day. Petyr, for political gain, agrees.
For the next few days Lysa appears kind and sweet and then when Petyr kisses Sansa (against Sansa’s will), Lysa commands that the girl be executed. Sansa only survives because Baelish pushes Lysa out the Moon Door to her death. He tells the court that the queen committed suicide and the idea that she would do so, though troubling, is believable to most of them.
Lysa Arryn walled herself up in her invincible castle so no harm would come to her. But completely isolating yourself from the world is never a healthy thing and if you stay in seclusion long enough it will inevitably drive you mad.
Although Lysa suffered when her husband Jon died, her sister Catelyn endured much worse. Catelyn’s husband Eddard was murdered by a sadistic king for pleasure. All of her children were attacked, several were kidnapped and tortured, one was paralyzed, one was raped repeatedly and three were killed. Of the two women, Catelyn had much greater cause to withdraw into herself and despair her losses.
Yet Catelyn refused to crawl in a hole. When her son was attacked by a would-be assassin, she traveled hundreds of miles to King’s Landing to bring his attacker to justice. After her husband died, she tasked the warrior woman Brienne of Tarth to find her children and bring them to safety. Then she joined with her son Robb Stark and became one of his military advisors, traveling with him and bringing justice to the Lannisters who had killed Ned and sent her family into exile.
Catelyn’s life was cut short during the Red Wedding but before she died she accomplished great things and lived a life of meaning and purpose. Instead of isolation, Catelyn chose action. Both sisters had a choice but only Catelyn made the decision to stay out in the world and keep fighting.
Law 19. Know Who You’re Dealing With — Do Not Offend The Wrong Person
King Joffrey Baratheon was, in the words of George R. R. Martin, “a little shit.” Perhaps the fact that he was a product of the incestuous love affair between Cersei and Jamie Lannister is at least partially to blame. It is well known that House Targaryen would usually marry brothers and sisters, vowing that it kept their bloodlines pure. But when Aerys Targaryen went mad, brutally tortured thousands of his own subjects and attempted to destroy all of King’s Landing with wildfire just for fun, the truth about incest became apparent.
Blue blood doesn’t breed healthy brains.
While he was still a young teenager, King Joffrey seemed on track to follow in the tyrannical footsteps of the Mad King. Even before he was crowned, Joffrey was spoiled, arrogant and cruel. He seemed to love offending people and, because he was king, never worried about how they might react.
Here is a quick list of some of his “accomplishments:”
- He defies the orders of his mother and the Small Council and has Eddard Stark executed on a whim. This act horrifies the entire kingdom and permanently puts the Lannisters and the Starks at war.
- In a matter of weeks he ends up threatening his mother Cersei, his father Jaime, his uncle Tyrion and his grandfather Tywin, offending each of them and removing almost all support from his own family.
- He publicly tortures the captive Sansa Stark on multiple occasions. These insults prove to the entire court that Joffrey has no honor and alienates him politically from the other Great Houses of Westeros.
- When someone in a crowd at King’s Landing throws dung in his face, he orders his guards to kill the entire crowd. A riot breaks out in response and his own people learn to hate him.
From the moment he gains power Joffrey offends everyone in sight and eventually he pays the price: The spiteful young king is poisoned on his own wedding day. At Joffrey’s grave his own grandfather remarks “He was an awful king and deserved what he got.”
Jaime Lannister has one of the wickedest tongues of any character in Game of Thrones. He skill with words is equal or greater than his tremendous skill with a sword. However, the difference between Jamie and Joffrey is that the Kingslayer knows when to use his insults and when to remain quiet.
Jaime sneers at Ned Stark’s new position as Hand of the King: “What’s the line?” he asks. “Oh yes. The King shits and the Hand wipes.”
After hearing of Jon Snow’s decision to join the Night’s Watch, Jaime insults the bastard by saying “I’m sure it will be thrilling to serve in such an elite force….and if not, it’s only for life.”
He finds great joy insulting Brienne of Tarth, making fun of her size, her manliness and her lack of grace. When he finds out she loves the homosexual Renly Baratheon, he is greatly amused and tells her “It’s a shame the throne isn’t made out of cocks. They’d have never gotten him off it.”
Captured by Robb Stark’s army, Jaime is tied up to a tree. When Catelyn Stark comes with a rock to question him he responds “You look lovely tonight, Lady Stark. Widowhood becomes you. Your bed must be lonely, is that why you came? I’m not at my best, but I think I could be of service. Here, slip out of that gown and we’ll see if I’m up to it.” She shuts him up – temporarily – by cracking his skull.
Language is a weapon. When you’re playing the Game of Thrones it’s vital that you know how to use that weapon correctly or it may kill you. Jaime cuts deeply with his words but he does it directly, privately and on purpose. He weighs every word and uses each to inflict maximum damage.
Law 15. Crush Your Enemy Totally
Oberyn Martell, the charismatic Red Viper, is a powerful fighter and noble from the land of Dorne. He is a member of the Dornish Small Council that governs the country. He is also famous for, in Tyrion’s words, “fucking half of Westeros.” Oberyn is invited by Tywin Lannister to join the Small Council in King’s Landing, expanding the Dornish influence in Westeros and granting him even more power.
However, Oberyn has another reason for coming to King’s Landing: Revenge. Years earlier, Oberyn’s sister Elia was raped and she and her children murdered by “The Mountain” Ser Gregor Clegane. When Oberyn is given a chance to fight Clegane in single combat, he volunteers immediately.
The Mountain is a gigantic man, easily twice as large as the Red Viper and many times stronger. But Oberyn is lighter, quicker and uses poison on his bladed staff. The two men fight viciously and after The Mountain breaks his first staff, Oberyn takes a second weapon, cuts Cleganes achilles and then buries the staff in The Mountain’s chest.
The giant is down and defeated. At this point Oberyn has won the victory but he is unsatisfied without a confession. He demands that Clegane admit he raped and killed his sister. But as he rants about his need for a full confession, Oberyn grows careless and drops his guard. While his attention is distracted, the injured Mountain knocks Oberyn’s legs out from under him, pulls him close and then squeezes the Dornishman’s skull with his bare hands until it explodes.
Oberyn had the chance to destroy his enemy but he did not crush the man completely and paid the price with his own death.
From the beginning Cersei Lannister has done everything she can to achieve her goal of domination of the Seven Kingdoms. Equally skilled in verbal battles, sexual power plays and political strategy, Cersei has fought unceasingly to acquire the crown.
But in order to reign on the Iron Throne she first had to defeat two dangerous enemies: The powerful House Tyrell, and the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant.
Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, uses her influence with her granddaughter Margaery Tyrell to help arrange a marriage with Cersei’s son, the young King Tommen Lannister. Under the influence of Margaery’s charms, Cersei loses more power by the day until eventually Tommen allows the High Sparrow to arrest his mother for infidelity, incest and corruption.
Stripped of power, both figuratively and literally, Cersei is forced by the High Sparrow into making the humiliating Walk of Shame. Then she endures jail, punishment and verbal and physical abuse. Worse still, she is informed that she will be tried publicly and will be executed.
Temporarily beaten, Cersei refuses to accept this loss and strategizes in secret with Qyburn, her scientific advisor and Hand of the Queen. Qyburn has found that stashes of wildfire are in place under the Great Sept of Baelor. Cersei is overjoyed but keeps her excitement to herself.
On the day of her trial, Queen Margaery Tyrell, the High Sparrow and the entire Faith Militant, and various other enemies of Cersei are all gathered in the Great Sept to witness her judgment and execution. But the cunning Cersei delays her arrival, waiting until all of her enemies are packed tightly into the great church. Then on her command, Qyburn and the Little Birds light the fuses to the wildfire under the Great Sept and the entire building explodes, incinerating Queen Margaery, the High Sparrow, the armies of the church and all of Cersei’s opponents at the same time.
Her two major enemies crushed completely, Cersei rises from the ashes of her imprisonment as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and ruler of Westeros.
A Final Note
It must be said that the decisions the characters make in Game of Thrones are rarely honorable and often fully evil. But just like the dangerous and cruel kingdom of Westeros, the real world is equally full of corruption. If we are going to survive we need to understand our enemies and if necessary defend ourselves from anyone using the 48 Laws of Power against us.
Learn the laws so that you may become powerful. Be honest and good but remember the fight against evil is never complete. The real life game of power continues on and it is our duty to play and to win!
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