George R. R. Martin: Why Good Intentions Don't Necessarily Make For Good Rulers

Via Alex Tabarrok

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.


  1. J_W_W:

    Am I the only one who read the byline … Via Alex Trebek ?

  2. Another_Brian:

    SPOILER WARNING, because I don't follow the show and have no idea to what point they've followed the book or where they are in the story.

    I wouldn't say Daenarys is an exception. After the first book, she leaves a wake of destruction behind her after sacking several cities and abolishing slavery. She tries really hard to manage it all and put the right people into power, but in the end she just packs up and leaves for Westeros.

  3. Jens Fiederer:

    J_W_W....since I follow Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok is too familiar a name to be confused with anything else -- but I can see the resemblance, which I've never noticed before (although I follow Jeopardy as avidly as Marginal Revolution, and have even auditioned).

  4. FelineCannonball:

    I have the feeling she's going to become more of a hero queen and less of a muddling teenager in the TV show. Who knows. At least they haven't popped her bubble yet and they're going out of their way to make everyone else look even less sympathetic than do in the books. Quite a bit is different in detail and perspective.

  5. FelineCannonball:

    Who the hell cares about kings and queens. Winter is coming. And the chances of seeing the next spring are not good at all.

  6. MingoV:

    I'm feeling sadness and woe. Tolkien used only a few sentences to describe Aragorn's reign. He should have written another book that included things like public road maintenance, handling of horse crap on city streets, deciding whether to provide guards for caravans and river barges, settling disputes about magically altered crops contaminating natural crops, ruling about whether guilds can exclude non-guild competitors, and budgeting for sewers.

  7. sch:

    There are more fundamental problems: what did everybody eat? No evidence anywhere of agriculture except the very nice cornfield and the hobbit gardens. Wizards and elves presumably can magic up something but what about the dwarves, the orcs both above and below ground. Who raises the grain and hops for all that beer? Fantasy writers are not much on logistics.

  8. Max:

    These sentences from à staunch Democrat supporter, a supporter of the ACA and on top of someone who didn't see the similarities between Bush and Obama, vilified the first and adored the second. I find this fascinating, especially from a researchers point of view.

  9. Zachriel:

    "Why Good Intentions Don't Necessarily Make For Good Rulers"

    So listen to grandpa Tywin. He knows what you should do.

  10. Canvasback:

    “Under the administration of Rhodes, there were the fewest laws, the widest
    freedom, the least crime, and the truest justice, that I have ever seen
    in any part of the world.”
    ―Frederick Russell Burnham

  11. jhertzli:

    I don't know about orcs but the dwarves traded manufactured objects for food. They thought of the Shire as a place to buy groceries.

  12. obloodyhell:

    I'd already noted that the ruler-candidates who died seemed to be ones who failed the test of Honor -- even Rob, who otherwise was a good man, died after, and directly because of, his failure to keep his Word of Honor to Walther Frey, not because he couldn't, but because he chose not to, for his own personal benefit.

    If you look at the others who have died, many have shown this flaw in many ways (I haven't read D w/Dragons yet)

    I've long suspected that was his key rule -- those who do not show honor in all things are not worthy to lead.

  13. obloodyhell:

    LOL, the point is still valid. Those who imagine the solutions to the problems of the world can fit onto a bumper sticker really don't understand the complexity of the problem. "And she lived happily ever after" is an ending for children, not for adults.

  14. obloodyhell:

    "Where we're going, we don't NEED 'Rhodes'!!!"
    - Obama -

  15. obloodyhell:

    ... while the orcs thought of it as a place to STEAL groceries... :-D

  16. obloodyhell:

    See note above from me about GoT and what I think what constitutes the Primary Quality of a Good Leader is, in terms of where the book is headed. Speculation, I grant, but it does seem to fit with the above and what I've read so far.

  17. Nehemiah:

    I kind of favor King Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, who reigned over Judah for 29 years. He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord and he and the nation of Judah prospered. 2 Kings 18:1-8

  18. Bram:

    Yep - She becomes a great example of Good Intentions / Bad Results in government.

  19. W. C. Taqiyya:

    Quibble with Tolkien? Such heresy! Actually you know, The "Lord of the Rings" is a fantasy story. So, it isn't intended to be a primer for prospective rulers. For that we have, "The Prince" by that Italian fellow, Machiavelli. Great stuff.

  20. fantasywind:

    But where have you the supposed happy ending in Lotr? Things were not always chummy and many problems are happening near the end. The scouring of the Shire for instance, sure after heroes return they set things on the right track but damage was done, and sadly the end of Third Age is marking time of great changes, the elder races losing their prominence an mankind's dominance. Not to mention that in early reign of Aragorn there were many wars still:

    "In all the lands of those realms of old he was king, save in Rohan only; for he renewed to Éomer the gift of Cirion, and Éomer took again the Oath of Eorl. Often he fulfilled it. For though Sauron had passed, the hatreds and evils that he bred had not died, and the King of the West had many enemies to subdue before the White Tree could grow in peace. And wherever King Elessar went with war King Éomer went with him; and beyond the Sea of Rhûn and on the far fields of the South the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark was heard, and the White Horse upon green flew in many winds until Éomer grew old."

    This text is a form of in-universe historical summary contained in appendices of Lotr.