Buy on Amazon!
(Spoilers below for the fifth episode of Game of Thrones season three).
Fiery images dominate the fifth episode of the third season of Game of Thrones. Beric Dondarrion fights the Hound with a flaming sword, there are two scenes with people praying to the Red Gods, the history of Aerys Targaryen with wildfire is revealed, and of course the title of the episode refers to a Wildling expression for people with red hair.
Thematically the episode explores the idea of honor. Like a lot of the issues explored on Game of Thrones, honor is explored on a spectrum type of scale. There have been scenes throughout the series where characters acting with honor have led to favorable results for that character, while there have been scenes where characters acting honorably have led to their horrible demise (Ned Stark I’m looking at you).
However, looking at all of the specific honor related issues that show up on the spectrum, its fairly easy to conclude that Game of Thrones does not seem to favor the characters who act honorably. Most characters who choose to act honorably seem to get screwed by their decision one way or another, or they happen to screw a whole lot of other people with their decision. Game of Thrones uses a myriad of powerful scenes in this episode to ask the question is honor, or the honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions worth pursuing?
The Traditional Outlook of Honor
The idea of honor in Westeros is a lot like the idea of honor on Earth: they are both highly valued traits and ideas by each society. A person in Westeros with honorable traits is always a highly regarded person, and no character in Game of Thrones has come to be more symbolically associated with the idea of honor than Ned Stark.
Almost every idea that is positive about honor was associated with Ned Stark, at least up until the moment where Joffrey orders his beheading. Looking back at Ned’s decisions up until his execution quickly reveals that his honor is what ultimately led him to his death. Ironically Ned’s honor, which was a very positive force up until his execution, can now be seen in a whole new light since his death starts a large war that results in the deaths of many.
Ned Stark is both directly and indirectly referenced numerous times in this episode, and depending on the character that’s referencing him, their memories of him are either positive like Beric’s and Arya’s, or negative like Jaime’s and Jorah’s.
The episode Kissed by Fire serves to reinforce the idea of honor as an idea that slides across a spectrum of good and evil that is measured in degrees. Looking at all of the individual events in this episode shows most of the honorable intentions of characters having a negative impact on themselves personally or a negative impact on the larger society.
The High Cost of a Person Acting Honorably
Kissed by Fire reminds viewers the high cost honor can have when characters choose to follow its strict code. Jaime Lannister arguably pays the highest personal cost for adhering to honor, while ironically breaking it simultaneously. In a bathtub at Harrenhall Jaime tells Brienne the story of why he killed the Mad King, which is revealed to be a lose-lose situation for the Kingslayer.
Jaime had to decide whether or not he should break his vow as a Kingsguard and kill King Aerys or if he should have followed his orders and killed his father Tywin Lannister. It’s also revealed that Aerys had hidden wildfire over Kings Landing and was planning on using it to burn the city and all of its inhabitants alive. Jaime chooses to kill Aerys and afterwards becomes known to the world as the Kingslayer, and ironically the most dishonorable man in Westeros.
The killing of Aerys by Jaime is a crucial turning point for Jaime in discovering his identity. The identity of the honorable knight Ser Jaime Lannister is destroyed by the honor betraying Kingslayer with Aerys murder. It would be more than fair to argue that it was a lot more honorable for Jaime to kill Aerys than it would have been for him to let Aerys live, kill his father, and burn down Kings Landing. It can also be argued that the corrupting of Jaime’s character truly begins when he kills Aerys. It’s ironic that by acting honorably Jaime turns into a despicable villain. Jaime’s transformation into a villain due to acting honorably serves to question the entire idea of honor and its association with positive outcomes and ideas.
The High Cost of a Person Not Acting Honorably
While Jaime has been shown to have acted honorably in this episode, other characters reminisce about decisions they made that weren’t honorable. Viewers are reminded in this episode about Jorah Mormont’s dishonorable actions when he captured people on his lands and sold them as slaves. Subtly viewers are also reminded of Jorah’s recent deceptions to Daenerys, by spying on her for Varys and Robert Baratheon. Barristan Selmy believes he has dishonored himself by serving two inept kings. These experiences appear to have a haunting effect on the man, and he wishes to redeem himself by serving Daenerys.
Rickard Karstark acts dishonorably by killing the two Lannister children that were hostages, this results in his execution. Davos Seaworth is in the midst of serving a sentence in the dungeons of Dragonstone for attempting to kill Melisandre, another action that is considered dishonorable. The point of including dishonorable acts goes to show that acting dishonorably is not the answer, and that the cost of acting dishonorably is also high.
In an ironic twist, though, Stannis who has dishonored his wife, Selyse, by sleeping with Melisandre is not forced to serve any type of punishment. Instead Selyse accepts and supports Stannis’ affair realizing that he doesn’t romantically feel anything for Melisandre, rather he was doing what he had to to win the Iron Throne. It can be argued that Stannis is suffering internally for dishonoring his wife, and despite Selyse’s attempts to bring comfort to the situation, she may be in fact making it worse. Either way the end result of Stannis’ getting away with having an affair acts as a counter argument to other characters in this episode who paid horrible prices for acting dishonorably.
The High Cost of Honor on Others
The negative effects honor can have on a large group of people is explored with the decisions made by Robb Stark in this episode. After Lord Karstark kills the two Lannister children in order to avenge his recently deceased sons, Robb orders Karstark’s execution.
Karstark acted without honor when he killed the Lannister children, and Robb’s killing of Lord Karstark was the honorable action to take. However, the result of Robb acting honorably is that he loses almost half of his army. This has a dire effect on his war effort, and since he was warned not to do it by everyone that is still supporting him, it can be presumed that this decision will likely be a source of internal hostility and debate. Robb’s decision to act honorably results in a very negative outcome for thousands of people who support him and who formerly supported him.
The other act of honor that effects a large group of people is Daenerys freeing the slaves and allowing them to choose their own commanders and names. This is the only indisputably positive depiction of honor that occurs in this episode, all other depictions are either ambiguous or costly to the characters in some way. Honor’s positive impact is still displayed by Game of Thrones, to show that the idea still has some value to society.
Honor and Pragmatism
One reoccurring idea that kept appearing in the episode was how issues in honor could easily be dissuaded by pragmatic approaches to issues, or ideas in pragmatism and honor could be blended together into a strange compromise of the two ideas.
One of the best examples of the honor and pragmatic compromise in the episode deals with the philosophies of the Brotherhood Without Banners. The Hound defeats Beric Dondarrion in combat, and as agreed, Beric allows him to leave the Brotherhood alive. Beric’s action here is honorable. However, when the Hound was captured by the Brotherhood he had a huge stash of gold, and when he asks for it back, Beric refuses. Beric’s actions here are dishonorable, but they are also pragmatic as the Brotherhood desperately needs money to pursue their honor bound cause. Beric believes their cause is above the ramifications of dishonor brought upon by taking gold from the Hound, and thus there is a weird blending between honor and dishonor in this series of scenes.
The same could be said for the Brotherhood’s relationship with Arya. Arya is largely left alone while she is with the Brotherhood, she is fed and taken care of and not treated poorly which is honorable of them. However, she isn’t free to leave the Brotherhood, and is basically like a prisoner with a lot of liberties. The reason Arya isn’t free is the same reason the Hound isn’t allowed to keep his gold, the Brotherhood needs to turn Arya into more revenue for their group. Again this is another blending of the ideas of pragmatism and honor.
On a first glance, answering the question is honor in Westeros worth pursuing may produce a quick “no,” from most people, but despite the many setbacks caused by honor in the series, there are some very positive developments that result by following it (Daenerys and her treatment of the Unsullied). Perhaps the combination of pragmatism and honor is the best approach. If Eddard were a little bit more pragmatic about dealing with Robert Baratheon’s death, it’s a lot more likely that he would still be alive. In this episode if Robb was a bit more pragmatic about dealing with Karstark he wouldn’t have lost nearly half of his army.
Honor has been traditionally been viewed as something to aspire to, both in our society and in Westeros. Often it is viewed as a black and white issue, but as Game of Thrones frequently points out, honor is a lot more colorful once you really begin to think about it. The negative impact honor can have on an individual and on a society is constantly thrust into the faces of viewers, forcing them to examine the role honor has in their own lives.