In 1967, a 61-year old man who some knew as Henry died in Peking, China of kidney and heart disease. This man had lived the last few years of his life as an editor after years working at Peking’s Botanical Gardens. Henry was a quiet man who, when he died, had left no children behind through any of the six wives he had married throughout his life. And his story might be quite unimportant but for the simple fact that Henry was also known as Yaozhi, Haoran or, more commonly known, Puyi. “Henry” was the Xuantong Emperor, the 12th in the Qin Dynasty and more commonly known to us as “The Last Emperor of China” before the events of the 20th Century removed him from power and made him a common man.
I bring the example of Puyi up because his case is all too common in history. Somewhere out there live the descendants of Charlemagne. Somewhere out there, the heirs of Nebuchadnezzar, of Atahualpa, of Peter the Great may still live and breathe; unaware of their royal heritage. And they might have been kings and queens themselves but for the twists and turns of fate, chance and history. Instead, who knows if they live or thrive or if they suffer. They have been forgotten and lost; their power nonexistent.
So how does all that tie up with the upcoming season of Game of Thrones?
Season 2 is based on the 2nd book in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, A Clash of Kings, and the title is apropos of the themes of succession and power. The peace that existed under the drunken reign of King Robert I is gone and in its place will fall a great war for control of the Seven Kingdoms and rule over the peoples of Westeros. The great houses and their great armies will vie for control of some or all of the Seven Kingdoms for their own reasons and, in their wake, they will leave behind ashes, destruction, chaos and death. Not exactly the best of ideas as winter approaches.
Governmental transitions of power are always difficult things to go through. After all, just look at our election cycle and how expensive, how destructive and how difficult it is. Senators, congressmen and governors all vying for the chance to be elected to the most powerful office in the land. Fortunes are raised and spent in the opportunity to convince the public that their vision is the one they should follow. That they have the plan for making our country better. However, it is nothing compared to how transitions of power occurred a thousand years ago when feudal monarchies were the main system of control. Unless a strong dynastic line had been established that everyone obeyed out of sheer respect or fear, the chances were high that major conflict would ensue for control. Even when things were set up to avoid conflicts — as the ancients Francs used to do by dividing up realms between heirs — the need to rule all would prove great and war was the usual outcome.
Unfortunately for King Joffrey I of Houses Baratheon and Lannister, his dynastic line is just being established. While his father had deposed and overthrown the respected/feared dynasty of the Targaryens, there are many for whom the idea of the crowned stag ruling the Seven Kingdoms is still anathema. Perhaps if Joffrey was more charismatic and less a little shit, it wouldn’t be an issue. But he’s not. And in his case, it’s clear that for him to win The War of the Five Kings, he will rely on the overwhelming economic and military might of his grandfather, Lord Tywin Lannister. It is through Lannister gold and Lannister steel that Joffrey secures his claim to the Iron Throne — and his head to his neck. It is the Lannisters’ strength that makes Joffrey’s legal claim all but a formality.
Except that it isn’t just a formality. Because from the South and the East, two men will arise, each with their own designs on the Iron Throne. King Renly Baratheon rises out of the South with the strength of his own house as well as the strength of House Tyrell, thanks to his lover, Ser Loras Tyrell. Meanwhile King Stannis Baratheon, brother of Robert and Renly, comes out of Dragonstone with what he considers the truest claim of succession for Westeros — a letter written by the dead Hand of the King, Ned Stark, that details the truth of Joffrey’s parentage.
But if Stannis thinks that legality enters into this discussion, he is wrong. Legal rights to the Iron Throne didn’t stop Robert from ending the life of Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen seventeen years in the past. Legal rights and oaths of honor didn’t stop Jaime Lannister from running King Aerys through the back with his sword. Just as legal rights didn’t save the Romanovs in Russia or the Ptolemys from Ancient Egypt. In a sense, the law devolves in these instances and the winner gets to write himself as the the correct claimant after he’s deposed or decapitated his opponents. It takes more than a letter to make you king. It takes strength. It takes power.
Stannis lacks much of the power that Joffrey and Renly have. He cannot draw from his own house’s bannermen since they’re all allied to Storm’s End and to Renly. His own seat at Dragonstone will not prove to be a boon for armies and soldiers. In fact, his power base is weaker than even King Robb Stark’s, who isn’t even vying for the Iron Throne, but for the freedom and independence of the North and of the Riverlands. But Stannis will have a power unlike any the other pretenders to the throne have — a power of light and of fire; of belief and of faith. Stannis will have a god on his side.
Against all of them, King Robb fights for freedom from the yoke of the Baratheons and Lannisters. Not surprisingly, with the bond that held the North to the Iron Throne — the love of Ned Stark for Robert Baratheon — well and truly cut off. But he’s going to find that winning battles may not equate to winning the war. What makes his fight so difficult is that he’s not just fighting for the North — which is strategically protected by the geography of Westeros — but he’s fighting in the western Riverlands, the home of his mother’s family but lands that had been conquered and reconquered by many throughout the centuries. With his family spread out across Westeros — Bran and Rickon at Winterfell, Sansa a hostage in King’s Landing and Arya lost in the wilderness of the Kingsroad — Robb is going to find himself dangerously short of people he can well and truly trust.
Perhaps if he still had Jon Snow by his side things might be different for the Young Wolf. While Catelyn Stark’s hatred from her husband’s son would not be sated until he was gone, it’s likely that her own son would have no greater ally or counselor at this time. Alas, the Bastard of Winterfell is marching northwards with the bulk of the Night’s Watch on a desperate rescue attempt for his uncle, Benjen. With the rumors of mass wildling movements beyond the Wall and the shadow of the White Walkers still plaguing their nightmares, Jon is going to find himself very much alone at the edge of the world. For it’s at the edges of the world that one finds legends are still very much real.
Like dragons. The Seven Kingdoms’ version of atomic bombs are back from legend and into life. And they’re in the hands of the weakest contender for the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen. She, after all, has no army. Her “kingdom” consists of the remnants of Khal Drogo’s old khalasar, the weak and infirm and ex-slaves who could go nowhere else and the few brave souls who stayed out of duty or honor. But her dragons are still babes and not the weapons she will need. So while they will inspire awe and wonder, they are very much vulnerable and dependent on her skills and her abilities to survive.
For most of the characters, their survival will come down to their ability to marshal their own talents in times of need. Whether it’s Tyrion and his cunning or Cersei and her deceptiveness or Jon and his leadership, each and every character will be tested by the coming storm. Some are going to find themselves very alone by the end of this season while others will find even worse things around them. If there’s anyone you like in this show, you might want to stop now because no one is sacred.
So is the stage set for season 2 of Game of Thrones. The War of the Five Kings begins. And whoever wins this war may not like what he has won — but it is better to win than to lose. After all, you win or you die.
You could ask the heirs of the Qin Dynasty but none exist.