“Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes”
That line was written by famed science-fiction author Robert Heinlein in his novel, Time Enough for Love. It sounds so simple and yet it’s so profound for the truth it conveys: No one ever goes to war thinking of themselves as the cruel, horrific and villainous enemy of the story. Every warrior and every army that has ever gone to war thinks of themselves as just, as righteous and as favored by the gods/God in their campaign.
This is the truth that Tywin tries to pass on to Arya as she eats his supper and ponders whether or not to bury a knife in his neck. This is the truth that was at the heart of Jon Snow’s and Ygritte’s arguing in the frozen North. It’s what allows Theon to hunt down and brutally murder children or what lets Jaime kill his own kinsman. In the end, everyone sees themselves as the righteous ones or the aggrieved party who is looking to restore balance. There’s always a reason.
As Tywin tells Arya the story of King Harren the Black, you almost begin to think that he’s speaking for himself. Here was a man who was powerful and desperate to find a way to ensure his family would endure. So he built the greatest fortress in all the Seven Kingdoms: Walls so high they were impossible to scale. Storerooms so deep that they could outlast any besieging army. And on the day Harrenhal was completed, Aegon Targaryen launched his war of conquest on Westeros and changed the rules of war as Harren understood them. High walls will stop armies. They don’t stop flying dragons.
Tywin understands that the rules of war are ever shifting. That’s why he is so adamant in his visage as a menacing figure. He understands that he will be respected if he is feared and he can only be feared if he’s ruthless. That’s how he’s able to unleash Gregor Clegane on the Riverlands. Arya’s failed attempt to steal that note will have dire consequences for many people. But Tywin’s ultimate driving force isn’t spite or anger. He’s doing all this to leave a legacy for House Lannister of power and wealth. He will be the scion who built his family as the seminal rulers of Westeros. He’ll be a hero and a figure of legend.
Jon Snow may hope to one day be a hero, but it’s clear that he still knows little about the world he inhabits. He’s arguing with a wildling while trying to find his party of Sworn Brothers and all the while walking without a sense of direction. Was it any surprise that all his arguing and wandering was going to get him caught right in the middle of a wildling raiding party?
Let’s remember something: the Night’s Watch was not created to fight wildlings. The Wall wasn’t built to keep the wildlings away from the peoples of the Seven Kingdoms. But in absence of their true enemy, the Night’s Watch have spent thousands of years fighting the wildlings. This has created rancor and hatred on both sides, each of whom sees themselves in the right. The wildlings do raid and pillage from the Seven Kingdoms. They steal, kill and kidnap at will. But that’s borne out of the horrific hardship through which they survive. Their lands can never be farmed. No crops will ever grow beyond The Wall. So how are the various tribes in the Lands of Perpetual Winter meant to survive? As far as the wildlings are concerned, they are taking what they must to continue living. Their way of life exonerates the blood they must spill in order to continue living – to put it another way, the wildlings live in a post-zombie apocalypse world where there are no rules. To them, the Night’s Watch is an invader that comes down upon them and kills them for no reason whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Theon Greyjoy manages to lose and “find” the two youngest Stark children, Bran and Rickon, in the worst way imaginable. He tells Maester Luwin that “if he finds them quickly, he won’t kill them.” But his tenuous hold on the North relies on him holding Winterfell and the heirs of Lord Eddard Stark and King Robb as hostages. Losing them is more than just a slight to his honor – it’s a threat to his life. But his anger is also born out of the perceived violation of the rules of war between a conqueror and his highborn hostages. He had played his role as ward/hostage of the Starks for most of his life and it had nearly turned him away from his heritage as an ironborn. Now, when he’s the lord of Winterfell, his wards use the first opportunity to escape? It’s not just untenable. It’s insulting.
But his response to the flight of the Starks is horrifying. To murder two young children and burn their bodies beyond recognition is an act that anyone would find heinous. Yes, it happens in war all the time. However, even the least able of tacticians would have warned him that murdering the heirs of Eddard Stark was more likely to turn the people of Winterfell and the North against him and not to his side. Even if Theon doesn’t think his actions were villainous – and there’s no reason to think he believes that – a sense of self-preservation should be telling him that he’s likely made thousands of enemies with that little stunt.
Which only goes to prove that even if Heinlein was right, enemies rarely have the ability to analyze their own decisions from any prism other than their own. That short-sighted, narrow-minded sense of viewing the world can only lead to destruction and death – for themselves and for everyone else.