The world of the Seven Kingdoms is one of feudalism. One of strict rules of conduct and stratified to keep those in charge in their positions of power. That means that the noble lords and ladies of Westeros rarely engage with commoners that they didn’t have to engage with for specific purposes – a stable boy to tend to their horses or a maid to clean the chamber pot. In such a world, it is key to know where you stand in the totem pole. To whom do you owe allegiance and subservience and who, in turn, is required to pay you respect and show you fealty? Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory.
Look at the way Ser Arthur Dayne, the fabled “Sword of the Morning” addresses Ned when he and his friends arrive at the Tower of Joy. Here he is, a member of the Kingsguard who is following the orders of his prince, who was betrayed and killed by rebels, and he addresses one of the rebel leaders as “Lord Stark.” The man is a traitor to his king but he’s still the Lord of Winterfell to the anointed knight who keeps Ned and his friends from the truth behind his sister’s abduction. Nor is his nobility proof that Ned or his friends will fight fairly. Bran observes the old bit of history play before his eyes as his proud and noble father survives his fight with the best swordsman in the Kingdoms thanks to the backstabbing Howland Reed. For all that talk of honor, Ned and Howland are veterans of a civil war and its countless battles. And to survive those battles, you forego honor and titles to keep your life.
It’s no surprise that the new Lord Bolton chooses to address Rickon Stark as “Lord Stark” as well. After all, as far as they’re aware, Rickon is the last heir to Winterfell and the line of the old Kings in the North. Separated from his brother Bran when he chose to go beyond the Wall, Rickon and Osha have been hiding amidst the Umbers of Last Hearth. But with the death of Roose Bolton, the Umbers are afraid of the wildlings let through by Jon Snow. Looking for an alliance with Ramsay and the Karstarks, Lord Umber chooses to betray the last Stark. He’s no fool. He’s seen how the Boltons’ betrayal has refashioned things in the North. By choosing to abandon the centuries of allegiance to House Stark, House Bolton has risen in power – and by not waiting for his machinating father to leave everything to his trueborn son, Ramsay has ensured his place atop Northern hierarchy. He’s got the strongest military and the must ruthless mind.
We see such a hierarchy even in a place without titles or names. In the House of Black & White, no one has a name. No one has a title. Even their faces may not be their own (hence the whole “Faceless Men” moniker). Even so, Arya is finding that there’s a system working within it – and she’s at the very bottom of it. She trains with the Waif, who does not hesitate to administer physically the lessons of her ignorance to Arya, while also challenging how much of her old self still remains within. But it is the man who looks and sounds like Jaqen that is in charge. It is he who tests her resolve. Who puts the question to her. And it is Jaqen who restores Arya’s sight back to her – from the very same poisonous water that took the life of a man. Arya has climbed another rung in the ladder of the Faceless Men, but it doesn’t mean that she’s done.
Even a world away, in Meereen, we see how the structure of hierarchies at play. Varys is a neophyte in Meereen. He barely knows the local language and cannot stand the heat. Yet, he’s quickly found an operative of the Sons of the Harpy that he can get information from. In this world, it’d be more likely that torture or assault would be used on her. But Varys knows that you cannot get truth from such means. Instead, he offers the woman who lured Unsullied to their deaths a bag of silver, passage to Pentos and the chance to build a new life for her and her son. And it works. From her, Varys and the others learn that the Sons of the Harpy are not a local revolt – as they have portrayed themselves – but the work of the Slave Masters of Yunkai, Astapor and Volantis. Tyrion instantly begins to consider how to use this information to their advantage to end the bloodshed in Meereen – the former Hand of the King using this experience in a way that others cannot.
But does this work all the time? Not really. For Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Queen of the Andals and the Free Men of Westeros and Ruler of Meereen, the long and arduous list of titles she’s collected mean nothing in the face of the Dosh Khaleen. For they too were once the wives of great Khals and carried many titles. Except that their power faded the moment their husbands died. Dothraki tradition commanded them to return to Vaes Dothrak and live there as the keepers of ancient lore and custom. Dany, however, unknowingly rejected that and pushed towards her own path. Back now amongst the people she once led, she’s finding that her previous position and titles mean nothing against the power of culture. She will face ruling from the khalasars and that may not be the best for her.
Similarly, the Lannister twins are finding that their titles don’t mean for much anymore. Cersei was Queen while Robert was king. But now that Tommen is king, the queen is Margaery. As the Queen of Thorns delights in informing Cersei. This means she’s no longer a member of the Small Council. And while Jaime thought his spot as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard gave him such a spot, Grand Maester Pycelle is quick to tell him that this was done only because the Mad King Aerys had demanded it. In short, both of them are out of the levers of power of Westeros. Despite the fact that they feel a need for vengeance against the Dornish usurpers who murdered their daughter and the trial by the Faith that hangs over Cersei’s head, or perhaps because of them, the Lannister twins are unable to convince their uncle Kevan to let them into the small council.
This is because titles mean little without the power to give them meaning. For example, Tommen might be the King of Westeros, but when he faces off against the High Sparrow, it is the old, drags-covered, bare-footed old man who speaks with authority and meaning. Meanwhile the Lord of the Andals and the First Men is slowly moved into being a quiet attendant who is talked to, once again, as a child. Tommen is the king but does not carry himself like a king while the High Sparrow carries himself as a man who represents a movement of thousands of devout and pious poor peasants. In such ways, the hierarchy is being rewritten and the king must heed the words and counsel of a peasant.
And even when titles mean something, it doesn’t mean that people will heed it. Look at the way the men of the Night’s Watch rebelled and murdered their Lord Commander. But thanks to the power of Melisandre, Jon returns from the land of the dead and is given the rarest of chances: a murder victim gets to face his killers and mete out his own justice back at them. However, the moment he executes Thorne, Olly and their allies, Jon does a strange thing: he takes off the cloak of the Lord Commander and gives it his friend, Edd Tollett, and declares his watch ended. Is it because he feels he failed in his attempt to unite the Night’s Watch and the wildlings? Is it because he refuses to mix the Night’s Watch in the things he feels he has to do? Jon Snow, the 998th Lord Commander, was murdered an returned from the dead and he resigns from his title to an unsure future.
Or perhaps it could be that such a title matters next to nothing in this new world. Kings have been killed and lords have been slain. Ladies have been raped and noble houses have been struck down. In this kind of world, the protection that titles used to bestow has disappeared and only naked ambition matters. Well, maybe not all that matters, but it’s the guiding force behind the moves of so many – whether they admit it to themselves or not. This is the kind of thing that can destroy a society from within – as we are witnessing.