Revenge in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones
Revenge is one of the most important themes in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and, arguably, in much of literature and film in general. Whenever a person is the victim of injustice, is it not human nature to want to see them triumph and exact poetic and righteous justice on those who have harmed them? The psychology behind the idea (and the reverence) of revenge is complicated and can lead to debate and argument, but is still prevalent in American society — most of us can agree the revenge is sweet and deeply satisfying to watch. The way revenge and the characters who seek it are presented changes drastically from George R.R. Martin’s books to HBO’s Game of Thrones television series. These changes are telling about American society, and the way we think about vengeance.
Revenge is a complex concept, both an act and a feeling, and is largely up to the perception of the person seeking revenge and the people that observe it. In the Oxford English Dictionary revenge is defined as the act of harming one’s transgressors. This caveat is what makes revenge acceptable and elevates acts of violence from simple, chaotic deviance to lawful and just action in the eyes of many.
The prevailing attitudes about revenge in American society can be seen in everything from the way our justice system works to the types of television shows that we watch. Since we are not able to stone or murder those who harm us or our families in today’s culture, some people get satisfaction from seeing those who have committed heinous crimes put to death by electrocution or by lethal injection. When the law fails to end the lives of these people, revenge is sometimes taken by other prisoners. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer, a murderer, cannibal, and necrophile, was bludgeoned to death by another prisoner after he was sentenced to fifteen consecutive life sentences, rather than to death. After Osama Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in 2012, people all over the nation spontaneously erupted in celebration. Chants of “U.S.A!” and euphoric joy over the death of a man that very few Americans had ever met, but who was established as an enemy who directly hurt our country. For many Americans, this felt like sweet revenge. Now, Osama’s son, Hazma Bin Laden, has vowed to seek revenge against the United States for his father’s death — continuing the cyclical nature of vengeance.
Because of these factors, and the American appetite for revenge, it is not surprising that revenge is further glorified in Game of Thrones when compared to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows in the United States, with the audience growing twenty-five percent after the latest season (which focused heavily on the revenge of several characters and groups of characters), and with ratings beating out The Walking Dead and other popular television series. In the sixth and latest season, we see several scenes of bloody revenge that have not happened, or happened differently, in the novels: Arya Stark’s murder of Walder Frey, one of the orchestrators of the “Red Wedding” where her mother and brother were murdered, Cersei Lannister’s torture of Septa Unella the “shame nun” who tormented her in the previous season, and Sansa Stark killing her husband Ramsay Bolton by way of his own dogs. The addition of these scenes, which were fan favorites, and seemed to leave viewers feeling satisfied the removal of certain scenes and plotlines, such as Lady Stoneheart (the zombified Catelyn Stark and a character that shows the negative effects of revenge who kills Freys and Lannisters based only on their family name, hangs fan favorites Podrick Payne and Brienne of Tarth who were allied with Catelyn) is not present in the show at all. This really showcase the HBO series’ glorification of revenge. Instead, the scenes of revenge we view have the same underlying message — that they deserve it, a motif often seen in American media.
Given the very human desire for revenge, it is not surprising that this theme is so prevalent in the gritty, morally grey world of Westeros. From the personal, passionate “in the moment” scenes, to the cold and calculating revenge of Arya, to the impersonal and broad vendettas between entire families in the series, it is safe to say that a lot of the action of the novels and television show are put in motion by the desire for revenge. The changes in the way that revenge is presented between the book and show, are where we can truly see a reflection of our society.
Revenge scenes in film and literature can be cathartic and satisfying, but by removing the nuanced and subtle “grey area” of morality and reflection of the motivations of characters on both sides of a conflict, Game of Thrones removes what makes A Song of Ice and Fire’s revenge scenes so satisfying as well as meaningful. In both Game of Thrones, and A Song of Ice and Fire, the revenge scenes that we see generally fall into three categories. There are the cold, calculated and long thought out plans: Arya joining the Faceless Men. The quick, brutal revenge scenes where someone takes advantage of a chance to exact revenge on someone who has hurt them: Sansa’s revenge on Ramsay. And the intense but impersonal vendettas that span over entire families or even cultures — for example, Daenerys’s desire to get revenge against the “usurper’s dogs” or the Starks, Baratheons, and Lannisters that killed her father and cast her family out of Westeros and off of the Iron Throne. These categories span the show and the books, but the changes between the two medias can be drastic and change their meaning and tone dramatically.
One of the best examples of the changes between the book and show and their consequences can be seen in Ellaria Sand, Oberyn Martell’s paramour, and his bastard daughters known as the Sand Snakes. In the both the book and the show, The Sand Snakes want to get revenge for the death of their father — a death which was caused by Oberyn himself seeking revenge for the death of his sister Elia at the hand of Gregor Clegane or “The Mountain That Rides.” Oberyn championed for Tyrion Lannister (who was on trial for the death of his nephew) in trial by combat, against Gregor, taking advantage of the trail as an opportunity to get revenge for Elia’s death. Although Oberyn’s death is violent and distressing in both forms of media, it is within the law in Westerosi culture, and it’s something that Oberyn knew was a possibility when he agreed to be Tyrion’s champion. In the books, Ellaria is one of the loudest voices speaking against violence and revenge, delivering an emotional and poignant speech to Obara, Nymeria, and Tyene when they express their desire to avenge their father’s death. After they call the death of The Mountain “the beginning” Ellaria begs them not start a war, asking “Where does it end? … Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?” (Martin “The Watcher”) while looking at the skull of her husband’s killer. This speech is emotional, and makes the reader think twice about the motivations of other characters, and feel almost guilty for their happiness at the deaths of others.
Compare this to Game of Thrones’s version of Ellaria, and the difference is glaring. This Ellaria immediately agrees with the Sand Snakes’ desire for vengeance and goes out of her way to hurt anyone even vaguely associated with the death of Oberyn. Going against what Oberyn himself said “We do not hurt little girls in Dorne,” (Game of Thrones “The House of Black and White”) Ellaria poisons Myrcella Baratheon — an innocent young girl in no way a part of Oberyn’s death. She and the Sand Snakes go on to murder their own blood — Oberyn’s brother and his son, because they do not agree with their revenge plot. The Dorne plotline on the show has been often used as an example of the perils of adaptation and lazy writing in Game of Thrones, and this is not without reason.
The lack of Lady Stoneheart in the television adaptation is another hugely telling part of the differences between the novels and show. In the books, we are introduced to Lady Stoneheart — formerly Lady Catelyn Stark of Winterfell. Catelyn meets a violent end, with her throat cut by the Frey’s (her house’s former bannermen) at the infamous Red Wedding and thrown naked into a river in a mockery of her house’s funeral rites. Her appearance is startling and frightening, and she is a creature motivated purely by revenge. This desire has corrupted The Brotherhood Without Banners, who once mainly focused on helping the smallfolk, but now (under her orders) look to hang anyone who could be seen as a Lannister or Frey collaborator. All that she does is in search of revenge — meticulously combing the Riverlands with The Brotherhood without Banners and looking for anyone with sigils to represent that they may owe allegiance to the people that killed her and her son. Lady Stoneheart is vastly different from Catelyn Stark, losing her instinct for forgiveness and replacing it with bottomless rage. She tries to hang Brienne of Tarth, who was sworn to her in life, simply because she carries a Lannister sword — and Brienne was looking to protect and save Catelyn’s daughters. (Martin “Brienne VIII”) Seeing what has become of the reanimated Catelyn really drives home the potential negative effects of seeking revenge, and shows that vengeance only leads to more pain and death. The fact that this character is not at all in the show (and it is fairly safe to say that she will not be, now that the show is far ahead of the books and there have been no references to her), is telling of the show runner’s views on revenge — removing Lady Stoneheart, who condemns revenge entirely, and rewriting Ellaria to be a cartoonishly villainous version of herself speak volumes of what the directors believe our society values.
Another huge divergence between book and show that left many fans of both upset was in the Winterfell plotline. In the books, Sansa is still in the Eyrie with Petyr Baelish under the alias of Alayne Stone and is still a virgin or “maiden”. In the show, she has been repeatedly and brutally raped by her husband, Ramsay. After escaping, her response is to exact revenge on him when the opportunity arises. She has Ramsay tied to a chair and eaten by his own dogs. This revenge scene is incredibly satisfying to the viewer because we see a character who has been hurt and abused since the first season overcoming and having revenge on a character that was given absolutely no redeeming features. He is only shown as sadistic and evil, unlike many other “villains” on the show that are given some type of humanity. This changes Sansa’s character drastically — in the books, she is never raped, but she does still suffer mental and physical abuse at the hand of her betrothed, Joffrey, and is never able to get revenge for these actions. However, she does witness his gruesome death and, despite what one might think, is not satisfied and pleased with it and more or less expresses the same sort of sentiments as the Ellaria of the books that his death did nothing to bring back her father, or undo the pain that Sansa was forced to go through.
The changes made between A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones highlight the innate human desire for revenge that goes beyond the conscious and into subconscious thought. It is this desire for push and pull, tit for tat, that drives a lot of social interactions in complex societies. Giving into this very human, but not necessarily moral, desire can feel good to the viewer, and that is why the theme of revenge comes up so often in art and life. However, it is important to be critical and think deeply about why we like seeing revenge enacted upon others, what the cost can be of pursuing revenge, and what it means to the individual and to society. Although the prevalent attitude about revenge is that it will lead to catharsis and the ability to “let go,” this may not be necessarily true. As shown in three studies done at Harvard University, those who do engage in revenge often have a harder time “letting go” and will spend more time and energy thinking about the person that they took revenge upon. People also have a difficult time differentiating the relative difficulty between actually acting vengefully against another person opposed to viewing punishment done by someone else (such as legal punishment or the death penalty). Because of the paradoxes associated with seeking and watching revenge, it is necessary the media we consume associated with revenge be thought provoking and show both the benefits and consequences associated with seeking revenge. A Song of Ice and Fire does so masterfully, while Game of Thrones falls short at many points.
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