Ice and Fire
Game of Thrones, the HBO TV series which was launched in 2011, has captured attention exactly because it speaks to people in every country. Season 7 has just hit the screens and the world is abuzz with all things Westeronian. The producers David Benioff, and D.B.Weiss took a huge gamble of G.R.R. Martin’s story Song of Fire and Ice, and from the first series received letters saying people loved it. They wrote from all over the world, and recognised their own countries in the story. Even though it’s a fantasy world, vaguely medieval, with dozens of characters, lots of magic and dragons – which put some people off, as how can anyone stand against dragons? – it tells a complex story of ruthlessness, daring, intrigue, sex, power and politics that people understand as true. It can even make you care about characters who do bad things, and are not straightforward heroes, such as Jaime Lannister, and the Hound, and that is rare in TV.
Yes, it is about war, and war is always brutal, never pretty, but the real battle is within the human heart, and the choices the multitude of characters face. For me it resembles ‘I Claudius’ (1976) more than any dry rendering of English history, but with the added glamour of dramatic landscapes such as Croatia, Morocco, Malta, Iceland and even Northern Ireland. It is loosely based on the War of the Roses, where the house of Stark is the house of York, and Lannister is the house of Lancaster, and while there is a dim recognition of this, the story offers much more with the swagger, nuance, subtlety, and the sheer ruthlessness of the machinations of sly, power-hungry, lustful, predatory, malicious, and fearful characters.
Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy, that stands up there with the writings of J.R. R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and it is not surprising that it has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist. It speaks to us in the symbolic language of archetypes. These characters, whose dialogue repay close attention, are no mere stereotypes. Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, in conversation with Varys the eunuch, is a fine example of evenly weighted dialogue that pushes plot forward. They make complex decisions and change and grow before our eyes. Game of Thrones has a long list of characters. I’m not going to attempt to discuss them all, interesting as that might be. The book even tells details of minor characters who are just walk-ons in the TV series. What intrigues me is to unearth the buried treasure: what is is the archetypal nature of these characters?
The concept of archetypes is not easy to pin down exactly because when you do, it becomes less than the underlying principle from which it arose. Archetypes can be seen in behaviours but also images, symbols and events none of which actually are the archetype. They can be personal and universal, often combining both. According to Jung archetypes are primordial patterning common to all cultures. We have the potential to surface any number of archetypes, and even though impersonal, they can act as guides at crisis points in our lives. These forces trigger the underlying patterns that motivate a character. They well up from the collective unconscious and manifest in our lives through events, signs, symbols, dreams and synchronicities.
Few Game of Thrones characters can be pigeonholed easily with just one archetype. One might predominate, but these can morph according to circumstance, and faced, with challenges, another archetype can emerge. This allows G.R.R. Martin’s characters to be multi-faceted. I can only speculate that he has intuitive knowledge of archetypes to round off characters for readers and viewers. Sandor Clegane, Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, Margery Tyrrel, and Melisandre wouldn’t be talked about endlessly on Throne fan blogs across the web as though they were ‘real,’ if Martin had created cardboard cut outs. They live in our personal mythologies because Game of Thrones, like Lord of the Rings, triggers deep echoes of each individual’s own humdrum hero’s journey. It may be grandiose on screen, but it parallels the everyday battles which oblige us sometimes to become warriors against our natural inclination. Frodo in LOTR was a reluctant hero and Samwell Tarly in GOT will surprise us exactly because no one expects him to do so. That’s who we must be also, just in our own lives.
The twelve main archetypes are ordered sequentially which in itself represents a narrative of the evolution of the psyche: Everyman, Orphan, Caregiver, Warrior, Lover, Seeker, Creator, Destroyer, Ruler, Magician, Sage and Fool. The focus here is only on these 12, but there are hundreds of others that shift and blend into life events. Caroline Myss talks of how we all have some key ‘survival’ archetypes, whether we like it or not: the Child, the Victim, the Prostitute, and the Saboteur. That makes for a more volatile psyche than any ‘fixed traits’ might lead us to imagine.
We too must begrudgingly learn to control our unruly dragons, or go on long journeys to find out who we really are, and journeys need not be physical. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is told by Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughn) to ‘Kill the Boy to allow the man to be born,” a line that could have been taken straight from Joseph Campbell’s studies in world mythologies. Snow also has to die and be reborn – in the scene in ‘Home’ (Season 6) making him the classic hero who comes back to life to fulfil his destiny. These narratives are everywhere, yet rarely lose their resonance.
There are few scenes to match Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) at his trial: his economy of words, his mordant jibes, all intensify the drama. He steals the whole episode. He has been falsely accused of murdering his nephew Joffrey, yet turns the dialogue to that he is guilty not of the crime, but of being a ‘dwarf’ – and thus a complete outsider – a crime for which he has been hounded all his life. Read for ‘dwarf’ gay, black, women, trans, any ‘marginalised’ people. The trial is the culmination of that bigotry. His scorn is palpable as it wells up from years of being disregarded and subordinated, of his being the rejected and despised son in the Lannister household. Although he has had all the privileges of the Lannisters, the irony is that Cersei and Twyin rob him of these entitlements. Yet he dominates scenes because he has more than one archetype at work in his personality:
Although he comes across as lordly, he has the common touch, the Everyman, in that he doesn’t mind talking to anyone and can understand the people.
The stereotype of the dwarf is that they have exceptional size and virility and Tyrion has that but also a big romantic heart as he falls for Shae, so he swaggers about as a real Lover.
He is a Warrior of words in that he uses them like a swordsman, expertly cross challenging any of his interlocutors. But he is also a warrior strategist planning to rout the attack of Stannis Baratheon on King’s Landing.
He is sent off on his travels to Castlerock and the cold wastes of the north, and has to escape Kings Landing in a barrel, out to sea to find Daenerys. He thus is also a Seeker in these scenes; at ease while travelling as he is while hosting a banquet at Kings Landing.
Tyrion is capable of taking charge and being the more strategic Leader in his council meetings, and the way he orchestrates the attack against Stannis Barratheon.
While Tyrion is thought of as a Master, he has more wisdom in his fingertips than practically all of the many characters who claim to be wise. Advice oozes out of him as it is hard earned making him an armchair Sage.
The Fool is not only the most obvious code for a dwarf in the form of court jester, to be ridiculed and mocked, but also the fool is the sensualist. hedonist, enjoying the sensual pleasures, regardless of the dangers, of life Tyrion’s hedonism is legendary, he is rarely seen without a goblet of wine in his hand, and often seen rolling in and out of bed with numerous women.
Tyrion is at home in a variety of social levels. He is also the prime example of Outsider– and probably the most prominent physically disabled character in any major TV drama in recent years. Dwarves are usually portrayed as figures of pathos or ridicule and are brought into a scene for comic relief, but Game of Thrones puts Tyrion at the core of the political struggle and his viewpoint carries the story forward.
Another layer to all these characteristics above is that he represents the archetype of Victim. He is the victim of a plot to put him to death orchestrated by Cersei seeking to avenge the murder of her son Joffrey, and he says ‘I would have loved to see you eat poison.’ Because he speaks the truth while all around him are lying, in the Hero’s journey this shows he has overcome his fears and is unafraid to die for his views. His external dragons (or demons) are his sister Cersei and his father Tywin. His internal dragons are his weakness in love for Shae, and his wounding when she betrays him.
So with these qualities rolled into just one character what still stands out is his bookishness, his intellectual clout. Almost a Magician. He occupies a unique position in the story; at once being outsider – almost with a contemporary 21st century sensibility – observing the medieval madness with wry detachment and verve, but he is also at the core of everything, aware of being cynical, but also somehow managing to retain his human heart.
Everyone except Cersei loves Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) who has a lot of growing up to do in public. Think about her trajectory through the story so far, and that’s even before we get to her reclaiming her birthright as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
She starts off as the Innocent, wide-eyed and having no experience, totally open.
She learns to be a Caregiver, wife to Drogo of the Drothakis ‘mother’ of dragons and actually falls in love with her Warrior husband.
She learns to be a Magician, or sorceress, and tries to bring back her dead husband Drogo. She has a mysterious connection to the dragons who see her as their mother.
She learns to be a Warrior herself, and a commanding military Leader, taking on the whole world and eventually the Lannisters
She learns to be a Lover with various suitors, with Daario Naharis and while retaining her power intact from any man is a tightrope walk, she still has her needs.
She learns to be a Ruler – sometimes leading wisely, and sometimes idealistically, with disastrous consequences.
She was also Victim to her brother and seen as a Prostitute sold by her spineless brother Vaseyrs to the Drothaki in exchange for an army. But she is a true Queen.
So that’s at least six different archetypes at work in her life and this is not to take away her individuality. She has complex decisions to make that need strategy, wisdom and courage.
What is clear about archetypes are three points: a) archetypes do not refer to psychological typing, which can be easily stereotyped; they are not fixed traits, but come front of stage in challenging situations and at different points in our life; they exist in an equilibrium or disequilibrium, and b) they have a dark ‘shadow’ side that can become carried away and polarize a situation. This calls for character to exhibit that behaviour to access some of the gifts of the opposite, positive side of it, and to bring other archetypes into a play or fusion of qualities, and c) even though an archetype can dominate your psyche to the detriment of other qualities, they can also operate together making you more effective. If you are unaware and don’t learn the lessons of your experience, you might never notice they exist. But if you do notice, and tune in to archetypes, they can blend within your psyche to suggest that by this alchemical cooperation of forces, you may eventually experience greater integration.
Brienne of Tarth and King Joffrey
There is a difference between recognising caricatures in a story and noticing the underlying archetypes at work. It is also important not to miss the fullness of their characters. I must emphasise that a character in fiction is NOT their archetypes. Neither are we in our own lives. Once archetypes are noted it does not diminish their individuality but ennobles them with grander more universal characteristics, so there is less chance of them becoming caricatures. In Game of Thrones we see that not all women are either cynical whores or pining mothers, although on the surface, it appears that most are. There is Brienne of Tarth, as fierce, and rock-like as any hardened male. She is a knight in shining armour on a quest to vanquish evil and carries her promise like a sword of truth. You do not mess with her integrity – but she just happens to be a woman. She embodies the Warrior and Seeker archetypes. From the archetypal perspective, this could be evidence of the animus (the inner male soul) that she is living out in life. She accuses Jaime of being such a ‘woman,’ meaning weak and snivelling in the face of pain, so perhaps she has killed the feminine within? Who would have thought that her relationship to Jaime Lannister would grow into such a surprisingly strong bond? But that’s what makes Game of Thrones so intriguing – the heroes and heroines morph in front of our eyes as they attempt to survive. They grapple with difficult decisions, and each scene reveals another layer of their nature.
We are not the archetypes, but they can sometimes take over. You might ask then why if characters develop and a narrative like this can help us to grow, some characters seem to remain the same? Archetypes can allow self development, but take a wrong turn, and send you to a dead end; they can become toxic to the psyche. King Joffrey Baratheon is a case in point. He is the character fans most love to hate. So much so they celebrated on Twitter sharing videos of how they so enjoyed watching him die. He is a born sadist and stays a sadist to his death when he pines for his mother and accuses Tyrion. From the point of view of archetypal psychology, he is operating from the flip side of the positive archetype – which is the ‘shadow’ Ruler. This is where an inflated sense of privilege has taken over the soul and this person is crying out for more balance. Joffrey represents the Boy not yet grown into the mature King.
This is where the shadow side of archetypes has to be acknowledged as a force that can possess the personality to the detriment of all the other archetypes. They have the potential to soften and blend in with the dominant energies. In Joffrey, we see the Shadow writ large, of an off-kilter King which Moore (2011) names the ‘High Chair Tyrant’. This is an individual who is trapped by the archetype rather than able to access and transmute its power; he is unable to grow. Joffrey’s shadow is of a potentially wise King: “The Tyrant wrongly believes that power is finite; he has a scarcity mentality. He doesn’t understand the truth–that power and influence actually increase the more you share it with others. Thus the burden of maintaining his fragile illusion of absolute power makes him very insecure; any threat to his authority and supremacy enrages him and causes him to lash out with abuse–physically, emotionally, or mentally.” Had he learned to access his Caregiver or Lover archetypes, some of his adolescent cruelty might have been outgrown, but he was unaware who his real father is. The same might be said of the psychopath, Ramsay Bolton, whose talent for sadism excels as played out on his victim, Theon Greyjoy.
They both exhibit the psychosis of stunted growth. It is not the only one possible. Allowing complementary exchange of the polarising archetypes might be the way to avoid the trap of having only one or two presiding forces that steal the limelight. This is to the detriment of the other archetypes which are hovering back stage waiting for their chance to speak their lines. The most intelligent approach would be that through solid, not shallow, reflection and self analysis, leading to understanding, a greater sense of equilibrium – peace in the kingdom- could be eventually achieved.
Learn more about Archetypes
This is all a lot to take in, so here is a quiz to get you started learning about the main twelve archetypes.
Archetypes in Game of Thrones: Test Your Knowledge
It would be fascinating to continue analysing all of the characters in GOT through this archetypal lens, but it might be better if you test your knowledge by doing the following the matching game.
Match the archetypes to the characters and see if your archetypal awareness has been raised a notch or two.
Well done if you managed all that.
Now the trick is to apply knowledge of archetypes to your own life. In what ways are you operating archetypes in your life?
Pearson’s site helps point the way.
Pearson, C. S. (1991) Awakening the Heroes within: Twelve Archetypes To Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform the World, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
The Pearson/Marr Archetype Indicator (online) http://www.carolspearson.com/archetypal-branding/archetypes/personal-branding/
Moore, R. ( 2011) The Four Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (Online) http://www.theartofmanliness.com
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