All The Great Westerosi Wars Started Over Misunderstandings

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Jon Snow in the Battle of the Bastards.
Jon Snow in the Battle of the Bastards. HBO

When George R.R. Martin started writing A Game of Thrones, one of his explicit goals was to shake up the then-stagnant high fantasy genre. The most talked-about aspect of this is his willingness to kill off main characters, but Martin also pulls off a number of, subtler twists on the genre.

Ever since The Lord of The Rings, fantasy narratives have revolved around an epic battle between good and evil, wars that are world-shaking and unavoidable. A Song of Ice and Fire turns this on its head by setting up its major conflicts as similarly unavoidable, then revealing over time that they were started primarily by misunderstandings.

Robert’s Rebellion

Let’s look first at the war that defined the status quo of the Song of Ice and Fire narrative and dominated the thoughts of the older characters for the duration of the first book. Robert’s Rebellion began, we are told, when Rhaegar Targaryen abducts Lyanna Stark. Lyanna’s brother Brandon goes to King’s Landing, furious, and demands to see Rhaegar to kill him. King Aerys accuses him of plotting against the Crown Prince’s life, and soon Brandon, his father and 200 of their house guard are killed. Aerys then demands Jon Arryn to send the heads of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, his wards at the Eyrie at the time. Arryn refused and raised his banners in rebellion.

Early in the books, we are led to believe that the abduction of Lyanna was wrong, and Aerys’ escalation was flat-out evil. While the latter may be true, the former was a widespread misconception. In truth, Rhaegar eloped with Lyanna as the two were deeply in love. Brandon didn’t know this, and he was likely dead before Rhaegar even knew any of this was occurring. From here war was unavoidable.

Had Brandon understood his sister’s choice, he may have tried to prevent it, but he likely wouldn’t have demanded Rhaegar’s death, setting in motion his own demise and sparking the civil war that ended the Targaryen dynasty. This conflict we initially believed to be a simple matter of good vs. evil is revealed to be s more complicated, and more importantly, extremely preventable.

War of the Five Kings

This brings us to the primary conflict that plays out through books 2 and 3, the War of the Five Kings. At the start of A Game of Thrones, Cat receives a letter from her sister at the Eyrie, warning her that the Lannisters killed Jon Arryn. At this point, the Lannisters seem to be the one-dimensional bad guys the genre often produced. Jaime and Cersei are incestuous lovers,Jaime threw Bran Stark out the window, his life later threatened again thanks to a plot supposedly concocted by Tyrion Lannister. Lysa’s letter convinces Ned to accept Robert Baratheon’s offer of serving in King’s Landing as Hand of the King, a trip he will never return from.

With all this information, Cat apprehends Tyrion on the King’s Road and thus the Starks become the primary instigators of the War of the Five Kings, convinced of the Lannisters’ evil intentions. This leads to Tywin massing hosts to invade the Riverlands and the conflict spirals out of control from there.

The two major assumptions that are the basis of the war are lies. We later learn that Petyr Baelish and Lysa Arryn actually killed Jon Arryn; the letter she wrote was a complete fabrication. The dagger also never belonged to Tyrion, but was stolen out of Robert’s loot wagon by Joffrey, who thought putting Bran out of his misery would please his father Robert.

The Lannisters were passive at the start of the books, and the Starks kicked the hornet's nest. Sure, individual Lannisters we’re doing bad things: throwing Bran out a window, trying to finish him off. But they had none of the grand schemes that we put upon them because we assumed they were fantasy villains.

In this sense the entire War of the Five Kings was an entirely avoidable series of misunderstandings.

Random, preventable and devastating conflicts are common in the real world, but strikingly rare in fiction and high fantasy. Martin should be commended not only for breaking our assumptions of which characters can die and which are safe, but also of what kinds of conflicts can exist at the heart of the narrative. I find A Song of Ice and Fire all the more powerful and tragic knowing that much of the bloodshed was so easily preventable.

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