The Illusion of Power

I love this Rolling Stone interview with George R.R. Martin, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Game of Thrones books (i.e. Song of Ice and Fire) are so much more than escapist fiction. I read them as a sword and sorcery version of The Wire, with a Hobbesian view of power as the central theme. As Martin says,

One of the central questions in the book is Varys' riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn't the swordsman have the power? He's the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he's just the average grunt. If he doesn't do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history....It's all based on an illusion.

Most people familiar with the books or the TV show remember the dramatic deaths of various characters best, but for me, one of the most powerful scenes in any of the books (mild spoiler from book/season 1), was the moment Ned Stark and Cersei face each other down after the death of the king. Ned holds the king's seal, which he claims gives him the power to rule. Cersei claims the power belongs to her and her son, the heir to the throne. The room is filled with armed guards, who have to decide whom to follow. What makes the scene so dramatic is that Ned and Cersei have no real power. They have no weapons to wield but words. All their power flows from the people around them who choose to believe they have power.

For some reason, that scene lays bare the illusion of power better than almost anything I've ever read. I think about it all the time, in department meetings at the college where I teach, at campus events when the president of my college gives a speech, even when I watch the President of the United States on TV. It reminds me of something the physicist and author Janna Levin said on a radio show where I used to work, about how her cosmological view of the universe sometimes gives her a strange perspective on our race of primates and the ways we organize ourselves on this tiny planet:

You know, for me, it's so absurd, because it's so small and it's so — this funny thing that this one species is acting out on this tiny planet in this huge, vast cosmos. Of course, I take very seriously our voting process and I'm, you know, very, try to be politically conscious. But sometimes, when I think about it, I have to laugh that we're all just agreeing to respect this agreement that this person has been elected for something. And that is really a totally human construct that we could turn around tomorrow and all choose to behave differently. We're animals that organize in a certain way. So it's not that I completely dismiss it or don't take it seriously, but I think a lot of the things we are acting out are these animalistic things that are consequences of our instincts. And they aren't, in some sense, as meaningful to me as the things that will live on after our species comes and goes.