Game of Bastards

So, the HBO miniseries, “Game of Thrones,” has grown increasingly popular over the last three seasons. The show – a spin-off from a book series, for those who are unfamiliar with it – is a bit like Lord of the Rings, except instead of chasing down the one ring, it’s a story of multiple houses vying for power to be King of the land of Westeros, a mythical island not too dissimilar from England.

I’ll spare you the details of the show as best I can, but at the very least, I’ve come to notice as I watch that it is obsessed with blood relation and kinship. In fact, in the pilot episode, we meet the “bastard” Jon Snow, and a noble-born dwarf named Tyrion Lannaster says to Jon“Let me tell you something, bastard: never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

Since that first episode, I’ve gotten the impression that Tyrion’s words are central to the entire show. That’s because everyone in the show who isn’t a bastard likes criticizing bastards, and everyone else is a bastard or at least has questionable origins. The show seems to obsess over the question of what makes a person legitimate (or not). The characters who acknowledge their bastardy very often play the role of the underdog (pun intended), and though they don’t always come out as winners in the show, you are left with a soft spot for them, especially for Jon Snow, the show’s most notable bastard.

I think I want to give just a little more information just to show how obsessed “Game of Thrones” is with this topic, or rather, just how obsessed fans are who watch the show. Case in point, in the series online wiki, a fan forum which documents characters, towns, and everything you ever wanted to know about the land of Westeros, there is a page dedicated to explaining bastardy. The page explains some of the bastards in the show, and it goes one step further to explain that, in the Westeros mythos, bastards take different names from their biological parents, even if they are acknowledged by their biological family. Thus,

Flowers is the bastard name in the Reach.
Hill is the bastard name for the Westerlands.
Rivers is the bastard name in the Riverlands.
Pyke is the bastard name on the Iron Islands.
Sand is the bastard name of Dorne.
Snow is the surname for bastards north of the Neck, generally referred to as the North.
Stone is the bastard name in the Vale.
Storm is the bastard name in the Stormlands.
Waters is the bastard name of Dragonstone and the Crownlands.

Finally, the wiki page goes on to say that “bastards are born from lust and lies, grow up more swiftly than other children, and their nature is wanton and treacherous,” though I’m not sure the show illustrates this point well, even if characters in the show hold a similar stereotype of bastards. You get the idea.

I think there’s several questions that have been raised for me as I watched the show, but this blog isn’t really about “Game of Thrones.” It’s about what “Game of Thrones” says about our culture, about our own obsession and interest in blood relation. We seem to talk around issues of adoption, blood relationship, and kinship constantly, without ever really offering any sort of meaningful, critical commentary about what all that means to us, and that concerns me. So, I wanted to ask a couple of questions that relate to the show but are ultimately about our own culture. Here goes:

1. Does “Game of Thrones” perpetuate, inadvertently or not, negative stereotypes or a second-class citizenship of “bastards”?

As exemplified by Tyrion’s words above, the show seems to offer a positive message about legitimacy ultimately. And yet, I’m not sure the uncritical mind walks away with that message. You know, if you’re a 14 year-old watching MacGyver in 1990, you aren’t thinking about the fact that dear old Angus, in avoiding gun use, is constantly making a liberal commentary on gun control. You’re just thinking it’s cool that MacGyver blows stuff up. Thus, I worry that a kid (or even a twenty-something) comes to the show, hears the word “bastard,” thinks it’s cool that everybody in the show hates on the idea of illegitimacy and then perpetuates those stereotypes in later conversations with friends.

I suppose you could argue that the show is offering a commentary on a kind of mythical medieval period, so we shouldn’t dwell on what it says about us, but as consumers and the audience at hand, the show is very much about our own society, a society where we – sadly – still look down on those born out-of-wedlock. The difference is that, in the show, it’s blatant: everybody knows who is and isn’t a bastard. It’s connected to your name, so as soon as you say, “I’m so-and-so of the house of Stone,” your bastardy is unveiled. I think that’s an intentional effort to allow the show to make its commentary on kinship, because for our own culture, bastardy is an invisible shame, a slur people use often without knowing who they’re insulting. And, to be fair, insulting someone’s legitimacy isn’t as common as racism or homophobia. So, too, it’s far more subtle and tends to play out more in the way we value or understand the construction of the family or in the way we look down on people who come from “broken homes.” I’ve written extensively about some of the examples of this happening.

2. What are we to do with the term bastard?

Along that line of thought is the issue of the word “bastard” itself. It’s a hateful slur, and in recent years, it’s a slur that’s not always been connected to someone’s legitimacy. To the contrary, it’s a term that’s been used most often to demonstrate when a person is being a jerk. But to someone who has questionable origins, the original connotations of the term don’t go unnoticed. We no longer say to the queer community, “Oh, I meant ‘faggot,’ as if to say he was just being uncool.” Instead, we recognize that term to be off-limits.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the term “bastard.” Some groups, like “Bastard Nation” have picked up the terminology and embraced it the same way “queer” has been embraced and given a positive connotation. This practice of reclaiming language fits squarely in line with Tyrion’s advice to “wear it like armor.” It’s a smart way to empower the powerless.

And yet, I still don’t know whether “bastard” is more like “faggot” or whether it’s more like “queer.”

But I do know that the concept of illegitimacy should have already died out when medieval periods like the one portrayed in Westeros advanced into the modern era. Today, we know that kinship is a social construct. There is no such thing as an “illegitimate” child. That is, there are no longer laws on the books that make a child unlawful, to get to the heart of the definition and etymology of “legitimacy.”  While there may still be illegal acts, like rape, that can bring children into the world, the children themselves no longer have to carry the shame and stigma of their parents actions; although, if they do, it’s because out society thrust that shame upon them, not because they thrust it on themselves.

That is, if indeed bastards “grow up more swiftly than other children, and their nature is wanton and treacherous,” it is because of the way society hammered it over their heads that they were somehow different from, say, children of blood relation. And that is very much a societal construct, one we should have already tossed to the side.

Perhaps that is what makes a show like “Game of Thrones” so compelling. In all its blood, sweat, tears, and sex, it forces the audience to ask what makes us human. And the answer seems to be that our family, regardless of whether we are noble, blood-born, or baseborn (i.e. a bastard) isn’t what makes us human or good or special. Sure, our beginnings can give us advantages and disadvantages, as far as we allow the world to define those, but who we really are is defined by our everyday decisions, and far too few of us figure that out because of the lie we are repeatedly told that we are our parents’ children and nothing more.

That is the difference between carrying your past around like a weight on your shoulders and wearing it like armor.



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