George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, alongside HBO’s television version “Game of Thrones” that returned for season five April 12, stands out as being one of the few fantasy series aimed squarely at an adult demographic. The violence and sex alone guarantee that. Some have gone so far as to say the show is inherently immoral, and strikes out on the transcendental virtues—the good, true, and beautiful.
Yet despite the numerous shades of moral gray and sexual gratuity, the show also stands out for being able to unite fans squarely behind certain characters, and squarely against others. And how those fans align tells us something about the inherent sense of right and wrong even our post-sexual revolution culture attaches to sex.
The main sympathetic characters of “Game of Thrones” could be seen as pillars of old-school, Victorian-style virtue. Unlike the good guys in popular shows like “Justified,” the Stark family illustrates conservative family values.
The Starks’ Conservative Family Values
For example, the head of the family, Ned Stark, acknowledges his bastard son, treating him as his own. While this causes tension with his wife, who understandably resents the constant reminder of Ned’s unfaithfulness, Ned neither dismisses nor glorifies his past failings. Ned both loves and protects Jon Snow, treating him as one of the family.
Jon Snow learns the lessons his father teaches, resolving to hold himself to a higher standard of honor. In the both the books and the show, he explains that he won’t sleep with anyone, because he does not want to bring any more bastards into the world. When he does end up in a sexual relationship with a girl, it is because he must maintain an undercover identity. And both the books and the show still portray him as guilty about it, every single time.
Robb Stark, Ned’s eldest son, responds to the world with a similar moral compass. In the books, Robb suffers wounds on the battlefield and the daughter of a minor nobleman nurses him back to health. One thing apparently leads to another, and he sleeps with her. Because of this, he insists on breaking his agreement with Lord Frey, who had given his aid with the expectation that Robb would marry one of his daughters.
Robb values the honor of the girl he slept with more than his own respectability, or the utility of keeping Frey happy. He could have pretended it hadn’t happened and gone on with his war. He didn’t. In the television series, Robb has an affair and falls in love with a character original to the show, despite his promised marriage arrangements. While not as noble as the book’s character, HBO’s Robb still only sleeps with the woman he marries.
‘Game of Thrones’ Antagonists Manipulate Others with Sex
This is in (stark?) contrast to Theon Greyjoy, a boy fostered with the Starks. Theon is probably one of those most treacherous characters of the story. The television show displays pronounced differences between Theon and Ned’s sons from the outset. One of the first scenes with just Jon, Robb, and Theon involves Theon throwing out sexual banter that Jon and Robb completely ignore. Theon frequently visits prostitutes, and when he is journeying back to his homeland by ship, he takes the captain’s daughter to sexually entertain him throughout the voyage, fully planning on never seeing her again despite her plea that he might keep her as a mistress.
Greyjoy’s actions resemble what we see in the series’ antagonist family, the Lannisters. Jamie and Cersei Lannister, twins, have been involved in an incestuous, adulterous relationship for years. While Jamie is completely faithful to his lover, he’s apparently not bothered that she commits adultery every time she is with him…until it becomes obvious that she is no more faithful to him than she is to her husband.
Cersei, on the other hand, is happy to use sex for either political gain or simply for her own irresponsible pleasures. (There is no political gain in sleeping with her younger cousin, Lancel). Cersei’s son Joffrey, while not as fond of his family members, proves himself perhaps even more sadistic in his preference for violence and sex. And Cersei indulges him in this, saying to his face that if he wants noble virgins or prostitutes, that’s fine, since he’ll be king, and just needs an heir.
It is unthinkable that Ned Stark or his wife would ever have that conversation with any of their children. Even Lord Tywin, the outwardly austere head of the family, has a weakness for the pleasures of the flesh. He, too, is found with a prostitute in his bed, which causes his death.
Chastity Is Still Associated with Nobility
Which brings us to Tyrion, who is as much of a contrast to the rest of his family as Theon is to the Starks. As a teenager, Tyrion follows up his first sexual encounter by marrying the girl, although it ends up being a very short-lived marriage, thanks to his father. True, the television show introduces Tyrion as a lecherous man. But as Tyrion grows more distanced from his decadent family, he becomes more and more honorable in his sexual dealings. When forced to marry Sansa Stark against both their wills, he refuses to force her to consummate the marriage.
The notable contrast between the sexual dealings of the good guys and bad guys tells us a lot about our own culture and sex. It shows that, despite the sexual revolution, we can’t help but intrinsically associate chastity and nobility. Those who have casual or manipulative sex fall firmly into the black hat camp, and redemption accompanies a move back toward traditional sexual virtue.
This isn’t because George R.R. Martin is a closet conservative. Rather, the book and show demonstrate a deeper moral fiber, one that acknowledges the intrinsic human worth in every person, no matter his or her station, and sees a value in honesty and keeping one’s vows. “Game of Thrones” shows that audiences cannot help but have some respect for the sexual act as an important, potent thing, rather than something unremarkable and cheap. Despite how frequently “Game of Thrones” portrays sex, it cannot fail to demonstrate its moral significance for a character’s integrity.