Von Stefan Sasse
Ich habe den folgenden Artikel eigentlich für den "Tower of the Hand" geschrieben. Während der Arbeit an etwas, das ursprünglich eher ein typisches Geek-Projekt war, wurde mir immer mehr bewusst, welche Implikationen das Konzept von "Ehre" eigentlich auch auf unsere heutige Welt hat. Wer sich vor dem Hintergrund einer fiktiven Welt damit befassen kann, wird, so denke ich, einige interessante Schlüsse daraus ziehen können. Wem das nicht ernsthaft genug ist, der möge von einer Lektüre einfach absehen. Genug geredet, in medias res:
If there is one thing constituting the Westerosi society, it’s the generally adhered concept of honor. Engulfing the world into a tight torso of rules, people falling short of keeping up with the things expected of them are held in disdain, while people living up to its principles are regarded as paragons of virtue, at least officially. But what exactly constitutes honor in Westeros, how does one gain it, and how does one lose it? And, most importantly: how much is it worth?
The first important thing to understand about the concept of honor is that it serves as an instrument of separating classes. Only nobles have honor and can lose or defend it, commoners can’t. A common man cannot commit an unhonorable act, quite simply because he isn’t attributed any honor he could lose. Since one can only be judged by one’s peers or superiors, attributing honor to a commoner, if only to judge his failings to live up to the creed, would make him an equal – which is an unthinkable possibility. As a class preserving concept, honor keeps even the lowliest knight above the richest merchant. If said merchant could buy the whole of King’s Landing, erase the Red Keep and build a new Harrenhal on top of Aegon’s High Hill, it wouldn’t matter – he still couldn’t challenge a hedge knight to a duel, simply because he’s unable of possessing honor.
The only possibility for a commoner to gain at least some honor is to join an order attributed with it. The Night’s Watch, the Maesters of the Citadel or the Faith are such orders. Commoners joining their ranks don’t gain honor in a sense that they are now equals to nobles, but their institutions as a whole are attributed with a sort of honor. Since it is not bound to the individual or house, like in the sphere of noblemen and noblewomen, they don’t enjoy the elevated status that goes with it. They are, however, attributed with something else – a sense of institutional reverence, a rank not inherent to them or their family but the institution. Yoren, for example, receives most basic honors as a member of the Night’s Watch. It is not much, but he is definitely held in higher regard than your average swineherd. A First Ranger, or the High Septon, are treated at least as lesser lords – but it is an honor not inheritable, and while the individuals can bring some of their personal honor with them, it remains attributed to the institution and is dependent on the standing of the institution as a whole. It doesn’t matter that Benjen is a Stark, for example – the decline of the Watch has made the First Ranger a lesser honor than it was in the days of Jahaerys, where a Snow holding the post might have been held in higher regard than Benjen now.
This doesn’t imply by any means that individuals attributed with honor are regarded as equals. There are many and more distinctions within the thin class of nobility, the most visible marked by gender. It is impossible to challenge a noble woman who insulted you to a duel to wipe out the smear on your personal honor, and a noble woman couldn’t defend her honor against a noble perpetrator. A woman’s honor and a man’s honor work differently, and they are not subject to class. The rules apply for Davos Seaworth’s homely wife as well as for Cersei Lannister, at least in theory. A woman’s honor stems from two sources: her own personality and her husband. Regarding herself, a noble woman needs to be dutiful and true to her husband. If she fails in these, she loses honor, and her husband is smeared in the process, which most likely results in retribution against the now unprotected woman.
The other part of her honor derives from her husband and his house. Since a woman is unarmed, she can’t defend herself, relying utterly on her husband’s capacity in that regard. Should her husband fail in his duties and lose his own honor, his wife will lose honor as well, although she might be innocent in the matter. A gambling husband, for example, who loses his lands in a dicing game would certainly reduce the honor of his now homeless wife as well. A wife giving her husband horns and more or less openly committing adultery would in turn diminish his honor. This explains why marriage is often a very tight and rather unpleasant business for both partners involved, forcing them into a tight net of reciprocal dependence on the well behavior. It is a game rigged in favor of the man, of course. If he commits adultery, his own honor remains largely intact, while his wife’s suffers, while in the opposite attempt both of them lose it, but the wife to a greater extent. The dependency of women on the behavior of men to maintain the honor so important to their station is one of the pillars of Westerosi society and keeping the women firmly in place.
On the other hand, a woman’s honor is seldom a complicated issue. The only opportunity to really fall short is adultery or a bad marriage (with a man below their station, like in Genna Lannister’s case, for example). Most of it rests in the hands of the male superior, be it the father or the husband. Their dependency on female well behavior usually leads to a tight and rather unpleasant handling of their women, until such time as they are able to form a more lasting, trustful relationship (like Eddard and Catelyn) or the women find loopholes to exploit (like Genna and Cersei Lannister). In the world of men, the issue of honor is more complex, and uglier besides.
Their honor is also divided into two parts. On the one hand, their personal honor, defended on the battlefield and in tourneys, on the other hand the honor of their house. The latter can easily be compared to the situation of women and their husbands: the actions of the individual noble can reflect poorly on the honor of the house (Tytos Lannister and Jaime Lannister are prime examples for this), while the honor of the house can lend credibility and honor to the wearer, who might not actually deserve it (Lysa and Robert Arryn, for example). The house’s honor determines the initial reactions to an individual that has not yet a reputation of his own, which is true for most nobles in Westeros, who never receive honors surpassing their houses. In most cases, this happens for people climbing the social ladder, like Barristan Selmy or Petyr Baelish, who individually accumulated more honor than their respective houses and are better known. Mace Tyrell, on the other hand, never succeeds in stepping out of his house’s shadow, trying as much as he likes.
The other part of a man’s honor stems from the various responsibilities as a male noble in Westeros. The most important of these is the protection of the weak, especially his wife and kids. A man who can’t protect his family is no man, and a noble has to care for his extended family too – this is the reason why Robb Stark can’t just leave Winterfell occupied until the hostilities are done. The second thing important to honor is keeping your word, staying true to your oaths. An oathbreaker oftentimes gains an unsavory reputation and is shunned for the rest of his days. For most nobles (except for the king), obedience to your betters is also part of your honor. If your liege lord gives you an order, it is to be executed faithfully, since the liege relies on you, and failing him spoils him as much as it does the offending noble. The last thing important to honor is keeping up the traditions, be it religion and faith or be it custom, chief among the latter the guest right.
Of course, all this is just the theory. We know from various examples that not every noble in Westeros who violates these principles gets punished for it. The realpolitiks of Westeros oftentimes can prevent much of the windfall. Take Jaime Lannister, for example. By rights he should have been punished for breaking his oath to Aerys and the gods, since he violated both the kingsguard’s oath and the knight’s. The need for an alliance with Casterly Rock led Robert Baratheon to pardon him and keep him in the kingsguard, and in the Westerlands Jaime has a good reputation. No one would speak openly of the “Kingslayer” here, since the consequences in defying the honor of house Lannister could be dire.
That being said, why is it so important for Westerosi nobles to keep honor? Why not fall into a more convenient system that doesn’t strap one into a rigid system or mores and traditions, tying you to the deeds of your ancestors in good and bad? The answer is the convenience of the system itself for measuring people in a reasonable amount of time and effort. If you encounter someone you didn’t know before, you have no means of finding out about his deeds, failures and character before you have to make your decision. Knowing, however, that Freys are untrustworthy might help you to deal with them, regardless of the individual noble in question. And a noble will normally try to stay within what’s expected of him – a Stark noble would not behave unhonorably for fear it will fall back onto his house. This fear ensures that most of the time, people stick to the reputation and honor their house has earned. To gain your own honor in a way that is different from your house is a difficult thing, and most never accomplish it, nor do they try. It would be a depressing experience, anyway.
So, now, where is the problem with all of this? As I mentioned before, honor serves as the most powerful enforcer of social boundaries. As long as the concept of honor is upheld, so are the classes and gender issues. In modern times, nothing has brought down social class barriers as much as the development of a popular culture, being the same for everyone instead of a reserved thing ofnthe upper classes, and nothing is still more hindering the emancipation of women then the remaining ideas of "chivalry", like holding doors open or walking at the dangerous side of the road, implying that women need to be protected. This way, honor in Westeros is the most effective opponent for social change. Now one could argue that while this is true, honor also brings certain values with it - honoring women and protecting them surely can't be bad, right? Of course not. But the real problem for Westeros is not really that honor is blocking social progress.
The problem is that the Westerosi honor system is deeply flawed and broken. It sets wrong incentives and sanctions prudent and civic behavior, while it rewards unnecessary acts of brutality and does nothing to prevent bad things that happen without the narrow lines of the codified honor system itself. There is one prime example for most of the points to be made: Jaime Lannister. He is presented to us in "A Game of Thrones" as the prime example of a man without honor, and he is. He throws Bran out of the window and fucks his sister, after all. But he is also the man to singlehandedly save King's Landing, and he never talks about it. He never talks about it because the cement holding Westerosi society together - honor - would not permit his actions. He knows this, because he experienced the failures of honor all too plainly himself, when he was forced to listen to Aerys' abuses of his wife with his Lord Commander, one of the men perceived to possess the most honor in Westeros, even by decent men like Eddard Stark.
Jaime Lannister became the man he is at the beginning of “A Game of Thrones” precisely because of the honor system. He killed a king who was despised by all, regarded not only as a bad ruler but as a criminal on the throne, one to commit atrocities against women, children and innocents alike. But instead of getting applauded for killing him before he could kill more people in a desperate last stand or anything like this, Jaime is despised because he vowed to protect him. The invented yet brilliant exchange between him and Eddard in the TV series makes this clear: “Tell me, Lord Eddard – would you despite me less if I had stabbed him in the chest instead of the back?” asks Jaime, not really expecting an answer, and not getting one. Nobody is against killing Aerys. They just hoped that someone like Clegane would do it, so the honor system can stay intact. This is nothing to be applauded, it’s pure hypocrisy. Jaime felt this, instinctively, and never told anyone about the wildfire. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because the noble society of Westeros regards their honor code as more important than the lives of thousands in the city.
It’s Aerys’ Seven that really serve as posterboys for everything that is wrong about the Westerosi honor code. They are revered as the most honorable knights of their generation, paragons of virtue and valor. While their prowess with sword, shield, mace and axe stands undisputed, it’s actually their total indifference to morality and their clinging to “honor” that really alienates Jaime Lannister from them, who sees them and their honor for what they are but who is both character wise and intellectually not up to the task to set anything against it. The result is him becoming the man who he is, a man with neither honor nor moral (which only changes with the loss of his hand) after the reaction of the people of his killing Aerys. Jaime must have thought about honor and the kingsguard time and time again. It’s Gerold Hightower, after all, whom he brings forth as his crown witness, describing the moment when he wanted to save the queen from her abusive husband, and was held back by Hightower who placed a narrow vision of his vow over the wellbeing of people.
There are many more examples for this over the course of the book. Randyll Tarly surely is an honorable man by Westerosi standards, but the treatment he gives Brienne is so ugly one wants to scream. Stannis has honor, but the consequences of him pursuing it are gruesome. Meryn Trant obeys the king, as honor demands, and strikes an eleven-year-old girl. The list continues. The whole problem with honor is its total lack of moral backing behind the system. While there are several people who try to reconcile both worlds, they fail, and they must: “So many vows, they make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King. Obey your father. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. What if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.” (Jaime Lannister in “A Man without Honor”) Jaime got the point, and no solution. The honor code of Westeros does not give any guidelines what to do in conflicting situations, pretending there aren’t any. In reality, it leads to conflicts being solved by power. You obey the king instead to protect the innocent because it’s easier, and you will be applauded for it, because the king has the higher social stand and therefore more honor than the innocent, beaten girl.
The points made here have their importance even today. “Honor” is still a code that has some meaning, especially to members of the armed forces, and for them it’s as difficult to differentiate as it was for the knights of old. What if you get an order that is clearly wrong, but are honor bound to obey, since you swore an oath? Today, we accept higher standards as guiding principles, in a way that was not true for feudal societies like Westeros. In both worlds, however, one dictum stands: Honor is the coward’s substitute for morality. Hiding behind honor is, quite simply, the easy way out. You don’t need to think (as Barristan Selmy himself points out in ADWD), and thinking is exhausting. You don’t need to risk anything, because you just follow orders. You don’t have to reflect on your actions, because no one does. The outrages that we as readers witness in the world of Westeros stem from the non-existence of morality in the society. The nature of this society can be seen in the faces of those who reject its honor code: Sandor Clegane and Jaime Lannister both saw behind the veil of honor and witnessed the ugliness beneath, and neither remained, quite literally, unscarred by the experience. It may just be that the greatest gift that Daenerys can bring to Westeros are not Fire and Blood, but an end to this hideous honor system poisoning Westeros for so long.