The best people to have power are the ones who don’t want it.Kit Harington, actor in HBO’s Game Of Thrones
The fantasy genre, at least in the West, has an uneasy relationship with ‘power’. We don’t have to look further than Tolkien- who has Thorin Oakenshield declare to Bilbo:
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.The Hobbit
Over the course of The Hobbit, the flawed Thorin is forced to conquer greed in unique ways. However, it would be unfair to declare Tolkien to be anti-power: he uses medieval-style monarchies as heroic characters (this is explicit with the Elves, the Dwarves and the race of Men), and I don’t think he wants to tarnish ambition or power in general. While Aragorn isn’t overtly ambitious, Thranduil is yet he is not portrayed as completely evil. Tolkien only believes power is bad when it corrupts. This is why The Ring- the ultimate symbol of power and evil- plays an instrumental role in the character journeys of Frodo, Gollum, Boromir and Bilbo. Therefore, Tolkien doesn’t seek to condemn power in general- he’s more specific. Instead, Tolkien decries the corruptive sort of power that provokes irrational lust.
J.K Rowling’s best selling Harry Potter series has a different notion on power. She is more obvious in her condemnation: not only is power a trait of the mostly wicked house Slytherin, but we see it in Tom Riddle / Voldemort. In the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows– we hear the story of the three brothers. To put it in simple words, we have these three lines:
The one who died for love;
The one who died for power;
And the one who greated death as an old friend.A simplified version of the Three Brothers tale
The reader can connect the dots here. Snape, who had recently been redeemed in the eyes of the reader, is the one who died for love- particularly, his love for Lily Potter. The titular heroic character Harry, after accepting his fate greats death as an old friend. However, Voldemort who is the main villain who has inflicted great suffering on both Snape and Harry, dies due to being power-hungry.
The impression I’m getting from J.K Rowling is that she wants to condemn the concept of power as a whole. This interests me, as Hermione Granger is bright, clever and ambitious. She can be controlling and harsh- look no further than what happened to Marietta Edgecombe, Dolores Umbridge and Rita Skeeter- but she is seen as heroic and brave, a true Gryffindor at heart. Yet you are not wrong if you associate control and harshness with power. Hermione is power-hungry, and I have no problem calling her that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be. Without Hermione’s control streak, she would struggle even more with confidence. Power is a way for her to assert herself in difficult situations, come up with unique situations (Polyjuice Potion, tricky spells, etc) and ultimately, save lives. We see an evil version of power embodied in Voldemort, but we see a weird and flattering picture of power in Hermione Granger.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Hermione’s ruthless streak, her harsh sense of justice and her ability to show off aren’t portrayed as evil. Compared to Voldemort- who is corrupt and every action he commits is tainted by an evil thirst for power. We are told he stole from other children when he was in an orphanage. Whereas a lot of children steal (and most grow out of it and do not steal again), Tom Riddle is different. We, as the readers, believe he steals because he’s greedy. Voldemort’s power-hungry nature is overplayed, whereas with Hermione, it is underplayed.
When it comes to Harry Potter himself, who is awkward as the leader of Dumbledore’s Army, is quite distanced from the notion of power. As Dumbledore puts its, Harry’s understanding of love and friendship sets him apart from Voldemort. It’s almost as if there is an implication that power is the opposite of love. I disagree. The opposite of love is hatred, and the opposite of power is submission. The notable example of love and power fusing is Snape. As a child, he was naturally curious and created deadly potions. He asserts himself in numerous situations, but he has a protective streak. He saves Harry’s life, he is motivated by his love for Lily Potter and goes well out of his way to protect Draco Malfoy.
JK Rowling’s problem with power stems from her belief that it’s connected with hate, or a lack of love. As a reader, I disagree.
Now onto A Song Of Ice And Fire & Game Of Thrones. GRRM, the author, condemns power-hungry characters such as the wicked and scheming Cersei Lannister.
Every man’s a piece to start with, and every maid as well. Even some who think they are players. Cersei, for one. She thinks herself sly, but in truth she is utterly predictable. Her strength rests on her beauty, birth, and riches. Only the first of those is truly her own, and it will soon desert her. I pity her then. She wants power, but has no notion what to do with it when she gets it.Petyr Baelish to Sansa Stark about Cersei Lannister
Littlefinger associates Cersei’s thirst for power as a way to make up for her individual inadequacies. But this doesn’t hold up. Tywin also seeked power, and he didn’t lack power, strength or authority. Likewise, Daenerys Targaryen wants power as a means to an end. For Daenerys, power is the way to liberate slaves, return to her home (Dragonstone) and get justice for her family. Her story isn’t over, yet it’s wrong to paint her wants as evil. Arya and Sansa Stark, throughout the story attempt to right the wrongs in society. From Sansa saving Dontos from Joffrey’s wrath, or Arya seeking justice for Mycah. The only way the Stark sisters can be effective advocates for goodness is through power and leadership. You can’t be a leader without having a form of power. Daenerys can’t be a leader without embracing the fact that she’s powerful.
More importantly, there is nothing wrong with Daenerys being power-hungry, or for the Stark sisters to seek out power in minor situations. There is also nothing wrong with them enjoying the quest for power. Because why wouldn’t they? In their minds, they get to make a difference and life becomes easier. When I think of power-hungry individuals, I see ordinary human beings. The atrocities characters like Tywin and Cersei bring are not just done out of a want for power, but because they disregard human life. It’s certainly possible to want and enjoy power, but still have values. I’m captivated by the Margaery Tyrells of Westeros, because although I may not agree with all of her actions, I don’t think she is a bad person because ambition is not automatically evil. If anything, ambition can be healthy. It gives humanity a reason to aspire for greatness. Some of the greatest works of art were made because of ambition. You can’t make a solid argument that Michelangelo wasn’t driven by ambition. There is nothing wrong with wanting fame or glory. It only ever becomes a problem when people get hurt.
What I find baffling about Harington’s comments about power is a complete disregard for how the world works. We have power systems in place- presidents and citizens, queens and subjects, teachers and students, bosses and employees. If everyone was given the same power, and were told they could never ascend their level, society would collapse. There’s a reason why every person doesn’t spend all day in Parliament, because that would be messy, expensive and impossible. What’s easier is to create a democratic system where people choose who they elect. Yes, politicans have more power over their subjects but the economy doesn’t tank, other industries can thrive, ambition flourishes and their is healthy competition. It’s not perfect, but it’s far superior to the alternative.
To be frank, power underlines every institution we have. And that’s not a bad thing. The argument that being power-hungry will lead to corruption and a decay of the state is unconvincing and not true. Wanting power is nothing to be ashamed of- it’s part of being human. We are naturally competitive creatures, and this is how we operate.
ASOIAF has not finished. But to say that ‘the best people for political positions are those who do not seek power’ is just false. The thirst for power can be terrific motivation. Someone who is power-hungry may be more inclined to educate themselves in history, they tend to be highly motivated and take action when necessary. That’s not bad. Wanting power does not make you a harmful person, or unfit for politics.
In conclusion, power is far from simple. Sure, it’s nice to dream that every good king is there for pure and altruistic reasons. But that’s not the truth. Being a morally good person doesn’t make you a good ruler.
It’s okay to want power.