Liberal heroes in pop culture Part 1: Jon Snow from Game of Thrones

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of light-hearted pieces that we will publish over the summer. Please do nominate further entries in the comments. Part 2 is here.

It is fair to say that the brutal, feudal polity of Westeros, featured in Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R. R. Martin, beset as it is by civil war, turmoil and hardship, is not generally a hotbed of liberal thought and action. In fact, it’s hard to think of a less likely environment in which the tradition of Mill, Gladstone and Beveridge could bloom. However, like a flower growing out of the ice, there is one man in the Seven Kingdoms who could be said to be a consistent, striving liberal, in spirit and in deed. I refer to the brooding 998th Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow.

Jon Snow shows us how a character with a liberal spirit deals with immigration, reform of institutions, and issues of larger social integration. Despite many stresses and temptations, he fails to fall back on easy pettiness and fear, which has prolonged the conflict between both sides of humanity for millennia. Instead, he uses his personal admiration and compassion for both sides to break down barriers, to marshall and combine disparate forces, and to prepare his people for the inevitably-encroaching tide of White Walkers. For White Walkers, essentially insert Climate Change, world hunger, nuclear proliferation, or any existential threat to us you care to imagine. He is also one of the few characters in Westeros elected to his position, and his awareness of this responsibility is part of his virtue.

He does this by humanising the ‘enemy’ Wildlings, who for centuries have been scraping an existence behind The Wall, an 800ft barrier of ice. Through his comradeship with Tormund Giantsbane, his grudging respect for Mance Rayder, and his love for Ygritte, he comes to know them as people. In his self-formative love for the latter, and the violation of his oath of service it represents, he also learns to distinguish between important rules and needlessly draconian traditions, which is a useful rite of passage for any liberal. Jon, who has been raised as part-noble, part-outcast, has combined his father’s wise tutelage regarding social duty with a reformist curiosity, conviction, and the inability to let a broken system endure, if he can see a better way.

Jon Snow is constantly shown to use his intelligence, understanding and generosity of spirit to guide his actions as he negotiates the bitter nexus of hatred between the conservative, suspicious Old Guard of the Night’s Watch, and the often-bloodthirsty resentment of the long-excluded Wildlings who muster behind the Wall. He does this by fostering co-operation, trust and pragmatic self-interest together, to strengthen the Night’s Watch and the Wildling cause alike. He also pays his official dues to the austere, demanding Stannis Baratheon, acknowledging political realities, but without losing the distinctive ‘neutrality’ of the Night’s Watch. Which, as recent electoral events in our world have shown, is easier said than done.

He also practices meritocratic ideals. He promotes men raised as peasants to positions of responsibility unheard of in the rest of Westeros. He rewards a political enemy with his Deputyship, after a potentially divisive leadership election. And he grooms one of his squires to a position of influence, although, or even because, the boy has unknowingly caused him great personal pain, through wrathful action, and Jon still sees something worth saving. (In the books, the roughly-equivalent character is what we would in our world call ‘LGBT’, and Jon disregards this utterly in assessing his efficacy, despite the sneers and jibes of others.)

The young Lord Commander is one of the few people in Westeros who realises that needless division and bloodshed, as well as tribalism robbed of its protective purpose, is at best “a sword without a hilt”. Jon chooses the liberal path, like another famous namesake politician, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” And in doing so, he fights every day for the chance for humanity to survive and enrich itself. Of course, as fans will know, this cannot be said to go perfectly at all times for Jon (warning: understatement) and he certainly makes mistakes. But in his actions, for the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings and the wider world, he has lit a beacon of hope, which shines like wildfire. If change is to come to Westeros, it will come through the actions of individuals like Jon Snow, and hopefully quickly. For the Night is Dark, and Full of (illiberal) Terrors…..

* David Faggiani is a young-ish Liberal living in London, ex-smoker and co-founder of 'Game of Seats' political discussion group on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • David, I lke the fact that you write articles in LDV which fall outside the usual, well-worn ruts of political discussion.

    This latest article just reminds me how old I am. My only knowledge of Game of Thrones is that one of the characters is played by Wilko Johnson of that great band Dr Feelgood.

    I have just mentioned Dr Feelgood to my daughter (aged 22) who knows all about Game of Thrones but had no clue who Dr Feelgood were.

  • David Faggiani 30th Jul '15 - 10:48am

    Yes, John, he plays a very sinister, non-speaking executioner called Illyn Payne! He’s very effective in the role. Unfortunately, he had to take a leave of absence due to his illness, and so hasn’t been in the show since Season 2, I believe.

    Do you have any fictional Liberal pop-culture (or literary) heroes that you’re particularly fond of? We had some great discussions in the pub about this last night!

  • Stephen Campbell 30th Jul '15 - 11:35am

    Jon Snow? Pfft.

    He knows nothing.

    (for the non GoT fans:

  • Richard Underhill 30th Jul '15 - 12:13pm
  • John Tilley 30th Jul '15 - 2:15pm

    I saw the film ‘To kill a mocking bird” before I read the book (and fifty years before this year’s version was published).

    Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck is one of the great Liberal Heroes from fiction.

  • Jayne Mansfield 30th Jul '15 - 9:08pm

    @ John Tilley,
    Atticus Finch was nothing of the sort. He ( or his character in the film) took us all in. We missed the cues.

    Any child named Atticus by their Liberal parents will probably be trying to change their name by deed poll.

  • well, the problem with Game of Thrones is that any character who does the slightest bit of good or has any appealing characteristics either gets killed off in short order or sent into exile never to be seen again. So you don’t really want to be a Liberal character in that story!

    Game of Thrones is like one of those mathematical series where in each timestep you move half the existing distance towards your goal, so I suppose it is a decent analogy for the our journey towards having a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister..

    I am speaking of the books of course… Not having Sky Atlantic I have not seen the tv series…

  • rita giannini 31st Jul '15 - 10:53am

    And winter is coming……..
    great article for a fan of fantasy like me!
    I nominate Belgarath the sorcerer (David Eddings, the Belgariad)

  • Jayne Mansfield 30th Jul ’15 – 9:08pm

    Jayne – can I ask you to explain? Are you basing that comment on the 2015 version of the story, just published?

  • Mike Falchikov 31st Jul '15 - 6:33pm

    Maybe we did “miss the cues” concerning Atticus Finch, but I still admire him in the film. However, we can truly admire the actor who played him – Gregory Peck. He was a lifelong Democrat (and on the liberal wing of the party) who voiced his objection to the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and made many contributions to campaigns for human rights.
    He w as also a vocal opponent of weapons of mass destruction and declared his support for much stronger gun control in the USA. In fact he seems to me to tick pretty much every liberal box. He turned down an invitation to stand for the Senate, but President Lyndon Johnson had him in mind for Ambassador to Ireland had he contested (and won) the 1968 election.
    As a mark of his liberal credentials, he was on Richard Nixon’s blacklist – enough said!

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Jul '15 - 7:58pm

    @ John Tilley,
    The late law professor Monroe Freedman deconstructed the character of Atticus Finch. Available on the internet there is for example ‘Atticus Finch -Right and Wrong’, or, ‘These scholars have been pointing out Atticus Finches racism for years’. A Sunday book review ” Harper Lee’s ‘Go set a watchman “, suggests that Monroe’s deconstruction may be correct.

    It’s all a bit of a blow to those of us who uncritically found the character inspirational.

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Jul '15 - 8:01pm

    @ Mike Falchicov,
    I agree about Gregory Peck the man.

  • John Tilley 31st Jul '15 - 8:19pm

    Jayne Mansfield, thanks for your response. I think I will stick to my ignorance and continue to admire the hero as portrayed by Gregory Peck.
    I will not be reading this year’s version of the book ( I have only ever watched the first version of Blade Runner). 🙂

    I was probably about 15 when I first saw the film To Kill A Mocking Bird and nothing can take away my admiration for Atticus Finch.
    He was after all, the lawyer who took up the impossible case against his own interests, saw off a lynch mob, refused to routinely carry a weapon despite his skill with a rifle, was supportive of the Radleys and took serIously his role as a parent.
    Mike Falchikov also makes the point very well that Gregory Peck was himself an admirable character in real life.

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Jul '15 - 8:41pm

    @ John Tilley,
    I can understand your decision.

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