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Game of Thrones: Swords! Swords! Swords! in “Baelor”

[ 16 ] November 28, 2012 |

Earlier in the quarter, I introduced my students to the anything-that’s-longer-than-it-is-wide mode of psychoanalytic criticism. Not very sophisticated, I know, but it helps explain the historical context of certain rhetorical tropes.* Given that this class is based on Game of Thrones, the discussion inevitably landed on the subject of swords as phallic symbols, and I noted that while there’s nothing necessary or natural about that connection, it is one of long-standing and therefore might have influenced how George R.R. Martin employed them in his narrative. Which the students took to mean “SWORDS EQUAL PENISES,” a not altogether unfortunate development given how the Arya and Needle string undermines conventional gender assumptions. It did, however, make teaching the ninth episode, “Baelor,” a little difficult. The episode opens with Lord Commander Mormont gifting a sword, Longclaw, meant for his son, Jorah Mormont, to Jon Snow. Snow proceeds down the stairs and is immediately accosted by his Wall-fellows:

Game of thrones - baelor00006

Keeping in mind what my students think swords equal, consider the eyeline match in this shot. Not explicit enough? Fine:

Game of thrones - baelor00007

That man seems a little too excited to see Jon’s sword.

Game of thrones - baelor00010

They all seem a little too excited to see Jon’s sword.

Game of thrones - baelor00011

And Jon seems a little too happy at how excited they all are to see his sword. But he obliges:

Game of thrones - baelor00012

If you think I’m being juvenile and sword-blinkered, consider this scene in which a captured Jaime Lannister throws himself before the mercy of Lady Stark:

Game of thrones - baelor00053

Nothing emasculating about that. The same can’t be said for this:

Game of thrones - baelor00054

Even skipping over the scene in which Daenerys demands that the previously de-sworded Jorah Mormount draw his sword for her, it’s clear that this episode is very much about swords. Remember how it ends?

Game of thrones - baelor00104

I mean after Arya considers drawing the symbol of male empowerment she’s appropriated for herself before realizing the inevitable futility of doing so:

Game of thrones - baelor00165

There you go. The point of all this is that anyone analyzing this episode needs to account for its economy of swords: they’re distributed, re-distributed, lost, stolen, and finally wielded by a masked man at a sham of an execution. This execution, by the by, neatly parallels the scene in the first episode in a manner that highlights their differences: in both instances a man is being executed, only in “Baelor” the beheader has become the beheadee, the trial isn’t just, and the Stark child witnessing it is commanded not to look.

So, as I was saying, swords! Swords! Swords! Swords!

*As an example of psychoanalytic criticism, I use an explication of The Castle circa 1950, in which the tall lanky K. and his short round assistants, Artur and Jeremias, are reduced to the walking-talking male genitalia Kafka clearly intended them to be.

Comments (16)

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  1. Stag Party Palin says:

    I understand Victorinox is considering naming their miniature Classic model the “Clit”.

  2. Chet Manly says:

    only in “Baelor” the beheader has become the beheadee, the trial isn’t just, and the Stark child witnessing it is commanded not to look.

    Also, I know this is obvious, but it’s important to remember Ned’s execution confirms for us that Joffrey is unfit to be king because he has no regard for his responsibilities. Ned always wields the blade for executions he’s ordered and sets up the contrast by making a point to teach Bran that a lord has this responsibility under the morality of their society. Joffrey take part in the actual execution, just orders is from a platform far above Ned’s head and watches. He doesn’t even consider something that Ned told us was critical for a good lord at the start of the season.

    • SEK says:

      Absolutely, there’s quite a bit more to that comparison. I was just surface-scratching in that paragraph because this post is based on a lesson-plan designed to create productive confusion. (Short version: I talk about depictions of male empowerment all class, throw them a curve with the image of Arya, toss a slider by showing the two-shots of Joffrey and Cersei prior to Ned’s beheading, then let them try to create a coherent argument out of the mess I just made.)

    • Moreover, Eddard’s point about wielding the blade is that justice is supposed to be filtered through the individual conscience of the ruler – the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword because if he can’t bring himself to do it, then the convicted shouldn’t be killed, even if he’s technically guilty. There in a nutshell is Eddard Stark’s personalized theory of the state – Eddard kneels there because he had put his faith in Robert Baratheon’s character since “all justice flows from the king” in his own words.

      The problem is that he was terribly, terribly wrong, not because Robert Baratheon turned out to be as morally bankrupt as one might think, but because power actually exists in the use of institutions (the Gold Cloaks, the Royal Treasury, the Iron Throne itself) who have a majesty that continually exist even when there is no king. And Eddard Stark refused, until it was too late, to make use of institutional power (Tyrion Lannister does not make the same mistake).

      The other mirroring I’d point to is that poor Will goes to his death speaking the truth in a futile attempt to follow through on his duty to the realm, even when he’d transgressed against it; Eddard goes to his death speaking lies in a successful attempt to protect his family. In both cases, their words go unregarded: Will’s warning is not believed and the North remains ignorant to the true threat on the other side of the Wall, Eddard’s fiction concocted by Cersei and the Small Council is bought by the smallfolk hurling rocks and abuse for all of a few weeks, until the bread stops and they start screaming “King Bastard” at their golden boy.

  3. Julia Grey says:

    Title of student essay:

    “Two Clever By Half”

  4. To run with the Freudian analysis:

    - Joffrey can’t handle his swords. He loses one when Arya throws it away, and then misuses the next one he gets.

    - one of Robb’s key demands is for the return of his ancestral sword, which is ancient and magic and special. The Lannisters who lost their ancestral sword a long time ago can’t buy a new one despite all their wealth, and have other plans.

    - Brienne’s future plot line will be greatly determined by alternate sword-names.

    - Eddard Stark once had to fight the greatest swordsman who ever lived and had to return the man’s sword to his sister, whom Eddard had danced with before the war.

    - in Season 2, Arya’s sword is taken from her as she is plunged into a world of danger. This coincides with a period of taking on false identities. If and when she gets the sword back, and where the sword currently resides all parallel the ambiguous transformation of her identity.

    - one of the greatest civil wars in Westerosi history began when King Aegon the Unworthy gave Aegon the Conqueror’s sword to his warlike bastard son instead of to his bookish legitimate son.

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