Nietzschean Revenge in Game of Thrones
“If given the opportunity, what do we do to those who hurt the ones we love?” While Lord Petyr Baelish (also known as Littlefinger) posed this question to Sansa in the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones (in the episode titled “Mockingbird”), it’s a perfect summation of the show’s narrative (now in its seventh season), as nearly every character in the story is (or has been) on a quest for vengeance. In a way, Littlefinger’s inquiry is almost a proverb, implicitly defining revenge as a duty. The rhetorical nature of the question (which functions like an Aristotelean syllogism) and the way the question is framed with its opening qualifier leads to one very clear response: we hurt them back.
Revenge is about pain because it’s personal, brutal, heartless, cold, cruel, and, especially for Game of Thrones, patient, as many characters (such as Littlefinger, Varys, Cersei, Daenerys, Ellaria Sand, and Melisandre) have nursed their respective grudge for years. Others, like Sansa and her sister Arya, are new to the game of vengeance, illustrating how the cycle never ends – pain simply circulates from one character to the next as if it were a virus infecting whoever is left alive. And now, as the show propels itself toward the end (working well beyond the George R.R. Martin books it’s based on), each individual narrative thread seems to be weaving together a revenge tapestry, as everything begins to converge into one main story.
For Sansa, the question Littlefinger asked symbolized a sort of awakening (or infection), since at that point in the story Sansa was a fairly passive character who endured a great deal of suffering but who rarely dished it out. She wasn’t a player in the game, she was an observer. Yet, as she continued to suffer in subsequent seasons (most notably when Littlefinger arranged her marriage to Ramsey Snow) she began to see vengeance as a form of power. Indeed, her response to Littlefinger’s question was a revelatory smile, signaling not just her awakening but her acceptance that she would now have to embark on vengeance’s quest. And while it takes her a while to fully join the game, she does achieve a significant victory by the end of the sixth season when she (sort of) kills Ramsey Bolton.
Sansa’s brother Jon had captured Ramsey after a battle in which Jon’s army defeated Ramsey’s army (with Littlefinger’s army’s help). But rather than hold him prisoner, Sansa arranged for Ramsey to be eaten alive by his own dogs. She stands tall as she watches him get viciously mauled, smiling as she walks away to the sound of his screams – trust me, Ramsey deserved it. Ramsey had been responsible for many atrocities to a great many people. For Sansa, Ramsey had raped and abused her (after they’d been married), he’d tortured Theon (who’d been raised with Sansa as if he were a brother), and he’d killed Rickon, who was Sansa’s youngest brother. And, lest we forget, Ramsey’s father (and the Bolton family in general) was largely responsible for killing Sansa’s mother and oldest brother, Robb, back in season three. So, yeah, Ramsey deserved a horrific death.
Emboldened by Ramsey’s demise, Sansa is seen in the seventh season’s premiere, titled “Dragonstone,” asserting herself into strategic conversations, nursing her deep need for vengeance against everyone she thinks betrayed her family, such as the Karstarks and Umbers who supported the Boltons against her brother’s army at the end of the sixth season (and Sansa might also want to punish Littlefinger for arranging her marriage to Ramsey). It isn’t enough that the traitors died on the battlefield. Sansa wants their entire families to pay. While Jon proclaims he doesn’t want to punish sons for the sins of their fathers, Sansa forcefully argues that everyone associated with the Karstark and Umber families should be stripped of their lands, titles, and homes (to be given to people who were loyal to Jon). Indeed, the hint of a smile Sansa periodically flashes in these scenes (mostly with her eyes) resembles the scheming nature of Cersei, who Sansa seems to be channeling (and, for the astute viewer, her entire appearance, demeanor, posture, manner of speech, and dialogue seem to resemble Cersei). As she tells Jon at one point when he observes that she seems to admire Cersei: “I learned a great deal from her” (and it’s the glint in Sansa’s eyes that seems to speak beyond her words).
The lesson seems to be that it’s more practical and satisfying to destroy an enemy than to negotiate with one. It’s certainly the logic Sansa (and many nobles in the North) employ when Jon decides to leave Winterfell (in season seven’s second episode “Stormborn”) to meet Daenerys at Dragonstone Castle. No one trusts Daenerys because she’s from House Targaryen (her father, the former “Mad King,” liked to burn people alive) and no one believes Daenerys is trustworthy enough to strike an alliance (the North needs to borrow her three dragons to kill thousands of zombie White Walkers). What’s significant about Jon’s decision to leave is that he puts Sansa in charge of the North while he’s gone. She’s shocked at his decision (it wasn’t what she expected), yet, again, a faint smile briefly flashes across her face as she glances at Littlefinger (who was lurking in the wings of the hall). Is she smiling because she is now in a position that will help her carry out her revenge?
Sansa’s smile seems to be a family trait, at least between Sansa and her younger sister Arya (because Jon hardly ever smiles). Arya’s revenge quest began the moment she saw her father beheaded. Her immediate reaction was to charge the arena where the public beheading took place, seemingly to kill everyone on stage who’d let her father die. She was stopped by a man named Yoren, who’d promised her father he’d look after her. But, she’s remained committed to killing everyone responsible, making a list of names and reciting it every night before going to sleep, as if it were a prayer. Her need for vengeance has been so strong that she sailed to Braavos (another continent an ocean away) to learn how to become an assassin from the Faceless Men – a group of assassins who literally can change their faces to assume any identity (yes, she learns how to do this).
Like Sansa, Arya’s been a good student. In the opening scene of “Dragonstone,” Arya poisons the wine served to a room full of Freys (the family that killed her mother and brother in season three), killing all fifty-one men in the hall. Lest we forget, she killed Lord Walder Frey’s two favorite sons, cooked them into a pie, and served them to Lord Frey (who had no idea what or who he was eating) before slicing Lord Frey’s throat (in the same way his son had sliced Arya’s mother’s throat) in the final episode of season six. Thus, Arya’s effectively erased the Frey house from the map. Mercifully, she left the women alive as she walked out of the hall (like Sansa), smiling victoriously. As Arya tells one of the Frey girls before she leaves, “When people ask you what happened, tell them the North remembers. Tell them Winter came for House Frey.”
Later in the episode, we see Arya headed for King’s Landing, proclaiming she’s off to kill Cersei, who was crowned Queen of Westeros at the end of season six. However, in “Stormborn,” Arya happens to run into an old friend of hers from season two called Hotpie. He tells her that her brother Jon is now the “King in the North.” She immediately (almost instinctively) decides to head North and go back home. And just like that, her quest is ended.
Of course, it’s a long road home and you never know who she’ll meet. And, given that Sansa is now in charge of Winterfell and the North, both sisters may decide to invade King’s Landing just to kill Cersei. Still, it’s significant that all Arya needed to head North instead of South was the knowledge that some of her family has survived. She’d been under the assumption that no one was left, so the quest was all she had. Now, things have changed and she seems to be realizing the futility of vengeance. Who knows, maybe she’ll counsel Sansa to set aside her need for payback.
So how do we understand all this revenge? Should we pursue vengeance or should we set it aside? Can revenge ever be honorable or do we become less honorable if we choose to pursue it? Perhaps Nietzsche’s observations on two types of revenge can shed some light.
On one hand, revenge is nothing more than a defense, something we do to protect ourselves from being hurt again. As Nietzsche states, “we strike, almost unconsciously, even at inanimate objects (such as machinery in motion) that have hurt us […] we act without any idea of doing injury in return, only with a view to getting away safe and sound.” This makes sense. After all, who doesn’t instinctively protect themselves? And, couldn’t we say that this is what Sansa and Arya have done? Haven’t they pursued (and isn’t Sansa still pursuing) vengeance as a way to ensure not just their personal safety but the safety of those they care about. And, if they are reunited and they decide to kill Cersei, wouldn’t it make safe not just their family, but all the families in the North and the entire realm? (Because Cersei is so evil she killed about a quarter of the population in King’s Landing when she exploded a cache of wildfire at the end of season six just for the opportunity to kill the High Septon.)
Yet, while Nietzsche calls this type of defensive action revenge, he seems to hesitate in doing so. After all, is protecting yourself (or protecting others) really revenge? Sure, you’re striking back, but as Nietzsche points out, it’s more reflexive than planned. You don’t scheme some elaborate plan, you just react (like Arya did the moment her father’s head was severed). In that sense, it’s as much a biological defense mechanism as it is a psychological one – an eye for an eye philosophy sanctioned by nature. So, what about Nietzsche’s second type of revenge?
Nietzsche observes the more typical type of revenge we usually think of as the offensive type, in which we want to not just stop someone from hurting us, we want to hurt them back. Our intention is to inflict (equal, if not greater) pain on this person because we want to get even with them, punish them, and serve justice on them. Certainly, Sansa and Arya fit this definition of revenge, too, perhaps even better than they fit the first one. Sansa and Ramsey is an easy example. For Arya, we could look back to the tenth episode of the fifth season (“Mother’s Mercy”) where Arya viciously kills Ser Meryn Trant (a less than honorable knight who’d done many despicable things, including being partly responsible for Arya’s father’s death). Thus, while Sansa and Arya want to defend and protect those they love, they also seem to want payback.
So, which is better – defensive revenge or offensive revenge? Is there really a difference? Either way leads to reciprocity, doesn’t it? And isn’t that the goal anyway? Or is there something more moral (or perhaps more noble or honorable) in pursing defensive revenge versus offensive revenge? Certainly, defensive revenge allows for a moral excuse, while offensive revenge (especially when taken too far) costs the person seeking revenge their morality, and perhaps even their soul. Did Sansa really need to have Ramsey strapped to a chair, covered in his own blood, so his own dogs would eat him alive? Did Arya really need to gouge out Ser Meryn’s eyes and repeatedly stab him as he lay on the floor whimpering? Did Sansa and Arya really need to smile during these events?
Arya seems to be realizing this effect of revenge in season seven. She may smile as she leaves the Frey’s hall after she’s littered the room with dozens of corpses. But, later on, when she happens upon a small band of Lannister soldiers who offer her food and trade stories of their loved ones back home (strangely, they seem to be the nicest, most decent soldiers in all of Westeros), she seems to question the morality of her quest and the cost she’s had to pay. Certainly, when she realizes she has family alive in Winterfell (thanks to Hotpie), she sees the vainness of journeying to King’s Landing to do murder. As bad as Arya may want Cersei dead, she wants to be home with family more. Where it seemed honorable to pursue revenge (because she’d come to believe she’d lost everyone in her family), knowing that family is alive seems to negate her quest.
As Nietzsche notes, “losses are not recovered by revenge.” For Nietzsche, the only thing revenge can restore is honor – and he seems to suggest that revenge for honor is the only kind worth pursuing (defensively or offensively). Even though her father was stripped of his honor when he was killed (because he was branded a traitor to justify his death) it’s never seemed like Arya has been fighting and killing to restore his or anyone else’s honor. If she was, as Nietzsche might argue, then she’d seek revenge in the open, so everyone in society could see the punishment and the restoration of honor.
Instead, Arya’s killed mostly in secret – because not many people know she’s alive and because that’s what she’s learned to do. Sansa, on the other hand, is entirely focused on honor. It’s why she protests about the Karstark and Umber families to Jon. And since her challenge is made in the open, as Nietzsche would observe, Sansa’s goal is honorable – even her execution of Ramsey was out in the open. So, where both sisters are vicious in their thirst for revenge, only Sansa would be considered honorable in a Nietzschean sense (sorry, Arya fans).
Perhaps, since Arya has abandoned her quest, she’s on the road to restoring her honor, at least for herself. Indeed, Game of Thrones seems to ask: at what point does vengeance end? When is it okay to return to a normal life among family and friends? And, is the pursuit of revenge worth sacrificing your soul?
It’s a credit to Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin (and the creators of HBO’s adaptation), that every character exists on the page and on the screen as decidedly human. There’s no “black” villain and there’s no “white” hero, there are just very flawed and very grey people who make mistakes, who act out of anger, who try to forgive, and who nurse grudges until it drives them mad or until they’re reminded of what they truly love and where they truly want to be.
When it comes to revenge, perhaps our greyness darkens a bit – and perhaps we all answer Littlefinger’s question the same way because we believe our cause is just. If so, what’s left of Game of Thrones in its final episodes is going to be brutal and if there is a winner (which means there will be many losers) it will be interesting to see who finally gets their revenge or who lets it go.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
“Dragonstone.” Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 1. HBO.
“Mockingbird.” Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 7. HBO.
“Mother’s Mercy.” Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 10. HBO.
“Stormborn.” Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 1. HBO.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “33: Elements of Revenge” Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits – Part II: The Wanderer and His Shadow. Trans. Paul V. Cohn. MacMillan Company, 1913. Gutenberg.org.