Karma in Westeros

Note: Major spoilers through to and including the fifth ASoIaF book.

This series is commonly considered to be the archetypical Crapsack World , in which life is short, nasty, and brutal, and hardly anybody “bad” ever gets their just desserts while the innocent suffer.

However, if you really get to thinking about the various deaths and fates of A Song of Ice and Fire – illustrated in morbid elegance for the show by the Beautiful Deaths series – you quickly realize that there such an astounding degree of poetic justice that if anything it is closer to a traditional morality tale than the grimdark nightmare it is so commonly believed to be.


Robert Baratheon is a drunk, fat, stupid pig. He gets killed by a pig. He even appreciates the humor of the situation before he dies.

Viserys suborned everything to his goal of becoming king, becoming cruel and insane in the process. He ended up getting crowned, though not quite in the way he expected to.

Balon Greyjoy dreamed of returning to the old ways, and put those plans in action once the Seven Kingdoms fragmented. He met his Drowned God sooner than he anticipated.

Lysa Arryn, paranoid towards everyone, was murdered by the one person she trusted; and in the same way she had executed dozens of others at the whim of her mentally ill son.

Khal Drogo. A steppe warlord in his prime brought down not by arms or sorcery, but by a common infection of a minor wound.

Joffrey, the Mountain, Vargo Hoat – grade A psychopaths one and all – meet exceedingly sticky, humiliating, and painful deaths.

Eddard Stark. Even this pillar of “white” morality in a sea of “gray” and “black” ultimately fell to karmic blowback. He got executed on a misunderstanding. Where did we see that before? In the prologue, where he disbelieved Gared’s stories and summarily executed him as a deserter. Recall that he did not even attempt to verify his story with the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Both were ultimately undone for being unable to handle a dark secret – and both died by the same blade, Eddard’s Ice.

Tywin. The man who regards guaranteeing the survival and future prosperity of his House as his ultimate goal in life, and lets no ethical concerns get in the way of it, ends up getting murdered by his own son and leaving no clear successor to Casterley Rock. He won many battles, but lost the war of his life – a “war” at which the vast majority of people succeed at without giving it much thought at all.

Even those characters who survive (for now), surprisingly frequently, get appropriate comeuppances.

Tyrion murders Tywin. In the process, he confirms himself as a kinslayer beyond any lingering shadow of a doubt – but it is all the more ironic that it’s quite possible he saved the father he hated so much from a much more agonizing death, if the popular theory that the Red Viper had poisoned him before his duel with The Mountain is correct. In the process, to add to the irony, he “rescued” Tywin from the consequences of his own cruelty and brutality many years ago.

Jorah trafficked in slaves. He becomes a slave. And all because of oneitis.

Theon was in a difficult situation, between a rock and a hard place, an unwilling Third Culture Kid in a world of savage tribal loyalties. But he could have perhaps managed to navigate himself out of it if it were not for his overweening ego and superiority/inferiority complex. His fate is to have his personality, his ego, erased – and at the hands of Ramsay Snow no less, who like Theon is also a self-obsessed “outsider” – if an immeasurably crueler and more malignant one.

Sansa was giddy for a man she didn’t know, overlooking the numerous signs he was a grade A psychopath. Her award was to get to know him entirely too well.

Jaime defined himself, in large part, through his skill with the sword. He lost his right hand – the same hand he had used to push Bran Stark out of a window while a guest at Winterfell. Cersei, among other pathologies, had a ridiculously inflated sense of self. She got paraded naked around King’s Landing.

Jon Snow. As with Ned Stark, this may elicit howls of outrage downvotes, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. He executed Janos Slynt for treason and insubordination. Slynt, of course, was an excessively nasty man, and there were no tears shed for him; in any case, it was an entirely legal and indeed the correct thing to do. But then he wanted to get involved in political squabbles that were, strictly speaking, not of the Night’s Watch business. But too bad for him, the Night’s Watch is an exceedingly strict organization, and unlike his first attempt to return to politics south of the Wall, this time he didn’t limit that involvement just to himself, but invited all who would follow along with him. And for this he got a half dozen daggers in his guts. Of course, we know the caveats, we still sympathize with him… but even here, at some level, what happened to him was not really “unjust.”

At least by what passes for justice in Westeros.

tl;dr: A Song of Ice and Fire is commonly viewed as a deeply cynical series in which heroes die, the innocent suffer, and evil prospers. To the contrary, in a remarkably large number of cases – more, even, than in many much more “optimistic” works – people do get what they “deserve.” Or if not, then at least the principle of “what goes round, comes around,” is frequently demonstrated.

GRRM is a sort of Jigsaw.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Robb Stark also got his comeuppance. He did promise to marry Walder Frey’s daughter and failed to do so. Walder thus had no obligation to fulfill any of his promises to Robb Stark.

  2. Robb Stark also got his comeuppance.

    Yes! I was about to write about him. He violated two oaths in a way. One – explicit – to the Freys about marrying one of their daughters and another – implicit – to sacrifice his own desires for the cause of his house and the men under his command. So he paid for those violations with the violation of the right of hospitality/oath of protection. Just perfect.

    And the Stark banner men died for supporting a rebellion and a usurper (of sorts).

  3. What I have wondered about is that there are no outcries of racism for this show ? The white lands generally only have white people, sure there are some non whites but it is made clear that they are visitors from faraway lands, this is unlike other tv shows that will depict blacks as being natives of old white lands (even in shows like Robin Hood or King Arthur legends). There was once a miscegenation scene of a black man and a slave woman of Denaris, but that ended swiftly in murder. Are the SJW conveniently ignoring the race problem because of all the gratuitous homosexuality thrown in ?

  4. Anatoly Karlin says

    All the SJWs were triggered away by the Sansa rape scene.

  5. The Mountain isn’t dead. Also you’re being too harsh on Ned, why would he think a deserter was telling the truth about mythical monsters? Would you have believed him?

  6. What I have wondered about is that there are no outcries of racism for this show ?

    The show is full of exceptionally horrible white people and white, blue-eyed monsters who come from the frozen north.

    The irony is they look so good doing it the anti-white subtext doesn’t register.

    It’s like Rufus Sewell in “Man in the High Castle.” It doesn’t matter what he does cos he looks so great in the uniform – which is another irony – far-right organisations should always get gay men to design their uniforms.

  7. I think that’s the point: it’s more poetic/literary justice “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” “he who lives by lies will die by lies” etc.

  8. The underscore to that is people subconsciously value breeding potential (at least in terms of physical traits) more than morality – which is sad but logical.

    You could see that effect in the Amanda Knox case.


  9. AnonymousCoward says

    If you read the books, it’s strongly implied that the Westerlings of House Spicer used drugs/magic to puppet Rob into banging his wife-to-be, Jeyne Westerling, while he was wounded and recovering. So, part of the blame is removed from Rob’s shoulders.

    Westerling is a Lannister bannerman house, no less. Yet for some reason, they were kind enough to send their nubile daughter to tend Rob on his sickbed.

    A daughter who survived the Red Wedding, rather than getting bellyknifed, like in the TV show.

    It is fair to say, however that it’s Rob’s fault that he couldn’t make the correct choice between Jeyne’s maidens honor, and his promises to house Frey. He could not admit to himself that he made a mistake, and that this silly honeytrap girl did not own the right to marriage.

  10. I suppose, but that sounds more like a side effect of living in a harsh world, more than poetic justice. U make a fair point tho.

  11. Pseudonymic Handle says

    There was some protest about Daenerys being a white saviour of darker skinned slaves, but that was because her scenes were shot in Morocco. Now her scenes are being shot in Croatia so the slaves are europeans as well.

  12. I don’t see how Eddard Stark’s death a “misunderstanding”. He had made a deal to join the Night Watch in exchange of a pardon, but Joffrey broke it and executed him anyway.

  13. Martin provides just enough poetic justice to string you along, hoping for more.

    The problem with the series is the proliferation of endlessly meandering sub-plots that show no sign of going anywhere.

    E.g.: Just after her father was killed, I couldn’t wait to hear more about Arya Stark & her Direwolf. But, hundreds of pages later, I really couldn’t care less, anymore.

    Martin has an inventive imagination and writes serviceable prose – but there’s no Big Picture, and no narrative discipline.

    Too bad – it started out so promising.

  14. but there’s no Big Picture,

    The big picture is that ice zombies will be battling dragons (and I assume dragon fire wins that one), the rest of the human drama is the very long filler to this main theme.

  15. Yeah, I’m not saying I agree with the thesis but it’s got some legs at least.

  16. It’s a series of literary works, and he has to be entertaining. He’s carved out a big niche writing for people who don’t believe in good guys and bad guys (and hence are too sophisticated or ‘sophisticated’ for Lord of the Rings) but still like to see ‘just desserts’ and swords and magic.

    I just hope he lives long enough to finish the series.

  17. I’m afraid I will not live to see Winds of Winter.

  18. As of 2016, it is just waiting a few years.

  19. “The big picture is that ice zombies will be battling dragons…”

    I fear you may be right.

  20. Yeah, some of the other examples were great. Hadn’t thought of them before.

  21. The moral of the show and books at the time I stopped caring about either seemed to be “if you’re a freak of nature you’ll be okay. Otherwise, prepare to die. The less normal and healthy you are, the safer you’ll be in Westeros.”

  22. In fairness, I stopped reading the dragon bimbo story line much earlier than the rest of the books, so maybe there were some redeeming qualities I missed.

  23. The most deplorable one says

    Wait. You mean George Rape Rape Martin writes thinly disguised morality tales?

  24. Meanwhile I got tired of all the dreary “Trump = Joffrey” comparison memes the Sanders fans made.


  25. Anatoly, you’re above this sort of stuff. Or at least review brothers Strugatsky or something outside of American mass media.
    Иди домой.

  26. OT:

    Recently read your Valley of the Clever article. The IQB study has some direct immigration data but unfortunately it is limited to second generation (separated by one or both parents being foreign born) and “native” (both parents born in Germany, I wonder if they intentionally chose that definition, it seems like third gen. is counted as native in PISA as well but I’m not 100% sure) for each state a plus is that it includes seperate data for different migration backgrounds (Turkey, Soviet Union, Poland, …) for the whole of Germany but it’s second gen. only as well.

    Overall the “natives” in saxony and bavaria seem to score best, the general ranking from the PISA 2009 results doesn’t seem to replicate that well, though (Bremen does pretty good for example). Due to the significant amount of third gen. immigrants in Germany the usefulness of the “native” data seems dubious but i’d still thought I’d bring it to your attention.

    It’s in Chapter 9 of the full report.


  27. The Last Ringbearer! The Russian rewrite of the end of LOTR from the Orcs’ point of view!

  28. Anatoly, you’re above this sort of stuff. Or at least review brothers Strugatsky or something outside of American mass media.

    I hear Game of Thrones is a big hit in Russia.