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Friday, June 27, 2014

Vengeance v. Justice

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately in the context of A Song of Ice and Fire. If you’ve read this blog or the book, it will hardly surprise you to learn that my favorite character from that series is Arya Stark. She gets lots of criticism from other fans, and I wanted to set out my thinking about two issues in particular: when, if ever, vengeance might be justified; and what weapons and/or tactics are “proper” for Arya to use. I’ll talk about both using BtVS as a comparison, and I’ll assume readers are familiar with both series. Major spoilers for BtVS S1-5 and the first 5 books (not the series) of ASOIAF follow.

The issue of vengeance comes up many times in BtVS. The most obvious is in Innocence, where Uncle Enyos tells Jenny, “It is not justice we serve. It is vengeance.” In context, that pretty much establishes Joss’ attitude towards vengeance for the series. BtVS never justifies vengeance, even in pretty sympathetic circumstances: the gypsies cursing Angelus after he killed the gypsy girl; Giles attacking Angelus after Jenny’s murder; Hus seeking to avenge his tribe; Willow attacking Glory. The gypsy curse backfires spectacularly, harming innocents, when Buffy has sex with Angel. Giles nearly gets himself killed, surviving only because Buffy rescues him. Those who wronged Hus are long dead and he ends up trying to kill relative innocents. Willow’s attack on Glory might easily be described as suicidal; again Buffy comes to the rescue, but in consequence Glory discovers that Dawn is the Key. I won’t even mention Anyanka or some other examples from S6-7.

As I’ve pointed out in my episode essays, vengeance can’t be justified, not merely within the confines of the show, but in a civilized society in general. Here’s the way I phrased it in the post on Lies My Parents Told Me (no spoilers for S7):

“Probably the most fundamental principle of our legal system is expressed in an old maxim: ‘No man may be a judge in his own case.’ This maxim not only establishes the most basic principle of due process, it also serves as the foundation for the Lockean political philosophy which supports the entire American system. Here’s James Madison explaining the point in Federalist 10: ‘No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.’

There are both historical and psychological reasons why we adopt this principle. Historically, primitive legal systems operated under a vengeance principle. This was widely seen as a failure, leading to cycles of blood. It was precisely to get away from vengeance cycles that the legal system adopted the maxim I quoted. The avenger takes it upon himself to judge his own case and enforce that judgment. This undercuts the foundation of justice as we recognize it.

I personally doubt that vengeance is ever justified. I can see reasons for punishment. I can't justify vengeance – it’s an endless cycle of hatred and violence. That’s the point of the quote from Melville which heads this chapter [‘for when in anybody was revenge in its exactions ought but an inordinate usurer.’].

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it myself in some case. I might well react like Giles in Passion or Willow in Tough Love, given the right circumstances:

SPIKE: You - so you're saying that a ... powerful and mightily pissed-off witch ... was plannin' on going and spillin' herself a few pints of god blood until you, what, "explained"?
BUFFY: You think she'd ... no. I told Willow it would be like suicide.
SPIKE: I'd do it.
SPIKE: (looks down at the ground) Right person. Person I loved. (looks at Buffy) I'd do it.

So I fully understand the motivation. What I’m saying is that from a societal point of view, vengeance is unacceptable. That’s also been the view of the show since at least Innocence: ‘It is not justice we serve, it is vengeance.’ That’s the contrast, all right.”

While this remains true for most societies today, it’s my view that Westeros should be treated as one of those pre-modern societies in which vengeance is common. In that particular setting, my view is that Arya is justified in her vengeance quest and that she’s also justified in the way she’s going about it. Given the strong way I phrased the contrary view in the post on Lies My Parents Told Me, that leaves me with a lot of explaining to do, so I’d better get to it.

I’ll start with the assumption that Arya has cause to seek justice. I seriously doubt that anyone who’s read ASOIAF would disagree; indeed, I suspect most would agree that she has better cause than anyone else in that series, though it’s possible that her sister, Sansa, has an equal claim. The first hurdle, then, is to show that she has no avenue by which to obtain justice (at least not that we know of in the series to date).

The world of Westeros is not our modern world. At the best of times, just as in Europe in the Middle Ages, justice would be difficult to obtain and Westeros residents recognize private vengeance as both common and accepted. It’s even considered “honorable” in certain circumstances such as duels, a point I’ll discuss more below. This makes Westeros a less-than-ideal society, but I’m discussing it within the rules of that mythos.

But Arya’s in a much worse situation than even the “usual” wronged person in Westeros. One of the “small folk” might appeal to his or her lord for justice. A lord might appeal to the King. A lord might even rebel against the King, as Robert Baratheon did when he felt Rhaegar Targaryen had taken his bride-to-be. That lord could be joined by others, such as Ned Stark, whose father and brother were unjustly killed by the mad King Aerys. All of these are forms of justice, but Arya can avail herself of none.

Arya’s fundamental problem is that the Kingdom is controlled by those guilty of committing, directly or by command, the very wrongs she wants to redress: the execution of her father; the murder, in outrageous circumstances, of her brother Robb and her mother; the murder (everyone believes) of her two other brothers; the destruction of her family home and the elimination of the Stark lordship. She also has more direct grievances from her personal journey which stem from the same basic sources: the murder of at least three friends (Mycah, Syrio, Lommy); the brutal torture of others; her own mistreatment as a pawn for other players; her own brush with death at the Red Wedding.

To put it starkly (sorry), she lives in a society which permits, and sometimes encourages private vengeance, and she’s suffered shocking harms for which she has no lawful recourse. It’s this situation, and maybe this situation alone, which can justify vengeance.

Now let me consider Arya’s options. She suffers from 2 “disabilities”. One is that she’s female and the other is that she’s small and relatively weak. Taking the latter first, she can’t become Brienne or Asha Greyjoy, who nearly alone of all the women in Westeros can reasonably engage in duels or other combat with men. That rules out one “honorable” solution.

That’s not to say she can’t kill people, even men, in quasi-combat situations. She’s done that: the stable boy in King’s Landing; the guard at Harrenhall; the Tickler and the squire at the Inn. It’s just that those required some degree of trickery or surprise, and she wouldn’t last long with that as her only tactic.

It’s possible that she could rally the North to her side, another solution deemed “honorable” within Westeros society. However, because she’s female and younger than her sister, she wouldn’t be recognized as the Lady of Winterfell. Moreover, the Stark lordship is now held by the Boltons, winter is coming (I’ve heard that somewhere), and she can’t get to the North in any case. While I can’t rule out a Joan of Arc role for her, that seems implausible given what we now know.

What she’s doing instead, is training to be an assassin. It’s clear she intends to use that training for her own purposes, not under the command of the House of Black and White. So now the issue is whether becoming an assassin is an “honorable” means to achieve her goals.

Within the books, that’s not clear. Everybody understands that assassination is a weapon; Robert was willing to assassinate Dany, although Ned argued strongly against it on the ground that it was dishonorable. It probably was in her case, but it might not be in every case; that would depend. Poisoning Joffrey may not have been honorable, but I doubt anyone failed to cheer when he died. Questions of “honor” tend to be inseparable from our sense of the justice of the situation.

Let’s suppose Arya were to assassinate Walder Frey. I suspect most readers would cheer that result; if anyone deserves to be assassinated by Arya in particular, Walder Frey does. Thus, I don’t think we can rule out assassination per se, even if it seems dubious in some cases. Remember, too, that Arya has adopted it because it’s her only recourse. Thus, within the customs of Westeros, and given the lack of other options, I conclude that Arya has the right to seek vengeance and that assassination is a proper method for her to use. That says a lot about Westeros as a society, but it’s not a reflection on Arya within the rules of that society.

Then there’s the question of her specific kills to date, not counting any she may have killed in combat (it’s unclear whether she did or not, but no deaths in combat would be deemed dishonorable in Westeros) or as mercy killings. From the Wiki, we have (1) the stable boy in King’s Landing; (2) the two names she gave Jaqen (Chiswyck and Weese); (3) the guard at Harrenhall; (4) the Tickler and the “squire” at the Inn; (5) Daeron, the Night’s Watch deserter; and (6) the insurance cheat to whom she gave the poisoned gold coin.

Morally speaking, I see no problem with 1, 3, or 4. These were situations in which her own life was in danger and possibly the lives of others. That leaves categories 2, 5, and 6.

Categories 2 and 5 both involve people who, both by the laws of Westeros and/or considerations of basic morality, “deserved” to die. That doesn’t mean that Arya herself had any right to kill them, of course. I think that all 3 deaths are questionable, though the truth is that Westeros was certainly a better place without Chiswyck and Weese. If Arya hadn’t caused their deaths, they were precisely the kind of wrongdoers who were most likely to escape justice for multiple crimes committed against others.

Daeron became an outlaw when he abandoned the Night’s Watch. The term “outlaw” originally meant “outside the protection of the law”, thus, someone who could be killed by anyone. We probably need to treat Daeron as Medieval English law would have – it’s not our morality, but it’s consistent with the law of the realm.

That leaves the insurance cheat (I’m assuming that he was; we don’t actually know this). Arya killed him as part of her training. That can’t justify her actions, at least not as far as I’m concerned. It’s pragmatically necessary for her to do that in order to accomplish her ultimate end, but that doesn’t make it moral.

What makes her action more interesting is to compare it against the actions of others which all of Westeros would consider “honorable”. Let’s take her brother Robb as an example. He did what lords do: he raised his banners and attacked those who killed his father. I guarantee that more people, including more innocent people, died as a result of his war than Arya could ever personally kill. It’s as Tywin Lannister said (paraphrasing): why is it more moral to kill a thousand men in a battle than a dozen at a dinner?

While that’s cute, I don’t want to be on Tywin Lannister’s side. I have no problem if Arya uses the weapons and tactics available to those who lack societally-approved forms of power – an excuse Tywin notably lacks – but we still need to consider the choice of victims and the circumstances in which she uses those weapons. That makes the Red Wedding impossible to justify in Tywin’s case and, without knowing a great deal more about the case of the insurance cheat, presumably so in Arya’s too.

One last point about Arya, namely her most notable refusal to kill someone. In both the book and the series, she left the Hound badly wounded despite his plea for her to kill him as an act of mercy. Was that cold-blooded or was it something else?

As I see it, we can interpret her action 2 ways:

1. She's being cold-hearted, wanting the Hound to suffer death in a painful way.

2. She can't bring herself to do it. At the same time, she can't bring herself to tell him that because (a) he did, when all is said and done, kill her friend; and (b) she's suffered so much she very likely can't say that to anyone at this point (except maybe Jon).

The biggest reason I see it as #2 is that he's on her list. She's told him more than once that she's going to kill him. Yet here she had the perfect chance -- presumably the last chance she'll ever have -- and she didn't do it.

I can't explain that in any way other than to say that she couldn't bring herself to do it. We know she has the ability to kill; she's done it several times now. She killed the guard at Harrenhall in a very cold-blooded way, so that wasn't it. I think she just felt too conflicted; she couldn’t meet her own test of justice even if it gained her a measure of vengeance.