Getting your message across – Westeros style
It’s tricky trying to get messages around in the Seven Kingdoms, which seem to lack a basic postal or parcel delivery service, even in the cities – and no one has email. They don’t even have social media. But they make a pretty good job of it.
Long distance message-passing is done by attaching a letter to a raven. According to the books, the value of a carrier-raven was taught to the First Men of Westeros by the Children of The Forest. At this point the birds could talk, which would have ensured an even higher quality of service. A verbal message is encrypted (it exists in the raven’s little brain, and so is harder to intercept without catching every passing raven and torturing it with tiny instruments). It would also have been easier to direct the message to the person who needs to read it, because you could have told the ravens that your letter was urgent, so not to hang around scavenging, for example. This scavenging thing, it seems to me, would be an argument in favour of pigeons. Pigeons fly direct, without stopping to feast on corpses.
With this constraint, the rulers of Westeros have become extremely adept at communicating the Big Ideas. They really get the value of symbolism as a way to make a point efficiently. There’s a phrase in advertising: ‘show, don’t tell’. So, if you want to make thousands of people afraid of you, don’t make long speeches telling them to be afraid, or write lots of nasty letters and attach them to every raven you can find. You do something unexpected that should make them think: watch out.
In the disordered world of Game of Thrones, it’s hard to list without giving away spoilers the (almost weekly) moments when some ruler or other follows this plan, so I’ll try to be general. Pouring molten gold on an ambitious person’s head, walking into your husband’s burning funeral pyre and walking out again the next day to show that you’re a bit special, or chopping off the hand of the best swordsman just to show everyone that you can, isn’t necessarily a communications strategy to follow at home or the office. But, in the real world, communications directors who work for our largely-ignored politicians, who weep silently as they arrange another tired visit to a small factory somewhere in the midlands so that their boss can be filmed in a hi-vis jacket pretending to know what the machine does, must wish they lived in Westeros from time to time.
We’ve mentioned Machiavelli before as a link between Game of Thrones and our world. In The Prince, he relates how Pope Alexander VI cleaned up the Romagna province. With a weak government and crime everywhere, the Pope sent Remirro de Orco, his fixer, to clean house by punishing lots of people harshly and cruelly. Everyone hated Remirro, because he was good at what he did: Romagnan crime rates dropped, with a large amount of bloodshed along the way. So, when the job was done, ‘Alexander had him cut in half, and placed one morning in the public square’. Result: everyone liked that there was less crime, and they liked the Pope even more. Remirro showed that no one is above the law, but Alexander showed that no one was above the Pope.
Here lies the difference between sending a message and making a gesture. When a prime minister is photographed pointing at something while wearing a hard hat, it no longer sends us any strong message, because it is what we expect. It delivers no new information. If we even notice, we shrug. A strong message is easiest to convey when it implies new clarity and unexpected change, even if only for a few people. That’s why the most memorable messages often emerge from disorder and confusion, and why most big gestures in our world are so forgettable.