The bastards of Westeros and why they fulfill our fantasies the name implies

I have just immersed myself in three seasons of Game of Thrones, HBO’s smash hit about the imaginary kingdom of Westeros where seven kingdoms are at war and a dragon queen seeks to claim the Iron Throne.

More than any show in recent memory, this show delves into the stereotypes and caricatures of bastards, or those who are not born properly. They are the outcomes of illegitimate dalliances by rich lords with low-born ladies. In the series, characters frequently use the word bastard like a curse, almost as if it were the worst insult imaginable in a world where true lineage determines everything.

One of history's most famous bastards, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).

One of history’s most famous bastards, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).

One etymological reference I found notes the word’s French lineage referring to: “Illegitimate child,” from old French bastard (modern French bâtard), “acknowledged child of a nobleman by a woman other than his wife,” probably from fils de bast “packsaddle son,” meaning a child conceived on an improvised bed (saddles often doubled as beds while traveling), with pejorative ending -art. The definition further notes, “Alternative possibly is that the word is from proto-Germanic banstiz “barn,” equally suggestive of low origin.” In other words, these are really low-down … well … bastards.

As a bastard myself, born from an encounter not blessed by marriage, from a low house on my birth mother’s side, I naturally am fond of the world where bastards romp all over the screen, causing mayhem, murder, and wickedly fun adventure. Five central bastard characters stand out in this epic and now globally popular film tale, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series.

So let us take a look at these imaginary bastards—all guys by the way—and see how they nicely fulfill the typical stereotypes that define our well-entrenched fears and paranoia around children who just happened to be born outside of marriage. (Note all pictures are referenced from online sources, and the use is intended to be fair comment and criticism of the show and its characters, and most of all its obsession with the stereotype of a bastard.)

The Good Bastard: Jon Snow

Jon Snow Photograph

Jon Snow, the good bastard.

The show pivots around one decent guy. He is the noble bastard, Jon Snow, the son of Eddard Stark, that way-too-easily murdered king of Winterfell. Jon is the “good bastard.” He is handsome, strong, and fearless. He only kills when he has to, and when he does, Jon is like a badass gunslinger of the old West. He swings to kill. Most of the time he is killing really bad people, like traitorous Night’s Watch renegades, marauding wildings wanting to pillage south of the ice wall, and cannibal baddies. He is the prototypical hero who is being tested on a journey, learning to lead and trying save humanity from undead white walkers and uncivilized wildings. Jon is the type of bastard teen girls are allowed to swoon over, cause, really, he is the son of a good king who was ignored by his mom and destined to be a lord one day. No surprise his dire wolf is white, and named Ghost, a pure creature.

The Evil Bastard: Joffrey Baratheon

Joffrey Baratheon Photo

Joffrey Baratheon, the evil bastard.

Jon’s opposite sits on the Iron Throne for two seasons and a few more episodes. Hailing from the rival house, Lannister, King Joffrey Baratheon represents the great-abomination-of-nature bastard. A blond-haired beast, sniveling Joffrey is the illegitimate son of evil Queen Cersei Lannister and her dangerous and twisted twin brother, Jaime Lannister. Joffrey was born out of wedlock, so he is a true bastard. No surprise then he is a veritable monster. He likes to torture and shoot prostitutes with crossbows, order random killings of people for laughs at court, commit regicide that launches a bloody war, and be a general prick of the highest order. He is your classic bastard of your royal dreams of noble decadence. See, look what happens if you sleep with your brother or sister. You get a mentally deranged bastard who will destroy civilization as we know it.

The Sadistic Bastard: Ramsay Bolton

Ramsay Bolton photo

The sadistic bastard: Ramsay Bolton.

Another vile bastard of the series actually competes for the worst of them all title, Ramsay Bolton. This extremely efficient and misogynistic murderer is the illegitimate son of the treacherous lord Roose Bolton, who during the infamous Red Wedding episode in Season 3 murders Jon Snow’s noble brother Robb Stark, the heir to Winterfell and failed and not-so-clever revolutionary. Ramsay is mainly shown in the series as a half-crazy, psychotic, sociopathic sadist who commits atrocities and torture for fun. Most of his sadism is directed at a lord’s son whom he castrates, Theon Greyjoy. All Poor Ramsay wants is the love of his murderous and duplicitous father, but Roose plays Ramsay like a cheap ukulele. You cannot treat a bastard like a real person, particularly if you are important. Ramsay is the bastard of the your nightmares and the kind that lives up to the word bastard’s many associations with absolute horror and evil.

The Likable and Honest Bastard: Gendry Baratheon

Gendry Baratheon photo

The likable and honest bastard, Gendry Baratheon.

Gendry Baratheon, the kindly and talented King’s Landing blacksmith, is the bastard son of the overweight, whoring, and soon-to-die King Robert Baratheon. Robert spent a lot of time in power using his influence to bed and likely rape women, producing a number of illegitimate heirs who posed an existential threat to the false King Joffrey once that little masochist has Eddard murdered in public and took power for good. Gendry spends most the series on the run, trying to avoid the mass murder of innocent bastards that Joffrey ordered in Season 1. Not quite a “noble bastard” like Jon, he is the lovable bastard you would like to hire in a growing startup cause you know he will not double cross you and flee to your competitor with company secrets. He might even be good enough for your daughter, except he has got that damn bastard thing in his lineage. We last see Gendry in Season 3 rowing away from the power-crazed Stannis Baratheon, who wanted him burned alive—a fitting end for many a bastard.

The Honorary Bastard: Tyron Lannister

Tyrion Lannister Photo

The honorary bastard, Tyrion Lannister.

The final bastard of the show is our ceremonial bastard, the Imp and none other than Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion calls himself an honorary bastard for having the misfortune of being born a dwarf. As a bastard in his dad’s eyes, and this is a tyrannical dad too, Tyrion is always prey to his affections for misfits, fellow bastards like Jon, and broken things. As a bastard you can never be expected to be the best, and Tyrion fulfill’s his bastard’s destiny through alcohol fueled binges, sleeping with multiple prostitutes, killing his mistress with his bare hands, and in the act of ultimate rage against his own kin, slaying his mean father, Tywin Lannister, in the crapper with a crossbow. Now that is a true murder only a bastard is capable of executing. Who else could pull off the hit in the center of power in all of Westeros, in the sacredness of the privy? It had to be a bastard. Even after a double homicide the night of his prison break, we are left with twisted emotions what to feel about a bastard. After all he was born a dwarf and falsely accused of poisoning Joffrey. His mistress dumped him for his old man. They deserved to die, right? Money and influence, in the end, could not save the honorary bastard, who has to flee a castle locked in a crate.


What really matter are the stories we tell ourselves

“The only stories that matter are the ones we tell ourselves.” I bet you have heard that one before. It is a living, breathing idea that permeates the blogosphere like oxygen. The idea is also rooted in so-called positive psychology, whose adherents include Dr. Martin Seligman, who has written pop psychology books such as Learned Optimism.

In fact the American nation is built on a myth of self-made individuals writing their own narratives and reinventing themselves, regardless of what the facts may say. The power of the myth and the power of the story trump irritating details. History, as the old saying goes, is always written by the winners.

"Declaration independence" by John Trumbull. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Radical revolutionaries, America’s founding fathers, slaveholders and capitalists, brilliant leaders who sought to create a more perfect union? What story is the one that matters? “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I think there is a great deal of truth to this idea. As a former and sometimes frustrated reporter, I struggled to ensure my facts were 100 percent accurate. I wanted truth to defeat the fabrications of bureaucracies that did not want to reveal their poor stewardship of the public trust or criminals who would swear they had nothing to do with crimes for which they were charged. That was not their story.

It was clear from my personal experience, not to mention research, people who are masters at this art believe their stories to be the only truth that matters, facts be damned.

Today I found numerous examples of this concept percolating on multiple blogs.

  • One woman writing about breast cancer in her blogs notes, “But here’s the thing we should never forget. We are the author of our own stories.  For every perceived weakness we possess, we posses huge potential too. We get to choose which story we will tell ourselves – a story that will lift us up or knock us down.” No surprise her blog is called “”
  • Still another blog called notes, “Few things have a greater influence over our lives than the stories we tell ourselves. Tell yourself that you’re a victim and you are. Tell yourself that you’re destined for success, and success is likely to become your destiny.”
  • And yet another called urges readers to “focus on a story that you have been telling yourself and rewrite it so you can create a positive change, enjoy a new experience and become a better you.”

You also can buy books like one titled The Stories We Tell Ourselves, which you likely guessed is a self-help psychology book you can buy online.

No doubt all of us have stories for ourselves, our friends, our coworkers, our spouses, and strangers. The narrative we choose to believe likely reveals more about our character than we are comfortable admitting. Perhaps what matters as much as the narrative are the intentions driving the choice of stories. Those truly are ours alone to own when we go about our storytelling, especially to ourselves.

Turning off everything except your mind


Tonight, the rains returned to Portland. That dark winter gloom fell on cue just after 5 p.m., and I took to the streets of Portland’s so-called Alphabet District to experience this dense neighborhood.

St. Mary's Cathedral Photograph

St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

It is easy to feel isolation and gloom in this weather. People in Portland tend to avert their gaze like urban dwellers in many cities and walk purposefully.

I stumbled on one of the prettiest religious building complexes in the city, St. Mary’s Cathedral. As I noted on my photo blog, the cathedral sits in a five-block area that also includes Temple Beth Israel and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I like this part of town a lot.

I stepped inside as the 5:30 p.m. mass was beginning. It felt warm and cozy. I decided tonight was not the night to sit, but I thought about the need to do that more frequently.

I am not a religious person, but I like that houses of worship are one of the last remaining places in our country where people intentionally turn off their cell phones, disconnect from the media and the material world, and perhaps connect with something beyond themselves. That is what I like about them. I am not a fan of charismatic churches that are full-on multimedia spectacles that turn on media to prevent contemplative thought.

When I was a kid, I was forced to sit in church nearly every Sunday for years, until I was 18. I initially I could not stand it because I did not and do not adhere to the tenets of any organized religion. But as the years came and went, I realized I had learned a great deal sitting in the wooden church pew, gazing at beautiful stained glass windows at Bethel Lutheran Church in University City, Mo. Sitting for a forced period of time stilled my mind and my generally active body.

Bethel Lutheran Church Photograph

The place where I spent many an hour contemplating things in a quiet, peaceful place–Bethel Lutheran Church.

To this day, nothing else will quiet my mind like a church pew. Though churches are not my house of worship, they still remain my quiet place. I think all of us could benefit from turning it all off for at least an hour regularly and contemplating things bigger and more important than our small, insignificant selves. For me the place is a church pew. What is it for you? If you have not gone to that place for while, maybe you should pay it a visit.

How one very famous Oz woman describes Aussie men

I have always enjoyed the company of Australians. The ones I have met, all over the world, have been extroverted and adventurous. To me, the women from Oz have always found a perhaps hardened, as opposed to soft, place in my heart. Maybe it is their accent or their grit. I credit part of their resiliency to their culture and the continent’s legacy as a formal penal colony that impacted the character of Australian men in particular. I also credit their hot landscape and often harsh geography outside of the coastal areas. These are the places most celebrated in modern Australian filmmaking. They are places of chaos and violence, as seen in films from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to Mad Max to The Proposition.

The Opera House is the modern symbol of Australia, but the unofficial national anthem celebrates the swagman of which Davidson writes in a 1970s context.

The Opera House is the modern symbol of Australia, but the unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, celebrates the swagman type of Aussie male of which Davidson writes in a 1970s context.

I am now reading the memoir and travel adventure called Tracks, by Australian writer Robyn Davidson. She crossed Australia’s remote western desert with four camels and a dog in 1977 and published the account of her 1,700-mile journey, Tracks, that was turned into a film of the same name in 2013. In her book, she writes about the rough and violent men she met in Alice Springs, where her journey began. This is her summary of how the continent of Australia and its cultural legacy as a penal colony created the contemporary Australian male. The picture she paints is not charming, but as the legacy of Aussie filmmaking would show, she is speaking from real-world experience acknowledged by many before and after her:

“The modern-day manifestation is almost totally devoid of charm. He is biased, bigoted, boring and, above all, brutal. His enjoyments in life are limited to fighting, shooting and drinking. To him, a mate includes anyone who is not a whop, wog, pom, coon, boong, nigger, rice-eye, kyke, chink, Iti, nip, frog, kraut, commie, poofer, slow, wanker, and yes, Sheila, chick or bird.”

I highly recommend her book. But then again, I like camels, deserts, and Australian women.

Tribal loyalties run far and deep

In the United States, we use many methods to define ourselves and our loyalties. Race, religion, ethnicity, and geography are common ways we come to understand ourselves and our circles. Groups we belong to, and schools we attended, also seek to capture our loyalties, and help us navigate the world.

In my case, I was adopted into a Lutheran family. My father was a Lutheran minister. I was brought up as a Lutheran by my mother. I was confirmed as a Lutheran as a teen. I attended a Lutheran church until I was 18 years of age and old enough to leave home forever. Today, when I hear Garrison Keilor on his show, A Prarie Home Companion,  affectionately make fun of and celebrate Midwest Lutherans, I know the world he speaks of.

Bob Dylan wrote this line in his haunting ballad, With God on our Side, in describing the world he came from in northern Minnesota and also of who we are as Americans:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Well, the country I come from is the Midwest, and whether I wanted them or not, I became one of them–a Midwest Lutheran. It is not a bad thing. It is just is part of who I am, regardless of what I believe about faith.

(Click on the photo to see a larger picture on separate picture page.)