Loghain Mac Tir and Jaime Lannister: A Comparison in Redemption and Regicide
The best characters are the ones whose motivations seem simple enough at first blush, only to grow more complex and grey as you learn more about them. It doesn’t matter whether they’re protagonists or antagonists. The drama comes from their inner conflict, the nagging uncertainty between what they feel they must do, and what they know they should do.
There are two characters in particular that demonstrate this splendidly, though both the manner in which they do this, and the way that audiences reacted to them varies. They have many similarities, both in characterization and how their arcs work out (or in the video game character’s case, could work out), but also substantive differences.
So, if you’ve got time to kill, let’s take a look at these two Kingslayers: Jaime Lannister, and Loghain Mac Tyr.
Let’s start with the more popular traitor, Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister.
A pretty common experience for Game of Thrones watchers and readers is the transformation that takes place mid-way through the series; not so much of the character himself, although there’s plenty of that as well, but rather transformation of the perceptions of the character.
He starts his part of the story in a typically villainous position, and he undertakes his role with gusto:
- He’s the smarmy jackass whose claim to fame is killing the King he swore to protect.
- He’s revealed to be the dad-uncle of Joffery “Baratheon”, which fits him right into the trope of evil, incestuous nobility.
- He kicks off his debut for the audience by screwing his sister and shoving a child out a window.
- He follows that up by killing Ned Stark’s retinue and leaving him crippled for the rest of his very short life.
How the hell do you go back from that?
Contextualization. Also a chronic shortage of explicitly good people for comparison, but mostly contextualization. This is where Martin’s writing shines more brilliantly than most, and why we forgive him for scaling errors and making Stone Age savages comparable to the Mongols.
First off, it turns out that incest was totally okay in Westeros as long as the formerly royal Targareyns were doing it. Having your state religion telling you that incest is bad while the royal patron of said religion is screwing his sister is bound to create some cultural dissonance. Doesn’t justify it, of course, but it certainly makes Jaime and Cersei’s crime somewhat understandable, if far from excusable.
Second, it’s revealed that the King he killed was actually trying turn his own capital into his funeral pyre in a spiteful effort at killing both Jaime’s father and thousands of innocent people, putting his oath to his king in directly conflict with his oaths to his family and to defending the weak.
“So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.”
Granted, this shift in perspective isn’t devoid of changes to Jaime himself. His more human qualities are revealed through his interactions with Brienne of Tarth, who in many ways represents the innocence and naivete that he himself once held about knighthood and the Kingsguard. When he loses his sword-hand, and thus his mastery of swordsmanship, you can’t help but join Brienne in sympathizing with him. That experience strips away the arrogance that he armored himself in, leaving a character broken to his lowest point, so he can rebuild into someone better. By the time he returns from captivity to King’s Landing, most tend to see him in an entirely new light.
His past actions didn’t change. But the context behind them did. It’s a testament to Martin’s skill at character development that he was able to turn an incestuous, murderous, blond-haired prat who’s indirectly responsible for most of the miseries visited upon the only likable noble family in Westeros, into a sympathetic character with a robust fan base that will forgive (and unfortunately, defend) even his worst vices.
He is still far from a good man. He threatens to jettison a babe from a catapult in order to achieve a particular outcome (though whether he was serious is uncertain), and to my knowledge he is more depressed about the depths that he sank to, than genuinely contrite about the actions he took. But because we understand how he got to the position he did, and because Martin effectively made Jaime’s perspective empathetic to us, we want to see him redeemed, even after everything he’s done.
That’s a very important factor, and more often than not, the primary reason why some morally questionable characters become beloved favorites, while others become despised. It’s not the actions that we’re judging, but whether or not we connect with the character’s rationale for those actions, and how those actions look when juxtaposed to the virtues or vices of other characters within the same setting. Jaime may seem almost honorable in Game of Thrones, but I doubt fans would have nearly as charitable an outlook on him if he were placed in Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
Next we have the traitor Teryn; the man who would’ve been king, if it weren’t for some scrappy Grey Warden from (insert Origin).
Loghain was the right hand of the preceding King of Ferelden, and is responsible for leading the army against the resurgent Darkspawn. Unlike Jaime Lannister, his outward appearance is decidedly unflattering; while King Cailan is introduced to us as an idealistic young monarch with a square jaw, winning smile, and golden hair and armor, Loghain looks like the dour love-child between Stannis and Severus Snape. More to the point, there’s a big disagreement between the two of them, where Cailan criticizes Loghain’s utter unwillingness to allow reinforcements from their neighbor and one-time overlord Orlais, signifying the rift between them. So the potential for villain-hood becomes pretty obvious from the start.
Which means when they’re discussing the battle plans for the upcoming confrontation against the Darkspawn, and Loghain makes the usual “ominous statement of badness” that foreshadows the disaster about to strike, pretty much everyone and his mother knows what’s up next. Well, that, and it’s only an hour into the game and any casual gamer or movie-goer knows it’s a bit early for the “decisive blow against the Darkspawn” to be struck this soon.
So the battle commences, everyone’s doing their part to defeat the Darkspawn; Cailan and Totally-Not-Going-To-Die Mentor are holding the center line, Loghain’s host is waiting in the wings for the signal to commence the devastating flanking charge, and you, dutiful little Grey Warden that you are, light the beacon.
Sadly, Rohan doesn’t answer.
Loghain quits the field, King Cailan and Totally-Not-Going-To-Die Mentor perish, you and your new best friend Alistair are the only Grey Wardens still alive, and Ferelden’s left open to attack from the Blight. Loghain, who obviously decided that his role as the antagonist hadn’t quite been reinforced enough yet, pins the blame for Ostagar on the Grey Wardens to try and unify Ferelden under his rule.
So all in all, you’re pretty pissed at him. Even more so, if you’re Grey Warden’s Origin is as a Cousland, and your family’s murderer is standing next to Loghain throughout his scenes.
You and your merry band go on their way trying to put a stopper on the Civil War, build an alliance to fight the Darkspawn threat, and potentially make kissy faces at a love interest along the way. Throughout all of this, Loghain sends assassins against you, you usually end up cleaning his messes, and just throughout the game you’re given the occasional reminder that THIS IS THE BAD GUY.
It’s oh so wonderfully subtle.
Yet, throughout all of this you are also told that this guy was a former hero, sometimes by people who knew him personally. You learn that he was the Hero of Riverdane; a figure nearly as large as King Maric who led in the revolt against the Orlesians. You learn that he was the king’s best friend, that they were about as close as brothers. You learn that he is a patriot, with all of the virtues and vices that sort of passionate love for one’s homeland entails.
Eventually, you confront him in a Landsmeet (think medieval Parliament), in a desperate bid to solidify political command of Ferelden before the Blight consumes it; either for Alistair (whose is the only surviving bastard son of King Maric), Queen Anora (Loghain’s daughter, but rather sick of her father’s bullshit at this point), both of them, or Anora and yourself (if you are a Cousland). Unfortunately, you cannot side with Loghain (which would have been very cool for those of us roleplaying as the ruthless, pragmatic Wardens).
Regardless of the outcome, you (or a party member of your choice) end up dueling Loghain to decide who leads Ferelden against the Blight. Since this is a video game and the plot must go on, you win.
Now, if you didn’t choose Alistair to fight Loghain (he just straight up cuts the guy’s head off, kindly splattering Anora with her father’s blood), you get to decide whether to execute the man who has hunted you all over Thedas, or induct him into the Grey Wardens as extra-ironic punishment. You don’t know why at the time, but a senior Grey Warden tells you that there is a REALLY compelling reason to do this.
This is the part where most players’ experience with Loghain ends. Inducting Loghain into the Grey Wardens makes him one of your companions, but it also loses you Alistair, who will not tolerate having him for a brother in your Order. As most people are either bros with Alistair, or romance him if their Grey Warden is female, this tends to end with Loghain decorating the floor with his headless corpse.
However, if you are like me and you saw Alistair’s willful ignorance of our elder Grey Warden’s assessment of the situation as childish and petulant (especially if you’ve done plenty of horrible shit prior, and this is what he’ll walk on), then you end up sparing Loghain and either successfully convince Alistair marry Anora (he still leaves your party, but at least he’s doing something useful), or he stupidly tries to claim the throne without your support for himself to force Loghain’s execution, promptly loses, and you have to use what political capital you have commute the silly idiot’s sentence from execution to exile.
After Loghain joins your party, things are…icy at first. He makes it clear that he knows just how awkward the situation is, and tries to establish a working relationship. Eventually, if you try the sympathetic route and listen to his reasons for his actions (or you raise his approval with a shit-ton of gifts, because you did the Landsmeet last and you don’t have much time left to interact with his character), he eventually opens up about his past.
He tells of what it was like living under Orlesian occupation, what tyrannies he and others of his generation suffered while fighting against the Fantasy French people. He fully accepts the horrible nature of the acts he committed, but like Jaime Lannister, he makes no apology for them. As far as he’s concerned, everything he did was for the good of Ferelden, and at this point his only hope is that perhaps you will be able to protect her better than he could.
Also like Jaime Lannister, you get hints of an underlying humanity that had been hinted at throughout the story. You learn that he was a loving father, and a loyal friend that stuck by Maric even when he was at his lowest point. If you read any of the books, you learn that Loghain sacrificed a great deal personally for Maric and the Rebellion against Orlais. He and his father were forced to watch as Orlesian troops raped and killed his mother, and later on his father sacrificed himself to save Maric after charging Loghain with his safety.
When taking in his story in its entirety, Loghain is no longer just a power-mad villain grabbing power at the most selfish moment, but instead a sincere patriot. He believed that only he alone could save Ferelden from the coming threat, and in so doing placed Ferelden on course for destruction because of a fact that only the Grey Wardens knew.
Later on in the story, this fact is revealed to you. The reason why Grey Wardens are so essential to defeating ending the Blights is because only a Grey Warden can truly kill an Archdemon (Dragons which command the Darkspawn). If Archdemons are slain by ordinary people, their souls simply hop into another Darkspawn, where they can eventually reconstitute themselves. But if a Grey Warden slays the Archdemon, the its soul merges with the Grey Warden who slew it, due to the Blight tainting the Grey Warden’s blood.
This, naturally, is not healthy for either party. Both are killed by the event.
Loghain, for all of his rationalizing, wants to atone for what he’s done. So when the question arises as to who should take the doubly-killing blow, Loghain steps up to the plate immediately. Just as Jaime is, at his heart, trying to be a good knight, Loghain is trying to be a good patriot. This is a fitting end for Loghain’s character (though for reasons I won’t go into, it doesn’t have to be the end).
“Please, I’ve done…so much wrong. Allow me to do one last thing right.”
-Loghain Mac Tir
So, why the starkly different reactions between these two characters? Why is the child-murdering, sister-banging, kingslaying Jaime better liked than the misguided patriot Loghain?
The chief reason I think is just the difference between their respective mediums. With books and movies, you’re a passive observer, watching these stories play out and examining them with at least some degree of detachment. With games, especially role-playing games like Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls, you are much more personally involved in what happens to the protagonist, due to the fact that you are the protagonist.
What might be a dramatic but gripping story about a world-weary man betraying his friend for the good of the nation he’s defending, suddenly becomes an unthinkable action when you’re character’s confronted with that choice of choosing Loghain over Alistair. What a reader might see as a necessary measure to keep an army intact for the long term, you the Grey Warden would see as a betrayal by Loghain. If you’re roleplaying as the Grey Warden, then it might be harder to see the rationale behind the actions of characters who have affected the Grey Warden negatively. And if you cannot sympathize with the actions, then you cannot hope to sympathize with the character that made them.
Another factor is the vagueness of some parts of Loghain’s story, versus the relatively clarity in Jaime’s. It’s not disputable whether King’s Landing would have burned or not, had Jaime not stopped King Aerys, whereas the Battle of Ostagar is one of the most obscure parts of Dragon Age, and deliberately so. The circumstances with the delay of beacon’s lighting, coupled with the unexpected size of the Darkspawn horde, make it uncertain whether Loghain was trying to get Cailan killed, simply saw an opportunity and took it, or sincerely believed that throwing his army into that battle would have been suicide.
Loghain, for all that his opinion may be worth to you, asserts the third claim.
Another part is just where Loghain is situated in the story. Many players gravitate towards exploring the other nations and cultures first, leaving the Landsmeet for last before the final showdown with the Archdemon. That leaves precious little time to get to know Loghain’s character with the same depth that you learn Alistair’s, and there’s not as much content to go through.
Further more, too much of crucial aspects of Loghain’s past are locked up in books that most people will never read, or only skim through synopsis like myself. As a result, most people never get to know the character in depth. And because they never get Loghain’s perspective, they never learn to sympathize with him, or desire his redemption as they do with Jaime.
Part of this is also probably because George R.R. Martin is just that good of a writer when it comes to characters. I don’t doubt he could handle a Loghain point-of-view very well, and in a manner that would be very empathetic to readers. Not to knock the writers of Dragon Age, but there were times when it didn’t seem like they knew exactly what they were doing with Loghain’s character, given how he goes from being the antagonist to a potential companion, yet has precious little time to properly explain himself. From what I’ve heard, they originally intended for him to be a far less ambiguous character, so it may be they just got caught between two visions of what the character was supposed to be.
Moreover, the medium of books is just fundamentally better at relating and empathizing the inner motivations of characters to audiences. You don’t get a good look at the inner thoughts of Loghain’s rationale in the game. And although the books he’s present are set before the events of Dragon Age: Origins, many people already display a new appreciation and sympathy for his character, a response that I suspect would be even stronger if there was a novelization of the game’s events which included Loghain as a POV character.
This demonstrates a very important fact about story-telling and character crafting. It doesn’t matter how previously noble or evil you assert a character to be. If you don’t show it clearly, in the actions and motivations of the character, the audience will go with what they’ve interpreted from the character personally. Your declarations of what a character is cannot hope to compete with the audience’s own imagination.