Lately, I’ve been thinking about two things. First, I’ve been thinking about Game of Thrones, because that hit HBO TV series recently aired its final episode.
Second, I’ve been thinking about Winston Churchill, because I’ve gone back finally to record the audio-book of my short, unconventional biography Forty Ways to Look a Winston Churchill. What a joy it was to re-visit that project! I loved writing that book so much.
And both these preoccupations—Game of Thrones and Winston Churchill—collided in my mind as I was reading the book into the microphone.
There’s a scene I love in Game of Thrones (spoilers to come, beware). It’s the absolutely extraordinary scene when Lady Olenna Tyrell, one of my favorite characters, is waiting in a tower for Commander Jaime Lannister. The Tyrell forces have just been defeated in battle, and Lady Olenna knows that Jaime won’t allow her to leave the room alive.
Lady Olenna is the head of House Tyrell, and she’s a person of great power, a cool, sharp-witted, far-sighted woman, and she uses this opportunity to have an exceptionally candid conversation, before her death, with Jaime about Cersei, his cruel, power-mad sister and lover who is now Queen of Westeros.
You can watch the whole seven-minute scene here; here I play the part of the conversation that got me thinking during my Churchill recording. It’s what Olenna says to Jaime right before he gives her the cup of poisoned wine.
Now, on the Churchill side, as I was recording the book Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I read this passage where I write:
In 1940, instead of continuing to push Lord Halifax to succeed him in the role of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain turned to Churchill. Why?
Chamberlain prided himself that he was realistic, businesslike, with a passionate dedication to peace. He had all these qualities—and these identical defects. With his narrow, prosaic mind, and in his vanity, Chamberlain simply couldn’t comprehend Hitler. Even as of September 30, 1940, he complained in a letter to the King that his failed attempts to avoid war “might well have succeeded if they had not come up against the insatiate and inhuman ambitions of a fanatic.” Wasn’t that the point of all who criticized Chamberlain’s policy? That he’d persisted in his appeasement policy with utter disregard for Hitler’s obvious nature? Perhaps, at long last, Chamberlain grasped that his virtues—which were also Halifax’s—were out of season, and that it was Churchill who possessed the necessary qualities of imagination and stomach for war.
I was struck by how the two examples illustrated the same point: Every strength has its weakness; every capacity has its limitations. Sometimes, those who love order and have a traditional understanding of the proper limits of behavior can’t see the terrible possibilities available to those who are willing to go beyond all lawful boundaries.