Treacherous Hospitality in the 'Game of Thrones' -- And Western Lit

If you've seen the Red Wedding in the Game of Thrones, the ongoing HBO series based on George R.R. Martin's saga of warring kings in the late Middle ages (A Song of Fire and Ice), you may wonder whether you'll ever again accept a wedding invitation.

The Red Wedding was meant to patch up a feud between King Robb Stark and his onetime ally Walder Frey. Having antagonized Lord Walder -- aka Black Walder -- by breaking an oath to marry his daughter Roslin, Robb tries to make amends by letting her marry his uncle Edmure instead. And when Stark arrives at Walder's castle with his queen, his mother, and his entourage, they are all welcomed as "honored guests" by Walder himself, who confirms their status by formally eating salt and bread from the same bowl with them.

In the mythical continent of Westeros, where most of Game of Thrones takes place, nothing is more sacred than hospitality, which requires both guest and host to respect each other for the duration of the visit. Once the bond of "guest right" is forged, breaking it violates all the laws of gods and men. It is the worst crime imaginable.

But this is just the crime that Black Walder commits at the wedding of his daughter to Robb's uncle. Once the newlyweds have left the great hall to consummate their marriage, Walder gives to Robb and all his other guests what he calls "the hospitality you deserve." At Walder's signal (a song played by his musicians, who are actually assassins), armed men come out to kill every one of them.

In masterminding such treachery, Black Walder re-enacts what hosts have done to their guests -- and vice versa -- throughout the history of literature, as explained in my latest book, Hospitality and Treachery in Treachery in Western Literature.

The Old English epic of Beowulf, for instance, includes a bloodstained wedding of its own. After the Danes have killed many Heathobards, the Danish King Hrothgar tries to make peace by promising his daughter Freawaru to the Heathobard King Ingeld. But Beowulf himself foresees what will happen at the wedding when the Heathobards find themselves entertaining the sons of their old enemies. Since those Danish sons will be wearing the very weapons that their fathers snatched from the Heathobard men they killed, Beowulf foresees that a young Heathobard will avenge the death of his father by killing one of their Danish guests and thus reviving the enmity the wedding was supposed to resolve.

As for the killing of a royal guest, consider what happens in Shakespeare's famous tragedy when the Scottish King Duncan spends a night at the castle of Macbeth, who is at once his subject and his host. Though the sleeping king has two bodyguards, Lady Macbeth gets them both so drunk that Macbeth can butcher all three and then blame the guards for killing the king so as to justify his killing of them.

And that's just for starters.

A few nights later, just after becoming king himself, Macbeth hosts a banquet for various Scottish lords including Banquo. But since Macbeth has been told that Banquo's heirs will inherit the throne, he has Banquo murdered on the day of the feast. When Banquo shows up anyway -- as a ghost -- Macbeth alone can see him, rages at what looks to everyone else like thin air, and thus drives the ghost away -- but also breaks up the party. After that, his reign is mercifully short.

Western literature is rife with stories of treacherous hosts. At the head of the line is a one-eyed giant named Polyphemos, who turns up in the middle of Homer's Odyssey, the epic story of how the ancient, legendary Greek king Odysseus made his long voyage home after the Trojan war.

Having stopped at an island populated only by savage brutes, Odysseus and his men step into a cave, build a fire, and then help themselves to the cheeses they find there. When their absentee host --Polyphemos-- returns with his sheep and goats, he is furious to find intruders in his cave. But instead of chucking them out, he blocks the exit with a vast boulder so as to make them his prisoners, which is one of the many nasty things that hosts can do to their guests. (Ever felt trapped at a party? Welcome to the club.)

When dinner time comes, Polyphemus doesn't fret about what to serve his guests; he just eats two of them. And since he plans to do the same thing every night until he's gobbled up all of the Greeks, Odysseus has to act. But instead of trying kill their host, which would leave them all trapped in the cave, the Greeks get the giant so drunk that he falls into a stupor -- whereupon they drive a burning stake into his eye. The next morning, when the giant rolls back the boulder to let his livestock out of the cave, the Greeks sneak out by clinging to the underbellies of the sheep and then sail away.

You might say that Odysseus makes Polyphemos pay a bloody price for his brutal hospitality, but that's exactly the point. When hosts or guests mistreat each other in works of literature, the benign reciprocity of hospitable payback -- whereby your guest later becomes your host --gives way to malign reciprocity, where payback means retaliation.

In the Inferno, where treacherous hosts and guests are stuck in the deepest circle of hell, Dante recycles a true story of retaliation -- the story of a Guelph lord named Alberigo, whose political power was threatened by a close relative named Manfred. Struck by Manfred in the midst of a dispute, Alberigo pretended to forgive the blow as an act of youthful impetuosity and then invited Manfred and one of his sons to a banquet. When the host said, "Bring the fruit," armed men came from behind a curtain and butchered the guests. As a result, Alberigo is stuck forever in ice right in front of another treacherous host: Branca d'Oria, who killed his father-in-law after serving him dinner.

In more recent literature, treacherous hospitality takes more subtle forms. Near the end of Marcel Proust's great novel, In Search of Time, a Parisian hostess takes brutal revenge on the Baron de Charlus. Though she draws not a single drop of blood, she is driven by a malice worthy of Dante's Alberigo.

Desperate to meet the grandest people in Paris, the social-climbing Madame Verdurin holds a party to which -- at her urging -- the Baron invites all of his titled friends. But when they arrive, they fawn over him as their host and turn their backs on her. Worse still, none of them thanks her as they leave, much less invites her in return. So at the end of the party Madame Verdurin retaliates. She arranges for the baron's boyfriend Charlie to be drawn off and fed a toxic cocktail of lies and insinuations about the baron. When Charlie returns to denounce the perversity of the baron, his normally irrepressible arrogance deserts him. Speechless and dumbfounded, he feels "struck as if by the Revolutionary guillotine": a guest betrayed. She wounds him so deeply that it's hard to know which of the two is more treacherous.

The stage, of course, is the perfect place for hospitality and treachery to meet--especially when a play is set in a living room, as is Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When an older couple -- George and Martha -- ask a younger couple -- Nick and Honey -- for an evening of drinks, they play a series of games whose titles suggest just some of the ways in hosts and guests can do each other in. Superfueled with drink, George and Martha soon unmask the witlessness of Nick and the mousiness of Honey: that's how they play Get the Guest. They also goad Nick into thinking that he can Hump the Hostess, which is one way of Humiliating the Host; but when Nick proves too drunk to perform in the bedroom, it's he who's humiliated -- cut down to a houseboy. In all of these games the host and hostess use their guests as weapons in a war they have been waging with each other for years.

From Homer to George R.R. Martin, literature is fascinated with all the ways in which hosts and guests can betray each other. And as the author of a book on hospitality and treachery, I can't resist the urge to say that if you'd like to know more about this topic, be my guest.