In his recent interview about the Red Wedding, George Martin explains the medieval laws of hospitality which decreed that host and guest were not allowed to harm each other even if they were the worst enemies. This is what makes Walder Frey’s treachery beyond the pale: he offered Robb Stark the sacred peace of table-fellowship, and then had him slain under his roof as they feasted and danced. The Red Wedding has become legendary in the fantasy community, and the TV series did it full justice last Sunday. You can watch it here:
I started wondering about characters from other fantasies who are treacherous in the way of Walder Frey. The closest analogy I could come up with is a bit of a shocker: Aragorn, from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. Aragorn’s beheading of the Mouth of Sauron is an outrageous act of murder that makes him a war criminal. The Mouth was an ambassador, under the equivalent of a flag of truce when negotiating with the enemy, and obviously had diplomatic immunity. As he says in Tolkien’s Return of the King, “I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed.” Gandalf agrees, replying that “you have naught to fear from us until your errand is done”. The Gandalf and Aragorn of Tolkien’s classic uphold the rules of diplomatic immunity; the Mouth of Sauron is under no physical danger from them, or from anyone in the Host of the West, during negotiations, even as the Mouth gloats over Frodo’s torture and the Ring being on its way to Sauron. Only when their meeting is over, and he retreats back through the Black Gate, does battle begin.
In Jackson’s film, however, Aragorn reacts like a dishonorable barbarian who in a fit of rage decapitates the Mouth. Watch here:
The purists were right that Tolkien would have been appalled. This Aragorn stoops to a level that’s obscene by even Jackson’s standards. Don’t get me wrong: unlike the purists, I applaud the move, as I like protagonists who are deeply flawed, and Tolkien’s were never flawed enough. I like the war-criminal Aragorn in the same way I like the “Clockwork Orange” Faramir whose rangers sadistically beat the daylights out of Gollum at the Forbidden Pool; it’s excellent drama. What Jackson’s Aragorn did was clearly wrong, but it makes him more interesting than Tolkien’s hero.
So there you have it. The film version of Aragorn is the closest fantasy analog to Walder Frey. Both did the unthinkable by murdering those under sacred immunity rights. The obvious objection to my analogy is that the people murdered by Walder Frey were decent and likeable, whereas the Mouth of Sauron was anything but, but that’s not the point. The fact that we identify with Aragorn’s pain and rage over Frodo doesn’t affect the conclusion here. Anger and helplessness are no excuse for murdering ambassadors at a negotiations meeting. (Jackson’s) Aragorn is just as treacherous as Walder Frey.