The Ethics of Hodor

A conversation about how Game of Thrones’s latest twist fits in with George R.R. Martin’s typically cliché-busting portrayal of disability


Season 6 spoilers ahead.

Years before Hodor inspired worldwide mourning among Game of Thrones fans, he inspired a medical-blog skirmish. In 2014, a few media outlets ran stories diagnosing the character—known for saying only “Hodor” while serving Bran Stark, a highborn child who can’t walk—as having expressive aphasia, a neurological condition restricting speech. Some aphasia experts pushed back, saying that while Hodor has often been described as “simple-minded” or “slow of wits,” aphasia only affects linguistic communication—not intelligence.

That a fictional stablehand could inspire doctorly debate highlights not only how seriously people take Game of Thrones, but how seriously the show and corresponding books take disability. George R.R. Martin’s cast is filled with what Tyrion Lannister affectionately terms “cripples, bastards, and broken things” who manage to wield power while facing stigma and physical challenges. Some characters are born different, but more are rendered so by a brutal world, like Bran, Jaime, and story’s various eunuchs and greyscale patients. Hodor’s backstory was left sketchy until Sunday’s episode revealed his condition to have resulted from Bran controlling his mind during time travel: In a vision of the past, viewers saw a boy named Wylis falling down as if in seizure and repeating “hold the door,” the orders he would receive in his dying moment decades later.

In the 2014 scholarly essayA Song of Ice and Fire’s Ethics of Disability,” Lauryn S. Mayer of Washington and Jefferson College and Pascal J. Massie of Miami University of Ohio examined the disability themes in George R.R. Martin’s book series. They wrote that the saga seemed interested in “dismantling the clichés of disability, examining the costs of ableist ideologies, and uncovering the fear of mortality and vulnerability that compels people to build a wall separating themselves from the disabled.”

On Thursday, I spoke with Mayer, an associate professor of English who teaches about medieval and medieval-inspired literature, for her thoughts on Hodor’s demise and newly revealed history.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Spencer Kornhaber: What makes Game of Thrones interesting in its portrayal of disability?

Lauryn S. Mayer: Medieval and fantasy literature has been noted by a lot of scholars for providing a space to imagine something different: another world—utopian, dystopian—or a particular way of thinking, different social structures, those kinds of things. The thing that I found interesting with Martin was that he takes a world in which people are particularly vulnerable and he plays that up.

Look at Tolkien, for example. If you count up the battles, skirmishes, everything like that [in the Lord of the Rings series], the fact that out of the nine [Fellowship of the Ring members], eight of them survived and only one of them is missing a finger is statistically ludicrous. Martin is playing with the idea that because somebody is a hero or a beloved character they are going to live somehow. I used to call that the kids-at-the-end-of-Jurassic-Park syndrome: They should have been raptor chow, but we can’t have the kids getting killed.

By talking about disability as a very certain set of extreme conditions, we have a tendency of setting up these walls between them and us. But what Martin does is show how very, very fragile the boundaries between wholeness and bodily vulnerability are. Only in a moment you can go from being an “able” person to somebody who is “disabled.”

Hodor shows up in the books as somebody who cannot speak anything beyond what we thought was his name. But Martin is very careful to make sure that we know that Hodor can understand people, can follow complex instructions, and has absolutely appropriate emotional reactions to things. This is carried over to the show, too: The actor who plays Hodor spent a lot of time practicing how to say that one word in a way to connote different types of emotions. So it seemed when Pascal and I originally wrote the essay, we had was somebody who was functionally mute but had an active intelligence. What happens is that he is treated as simply a body to be ordered around.

Part of that obviously is class issues—that’s how you treat your servants. But also Martin is playing with the idea of “what do you do when you have someone who seems to have all the tropes of a developmentally disabled individual but he’s not [one]?” I thought it was interesting that Hodor keeps saying his name over and over again in a text that is trying to take the disabled out of stereotype and into individuality.

Right now with Hodor, I think it’s even sadder. It was made very clear that either Bran or the Three Eyed Raven are responsible for taking a seemingly bright and personable stableboy and turning him into somebody who either can constantly see his own future demise and is so traumatized by it that the only thing he can do is say “hold the door,” or somebody who has been stripped of agency to articulate any will of his own other than the purpose for which he has been used.

Kornhaber: There was ambiguity over his mental faculties, and this episode made it clearer that something really was deeply different in him.

Mayer: Yeah. It’s very interesting to see the fan reaction to this. He is being now either being retroactively rewritten as an automaton whose job was just to hold the door and who now is valorized because of this great sacrificial death—or somebody who is being painted as a Christlike figure who knows perfectly well what his own death is and how horrible it is.

Both of these things bother me a little bit because a character who had the potential to have agency was now turned into one of these other disability tropes: He was a heroic sacrificial figure, or the figure of lost purity and innocence. You see that over and over again in literature, like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, or Lenny in Of Mice and Men, or if you want to go into popular culture, Forrest Gump.

There’s something else: Bran, who of all people should have some empathy for Hodor, is kind of an abusive little shit. Because Martin makes it very clear in the books—and this is another way that Hodor has will and agency—Hodor does not want to be warged into at all. He fights him, but obviously he doesn’t have the mental ability that Bran does. And then he curls up like a beaten dog. Hodor could break Bran like a twig, but he doesn’t want to be violent; when Samwell gives him those dragonglass weapons, he doesn’t want to take them till he’s ordered to. And when you get to that scene where he snaps his chains and then snaps his tormenter in half, that’s not him, that’s Bran. Hodor is horrified by what’s happened. Bran’s always using an excuse: “I just want to be strong again,” “I won’t do this for too long”—that’s the logic of the abuser.

Hodor’s supposed to be loyal anyways. You could just have Bran tell Hodor to hold the door and have him die sacrificially. But I think it’s very interesting that the show shows this early violation against a kid who could have grown up to be a perfectly functioning and very colorful adult.

Kornhaber: The point you made earlier about the show reminding people of their fragility—it seems like this revelation about Hodor’s past is another example of that. It wasn’t something he was born with.

Mayer: Yeah, and that’s the reason, I think, people react so viscerally to the show. Look at the reaction [videos] to any particular horrifying episode of Game of Thrones, like Shireen being burned to death or the Red Wedding. If you watch people’s body language, they are acting as if they themselves are being physically hurt, right? A lot of them will start curling into themselves. They’ll start touching parts of their bodies like you do when you’re injured. And if you look at the comments afterwards, you see the kind of thing where [it’s like] people dropped something on their foot. A lot of them are not even able to articulate complete sentences: “FUCK THIS FUCKING SHOW!” or “I can’t even, I can’t, I can’t.”

When I was driving back from Pittsburgh before I had this interview, I got cut off by a large truck. A three-second miscalculation, and you’d be having this conversation with someone else. And that [feeling], I think, is what Martin does. In terms of disability, it really reminds us of how profoundly vulnerable that we are—that the boundary between the abled and the disabled is so thin.

Kornhaber: And that’s, in the end, a good thing for attitudes toward people with disabilities?

Mayer: One of the things I like about Martin is that he doesn’t fall into these tropes of disability. Hodor is the closest— I’m kind of disappointed that he fell sort of into the sacrificial Christ trope. But think of the rest of the people who are disabled in the show. I think it’s a good thing that Bran is a profoundly complicated individual. He’s abusing Hodor but he’s not an evil character—he’s selfish and lacks empathy on occasion, just like everybody else. [By contrast] imagine what Dickens would have done with him: Tiny Tim.

Tyrion is a dwarf, but he’s not so much confined by dwarfishness as much as he is by his own internalization of ableist discourse. Now, again, this cuts across class and cuts across a whole lot of other issues, but I think that there is a huge step forward in the fact that you’ve got people in here who are disabled, who are complex, sometimes really annoying, sometimes heroic, sometimes selfish, sometimes unselfish. I think Martin is really trying to not put them into types or use them as some symbol for the suffering of humanity or something like that.

Kornhaber: In terms of real medieval history, how would someone like Hodor have been thought about and treated?

Mayer: Well, that’s a difficult, complex question. It would depend on a variety of things. Somebody like Hodor, who is of a serving class, who is immensely strong, who, let’s say, had some sort of tragic accident—he probably wouldn’t be treated too much differently.

He would be considered a useful body, probably tormented by some people, probably helped by others. The medieval church did stress that one was supposed to be Christlike in one’s actions, which meant one was supposed to be empathic and compassionate. There might be the kind of thing that surrounded the figure of the fool as someone who may have other wisdom or greater innocence—we get these narratives from places.

I’m leery about any sort of generalization turning medieval people into a homogenous mass. Class does have a huge influence. Courtly literature will usually show lower classes as being inherently less intelligent, less good looking, less able to do things. There’s the trope of the kid of the royal blood raised as a peasant but of course you know he’s of royal blood because he’s so much smarter or whatever. In a lot of cases, medieval courtly literature was self-serving because it was trying to take a class situation and make it an inherent set of qualities. So somebody who was born into a class to serve would probably have automatically been treated as if they were somewhat less mentally capable, which would have been encouraged by the fact that very few of them could read and write.

Kornhaber: One part of the revelation in this last episode was that Hodor became this way though an act of magic. Was there a belief in medieval times that mystical forces were at play in disability?

Mayer: Disability could be seen in a variety of ways. If you’re disabled from birth, that might be because your mother had seen some sort of thing that caused an impression on the womb. If you saw a spider when you were pregnant, your kid might be born with extra limbs.

There was also the idea that the state of the body reflected the state of the soul. If you were suddenly disabled, it might be considered a punishment from God because of some sort of aspect of your living. Leprosy, for example, was seen in a lot of cases as a punishment for sexual excess. You lose control of your body parts because you’ve lost control of your body parts.

[Disability] also might be considered, though, as a privilege because you were living your penance on earth rather than going to purgatory. Going back to the idea of Christ suffering on the cross, it’s like, here’s your test.

Kornhaber: Can you think of any other historical, mythological, or literary figures that Martin might have been reaching for when coming up with Hodor?

Mayer: I think there’s a range of possibilities. Possibly St. Christopher, the person who was carrying Christ on his back. Martin could be [referencing] any one of the service martyrs who devoted their lives to something. Or think of the battle of Thermopylae, where you have 300 Spartans who are being hacked to pieces in order to hold that pass.

Oh, you know what Martin might be thinking of? Princess Bride. Andre the Giant.

Kornhaber: Any other Hodor thoughts?

Mayer: This [Hodor twist] just happened this past Sunday, and already Hodor doorstops are being sold. It’s going to be interesting to see how the fans and the audience [talk about] Hodor now. Because even though Martin is very careful to say that Hodor understands what he’s doing, he’s always seen as the big lovable simpleton, and now, he’s being rewritten as a tragic hero. If you take a look at Imgur and various other [memes about Hodor] before this, really in a lot of cases it was mockery. The Hodor rap battle—“worst rap battle ever.” Or someone had Hodor’s chapter of George R.R. Martin’s book: “Hodor, Hodor, Hodor.” We’re talking about a character who’s obviously disabled, and he’s a punchline.

That’s what I’m worried about: Can we only respect him after he dies in a suitably sacrificial way? I’m not coming down on one side or another on this, because every time you talk about fan reactions you’re going to get a huge [range] all the way across the board. But it is an interesting thing to watch. Even some of the articles will say, “He turned from a punchline into a much heavier situation.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, the guy’s mute and disabled and obviously there’s a mind there, and I think that’s tragic even before we realized what has happened.”