Game of Thrones

The Politics of Game of Thrones Revisited

The imminent start of the final season of Game of Thrones is a good time to consider the series' political message, and reprise some of my work on that subject. Plus, a discussion of the political economy portrayed in George R.R. Martin's recently published prequel to the series.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Promotional image for the final season of Game of Thrones

The final season of the hit TV series Game of Thrones begins this weekend, on April 14, ending a long wait that began when Season 7 ended in 2017. One of the many interesting aspects of the series and the books by George R.R. Martin on which it is based, is the attempt to address a variety of political issues. While some might consider it frivolous to assess the political message of a fantasy show, it's worth remembering that far more people consume science fiction and fantasy media than read serious nonfiction analyses of political issues. And social science research indicates that science fiction and fantasy, such as the Harry Potter series, can even have a significant influence on fans' political views. At the very least, discussing the politics of Game of Thrones is less painful than analyzing the much grimmer politics of the real world! Valar morghulis—"all men must die"—is all too true. But at least we can have some fun with fictional political economy first!

Over the last several years, I have written a good deal about the politics of Game of Thrones. My most extensive analysis is a 2017 article focusing on what it might take to fulfill Daenerys Targaryen's vow to "break the wheel" of Westeros' awful political system:

In a famous scene in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen compares the struggle for power in Westeros to a spinning wheel that elevates one great noble house and then another. She vows that she does not merely intend to turn the wheel in her own favor: "I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel."

In the world of the show, Daenerys's statement resonates because the rulers of Westeros have made a terrible mess of the continent…

Daenerys's desire to "break the wheel" suggests the possibility of a better approach. But, what exactly, does breaking the wheel entail?…

Even in the late stages of… Season 7, Daenerys seems to have little notion of what it means beyond defeating her enemies and installing herself as Queen on Westeros's Iron Throne….

Unlike most of the other rulers we see in the series, Daenerys has at least some genuine interest in improving the lot of ordinary people. Before coming to Westeros, she and her army freed tens of thousands of slaves on the continent of Essos. She delayed her departure from Essos long enough to try to establish a new government in the liberated areas that would — hopefully — prevent backsliding into slavery.

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Daenerys has any plan to prevent future oppression and injustice other than to replace the current set of evil rulers with a better one: herself. The idea of "breaking the wheel" implies systemic institutional reform, not just replacing the person who has the dubious honor of planting his or her rear end on the Iron Throne in King's Landing. If Daenerys has any such reforms in mind, it is hard to say what they are….

Daenerys's failure to give serious consideration to institutional problems is shared by the other great leader beloved by fans of the show: Jon Snow, the newly enthroned King in the North. Perhaps even more than Daenerys, Jon has a genuine concern for ordinary people….

Perhaps to an even greater extent than Daenerys, however, Jon does not have any real notion of institutional reform….

But in Medieval Europe, on which Westeros is roughly based, parliaments, merchants' guilds, autonomous cities, and other institutions eventually emerged to challenge and curb the power of kings and nobles. These developments gradually helped lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the economic growth that led to modern liberal democracy. Few if any such developments are in evidence in Westeros, which seems to have had thousands of years of economic, technological, and intellectual stagnation.

The characters in the books and the TV show are not the only ones who largely ignore the need for institutional change. We the fans are often guilty of the same sin…..

Most of us read fantasy literature and watch TV shows to be entertained, not to get a lesson in political theory. And it is much easier to develop an entertaining show focused on the need to replace a villainous evil ruler with a good, heroic, and virtuous one, than to produce an exciting story focused on institutional questions….. Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire is comparatively unusual in even raising the possibility that institutional reform is the real solution to its fictional world's problems, and in making this idea one of the central themes of the story.

However understandable, the pop culture fixation on heroic leaders rather than institutions reinforces a dangerous tendency of real-world politics. The benighted people of Westeros are not the only ones who hope that their problems might go away if only we concentrate vast power in the hands of the right ruler. The same pathology has been exploited by dictators throughout history, both left and right.

It is also evident, in less extreme form, in many democratic societies…..

For all its serious flaws, our situation is not as bad as that of Westeros. But we too could benefit from more serious consideration of ways to break the wheel, as opposed to merely spin it in another direction. And our popular culture could benefit from having more stories that highlight the value of institutions, as well as heroic leaders. However much we love Daenerys and Jon, they and their real-world counterparts are unlikely to give us a better wheel on their own.

Back in 2016, I discussed Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire in an article on the politics of several science fiction and fantasy series where I highlighted the series' skeptical view of political elites. In this 2013 post, I discussed the significance of the "Red Wedding," one of the most shocking and controversial episodes in the history of the series. Back in 2011, when the series first began, I commented on some of the political issues raised by the struggle for the Iron Throne, building on an Atlantic symposium about the series.

In August 2017, I participated in a panel on the politics of Game of Thrones, sponsored by the R Street Institute and the Cato Institute, along with Alyssa Rosenberg (Washington Post), Peter Suderman (Reason), and Matthew Yglesias (Vox). We are hoping to reprise our discussion during the final season.

During the long interregnum between the end of Season 7 and the start of Season 8, George R.R. Martin published the first volume of Fire and Blood, the history of House Targaryen's rule over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The book predictably divided fans, many of whom would have preferred that Martin finish the long-awaited Winds of Winter instead. But I thought it was fascinating. At the very least, it did provide a lot of information about Westeros' political system. Here are a few examples (with spoilers largely avoided):

1. Even when the king is both competent and relatively well-intentioned, the political system doesn't function all that well. When he is either malevolent or incompetent, all kinds of disasters happen. And badly flawed kings seem to be more common than good ones. The high frequency of bad kings and the inability of good ones to make much progress is a strong sign that the monarchy's flaws are mostly systemic, rather than the fault of a few flawed individual rulers.

2. Like the Roman Empire, Westeros under the Targaryen kings never developed any generally accepted rules of succession. Thus, civil war breaks out over such issues as whether male relatives of the king take precedence over female ones who are older and/or more closely related. It is also not clear whether the king has the right to designate his own heir, or whether there are laws of succession that he cannot set aside (and if so, what they are).

3. Despite the above, Fire and Blood actually deepens the mystery of why Westeros has had so many centuries of economic stagnation. It shows that the kings invested in useful infrastructure (e.g.—ports and roads) and that there are many sources of investment capital other than the Iron Bank of Braavos. Plus, several of the great houses engage in extensive trade with other parts of the world. All of this should stimulate considerable innovation, growth, and technological progress. Yet very little seems to occur.

4. Fire and Blood makes clear that the stagnation probably is not caused by dragons, despite speculation to the contrary by commentators on the earlier books and TV show. There are never more than about 10-15 domesticated dragons in Westeros at any one time, and they don't seem to be used for anything but warfare and transportation for their riders (mostly members of the royal family). They clearly do not substitute for labor-saving devices or provide transportation for trade. And, while they are powerful battlefield weapons, they are clearly not invincible and their presence should stimulate military innovation, not stifle it.

5. Based on what we see, it is far from clear that Targaryen blood is actually necessary to become a dragonrider. If it is, only a tiny bit seems to be enough. This suggests that the number of domesticated dragons and dragonriders could be greatly expanded. If so, dragons could actually help jumpstart the economy! There is a lot they could do to increase Westerosi productivity, if they started to take on jobs other than killing people and transporting VIPs.

6. Women are undeniably second-class citizens in Westeros. But they seem to have higher social status and more autonomy than their real-world medieval equivalents. We even see a number of cases of them entering male-dominated professions, including warfare. This further deepens the mystery of Westerosi stagnation, as relatively freer Westerosi women should be more productive than those of medieval Europe, yet this does not seem to result in much increased growth.

Perhaps we will get more insights on the politics of Westeros from Season 8, and George R.R. Martin's long-awaited Winds of Winter. Until then, don't forget that political chaos is a ladder!

NEXT: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks Deserve Our Thanks for Making Governments More Transparent

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  1. The unpredictable seasons, especially the long winters would devour seed capital. In fact it is hard to imagine how things got so far in the first place with such profound and irregular seasonality.

    1. I am under the impression that Martin is of the older Left, so the preficates of his fictional world might not be the same as those of anyone discussing this.

    2. Also, it’s a world where magic is real, and only a very few people are capable of wielding it. When you consider the deleterious effects of magical thinking in the real world, where magic is not real, just imagine how bad things would be if it were.

      That being said, the real answer is that GoT is fiction, and fiction writers as a group aren’t economists and/or don’t care to invest effort in thinking about such things. Look at the undeveloped wilderness surrounding large cities and towns in the LoTR films (but not the books, where the economies of various regions get a detailed treatment), or the huge and vastly expensive engineering works that are seemingly just laying around for the taking in Star Wars, where nobody ever mentions a shortage of resources, let alone any trouble paying for what is available. I think it’s the same basic phenomenon as the last two decades of sitcoms, where everyone lives in big houses, takes fabulous vacations and drives expensive cars despite having little or no visible means of support.

      1. This makes sense to me.

        Martin, or the show’s producers – I haven’t read the books – simply are not interested in economic topics, so they don’t worry about them or try to make them fit. It’s hard enough to construct a compelling imaginary world without trying to incorporate plausible economic growth, financial markets, etc.

        1. The act of authorship is effectively one of “top down” creation and management. The worlds you envision don’t “self organize”. A particularly good author may describe not knowing where a story is going as they write it, because they have to see how things play out in terms of character action and development, but that’s still generally only operating in terms of individual characters, not societies and economies.

          Science fiction, in particular, seems prone to describing change in monolithic terms — a new technology is developed, and people as a whole react to it in some fashion that advances the plot, rather than having many responses. It’s a rare author who can at least fake a sense of reality in describing cultural evolution.

          There are philosophers and physicists who assert that our universe is a simulation. If that’s the case, I suspect its purpose is as an aid to writing plausible fiction.

      2. Why would there be resource shortages in Star Wars? They’ve got benign AI down pat. Something like 99% or more of the population consists of robotic slaves.

        1. Brett: There seems to be a lot of human poverty for an economy based on robotic slave labor. And the rulers like it that way!

      3. There are resource shortages in the Star Wars universe, they just don’t get mentioned in the movies, but some of the books actually focus on it

        1. The books aren’t canon. The movies are – so don’t expect any deep thought into the society they were creating.

      4. JohnTheRevelator

        ^ This!

        1. When I was a young’un, back when woolly mammoths still ruled the northern plains, I use to watch the Roy Rogers Show (King of the Cowboys! With Dale Evans, Queen of the West!). It was a straightforward Western with one wrinkle — Pat Brady, Roy’s comic sidekick, drove a 1946 Jeep he called Nellie Bell.

          Well! Young Poxy couldn’t figure that out. I finally decided the reason there were no other cars around must be that they were too far from civilization and cars hadn’t gotten that far. Only the occasional Jeep to make it out there.

          My point? I think Ilya is engaging in six-year-old level speculation.

    3. The piece linked at the words “speculation to the contrary” explores — and rejects — this explanation.

    4. That would be my first thought, but this is one more dog that doesn’t bark in the century and a half covered by Fire And Blood. There are a couple throwaway references to preparing for winter, but there’s no description of a ruinous winter, no king whose reign is dominated by dealing with a harsh winter, no war whose course is affected by dealing with winter. Fire and Blood leads one to think that winter is not as serious as we’ve been led to believe, at least not outside the North.

      1. Maybe the Targareyons had the Mandate of Heaven and things got better, if this is the case then it is just one more thing Ned Stark screwed up with his narcissism and impetuousness.

      2. Alternatively, the cycles are so long that it’s more of a metaphor at this point. A 5000 year ice age followed by 5000 years of warmth.

        1. How are you going to stick away food for 5000 years? My take is a 2-3 year winter.

  2. The idea of “breaking the wheel” implies systemic institutional reform, not just replacing the person who has the dubious honor of planting his or her rear end on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing.

    I don’t think that’s true. “Breaking the wheel” merely implies wanting to disrupt the existing order, not necessarily devising a replacement. I think Daenerys made that assertion while laboring under the common illusion that only an oppressive power structure stands between people and their utopia. After freeing slaves in Essos, she witnessed the broad base of forces working to draw the society back to its status quo even without its traditional leaders. She had to confront, at least at some level, the true depth of the task of change, alongside the fact that it’s always easier to destroy than create.

    I think “breaking the wheel” really merely means disrupting the family dynasty/alliance system, which the war has plainly been doing. The new structure may be a new wheel, or perhaps a non-rolling pyramid. That could be more stagnant than a wheel, but might also be able to grow more stably.

    1. I think she means breaking monarchy dictatorships, and bringing in rule by the people. The discussion is made with Tyrion, while Daenerys is simultaneously acceding to popular policies (reopening the fighting pits) that she despises. She’s learned that doing what you think is right is not enough, if there are a bunch of subjects who simply disagree with you.

      1. Not based on her very obvious insistence that the Iron Throne is hers by birthright, the long laundry list of titles she proudly insists upon (Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Dothraki, blah, blah) as well as her insistence that her rightful rule extends to the north and John Snow’s refusal to recognize this might result in imprisonment or execution (as was the case with the captured Tarleys who refused to swear instant fealty after their capture and were given an horrific summary execution worthy of ISIS). Note, too, that she refuses to even ponder the idea of succession in discussions with Tyrion. What will she do after seizing complete control? She won’t discuss this even with her closest adviser. To me, she seems a candidate for eventually demonstrating the truth of ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

      2. Or maybe she just means ending the constant churn of families in the throne, and wants to have a permanent Targaryen dynasty.

  3. For all its serious flaws, our situation is not as bad as that of Westeros.

    Yes, especially considering we don’t have an army of undead, led by a zombie, fire breathing dragon bearing down on us from Canada.

    1. So you’re some kind of denier, then? How can you be sure what the hell is up there?

      1. Are you saying Trump’s building the *wrong wall*?

  4. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because its a book setting and not a real world, that certain realities from our world are not the same in Westeros. They are created artificialities for purposes of storytelling.

  5. My first introduction to inserting political commentary into a fantasy movie:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2c-X8HiBng

  6. Perhaps to an even greater extent than Daenerys, however, Jon does not have any real notion of institutional reform….

    I think that’s not quite true. Daenerys shows interest in the common people but also a strong sense that the iron throne is hers by birthright. Jon Snow has not similar sense of entitlement. He’d rather not be king in the north, and understands he is only that by virtue of the support enjoys among northerners. I don’t think there’s any doubt that if they made a different choice, he would step down (whereas Daenerys definitely would not). And he refuses to ‘bend the knee’ to Daenerys not out of an affront to personal pride but because he believes that the people who chose him would not accept it. It’s not something he can do without consultation. Granted, he has no explicit theory of reform, but his behavior is closer to that of an elected leader than of a king who believes the throne is his by divine right.

  7. What a bunch of wet blankets Mr Somin and the other commenters are.

    To normal people there is no contest between an academic presentation of a governmental reform plan and another nude scene.

    IANAL and in this case, I’m proud of that.

    1. What I got out of this: politics should involve more nudity.

      But have you seen our politicians?

      1. Maxine Waters, please keep your clothes on.

      2. If we made them all campaign in the nude, we’d certainly have different politicians. But would they be better?

  8. In terms of the lack of economic development, it isn’t that surprising. The best real analogy is China. Why didn’t China industrialize first? The answer typically revolves around the social structure necessary for the development of the scientific method and other advances. These were typically observed in small city states, rather than large kingdoms (or empires), especially those without real existential external threats. In addition, a mindset needed to be encouraged that would question existing doctrine. Neither of these applied to the Chinese Empire…nor would they be applied to the iron throne.

    The second major issue, which is only in fantasy, is the “magic” problem. In any given society, there are only so many people with the brains, time, wealth, and drive to really innovate. Furthermore, there are only so many patrons of these people. Magic provides an alternative outlet for these geniuses to study (rather than the natural sciences). We saw this in the real world with alchemists looking to turn lead into gold…and magic isn’t even real here. Given a world where magic IS real, it would be even more attractive to such geniuses (even if they were rare). Furthermore, if one was to try to develop a scientific method or rationale, magic would undermine its conclusions. Making scientific development much more difficult.

  9. How the friggin’ hell could anyone take this garbage serious enough to write multiple lengthy articles expounding on the “politics” of this fictional crap? Never really could stomach watching this nonsense but wasn’t this the show that used an image of Bush’s head on a pike? Such brilliant witty political commentary. One has to go to the Last Jedi for something on a comparably sophisticated level.

  10. It is absurd to say that people “consume” science fiction stories, or
    any works of text or video. Reading a text, and watching a video.
    does not consume them.

    See https://gnu.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html#Consume.

  11. I predict that Daenerys will attempt to start a civil war with backing from outside the country. If the story is at all realistic, it will end as the Thirty Years War did.

  12. Great story. We shall see how true this is very soon. 🙂

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