The Case for 'Game of Thrones' As an Epic Fantasy About Climate Change
This post contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones. Visit our "Beyond the Wall" hub for more GoT recaps, theories, and spoilers.
As it approaches its finale, Game of Thrones has overtaken pop culture like a horde of White Walkers hell-bent on destruction, with scores of analysts, sleuths, and obsessives tuned in to weigh in on the comings-and-goings of the Stark family, the villainous Lannisters, and Daenerys Targaryen's fiery path toward conquest. Tinfoil-capped fans have pushed every theory you can think of -- several of which make sense -- but so many of them focus on secret notes, incest, and claims of parentage that we often neglect the core subtext underneath the production values that go into creating life-like dragons.
Let's shear away the fantasy and the acting chops and the machinations to "win" the "game of thrones." This epic story has always been about something pretty obvious: Humans have an uncanny, self-destructive tendency to fight among themselves while the world around them is getting obliterated by a larger existential threat.
Think we're talking White Walkers? Sure, but also: climate change.
The parallels between Thrones and the climate crisis are everywhere
Though showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff adopted the name of George R.R. Martin's first installment (1996's A Game of Thrones) for their show, the entire saga flies under the banner of A Song of Ice and Fire, an elemental title that the author says is key to the central conflict.
It's not hard to see how the extremes of hot and cold offer representations of the climate crisis. "Ice" ties into the cold-emitting, snowy White Walkers and their reanimated corpses (known as wights), and also the troops of the North, including our heroes of the Stark clan. The "Fire" in turn refers to the fire-breathing dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, and in many ways, all acts of destruction, like the man-made wildfire that Cersei Lannister unleashed in Season 6.
Like the current climate crisis, Martin's fantastical war between Fire and Ice dates back a very long time. The struggle began when the First Men arrived in Westeros 12,000 years ago, invading the territory of a fairy-like race called the Children of the Forest. The war between the First Men and the Children of the Forest sounds a lot like clashes between races in our own ancient antiquity (the First Men wielded bronze weaponry while the Children fought with obsidian-tipped bows and arrows) -- and for a more modern comparison, the Children's use of explosive tactics to destroy the First Men's migratory land bridge generated a winter that irrevocably altered the overall climate of a planet that already has wonky, years-long seasons. The Children also used their magic to create the White Walkers, a decision that backfired stupendously. Led by an ice-crowned Night King, the White Walkers' penchant for freezing everything in their path forced the Children of the Forest and the First Men to band together, fight them off, and build the Wall in the North to stop the threat.
The environmental message is clear: The First Men and the Children of the Forest tampered with the natural order and made things worse for the planet. But the Wall, it seems, proves to be a mere Band-Aid that doesn't address the problem's root cause. Winter is coming, whether Thrones characters admit it or not.
That's the tale of Game of Thrones' wildly destructive Long Night, and the series begins with the White Walkers re-emerging in a push to invade the lands south of the Wall and create another Long Night. Along the way, they'll ravage the land and turn whole populations into refugees, victims, and reanimated corpses. These threads have always been there, hanging in the background of the saga waiting to be pulled. And the looming devastation of a renewed eco-threat has been the true top-line issue of every season of the show -- while most of the main characters, and therefore most of the saga's audience, have focused instead on wars for conquest. The alliance between the Children and First Men, then, seems to represent a best-case scenario for confronting an environmental threat: recognize the problem, work together, do what you can to mitigate disaster even if you can't eliminate the threat entirely.
The ominous threat has yet to be clearly defined...
For all the green explosions and fields of dragon fire that have propelled the drama of Game of Thrones, we've known since Episode 1 that scarier stuff was going on north of the Wall. In the books, they don't even have a name; they're just called "the others" and are shrouded in mystery. On screen, viewers witness their slow descent on mankind. But there's no obvious motivation, no human logic to comprehend. The White Walkers are simply driven to reclaim the land, as if to right the balance of nature.
That's been the trouble climatologists and other scientists have faced for decades. Activist and scholar Bill McKibben put it succinctly in his feature "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," writing, "A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies."
To most of the people of modern Westeros, the tale of the Children of the Forest and the Night King is bedtime fiction. To those who believe it could be fact, the Long Night was still an event thousands of years removed from the present, which closely resembles a common refrain among climate change deniers: The climate routinely shifts on its own as it did in past ice ages, and humans contribute little, if at all, to these large-scale changes. Westeros faces the added drawback of a terrific dearth of scientific knowledge among its population (we'll get to the maesters in a second).
Jon Snow vocalized the problem to Tyrion in Season 7's third episode, "The Queen's Justice," rhetorically asking, "How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is going to kill them all?" No wonder that afterward, Reddit raced to compare him to Al Gore, former vice president and probably the most visible -- and visibly frustrated -- American climate change activist of the 2000s.
... but the heroes, villains, and victims of Thrones all face political and human realities
Despite the fatigue over comparing everything to Game of Thrones, the parallels to modern politics in the context of the climate crisis are apt. The lesson Jon Snow, leader of this charge, learns in Season 7 is one of political storytelling. He can't just tell the people of Westeros that the environmentally powered agents of their demise are knocking on their magic ice Wall thousands of miles away. He has to show them by capturing a sample zombie from north of the Wall.
We see this play out in climate change conversations all the time. Photos of sickly polar bears and gaping Antarctic fissures are much more potent messages than raw data, of course, but the shifting communication strategy also speaks to the broad history of those conversations since the late '80s. Maria Taylor, a professor at Australian National University summed it up in 2013 after analyzing years of climate research, news, and government documents: "The science hasn't changed, but the public story has changed dramatically." It's not enough to say that the oceans are rising, that people will die. You have to show it happening.
As Jon Snow is beginning to understand, especially when faced with convincing tyrants like Cersei Lannister, the collaborative aspect of discussing weather-wielding ice monsters is the trickiest element of this process. It's also why the discussion around climate change goes bananas when something like the Paris Agreement happens. Getting everyone's buy-in on deals like that can be a years-long process, despite the scientific evidence backing them up.
While that goes down, the maesters, the closest thing Game of Thrones has to scientists, guard their vast repositories of knowledge from the public behind lock and key; you can't escape the fact that Samwell Tarly is Season 7's whistleblower and leaker of information that the maesters choose not to reveal. Tarly's important because the Night's Watch, the heroes of the show as Martin laid out in his original pitch memo for the series, have remained consistent in their drive to fight off the threat posed by the White Walkers. As a former member, Sam not only knows the threat (and how to kill White Walkers), but has access that will allow him to get the all-important scrolls, which he believes contain information on how to beat the White Walkers, into the hands of people who can make use of them.
Meanwhile, in our world and on Thrones, people are already dying. The wildlings, a tribal society already pushed to the brinks of the habitable earth, have been a displaced refugee population for as long as we've seen them on the show. "Hardhome," one of the show's most exciting episodes and the one where the reanimated wights look like victims of a horrible natural disaster, show just how brutalizing the threat could be. While those horrors hit the wildlings hardest, world leaders like Cersei Lannister instead xenophobically dismiss their struggles and focus on blowing up the religious centers of capital cities. Homelands are already getting destroyed, people are being displaced, and lives are changed forever regardless of what the power brokers in King's Landing focus their energy on.
The similarity to the real-world crisis works because this is the sort of thing that actually happens every day. In the words of the United Nations Refugee Agency: "Displacement linked to climate change is not a future hypothetical – it’s a current reality." Each year since 2008, it reports, "21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards."
Like actual climate change, there are Thrones skeptics
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, of course, not even George R.R. Martin. One of the commonly cited counters to the Thrones-as-climate-change-metaphor argument is an answer he gave to an audience member, who asked him about the potential allegory, at a 2013 event:
"Like Tolkien I do not write allegory, at least not intentionally. Obviously you live in the world and you’re affected by the world around you, so some things sink in on some level, but if I really wanted to write about climate change in the 21st century I’d write a novel about climate change in the 21st century."
He went on to explain that he began outlining and writing the books long before events like the Iraq War and other globally defining conflicts had occurred, so any similarities are post hoc. All of that's fair, and perhaps it's best not to talk up the themes within a fantasy novel series about dragons and magically forged swords when they affect folks in the real world. However, that wasn't his final word on the topic. In November 2014, in an interview on Al Jazeera America, Martin described his thinking behind the political undertones of his books' various different plotlines:
"We have things going on in our world right now like climate change, that’s, you know, ultimately a threat to the entire world... You’d think everybody would get together ... This is something that can wipe out possibly the human race. So I wanted to do an analogue not specifically to the modern-day thing but as a general thing with the structure of the book."
It's not a clear endorsement of the idea that the books are strictly about climate change, but it's a breadcrumb worth considering. In the past, Martin has cited everything from the War of the Roses to the Norse myth of Ragnarok to Martin's own science-fiction stories as influences on A Song of Fire and Ice. And the books are clearly written by a reader of fantasy who relishes deconstructing the tropes of the genre from start to finish. It'd be stupidly reductive for Martin, who has spent thousands of pages across three decades and hundreds of characters to boil his critically acclaimed, wildly successful life's work down to a single theme.
But the parallels are there, and the thematic spine seems to have carried over to Weiss and Benioff's television adaptation. Whether he explicitly intended the comparisons or not, Martin began and continues to write his novels in the same time period that's given us several massive international summits on issues related to greenhouse gases, global warming, and climate change broadly. As many wonder how Game of Thrones could end, the same theorizing and conversations about how our current world ends rage on.
How it all could end
We know that Season 7 concludes with the dramatic destruction of the Wall, the last defense keeping the White Walkers from running rampant all over Westeros. It's a chilling image that creates the kind of "we're fucked" feeling dominant in discussions of climate disaster, and this quote from the work of Charli Carpenter -- as pointed out by Vox and other outlets -- indicates the race to the finish line could directly comment on the climate change theory:
"The slogan 'Winter is coming' is meant literally as well as metaphorically: planetary forces are moving slowly but inexorably toward climatic catastrophe as the infighting among kings and queens distracts them from the bigger picture. This is a collective action story, with the Night’s Watch issuing increasingly desperate alarms yet receiving indifferent shrugs. ...The argument [of the series] seems clear: if existing governance structures cannot manage emerging global threats, expect them to evolve or fall by the wayside."
A "collective action" story sounds a lot like the alliance between the First Men and the Children of the Forest, and is a lot more hopeful than the reputation of Game of Thrones suggests. Following Carpenter, the endgame of Game of Thrones will depend not upon who sits on the Iron Throne, or who screws whose aunt, or who finally stops Cersei's ascent to the the title of Mad Queen, but on whether or not the various forces of humanity that still have money, military, magic, and magnificent dragons can get past their realpolitik and cooperate long enough to fight the forces of evil that are capable of changing the weather.
Maybe Jon Snow will survive long enough to pull it off and eventually prevent a second Long Night, as has been prophesied in the saga. Or maybe, to borrow a metaphor real-life climate scientists have used, our characters have gone "past the point of no return," and their squabbling, wasted time, and the disruption of a natural order have caused an irreversible dent in humanity's ability to confront an inevitable devastation.
The "point of no return" is a fitting description because it sets up the moral dilemma all of the saga's main characters will face before the end: Do you continue to address the difficult long-term problem like Jon Snow, who faces the danger, knows the danger, has been outnumbered by the danger several times over, and chooses to fight anyway? Do you battle against climate change even though we're "past the point of no return"? Or do you focus on a chair made of swords and your control over people and nations, while your population and countryside freeze over?
If that devastation is inevitable -- and, again, Game of Thrones is not known for hopefulness -- ice will envelop the land before the end of the final season. The Wall has fallen. Daenerys Targaryen will die. Jon Snow will die again. They will return as cold carcasses, perhaps missing an ear, an eye, an arm, but no less certain of their dark, singular mission of destruction. Perhaps Sansa will live to watch the frozen, desiccated corpses of babes feast on the flesh of those still living in Winterfell, before a wight that was a Stark turns her into a frigid specter, too. And perhaps even the two remaining dragons, the Song of Ice and Fire's symbol of hot-blooded hope, will blink through steely blue eyes before the end.