I started reading “Game of Thrones” a couple of years before the show came out, so I have been shooting “Game of Thrones” media into my veins for nearly half my life. And as we come to a pseudo end — I’m still holding out for George R.R. Martin to finish what he started — I realize that, as much as I enjoy that this story has become the kind of cultural phenomenon we can all rally around, the Internet (or rather the people on the Internet) made me forget why I love this story in the first place.
Martin crafted a world that was a familiar, safe space fantasy fans could love, but also thrilled us by defying all our expectations. I came to these books more than 10 years after the first in the series published, when I was bored with the what felt like the bland ancientness of classics such as “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Prydain.”
Martin started writing fiction in the late 1970s, around the same time Dungeons & Dragons and Terry Brooks’s “The Sword of Shannara” began mass-marketing Tolkein-esque fantasy worlds and characters. But his reaction to those tropes spawned a new standard of high fantasy.
Here are some of the tropes we know and love, and how Martin managed to bend them into a hell of an epic.
A world of magic
In the books, Martin’s world-building is rich enough that magic isn’t a deus ex machina come to undo evil. It is woven into the fabric of the story. Before readers see it in action, they know the characters believe in it, and that is enough. Even the dragons need time to become forces of destruction; they remain babies for several books and are chained under a palace for another. We don’t see the ramifications of the resurrection magic wielded by red priests and priestesses until book three — unlike in the television show, the resurrected characters come back changed.
Warging (what Bran does when he sees through the eyes of ravens) is much more mundane, but it also opens a world of possibilities. This tracks with the character focus of Martin’s novels, where magic is used less to inspire awe than to give us insights into the different personalities. In the book, all the Stark children have the potential to warg, but it is only Bran, forced into a wheelchair, who develops the ability to the point of usefulness. And his choice to pursue that calling is one that will have an impact on what befalls Westeros.
The political machine
Martin’s fantasy predecessors mostly worked on a macro scale. The stakes of stopping Sauron and his henchmen are too high to worry about the economics of the shire. But “Game of Thrones” is a book in which even Sauron could be foiled by the right kind of schemer. Court politics are a staple of modern high fantasy, of course, but in GoT, Martin gives equal weight to the impending hordes — the undead, the Unsullied, the Dothraki — about to descend upon Westeros. The only apolitical body, the Night’s Watch, inevitably gets sucked into the power struggles of the realm. While Jon Snow, now commander, tries to work for the greater good and integrate the Wildlings into their ranks, Stannis and others try to use them for their own gain. And when Jon finally succumbs to his own desires — to fight Ramsay Bolton to save his sister — he is killed for it. (Note: Book Jon has just been stabbed, we don’t know if he will come back yet.)
GoT asks questions about who is entitled to power and why the arbitrary qualifications we have elevated may not be important after all — lineage, riches, morality are nothing in the face of the masses (undead or otherwise).
The European, medieval setting
This is probably the least unique aspect of “Game of Thrones.” Martin modeled his story after the War of the Roses (not unlike a lot of Middle Ages-inspired drek). But Martin’s story is different because his world is not closed; it sprawls across the entire Westeros continent and beyond, and we have the opportunity to see how other civilizations perceive the core medieval culture: Dorne is a rich land brimming with exciting plot possibilities, while Meereen resists complying with Daenerys’s Westorosi standards. If anything, the conflict of the books is born of the fact that seven distinct kingdoms were forced to be one, with their own cultures, religions and magic flattened under the force of dragons (and later, the Lannister armies and influence).
Women still live here
It is to our detriment that no one can imagine an alternate history, fantasy, planet that exists without the brutalization of women, or that writers cannot think of a different shorthand for evil than rape. Yet, here we are. Martin does a better job than the HBO showrunners. The way he delivers the news of such violence is matter-of-fact and not to be confused with other sex scenes or (rare) consensual titillations, and he rewards us with the most compelling evil queen in fantasy history. More importantly, the parallel arcs of the Stark sisters, as they try to survive after the beheading of Ned Stark, serves to challenge how women can fight back in the world Martin built. As Arya learns to disguise herself as a boy, a cat (more warging!), a murderer, Sansa learns how to lie and manipulate.
A hero’s journey
Speaking of schemers, GoT’s greatest deviation from the archetypes of epic fantasy — and what makes Martin’s books so interesting — is that he deviates from the traditional hero’s journey. “Game of Thrones” shows how “good” people are blind to their own biases and the truth of the world they live in, which leads to their downfall. Ned, Robb and even Jon have the same drive — loyalty, honor and an adherence to their worldview even in the face of evidence that their perceptions are wrong. At least Dany, as she learns to rule Meereen, begins to understand that she cannot enforce her brand of morality on a foreign culture without bloody consequences. The books ask us to question our inherent assumptions about how the world works.
It was prophesied
Prophesies abound in epic fantasies, and GoT is no different. There are several bouncing around over the years, though they seem to only have the power that people give them. After all, this is a book that questions entitlement.
“Prophecy is a staple element in fantasy, but it’s tricky,” Martin once said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly years ago, after HBO revealed Cersei’s fear of a long-ago prophecy heralding the deaths of her children. We love prophecies because we like to puzzle them out ourselves — who is the Valonqar that will ultimately kill Cersei? — and the reveals reward our investment in tales that span years. In GoT, and other fantasy books, when a character tries to avoid the prophecy, they set it into motion. But there is also room for these prophecies to be wrong. For example, the prophecy of the “Prince who was promised,” seems off so far. (In the books, Stannis has not yet fallen, and Jon is not the only secret potential Targaryen around.)
The show may be (much) different from the books set out to be, but it is at its best when it follows Martin’s lead by twisting traditional tropes in unexpected ways. No matter what happens in this week’s finale, Martin’s legacy lives on.