How Magic Works In ‘Game of Thrones’

In a terrific piece about the appeal of Game of Thrones for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester identifies one of the signal things that differentiate George R. R. Martin’s epic and HBO’s adaptation of it. Rather than asking you to believe in magic along with characters who take its existence for granted, an apparent hurdle for some readers that I must confess I’ve always found to be an inexplicable act of snobbery, the books set up a division between many of the characters and readers: they assume that magic is dead, but we know it’s real. Lanchester explains:

The second big reason for the success of the series may be adjacent to the point about instability. It concerns magic. The whole issue of magic, in turn, seems to be the principal turn-off (‘elves don’t exist’) for non-readers of fantasy. In Westeros, people agree with that. They don’t believe in magic either. There used to be dragons, not just in the distant mythological past but in historical memory, and the dragons’ skulls are preserved as relics. But the dragons got smaller over time, and then died out, and with them the magic left the world. In the north of Westeros there’s a 700-foot-high wall, built to keep out ‘white walkers’, terrifying undead magical sort-of zombies who once lived in this same north and were a mortal danger to men. The wall is guarded by the Night’s Watch, a sworn order of men who take a lifelong oath to defend the world to the south from the white walkers. But nobody apart from them still believes in the white walkers. As Tyrion puts it, the Watch are there to defend Westeros from ‘grumkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about’. The Night’s Watch has become a dumping ground for the kingdom’s losers and criminals, and their membership consists of (Tyrion again) ‘sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves and bastards’.

The reader, however, knows different. The very first scene in the huge saga begins with three members of the Night’s Watch, on a mission north of the wall, coming into contact with white walkers and meeting a horrible end as a result. The Night’s Watch, and the ‘wildings’, outlaws who live north of the wall, are the only people in the world who believe in the white walkers — but we readers know they are a real and imminent danger. We know also that dragons have been reborn into the world, thanks to Daenerys Targaryen, who fled Robert Baratheon’s infanticidal wrath as a mere baby and has grown up over the seas and to the east of Westeros, where she was married off by her brother to Khal Drogo, the terrifyingly martial Dothraki ‘horse lord’ — the Dothraki being a bit like the Mongols. (Oh, in case you’re wondering — he dies.) In the coup de théâtre that ends the first series, Daenerys climbs into a funeral pyre carrying three dragon eggs, and emerges at dawn with three baby dragons, the first the world has seen in hundreds of years. We surmise, from these events and from the title of the sequence, that Westeros is heading for a white walker v. dragon stand-off, at some exciting juncture a couple of fat novels away.

He pivots from this observation to an argument I think is equally fascinating, suggesting that the instability of Westeros’ seasons’ and its increasing brutality and inequality are an appropriate and frightening mirror of our own conditions and confusion about our changing environment. But I want to linger with this idea because I think it’s an important one. What does it mean to posit the belief in impossible things as the height of rationality, while a rejection of magic is set up as a rejection of history, and to a certain extent, a rejection of reasoned inquiry? And what does it mean in particular to set up that inversion in a series that’s deeply dedicated to demythologizing the central bit of magic in its genre, the idea of an inevitable happy ending for the virtuous, particularly the virtuous and disadvantaged?


To a certain extent, I think that the way Martin and his adaptors have treated magic is as a warning not to underestimate how terrible it’s possible for things to become. Magic is normally multi-directional in fantasy, useable for good or evil, and that’s often a key source of tension in any given franchise. But magic in Game of Thrones is far less controllable by individual humans. It’s an independent force of its own. Daenerys Targaryen may have figured out how to hatch her dragons, but they’re individual creatures with a certain degree of sentience. The White Walkers are a force all their own. Melisandre may be able to give birth to shadow-y assassins, but it’s not yet clear the extent to which she’s a miracle worker capable of summoning power independent, and the extent to which she insists that she’s a servant of the Lord of Light is actually a more accurate description of how her power is bounded. In between those significant examples, magic in Westeros effectively functions as a reminder of the dangerousness of assuming that certain challenges to your stability have vanished from the earth, and of assuming that new and hugely disruptive forces can’t suddenly emerge to create enormous technological asymmetries, like a troika of Targaryens showing up dragon-back to conquer Westeros. A disbelief in magic is a belief in the relative stability of your political and economic system. I don’t tend to believe that Game of Thrones is concerned with global warming, or at least not as a concern that’s primary over other issues like the viciousness of economic inequality and gender oppression. But I do think that the long seasons in the franchise tend to reinforce some of the larger themes of forgetting and discounting powerful forces that are assumed to no longer be a factor in geopolitics or internal conflicts. A generation that doesn’t really appreciate what it means that winter is coming, and what it will mean to run an entire population on diminishing food stores that will dramatically sharpen the impact of inequality, or that might decimate trade at a time when a national debt is growing, isn’t necessarily going to be prepared for more radical changes to their circumstances, like the appearance of a bunch of feisty ice zombies on their borders.