In 1991, George R.R. Martin began working on what he thought “might be a short story” about some children finding a litter of direwolf pups (Martin 2018). This short story grew quite a bit in the following years though, evolving into A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), Martin’s as of yet unfinished epic fantasy series which currently clocks in at over 5,000 pages. The first novel in the series, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996 and serves as the namesake for the immensely popular HBO adaptation of the story, Game of Thrones (2011-2019). A Game of Thrones was met with acclaim upon its publication, and Martin won a Hugo award for the novella Blood of the Dragon (1996), which features the Daenerys chapters from A Game of Thrones. While A Song of Ice and Fire had a solid base of fans from the start, interest in the series was broadened and renewed with the airing of Game of Thrones.
A Song of Ice and Fire represents Martin’s first major foray into the fantasy genre, his previous works tending to lean more into the vein of science fiction. While A Song of Ice and Fire, with its elaborate world-building and medieval aesthetics, is written in the Tolkienesque tradition of numerous other contemporary epic fantasies, the novel departs from many generic conventions, most notably in its grim tone and its uncensored explorations of extremely gritty and dark subject matter. As such, casual readers and scholars alike have taken a keen interest in Martin’s shockingly violent and richly woven plot threads as well as his carefully nuanced, morally complex characters.
A Game of Thrones introduces the reader to the sprawling neomedieval realm of Westeros and the unscrupulous noble families who vie for sovereignty over it. The bulk of the story is narrated through an alternating sequence of eight viewpoint characters belonging to three of these noble families—the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens. Set in a period of tense peace fourteen years after the overthrow of the Targaryen dynasty by Robert Baratheon, A Game of Thrones chronicles the escalation of a bitter feud between the Stark and Lannister families, a feud which spirals into war when King Robert dies, leaving the Iron Throne dangerously vacant.
At the heart of the tale is the Stark family, a resilient clan who dwell in the wintry north of Westeros. Heading the family is the unyieldingly honorable Lord Ned Stark and his wife Catelyn Stark. Their children are Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. Ned also has a bastard son, Jon Snow, whose unknown maternity becomes a central intrigue of the series. Other notable characters include King Robert’s wife, Cersei Lannister, and her brothers: Jaime Lannister, a haughty knight, and Tyrion Lannister, a witty dwarf who is loathed by his father and sister.
The last major protagonist in A Game of Thrones is the exiled Targaryen princess Daenerys, whose storyline takes place on a different continent from the rest of the characters. At first, Daenerys, merely a pawn in her brother’s schemes to amass power in the east and reclaim his usurped throne, is sold into marriage to the warrior lord Khal Drogo. However, once her brother’s arrogance leads to his death by Drogo’s hand, Daenerys sets her own sights on the Iron Throne. As Drogo prepares to sail to Westeros, Daenerys becomes pregnant with a son destined to be the “Stallion who mounts the world” (A Game of Thrones, 491). However, both her son and Drogo are killed by a vengeful witch, causing Drogo’s retainers to abandon Daenerys, leaving her virtually alone and powerless.
The action for the rest of the characters begins when King Robert and the Lannisters travel to the Starks’ castle at Winterfell and Robert recruits Ned to become his chief advisor, the Hand of the King. After receiving a hysteric message from Catelyn’s sister, Lysa Arryn, theorizing that the previous Hand, Lysa’s husband Jon Arryn, had been murdered under mysterious circumstances, Ned agrees to Robert’s offer, believing Robert may be in danger. Before the royal entourage returns to the capitol city of King’s Landing, however, Bran Stark accidentally witnesses Jaime and Cersei Lannister having sex, and Jaime shoves Bran out of a tower window as a result. In the aftermath of this event, Ned and his daughters travel south with Robert, while Jon Snow goes north to join the Night’s Watch—an ancient organization which guards the icy, monolithic Wall against invasions from the sinister, supernatural, and supposedly imaginary White Walkers.
When an assassination attempt is made on the catatonic Bran, Catelyn is prompted to follow Ned and her daughters south to King’s Landing in search of answers. There, the conniving Lord Petyr Baelish falsely suggests Tyrion Lannister ordered the assassination, an accusation which leads Catelyn to abduct Tyrion during a chance meeting at a roadside inn and hold a trial for him at the Eyrie, where Lysa Arryn holds power. While Tyrion’s innocence is ultimately proclaimed after a trial-by-combat, his kidnapping spurs on the feud between the Starks and the Lannisters, causing Jaime to subsequently attack Ned in the streets of King’s Landing.
As Ned recovers, he unearths the truth Jon Arryn learned before his death—that all three of Cersei’s children are bastards, secretly and incestuously fathered by Jaime, and that King Robert therefore has no legitimate heirs. Punctuating this discovery, Robert, fatally wounded by a hunting mishap, declares Ned regent until Robert’s heir (whom the King mistakenly presumes to be Joffrey, Cersei’s eldest child) comes of age. Ned, in his naïve quest to be honorable in a decidedly dishonorable world, meets privately with Cersei and demands she and her children abdicate their false claims to the throne and voluntarily exile themselves. Cersei dexterously out-maneuvers Ned, though, seizing power as soon as Robert dies and ordering Ned’s arrest and the slaughter of the Stark household in King’s Landing. In the chaos that erupts, Sansa is taken hostage, but Arya escapes Cersei’s clutches. Shortly afterward, Cersei, intending to disgrace and banish Ned, brings Ned to trial for treason. However, the sadistic, newly-crowned boy-king Joffrey Lannister ignores his mother’s wishes and has Ned beheaded.
At the close of this first novel, the stage is set for war. Ned’s death incites a lust for vengeance in the Starks who remain in Winterfell, and Robert’s brothers, Stannis and Renly, both having reason to doubt Joffrey’s legitimacy, announce their own competing claims to the Iron throne. But even as swords are sharpened and armies are gathered throughout the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, supernatural threats loom in the margins. To the north, the Night’s Watch makes ready to explore the wintry waste beyond the Wall and learn more of the threat of the White Walkers. And Daenerys, far across the sea, performs an act of blood magic, using the deaths of her husband, son, and the duplicitous witch to hatch three dragons.
Scholarly attention towards A Song of Ice and Fire was scarce prior to the series’ television adaptation, at which point a wealth of critical readings of both the text and its adaptation emerged. A large portion of the scholarship on A Song of Ice and Fire tends to blend together the TV series and the novels, though some works do focus exclusively on one telling of the tale. Portrayals of women, disability, and violence have particularly interested critics, as has the series’ relationship to actual history and its approach to philosophies of power and politics.
Much has been made of the medieval aesthetics of Martin’s world, with Carolyne Larrington and Shiloh Carroll both having published books on the subject. While Larrington sees Martin’s world as “chiming” with, if not directly replicating, a vast web of historical and literary sources, one of Carroll’s most useful assertions is that, in spite of these clear inspirational resonances which Larrington detects, A Song of Ice and Fire in many ways subverts medieval and neomedieval tropes as well, creating a profoundly modern story with the Middle Ages as a backdrop. Intervening in these studies on Martin’s medievalism is Helen Young’s chapter on “The Real Middle Ages” from her monograph Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (2016), where she assesses how Martin’s determination to adhere to perceived “authentic” social conditions of the Middle Ages leads to inevitable reproductions of racial inequalities and re-inscriptions, purposeful or not, of nostalgic, white supremacist ideologies. Young’s is a salient critique, given the pervasive racial homogeneity in A Song of Ice and Fire, and especially in A Game of Thrones.
Investigations into the women in A Game of Thrones has also been a popular scholarly subject. Valerie Frankel has penned a tome exploring the series’ leading ladies, and several anthologies focused on A Song of Ice and Fire have collected essays devoted to solely feminist critiques of the series, with topics spanning from specific modes of neomedieval queenship to gender roles more broadly. In general, scholars recognize the women in A Song of Ice and Fire as being diversely and complexly characterized in addition to having access to a remarkable amount of power in spite of the brutally misogynistic world which they find themselves in. One perspective which is especially relevant to A Game of Thrones is Kris Swank’s assertion that figures like Catelyn and Sansa are implicated in the medieval peaceweaving tradition, whereby marriages and wives are intended to foster harmony and subdue tensions between warring factions. Given the significance of complicated webs of succession and alliances which foreground the conflict of A Game of Thrones, understanding noblewomen as vested with the responsibility of shrewdly encouraging peace under seemingly impossible circumstances highlights both the immense agency as well as the inescapable vulnerability which accompanies courtly Westerosi womanhood.
Another scholarly assessment which insightfully analyzes the gritty tone of Martin’s grimdark fantasy world is Joseph Young’s interpretation of the dirt and dirtiness of Westeros. Using Frye’s paradigm of high and low mimesis as a lens, Young views A Song of Ice and Fire as a biting critique of glamorized conceptions of the Middle Ages in neomedieval media. For Young, Martin’s grit an
dirt is carefully deployed to undermine such medieval institutions as aristocracy, chivalry, and monarchy. It sets up Frye’s ironic mode, a narrative perspective from which readers look “down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity” (Frye 34), about which they are better informed than the characters. Martin’s characters typically seek to set about exploits—war, courtly love, statecraft—of concern to the heroes of high mimesis. Martin persistently spoils these efforts by inserting “dispassionate construction[s] […] born from the low mimetic” (40-41) to reveal that such notions are poorly-grounded pretensions […] Martin’s world may or may not be a realistic reconstruction of a medieval civilization, but it is certainly a trenchant interrogation of the pretensions of medieval or medievalist aristocracy, forcing the reader to reassess any romantic notions they might have about such people (47-48).
Thus, Young identifies the often ghastly and horrific grittiness which drives the chaotic, breakneck momentum of A Song of Ice and Fire as a rejection of the image of the medieval circulating in other channels of popular media. A few textual examples illustrative of Young’s principle include the failure of chivalric codes and the moral bankruptcy of the nobility which lead to Ned’s death, or the seemingly inconsequential festering wound which leads to Khal Drogo’s death.
Generative intellectual and fan-based engagements with A Game of Thrones are ongoing, and will likely continue for some time, given the forthcoming final volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire and the multiple spin-off Game of Thrones series which have been announced at HBO. I have outlined here several major scholarly approaches towards A Game of Thrones, though the subsequent novels in the series motivate analysis from other academic methodologies and disciplines I have not elaborated on here, including eco-criticism, theology, and queer theory. The expansiveness of critical interpretations of A Song of Ice and Fire is both evocative of the series’ complexity as well as a testament to its enduring cultural presence. A Game of Thrones made an indelible mark on the fantasy genre when it was first published, and will doubtless continue to echo as the concluding chords of A Song of Ice and Fire are composed.
Carroll, Shiloh (2018): Medievalism in A Song of Ice and
Fire and Game of Thrones. D.S. Brewer.
Frankel, Valerie (2014): Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity, Resistance. McFarland & Co.
Frye, Northrop (1957): Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press.
Larrington, Carolyne (2016): Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones. I.B. Tauris.
Martin, George R.R. (1996): A Game of Thrones. Bantam Books.
Martin, George R.R. (2018): “George RR Martin: ‘When I Began A Game of Thrones I Thought It Might Be a Short Story’”, theguardian.com, Nov. 9, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/10/books-interview-george-rr-martin.
Swank, Kris (2020)” “The Peaceweavers of Winterfell.” In Queenship and the Women of Westeros: Female Agency and Advice in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, edited by Zita Eva Rohr, and Lisa Benz, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 105-127.
Young, Helen (2016): Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Routledge.
Young, Joseph (2017): ““Enough about Whores”: Sexual Characterization in A Song of Ice and Fire.” Mythlore, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 45-61.
Citation: Johnson, Lars. "A Game of Thrones". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 May 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=39018, accessed 27 October 2021.]