Whether it is the American fantasy drama television series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss or the source materials collectively called “A Song of Ice and Fire” authored by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones, in general, has underlying themes that not only add depth to its lore but also provide commentaries about social realities.
The Major Themes in Game of Thrones
1. Historical Fiction Placed on top of Epic Fantasy
Both the series and novel fall under the fantasy and epic genres. However, unlike high fantasy works such as the Lord of the Rings or epics such as Spartacus, Game of Thrones is also a historical fiction. The narrative also draws its audience and readers into medieval ages and introduces them to the customs and social conditions of that time.
What sets it apart from other fantasies that it puts less emphasis on magic to highlight political intrigue, battles, and characterizations. In an interview with the New York Times, Martin said, “the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”
On the other hand, unlike most epics, the narrative does not focus solely on grandeur and a single point of heroism. There are no established heroes in Game of Thrones because it allows the audience and readers to view and understand different characters from their perspective.
2. Gray Area Instead of a Black-and-White Universe
The entire plot is not a battle between the good versus the evil. Although it is easy to say that the Lannisters, Petyr Baelish, and the horde of undead are the evil characters in the narrative, a deeper understanding of all other characters would reveal that most of them have an inherent predisposition toward the promotion and preservation of self-interest.
Beloved characters such as Ned Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Olenna Tyrell have displayed not only their admirable traits but also their follies. They have also demonstrated the fact that they are willing to go the extra mile to advance their ambitions or principles.
In another interview, Martin explained that the battle between good and evil does not mirror the real world. Hence, through his characters, he explores the capacity of people for good and evil, while also introducing gray tones as a protest against the view that the universe is merely black and white.
3. The Concept of Duality as a Narrative Driver
Despite his non-adherence to the mutual exclusivity of good and evil, Martin also uses the concept of duality in creating his characters and substantiating further the narrative.
An example of this duality is the summer and winter climates that shape the way of life of houses and people in Westeros. The story has been somewhat driven further by the relationship between fire and ice as demonstrated by the relationship between the Starks and the Targaryens, and the presence of iced zombies and the Dragons.
There are other utilizations of duality throughout Game of Thrones. The characters of twin siblings Cersei and Jamie Lannister represent the concept of having two halves from the same whole. Some might interpret these characters as a representation of the duality of House Lannister or the contrast between two types of power.
Both magic and realism is also another example. Martin wrote the story in a way that it combines the best elements of epic fantasy and historical fiction to draw his readers and audience in a relatable world that allows rooms for suspension of disbelief.
4. Moral Compromises in Politics and Power Play
Politics is obviously one of the themes in Game of Thrones. True to its title, the story is primarily about different houses and individuals fighting to maintain their power or snatch absolute authority from another party. What is interesting to note is that the story does not simply demonstrate how politics work but also shows its ugly nature by corrupting the characters.
Gaining power requires moral or ethical compromises. The story has shown how characters are willing to bend their principles and partake in schemes. Even the supposed honorable character of Ned Stark has to resort to corrupt practices to gain some advantages. To be specific, during the earlier parts of the story, he bribed the city guards to his side.
Daenerys has to kill slaveholders to gain control over the Unsullied army and slay an entire group of khals or warlords to earn the respect of the Dothraki. Note that she needs both the Unsullied and Dothraki armies to conquer Westeros and reclaim her birthright.
5. Normalization of Sex and Sexuality
Both the series and novels have been controversial because of an excessive portrayal of sex scenes that sometimes include sexual commodification, as well as rape and torture, while also confronting diversity in gender and sexual expressions.
Martin noted that sex and sexuality are rarely portrayed in-depth in the fantasy genre. Even if it does, its treatment has been juvenile. For him, this should not be the case because sexuality is an essential driving force in human life.
Game of Thrones normalizes sex by portraying it in numerous ways: whether it is an enthralling and romantic encounter, boring or rudimentary, or dark and disturbing. In addition, the story tackles different types of gender and sexual expressions to include incest, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, polygamy, and celibacy, among others.
6. Conflicts Arising from Cross-Cultural Interactions
Take note that when two or more cultures meet, conflicts typically arise as they fight for dominance or struggle for power. The story has demonstrated the inevitably of conflicts from these cross-cultural interactions. The detailed layers of lore have provided Martin with plot devices that help in substantiating and driving the narrative forward.
A prime example of cross-cultural conflict in both the series and novels are the struggle between the First Men, who came from present-day Essos and settled on modern-day Westeros, and the Children of the Forest, who originally inhabited present-day Westeros.
The different values and principles of houses such as the Starks, Baratheon, Lannisters, and Targaryens, among others, or the norms of the Northerners and the Southerners also provided a foundation for initiating conflicts and power struggle among the characters.
Game of Thrones also demonstrated the fact that conflicts transpire between equals while bullying involves powerful parties overwhelming and suppressing the weaker ones.
7. Impacts of Humankind in the Environment
Analysts have long examined environmental issues as one of the themes in Game of Thrones, particularly because the story has repeatedly mentioned the forthcoming winter and the need to prepare for such. Martin has confirmed this in numerous interviews.
In an interview with Esquire magazine, Martin has explained that similar to real-world events, the people in Westeros have been too engrossed in playing politics and fighting for power that they have become ignorant about the threat of the coming winter.
Note that in the television series, the conflict between the First Men and the Children of the Forest stemmed from the forming cutting down the trees that are both sacred and regarded as home for the latter. To respond against humankind, the Children created the Night King.
The creation and rise of the Night King and his army of the undead have become one of the key plot points of the entire narrative. Interestingly, this threat, which is more significant than the politics and power play in Westeros, traces its roots from how the first men disturbed the natural environment.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Itzkoff, D. 2014. “For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role.” The New York Times. Available online
- Gevers, N. 2001. “Sunset of High Renown: An Interview with George R. R. Martin.” Infinity Plus. Available online
- Miller, M. 2018. “George R.R. Martin Explains the Real Political Message of Game of Thrones.” Esquire. Available online