In A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, we’re introduced to the house words of the Stark family: “Winter is Coming.” (You might have heard them, or seen them on a billboard, or a t-shirt, or a hat.) As the series has continued, on the page and on screen, the phrase has been repeated enough to become a mantra and a meme, but it took a while before its deeper meaning to come to the fore.
Particularly in the ramp up to the final episodes of the television adaptation, in which the humans have been forced to give up their petty power struggles (for a little while, anyway) to deal with the reality of a massive undead army marching toward them from the north, it seems as though the true message of the whole epic storyline—and what the Stark house words mean for the series’ eventual end—has been hidden in plain sight all along. Among his many impressive feats in creating the world of Westeros—and perhaps unintentionally—GRRM has been crafting one of the most powerful climate change narratives in modern pop culture.
Spoilers for the first five books and seven seasons of Game of Thrones follow!
It’s easy to think of fantasy as traditionalist. For generations of readers, J.R.R. Tolkien almost singlehandedly shaped our ideas of what fantasy is and does. His reverence for the past has become a hallmark of the genre, even as many fantasy writers of the past and present have crafted great books by subverting the tropes and themes he established. Along with that idealization of the past comes a love of the natural world. Tolkien harkened back to a world before industrialization—particularly before the advent of the tanks and mechanized weapons that so horrified him at the Somme in 1916. Though he teases them, the simple pleasures of the peaceful, rustic Hobbits are lionized in contrast to the blasted landscapes of Sauron and company. Trees are given personalities and a heroic role to play, while the One Ring itself is a product of fire and forge.
Glorifying an imaginary past isn’t always a good thing, as looking forward is at least as important, and of course technology isn’t inherently bad. But a strong interest in environmental themes is threaded throughout some of the most popular and beloved fantasy books of the last 80 years (Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series among them). In Tolkien’s time, pollution, deforestation, and the dehumanizing aspects of technology were the primary threats for writers concerned with the natural world. As our reasons to be concerned about the environment have only grown—and the costs of ignoring environmental threats have only grown more dire—fantasy has followed suit, none more so than the most popular works of one George R.R. Martin.
Talk of the ending of A Song of Ice and Fire tends to focus on that other familiar phrase from the series: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” The question we’ve been conditioned to ask is one of political concern—who will sit the Iron Throne and rule Westeros in the end?
We all have our favorite contenders, though few of the characters is entirely flawless in vision, power, or morality—even Daenerys Targaryen, the kick-ass mother of dragons and breaker of chains, is entirely too willing to deliver her vision of peace and justice to her would-be subjects on pain of fiery death (Martin’s Fire & Blood prequel invites us to imagine a virtual world of fire run by the Targaryen dynasties). Daenerys may have a more developed sense of freedom, but like most of the game’s contenders, power is her first goal. Jon Snow is noble, but broody and indecisive; Arya is s too focused on revenge; Tyrion is wildly self-centered. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which any concluding victory isn’t pyrrhic: bloody, morally questionable (at least), and leaving such scars in the land and people that Westeros will take generations to recover.
And that’s all without reckoning with the zombie ice people. As the series has grown more complex—and the real world alongside it—the “least bad autocrat of the Seven Kingdoms” contest seems less interesting then it once did. After all, what matters the power struggles of mortals when an immortal threat looms? At least on a level of thematic parallels, GRRM was always ahead of us there; certainly from the beginning, he’s been interested in subverting the expectations of fantasy stories about good kings and bad kings. (The only leader who was able to consistently combine strong leadership with noble motives was Ned Stark, and we know where that got him; his positive qualities made him into the biggest threat to the far less scrupulous.)
From before the start of the very first book, the Starks have prized vigilance and moderation above all else. Though they’re the most powerful and wealthy family of the north, and were once kings and queens in their own right, they don’t live in the kind of ostentatious comfort favored by, say, the Lannisters. Winterfell is an impressive, forbidding castle keep, but it feels far more functional than luxurious. I’m sure that the local peasants look to the place with awe and perhaps envy, but GRRM establishes a clear contrast between the practical Starks and the ostentatious Lannisters, and between the Starks and Robert Baratheon, the well-intentioned but hopelessly gluttonous king.
The Starks aren’t perfect, but they’re content to live within their means and to share the fickle gifts of the north fairly with their vassals. It’s why we like them. Unfortunately, the loyalty they inspire makes them targets for the families who rule by fear, or through displays of wealth. Their motto can be read a number of ways, but foremost it serves as a reminder that tough times are always on the way. It’s a metaphorical call for vigilance and preparation against hardship, but it’s also a reminder that a literal change in climate is on the horizon. Meanwhile, the brothers of the Night’s Watch are helpless to do much more than, yes, watch as their wall crumbles and their castles go unguarded as winter, and worse, approaches.
Over the course of the series, the pleas from the Watch grow louder and more desperate as they come to realize that the real nature of the threat from the north isn’t the wildling people that they’ve always feared but the White Walkers and their armies of the undead—a nearly unstoppable inhuman force capable of radically upsetting the way of life of every single person in Westeros. While the continent’s true experts on all things over-the-wall make the well-reasoned case that yes, there is a civilization-ending threat on the way (we’ve seen the evidence!), most of the populace is too distracted to be bothered (forgivable for most of them, who are too busy being killed in power skirmishes due to the whims of power-hungry nobles). As the powerful are caught up in their ceaseless battles-to-the-death over an incredibly uncomfortable throne, the put-upon peasants are just trying not to die. It’s much easier to dismiss the larger threat—because dealing with it means facing its true existential weight, and grappling with the unprecedented compromises and sacrifices that will result. (What do the Night’s Watch know anyway? Looking at things with their fancy… eyes.)
The status quo turning a blind eye to a rising threat is another resonant fantasy trope—the people of Middle-earth certainly should’ve paid a little more attention to the rise of Sauron, and generations of literary scholars have tortured themselves trying to twist The Lord of the RIngs into an allegory about the rise of fascism, but the fact that the particular apocalypse of of A Song of Ice and Fire is climate related certainly gives it a special resonance these days—a fact the author is increasingly happy to take credit for, even if he says it was not what he set out to do when he started writing the saga in 1991.
Though the threat sat in the background for much of the series, the books and the show have revealed themselves to be less about who gets a throne and more about the looming environmental threat embodied by the White Walkers, those living avatars of a changing climate. In the TV series at least, there is indisputable evidence that ignoring the problem certainly won’t make it go away; it will only grow larger, once corpse at a time, until suddenly you’ve got an undead ice dragon breathing blue fire down your neck. And true as even to human nature, it’s also obvious that the power players are more than happy to march together into battle one day, while preparing to seize power in the aftermath, should they live to see it.
The planned title for perpetually forthcoming final book in the series is A Dream of Spring, the phrasing suggesting that we may or may not get there. In the end, I suspect Martin sees the ultimate ownership of the throne as far less consequential than the ability of the people of Westeros to unite against the coming climate apocalypse before it’s too late. Such an outcome might represent something like a happy ending to a series not known for them.
There could still be hope for the Seven Kingdoms, and for us, but only if everyone starts paying attention to the real threat.
The series finale of Game of Thrones airs May 19. A release date for book six, The Winds of Winter, is still forthcoming.