These fixations are on point: the series is high political drama and broke into high-middlebrow chatter by subverting the fantasy genre in a series of appealing ways (psychological realism, novelistic kinds of moral ambiguity and character development, willingness to kill the audience’s darlings) that neatly dovetail with the most fashionable conventions of prestige TV.
But in one respect, the world of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just as traditionally fantastical as the worlds of Grandfather Tolkien, Pious Uncle C. S. Lewis, and Skeptical Cousins Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. The books’ pleasures are not just narrative and political, but cosmological. All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense: they are interested in the organizing principles of their imagined universes, and the moral and historical meanings of their elements and landscapes. Magic works as more than a deus ex machina or literary CGI effect in their stories because it bodies forth these principles: it is part of the physical and moral laws of a somewhat different world. Fantasy is partly interested in other ways of imagining ice and fire — and earth and sea, rock and wood, summer and the coming of winter. Both the books and the show have, so far, put cosmology at the center while leaving it mysterious, with many open questions about what sort of world this is. Now it falls to the show to give one answer.
So far, the cosmology of Game of Thrones, following that of the books, is what you might call magical-ecological. The kingdoms and houses of Westeros have deep and obscure affinities with their environments, from the animals on many of their sigils to the custom of giving bastards the surname of their kingdom’s element: Snow, Sand, et cetera. These ties have grown nominal and rote, like the words of lifeless rituals, in the “present” when GOT begins. They grow stronger, though, as the story moves, and the kingdoms splinter and reassert their old independence. All of this is prefigured at the very start, when the Stark children, who come as close as any set of characters to tying together the narrative and cosmological elements of the series acquire the flesh-and-blood direwolves that revive an ancient bond between their house and its emblem. With time, these beasts change from lordly pets to familiars, complete with telepathic links to the younger Starks.
This revival is one part of a renewal of magic more generally. Dragons, which had withered into smoky iguanas during their centuries of domestication in King’s Landing, the Westerosi capital, are reborn as the most terrifying creatures of their world — and, like the wolves, linked to their human allies, the exiled House Targaryen. The Fire God of the East, R’hllor, whose decadent priests brandish faux-magic flaming swords and at first seem to be leftover frauds from an exhausted court religion, begin producing waves of reincarnations, from the bastard Stark brother Jon Snow (named, of course, for the elements of the North), who is murdered in a mutiny, to the Lightning Lord, leader of a band of masterless knights who call themselves the Brotherhood Without Banners, who returns, a bit more battered, after each of a series of defeats in single combat. R’hllor also seems to be responsible for the murderous miracles that Melisandre, the “red lady” of the HBO program, uses to dispatch rivals to Stannis Baratheon, her choice to fulfill a prophecy concerning the rebirth of a hero who will save the world from darkness. It is entirely possible, though, that she mistakes the source of her own magic; her champion and his hired-on-credit army are ignobly cut to ribbons by House Bolton, the most bloody-minded thugs in Westeros.
As magic waxes, so does the vitality of religious belief, part of a general revival of obscure powers. Only one of the religions in Martin’s pluralistic world shows no sign of being rooted in something deeper than the everyday: the state religion of Westeros, the faith of the Seven archetypes (Father, Mother, Warrior, Stranger, et cetera). A kind of Jungian riff on the official paganism of ancient Rome, the faith of the Seven seems to be a purely human creation, a body of ritual, institution, and wisdom literature that promotes pro-social behavior and deference to established authority. It promotes deference, anyway, until its tepid ritual life is swelled, then swept away, by grassroots zealots — the “sparrows” of the Church Militant — reminders that the orderly canals of religious observance are watered by great floods of passionate, often destabilizing belief.
Throughout, the forms of religious, political, and legal life overlie more basic energies, which can be violent and disruptive, but are the ultimate sources of order and event in this cosmology, as well as the long-dry springs of religious and magical energy. This is true in the transspecies bonds of the sigils, the animism of the Snows and Sands, and the rush of zealotry into the sparrows’ septs.
Up to the beginning of this season, viewers have met three elemental forces, two of them named in the Song of Ice and Fire. The forces of Ice, the armies of the blue-eyed ice-demon known only as the Night King, stand for an end to human (and perhaps all warm-blooded) life. Although commentators have hoped that these chittering escapees from a gross anatomy lecture were an inessential narrative folly, Martin’s own series title and his placement of a White Walker (the ravening zombie slaves of the Night King) in the first scene of Book I suggest they play a central role. His challenge is to make them count as more than undifferentiated super-villains.
Fire comes in the form of the dragons that are bound to Daenerys Targaryen (“Mother of Dragons” to her followers), who were once the source of political authority in Westeros, after enabling earlier Targaryens to conquer the island and unite its kingdoms. There are clues that dragons’ flame will destroy White Walkers, and that it is the only thing likely to do so on a scale that will save humans from the army of the dead approaching from the North. This power is linked to a more general metaphysical fire principle. “Dragon glass,” something like volcanic obsidian, destroys Walkers when it is formed into a weapon. So do swords of Valyrian steel, which have become precious tokens of ancient and high-status houses, but also hint at the forces that destroyed the high civilization of Valyria that forged them, now collapsed and remembered mainly in legend. There are hints in the books that Valyria fell to, or into, something resembling nuclear apocalypse. Ice kills, yes; but fire, while it sustains and renews life, also consumes it in flame, and tends to rage out of control.
If there is promise of a balance or integration of elemental forces, it is in the earth-based powers that the aboriginal Westerosi, the Children of the Forest, knew intimately. These powers are concentrated in the red-and-white Weir Trees, which the First Men, the early colonist ancestors of some modern Westerosi, adopted into their remnant regional religion, focused on the Old Gods. (Roughly speaking, it may help to imagine most Westerosi as Anglo-Saxons, the First Men as the already-present Celts, and the Children of the Forest as the Fairy Folk of Celtic story, here presented as having preceded the First Men.)
These earth-energies have moved from the margins of the story to loom increasingly large. Brandon Stark, who seems to have the strongest link to such forces in his generation of siblings, concluded the final episode of the sixth season by entering a mystical chthonic reverie beneath a vast weir tree in the far north, attended by the last of the Children of the Forest. Whatever he is gathering there is the last living link between the ancient world of the Children and the all-but-disenchanted world where the story began, and has been foreshadowed as an important resource in the impending war between life and death, the Night King’s armies and humanity. If fire is the life-force so proudly strong it can consume life itself, then earth seems to be its counterpoint, humble and rooted in a more than metaphorical sense, alive with consciousness that links humans, their animal alter egos, and the trees that serve as spiritual cellular towers for devotees of the Old Gods. (The logic of the scheme suggests a place for water, but so far the sea is just the home of the Ironborn, temperate-zone Vikings with a reincarnation sideline of their own.)
What it means to bring these forces together will say a lot about how Game of Thrones imagines order in general. The implication so far is that death lies in division, hope in ever higher-order commonality. The contest for the throne of Westeros remains the engine of many of the most engaging plots, but in the larger scheme of the story it is a mistake, a bloody, sapping distraction from “the real war” to preserve life against the Night King. The deeply felt animus between the Southrons of the civilized kingdoms and the tribal, semi-anarchic Wildlings is a kind of confused substitute for the misremembered struggle against White Walkers: the degenerated, depopulated Night’s Watch, guardians of the Wall separating North from South, imagine that the Wall was built to keep out Wildlings, and no longer quite believe in Walkers — until they meet them.
Don’t mistake your element for the world: frequently, the tragedy in Game of Thrones pivots on characters who wholeheartedly believe in principles that are noble but parochial and incomplete, and fail when they enter wider fields. Ned Stark, father of the siblings at the story’s center, is loyal and lawful. By unflinchingly and punctiliously executing a Night’s Watch deserter at the beginning of the first book — an act intended, incidentally, as a lesson to his children on the burdens of upholding the law — he fails to learn that the Walkers are on the move. He dies, honorably but futilely, in a palace struggle, high-mindedly oblivious to the larger landscape on which the story’s stakes are emerging. Alliser Thorne, a knighted asshole but a loyal soldier in the Night’s Watch, assassinates Jon Snow because Jon has allied himself with the Wildlings. Jon’s pan-human diplomacy is the right move in the expansive moral vision of Game of Thrones, but a betrayal of the keystone principle of the Night’s Watch, to protect the South against the North. But parochialism is beginning to yield. When the young Starks retake Winterfell in the penultimate HBO episode to date, they do so not just to assert their family claim — a “game of thrones” move par — but also to fortify the North against the White Walkers, a move in the war of Ice and Fire. The defense of a dynasty has become something else, the vanguard of the human — even the terrestrial — struggle for life.
Ecologically speaking, of course, earth is where life and death meet: soil is the product of decay and the source of new life. Fire is change brought to point of self-consumption, ice the end of change in stasis. Alternatively, both are forms of stasis: the Fire God’s worshippers seem to seek the victory of immortality, the Night King the triumph of extinction. Living soil is something between the two extremes, matter in motion but also in pattern, dying into new life. If the show’s creators lose their nerve, events could fall out as harmoniously as a yoga retreat, as everyone realizes that Doctor Bronner was right: all is one. If the story retains Martin’s tragic awareness, the final season will recall that people and peoples rarely want to die into new life, and great violence often comes with the rage against the dying of (one’s own) light. We’ve had indications that the White Walkers were first created by the earthy Children of the Forest, perhaps as a super-weapon against invaders, so maybe even a culture that elementally resembles soil has its parochialism and pride.
It will be strange and, just possibly, illuminating to watch the archetypes of this addictive, endlessly signifying series rearrange themselves in the awful light of TrumpTime. All along, commentators have sought analogies for the winter that the show’s slogan (and the Starks’ motto) warns is coming? Climate change? The global financial crisis? What is the apocalypse we anticipate that makes the icy, apocalyptic phrase so charismatic?
At the end of the second Obama administration, there seemed to be more time and world in which to noodle around with those questions than there is today. In this new age of anxiety and emergency, existential threats seem very close indeed. Our own game of thrones has taken a terrifying turn. Winter is other people.
Jedediah Purdy is the author of five books, including After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.