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How Game of Thrones sneakily reflects George R.R. Martin’s hatred of war

The author was a conscientious objector to Vietnam. That’s reflected in his books — and now in the show.

Game of Thrones
Dragons are natural pacifists.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The most significant line in “The Dragon and the Wolf” — the seventh season finale of Game of Thrones — is one that underlines what might be the knottiest, most intriguing theme of both the TV series and the books it’s based on.

“Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie,” reveals Bran Stark as he and Sam discuss the truth of Jon’s parentage. The war that led Robert Baratheon to sit on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, that led to the squabbling tensions among the great houses of the country, that essentially built everything the series stands upon — all of it was based on the idea that Rhaegar Targaryen kidnapped Lyanna Stark.

But no, says Bran, who drops back in time to spy on the wedding between Rhaegar and Lyanna spoken of in the maester’s diary found by Sam. Rhaegar and Lyanna were in love. Jon is a Targaryen — and rightful heir to the throne. (This, of course, is intercut with Jon and Daenerys, his aunt, finally going to bed together.)

What’s more, the most likely outcome of the series is that Jon or Dany — or maybe both — end up sitting upon the Iron Throne. The Baratheons’ time in charge would prove to be very short, a brief interregnum in the overall trend of Targaryen rule. If this comes to pass, not only will Robert’s Rebellion have been built on a lie. It will have been unnecessary.

This would mean every single event in the show, with the possible exception of the battle against the Night King, was completely meaningless. Every death, every double cross, every battle — they’re all pointless waste. And that’s very in keeping with the writing of George R.R. Martin.

George R.R. Martin really hates war

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He does, however, like his Emmy.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Martin was of the right age to be drafted into the Vietnam War, but he applied for and quickly received conscientious objector status. He explains in this interview with Canada’s CBC that the draft board reasoned being branded as a coward for the rest of his life would be ample punishment. Instead, he went on to become possibly the most influential fantasy author of his generation.

A streak of pacifism runs through all of his work, even beyond A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series that gave birth to Game of Thrones). Much of his science fiction takes place in a universe that lives in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war that marked and scarred everybody who lived through it, and A Feast for Crows, the fourth Song of Ice and Fire book, delves into the horrors of war with great passion. (Published in 2005, the book was written at the height of America’s involvement in Iraq — a war compared by many to Vietnam.)

Writes Martin in that book:

War seems like a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know. Then they get a taste of battle.

For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe.

They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now. They take the wound, and when that’s still half-healed they take another. There is never enough to eat, their shoes fall to pieces from marching, their clothes are torn and rotting, and half of them are shitting in their breeches from drinking bad water.

And at every turn in the series, Martin underlines just how little sense the war for the Seven Kingdoms makes. In this respect, Robert’s Rebellion — which at least removed a horrible, murderous king who burned people for sport — serves as a kind of analogue for World War II to Vietnam. It’s a horrible but mostly just war that only increases the lust some houses have for land and power.

As “The Dragon and the Wolf” reveals, even the foundations of the war for the Seven Kingdoms, which was largely kicked off by Cat Stark coming to believe a Lannister assassin had tried to murder her son, Bran, were faulty. The assassin was sent by Littlefinger, who hoped to touch off war and use the resulting chaos to better his political position.

War, then, is maybe, occasionally, just and maybe, occasionally, glorious. But it is always tiring and gruesome and horrible. People will always die, and many of those deaths (even in a just war) will prove meaningless. Blood will spill, and families will be torn apart, and those who suffer most are the peasants and other smallfolk who play at the games set up for them by their lords and leaders.

Martin is always careful to point out that there are great opportunities for heroism and glory in even the most pointless of wars. But if Robert’s Rebellion and the War for the Seven Kingdoms really are both based on misdirections and lies, then his larger point gains even more poignancy: Much of that death didn’t need to happen.

This pacifist streak extends to the TV show as well

Game of Thrones
Even the just battles often end up having lots of pointless bloodshed.

One of the oldest adages in filmmaking is that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because depicting warfare on screen will always create a certain visceral excitement. I don’t really agree with this sentiment overall, but I see where it’s coming from. Our brains are naturally primed to respond to bold, bloody violence and feats of impossible heroism.

Thus, Game of Thrones is less pacifist than the books it’s based on. There’s no way to depict, say, this season’s several big dragon battles without making them pulse-pounding fun, and the show has also leaned heavily into the fact that there is a vast, implacable army marching southward, in hopes of destroying everything that lies in their path. If ever there were a just war, it’s the one between the forces of men and the Night King’s White Walkers, because it’s a completely existential battle. The loser will cease to exist.

But the show, especially in season seven, has turned its eye toward all of the ways the War for the Seven Kingdoms has left a country that’s battered and broken by the conflict. The season premiere featured Arya talking to Lannister soldiers who lamented they might never again see home, while the Hound found the corpses of a father and daughter he’d met several seasons before, who starved to death thanks to war-imposed food shortages.

Even the battle sequences — like that big dragon battle — showed men burning to death or dying in other horrible ways. There was excitement and glory there, sure, especially when it came to the endlessly clever Bronn. But there was also a healthy streak of the horrors of war, especially war fought with weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t hard to watch Bronn wander the dragonfire-soaked battlefield and think of horrible scenes from 20th-century warfare in our own world.

And even if the TV show is less pacifist than the books, it can’t avoid just how pointless so much of the conflict is. Indeed, the deeper the show gets into its run, the more its characters (especially Sansa) seem to realize that waging war for the sake of waging war is an endless slog that results in little to no reward. War can be just, but you can’t wage it without spreading so much death.

That might prove to be the series’ most innovative aspect, in fact. This is one of the few shows on TV where, after everything changes, the optimal outcome will involve the resumption of a status quo the characters believed to be horribly unjust at one time.

TV is really bad at portraying stories where the ultimate outcome reveals just how hollow all of the action really was. But by making so much of its story so exciting, Game of Thrones might have accidentally made the moment when you realize just how needless so much of it was all the more bittersweet.