Imagine a man, one who lives in a stretch of vaguely frightening forest somewhere up north. And imagine that he wants to be your benevolent dictator. His pitch: Remove the current leadership. Destroy a neighboring nation and kill its populace. Then, conquer most of the continent. And somewhere in there, he’d also like to restore traditional values to the country, whatever that means. And he says he gets to do so because, 40 generations ago, some of his ancestors were in charge. His name is Aragorn, and he’s the good guy.
Aragorn, the crown-reclaiming hero of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, is the sort of figure who serves as the protagonist in many epic fantasies. He believes in his divine right to rule, in the absolute power of kings, and in unbroken succession as the truest form of governance. In other words, he’s an authoritarian. This Sunday, when Game of Thrones kicks off its eighth and final season on HBO, a few more of Aragorn’s ilk will return to the screen. The pyromaniacal monarchist Daenerys Targaryen, the traditionalist lost heir Jon Snow, and their foils will be back and vying for control of Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms. Like Aragorn, these characters are framed as heroes, fighting against evil and striving to save the masses from unjust rule. But their agendas differ from those of their opponents only by degrees.
The heroes of fantasy are often presented as liberators—leaders who would deliver freedom or agency. Yet their actual focus is typically on claims of a legitimate hereditary right to kingship and the preservation of absolute monarchy. In the faux-medieval setting of many epics, these ideas might seem logical enough. But it’s worth asking why fantasy storytellers, who work in a genre wherein they can devise any system of governance they like, tend to settle on ones in which the common person has little or no say.
Game of Thrones, and A Song of Ice and Fire, the series by George R. R. Martin on which the show is based, centers on characters who are laudable more in their resistance to the graphic violence perpetrated by the series’ villains than in their concrete goals (usually reclaiming crowns or regaining lost treasures). For the past seven seasons, Game of Thrones has followed the arc of Daenerys Targaryen, who was forced into exile on the continent of Essos as a child after her father was overthrown as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. Her journey back to Westeros to retake the throne has involved the acquiring of three dragons and multiple armies, as well as a slow and chaotic effort to outlaw slavery in a handful of cities in Essos. Although given to grand declarations about making a new and better world, Daenerys is, arguably, barely more interested in making her would-be subjects’ lives better than was Ramsay Bolton, the show’s longtime sadistic antagonist. Though Daenerys’s opposition to slavery (which was already banned in Westeros) lends her some moral credibility, her decisions as a leader have been draconian and often brutal, especially in later episodes: Political opponents meet their end through mass crucifixion and incineration without even a hint of a trial.
Thrones is primarily concerned with Westeros’s elite, a tiny aristocracy unconnected from the only occasionally seen peasantry. Those of humbler origin rarely hold positions of power, and even then they never rise beyond the status of adviser or soldier. The circumstances of the “smallfolk,” to use Martin’s term, are steered by those like Daenerys, who seek to rule with the justification of birth alone, usually masked in pretensions to moral standing. That Cersei Lannister, Daenerys’s main rival to the Iron Throne, takes more pleasure in her chosen methods of torture or execution—such as chaining a mother to a wall to watch the drawn-out death of her daughter and (it is implied) having a zombie bodyguard rape an adversary in a jail cell—is little comfort to those who have no meaningful influence over the future of their own country.
Martin’s characters occasionally depart from the traditions of their respective societies. Daenerys frees slaves; Jon lets his former enemies, the wildlings, through the ice wall he has been charged with defending. But in both cases, it was someone else’s tradition that they breached. Daenerys came from a family that had for three centuries ruled over a slave-free kingdom. Jon’s family had worked with the wildlings before, and had even taken one into their employ; it was no Stark tradition he broke, but one rather of his adopted brothers, the Night’s Watch. To their own familial traditions, both hold true.
While the monarchical coating of many epic-fantasy works is partly a by-product of their medieval inspirations, there may be something more intrinsic to the trope. Many fantasies follow the path of fable, with invented worlds created not to themselves be examples of good societies, but rather to house those examples. Readers can admire how a character like Jon rules without agreeing with the mechanisms through which he exercises power. That his authority is sometimes flexed through summary execution doesn’t matter for many audiences as long as they perceive him as fair. Creating representative government—creating a just society—is a complex process, not one that can be realized in a sudden genesis of utopia. But fantasy often is utopian. Chosen Ones battle implacable foes, and when a foe is defeated, worlds are made right and whole.
Perhaps that idealism is why the messy process of elections is so rarely seen. In the entirety of Game of Thrones, there have been four clear instances of a leader being chosen by his or her followers. But in every case, the group was choosing a leader for a martial purpose. Grey Worm was picked by Daenerys’s eunuch army, the Unsullied, to be their commander; Jon Snow was elected to head the Night’s Watch; Mance Rayder was chosen to lead the Wildlings in their campaign to breach the Wall; and Euron Greyjoy was selected to rule the bellicose Iron Islands when its succession fell into dispute. In every case, the situation was more military than civil. These were the choices of the populace, but only a segment of it, and only in exceptional circumstances.
Preston Jacobs, a popular YouTube figure known for his in-depth examinations of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, believes that fantasy authors incorporate biblically derived norms into their works, though not always consciously. “People are looking for a classic story, and they naturally go to the Bible and the Book of Revelation and Jesus coming back as a liberating figure, and … ruling in a monarchy at the end,” he told me. Fantasy often echoes the primeval and mythical realities found in early religious works. Combatting evil, in fantasy as in faith, may be less about a political ideal than a spiritual one. In the genre, freedom entails less the abolition of serfdom or granting of suffrage than the achievement of salvation. Such stories create room for discussing the ideas of liberty and equity without the need to portray them.
In this vein, the British fantasy author and theologian C. S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia were fundamentally works of faith, stands out. Where Tolkien and Martin feature relatively complex systems of government in their created universes, Lewis doesn’t bother. The justice of the society writ large, and the wisdom of its leaders, is made to be admirable—not the actual mechanisms of its governance, which are mostly glossed over. When you have a sage king, Lewis suggests, there’s no need to bother about the details.
Moral idealism, then, is a crucial part of the business of fantasy. But Martin has attempted to undermine that convention in A Song of Ice and Fire. The Stark clan is unremittingly focused on service and honor, but they’re rewarded with repeated suffering. And while many of Martin’s fans are enthusiastic about the legitimist quests of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and the now-dead contender for the Iron Throne, Stannis Baratheon, Martin himself seems less sure of them. In the novels, Stannis is portrayed as a grouch who burns his uncle-in-law alive in ritual sacrifice (in the show, his daughter and brother-in-law meet the same fate). Jon’s leadership of the Night’s Watch begins with an execution and carries on with a series of principled and unpopular decisions that lead to his death, resurrection, and another set of retaliatory executions, including one of a child. And Daenerys might talk a big game, promising systemic change for the peasantry (“breaking the wheel,” in her words), but she shows no interest in relinquishing even a modicum of her personal power in favor of majoritarian rule.
Jacobs told me that fans often misinterpret Martin’s works, believing the author to be sympathetic to characters like Jon, Daenerys, or Stannis. In Jacobs’s view, Martin’s work often seeks to condemn the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire, at least insofar as their reliance on regimes of brute force are concerned. Michael D. C. Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and a leading figure in the field of Tolkien research, makes a similar case for Tolkien. While Tolkien might have seen utility and dignity in his invented kingdoms, they were not themselves models of good governance. The “ideal of privilege in the service of good,” to use Drout’s expression, is noble in Middle-earth; figures like Aragorn are virtuous due to their character, not necessarily their political motives.
By contrast, in Westeros, an individual ruler’s high-mindedness often leads to greater suffering. When characters—whether the beloved Eddard Stark or the calculating Roose Bolton—attempt to implement their view of what is right and just, war tears through the country. The common people are the one left without homes, with their families slaughtered or starving. There are a few moments in which their suffering cuts through the battles and politics; a Season 6 episode focused on building a temple stands out. But the plight of these communities is an afterthought both in the novels and on the show. Any condemnation that Martin might wish to make of his characters’ statecraft is muddied when he declines to portray their principal victims’ tribulations.
In Game of Thrones’ seventh season, Daenerys’s adviser Tyrion appears to have the smallfolk of Westeros in mind when he asks the childless queen who should succeed her. She has no other heir, as far as they know. She is fighting a war, often entering combat with her dragons. If she dies, who will continue her work—which Tyrion believes will result in a better world for the oft-ignored commoners? Tyrion tells her that “there are other ways of choosing a successor.” Would the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms be given a vote? Unlikely. But the acknowledgment that alternatives exist to indefeasible hereditary succession was an unusual moment for the show. Though discussion of Thrones’ final season has oftenrevolvedaround who will “win,” it seems there might at last be a real chance to break the wheel. Perhaps Tyrion’s “other ways” will bring a truly better future.
Game of Thrones began by subverting expectations for what fantasy could be. It cannot claim to have truly done so if it simply ends with an echo of Aragorn’s preordained rise to power.