This story contains spoilers for the final season of Game of Thrones.
For many years, George R. R. Martin has been repeatedly asked the morbid question of what would happen if he were to die before finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Since 1996, when the first entry, A Game of Thrones, was published, Martin has written five novels as well as several spin-off stories. But his progress has slowed to the point where HBO’s TV adaptation aired eight seasons and wrapped up its narrative before Martin has finished his penultimate work, the long-awaited The Winds of Winter. The huge success of HBO’s Game of Thrones brought more fans to Martin’s writing, which in turn has only added to the chorus of frustration about his creative pace.
“Fuck you.” That was Martin at his bluntest, back in 2014, when he was interviewed by a Swiss newspaper and asked about his hypothetical death. “I find that question pretty offensive, frankly, when people start speculating about my death and my health,” Martin, then 65 years old, said. “So fuck you to those people.” At other times, he’s been clear that he wouldn’t want some other writer to take over in his stead were he to die, which is how Robert Jordan’s famed The Wheel of Time series was eventually completed. “I don’t think my wife, if she survives me, will allow that either,” Martin has said. But in allowing HBO’s Game of Thrones to outstrip his novels, Martin has effectively let someone else finish his story for him. The question for book fans now is whether Martin will eventually unveil his own version.
Martin remains as resolute as ever: His ending is coming. In a post published on his blog Monday, he assured readers that work continues on The Winds of Winter, though he knows better than to set a deadline. And he noted how different his conclusion would be from that of the show, which only “had six hours for this final season. I expect these last two books of mine will fill 3,000 manuscript pages between them before I’m done.” He mentioned characters from his books who never even got introduced on-screen, and the resulting “butterfly effect” that would set his ending apart.
Still, the TV writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss got to conclude Martin’s epic saga first by working off what Martin had told them about his presumed endgame. “We just sat down with him and literally went through every character,” Benioff said back in 2014. “I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet,” Martin added. Whatever broad strokes he gave them translated into a final season in which one crucial character, Daenerys Targaryen, wreaked fiery chaos on the continent of Westeros; her lover and ally, Jon Snow, killed her in the aftermath; and, in a twist, the psychic seer Bran Stark became the new king.
To give an idea of just how removed the books are from the TV story lines, at the end of A Dance With Dragons (the latest entry, published in 2011), Jon has barely heard of Daenerys, Bran has only begun to amass the magical powers he demonstrated on the show, and Daenerys’s dragons haven’t yet come close to Westeros. Roose and Ramsay Bolton, villains who were dispatched in Game of Thrones’ sixth season, are still very much alive, as are major characters such as Stannis Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, who also long ago died on the show. Tyrion Lannister, who spent the last three TV seasons wrestling with his allegiance to Daenerys, has yet to meet her in the novels.
In one way, this divergence speaks to a golden opportunity for Martin: Even if he trusted Benioff and Weiss with the broad strokes of his narrative arc, he can now gauge the public reaction to his biggest developments and adjust accordingly, producing a finale that still manages to surprise. Of course, it’s more likely that Martin’s struggle to wrap things up runs deeper than fan reactions to the show. A Song of Ice and Fire has always been lauded for its emphasis on detail and plausibility, for the tremendous craft Martin puts into setting up and foreshadowing every big development, and for the author’s continued skill at defying expectations. Indeed, some of the key points of HBO’s Game of Thrones finale—Daenerys dying, Bran becoming king—are the sort of against-the-grain ideas one can imagine Martin working toward.
For that to happen, his books will have to pick up the pace considerably; unfortunately, they’ve trended in the opposite direction for more than a decade. Martin initially planned his series as three books, before expanding his scope to six. Then his proposed fourth entry became so long that he split it into two, the first part published in 2005 and the second in 2011. He claims that only two novels are left on the docket—The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring—while also allowing that he’s “repeatedly been guilty of an excess of optimism.”
As a devoted fan of the books, I’ve found it painful to watch Benioff and Weiss try to interpret whatever Martin laid out for them as a coherent TV narrative. A Song of Ice and Fire is told from the perspective of dozens of characters, switching between their points of view for each chapter—an approach that might have helped sell a major moment such as Daenerys deciding to annihilate the city of King’s Landing. The show struggled to get viewers inside her head, just as it struggled to engage with frostier, conflicted characters such as Jon and Tyrion, relying on long, sometimes painfully direct monologues to explain shocking turns of events.
Martin’s recent comments on the end of the show suggest that the pressure is continuing to build for him. “I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, ‘God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind,’” he said in an interview in November. “I’m still deeply in it. I better live a long time, because I have a lot of work left to do,” he added in March. My desire as a reader is to see how Martin wraps everything up, a feeling that has been only amplified by my mixed reactions to the HBO show. The author still has the chance to end things on his own terms. But as time passes, that prospect feels more remote than ever.