An Eco-critical Approach to “Game of Thrones”

The very opening scene of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” based on the fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, sets the stage for an ecocritical reading. Nameless characters, who appear to be in the North, scurry in fear to no avail. Quickly and brutally they are slain, or consumed, by creatures captured with animalistic camera movement and red tinted lenses. “Winter is coming,” we learn, and the ice-zombies are coming with it. 

In seasons two and three, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) joins a small band of men of the Night’s Watch patrolling above the wall. After separating from his group, he ends up a prisoner of Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), the King-Beyond-the-Wall, who has united the “free-folk” in an attempt to survive the winter by escaping to the south. Mance has united the Thenn and Frostfangs, giants and Hornfoots, and every other clan above the wall—despite their centuries of blood feuds and rivalries. 

By uniting during an eco-apocalypse, these clans (and later, Jon’s army in the North) did what those of earth couldn’t. The United States has dropped out of the Paris Climate Accords, China’s emissions haven’t dropped at all, Iran and Turkey remain outside of its reach, and India is still on the rise. The accords, if we are honest, were more political than activist: no dates have been set and there are no specific measures on how to achieve them. Scientists of all stripes have agreed for decades that the best-case scenario is still pretty bad—and now, we know even these predictions were relatively mild. With the point-of-no-return being a little over a decade away, we have little time left to unite. Jon Snow, when arguing for why the North needs to unite with the free-folk, explains that even with everyone united, “it still may not be enough… but at least we tried” (paraphrased). If we act on our own, we stand no chance. 

Vox’s Christophe Haubursin and Zack Beauchamp make a compelling case that much of the series, at least through season six, can operate as a metaphor for climate change. They point out that all the vying for the Iron Throne distracts most of the Seven Kingdoms from what will most certainly be their own doom in the coming winter—they think in the short-term rather than play in the long-game, not unlike capitalism’s futile efforts to combat global warming. 

The metaphor doesn’t end with apocalypticism. Mance is organizing his army, presumably, before the start of season one; at the start of season seven, as Sam Tarly’s (John Bradley) interactions with the arch-meister make clear, most of Westeros still doesn’t believe (*cough**cough*) in the White Walkers or the Long Winter. The vulnerable people north of the wall, unprotected and left to rot simply because they were born on the wrong side, are the first to experience the horrors of winter, which tracks with the human experience of global warming.

The show’s most poignant eco-commentary, so far, comes when Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) reaches the Three-Eyed Raven and the Children, a creepy band of perpetually young that have walked Westeros since before the First Men. The raven gives clairsentient Bran a vision of the Children stabbing a man with Dragonglass in the heart, turning him into the first White Walker. The filmmaking never turns against the children, though. Not in this season or the next. The Children, as they tell Bran, were forced to play their final card after almost being driven to extinction by the humans, the Lords of Westeros.

The age of humans, the Anthropocene, has brought with it the Anthropocene extinction. The Anthropocene, according to CUNY Marxist economic geographer David Harvey, “happens to be the era of the fastest mass extinction of species in the Earth’s recent history” (173). In a world swarming with sentient creatures other than homosapiens, whether giants or the Children, it’s easy to see how attacking the environmental parasites—humans—could be regarded as acting “for the good of the realm” or “guarding the realm of men.” The way the filmmakers effortlessly align us with the Children necessitates a societal recognition that the Anthropocene has largely been a mistake.

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