Game of Thrones and IR Theory

Described as the ‘cult IR series of 2011’, the second season of HBO’s medieval fantasy epic Game of Thrones is now in full swing. GoT, adapted from George R.R Martin’s series of novels, depicts the conflict-riven fictional worlds of Westeros and Essos where power-hungry rivals manoeuvre for control of the Iron Throne set against a gritty backdrop of feudalism and magic.

Time’s James Poniewozick says, “Thrones is a complex narrative with a simple theme: power — scheming for it, keeping it and suffering from it or the lack of it”.

In addition to being influenced by fantasy writers like Tolkien, Martin loosely based his narrative on the Wars of the Roses and other bloody dynastic struggles for power but does it have any relevance to contemporary international politics? Or is ‘the Sopranos in Middle-Earth’ just pure entertainment?

The IR blogosphere was quick to apply an IR lens to GoT’s power dynamics and murky morals.


Drezner sees season one’s protagonist, Ned Stark, as a casualty of ruthless realpolitik. Ned may be honourable and brave but he is a guileless politician. This proves to be a fatal combination in a Hobbesian universe which produces zero-sum outcomes as Cersei Lannister (one of the female leads) bluntly affirms, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”.

Power in GoT doesn’t necessarily equate to physical strength on the battlefield. To succeed and survive requires a Machiavellian streak and a Carr-like fixation on power best exemplified by the dwarf Tyrion Lannister (season 2’s antihero). Tyrion is well-versed in political intrigue which exponentially increases his chances of outlasting the competition and he pragmatically states, “I’m not Ned Stark, I understand the way this game is played.”

Although realists will find plenty to agree with in terms of GoT’s ‘might is right’ power politics, the powerful are frequently disempowered through shifting alliances and changing fortunes. And often when power is wielded, it can reside in unexpected places for a medieval setting, with women, children, ‘cripples’, ‘bastards’ and eunuchs all important players (not just kings and warriors).

Carpenter takes a nuanced stance encompassing cultural norms, gender relations and even environmental disaster in rejecting a realist reading of GoT. She regards Martin’s use of multiple points-of-view as a humanising technique, which lends readers/viewers insight into the perspectives of characters in different social strata:

“Martin shows how gender, race, class, age, and disability combine to produce multiple gradients and forms of power in Westerosi society, just as much as differences in material capabilities”.

According to Carpenter, GoT is, “a parable about the consequences of unchecked realpolitik, it does not celebrate power and the powerful but challenges and interrogates them. Society is complex, roles and identities are varied and contingent, and division risks disaster”.

Martin’s own view of power is maybe symbolised by the game’s ultimate prize, the Iron Throne, which is made of wrought sword blades. It is literally a double-edged seat of authority that both empowers and endangers its incumbent.

Does anyone else watch GoT? Can it be properly debated in terms of IR theory? Or is this just a case of academics over-theorising in order to hop on the pop-culture bandwagon?


3 comments on “Game of Thrones and IR Theory

  1. ryankf says:

    Academics are always over-theorizing, isn’t that the point? And it IR theory better be able to be theorize about GoT, despite it’s fictional orientation. A good theory should still be able to describe and even predict in an imagine world as well as it does in our imaginings of how our real world works.
    I think the end of the first season is actually a good example of the predictive power of theory applied to the GoT universe. Avoiding a full-on SPOILER I think it’s sufficient to say that a power shift isn’t complete until it’s complete. The defining event in the Stark family saga that ends the first season was all but inevitable considering the players in the game. An absolute power shift was what the Lannister family was playing for and despite his inexperience the new young king played right into the traditional expectations and even cultural requirements of his new role. A hegemon isn’t required to cooperate or bargain, they can act inside or outside the rules of the game as it suits.
    To further belabor the applicability of IR theory to GoT the actions of the northern clans also resounds with a liberalist approach of nation state action. To further their relative gains the clans of the north relinquish a portion of their sovereignty in an effort to band together for the greater good.
    I don’t think Martin had a thought in his head about IR theory when writing these books, but he did have a thought about human nature and how we act in groups. Even though the historical setting is before any notion of a nation state existed Martin writes from his inextricably contemporary point of view which is imbued with contemporary ideas and ideals. Theorists and academics can and do weigh in because it’s part of the fun to guess what the Starks and Lannisters will do next and to conform what happens to their world view.

  2. marmotlovesjohnson says:

    ‘Game of Thrones’ as fictional analogy can certainly be properly debated in IR terms. Rather than a case of academics over-theorising however, the ubiquity of it in discussion seems to be more a case of bloggers and journalists on the periphery who are indulging their personal interest. The relevance becomes apparent when you consider that the whole affair is kind of a cycle from reality to fiction and back again: As you touched on Rob, Westeros itself is based on Feudal England. The great ice wall is thus Hadrian’s Wall, as Martin has admitted, and much of the political relations are based on those he read in Ivanhoe. It all came from some level of historical reality so truth can be found in the narrative that could potentially relate to a variety of academic disciplines, not least of which IR.

  3. Thiss blog was… how do you say it? Relevant!!
    Finally I have found something which hekped me. Many thanks!

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