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The Man Behind Game of Thrones's Murky Moral Worldview

George R.R. Martin and the genesis of a fantasy world


In 1991, George R.R. Martin was working on a science fiction novel when suddenly an unrelated scene flashed in his head: a group of children finding a litter of direwolf pups. “It just came to me so vividly,” he told me. The children, needless to say, would become the Starks, protagonists of Game of Thrones, the first book in his best-selling series A Song of Ice and Fire. He soon abandoned the other novel completely. As fully imagined as the Game of Thrones universe is—it traverses the continent of Westeros, with its Seven Kingdoms separated from an arctic northern wasteland by a giant wall—Martin has always been primarily interested in character. His brand of fantasy is singular in the murkiness of its moral worldview, in the complexity and tangled incentives of his protagonists. More than magic, character is what allows him to address the questions that interest him most: “What constitutes good and what constitutes evil? What happens if our good intentions produce evil? Does the end justify the means?”

These are the questions that animate almost every scene in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which begins its third season on Sunday. In the show there is not a slack or idle onscreen moment; the stakes in every exchange, whether in a brothel or in battle, are operatically high. After a sorceress fails to save Dothraki leader Khal Drogo in season one, widow Daenerys orders the witch tied to Drogo’s funeral pyre. “Knowledge is power,” scheming political operative Littlefinger tells queen regent Cersei Lannister in season two; “Power is power,” she replies. “Influence is largely a matter of patience,” says spymaster Varys in season three. We are constantly reminded that power—even in this imagined, alternate world—is far more complex than magic.

Martin, now 64 years old, has always been attracted to imagined places. He grew up in the blue-collar town of Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of a longshoreman who didn’t read books and spent evenings at the bar down the street. They lived in federal housing projects five blocks from his school, and, to an extent, Martin says, “those five blocks were my world.” From his house he could see the passing freighters leaving for other countries, and the lights of Staten Island across the New York Bay. “I would walk at night along the water and look at these distant lights and think, one day, I too will see Staten Island. I traveled in the stories I read.” In high school he pored over comic books like Superman and Conan the Barbarian, and started writing for fanzines. He invented and sketched his own superheroes: Manta Ray, who flew around with a big whip and never needed sleep, and Garizan the mechanical warrior, a brain in a bottle who came from outer space.

But as the real world got more complicated, so did the worlds he created. His father had fought in World War II, and as a young man Martin was convinced of American exceptionalism and the total legitimacy of U.S. intervention abroad. But then the Vietnam War began. And around the same time, Martin started reading Tolkien, which enthralled him but struck him as too straightforward in its treatment of good and evil. “The sort of fantasy where all the people get together to fight the dark lord doesn’t interest me,” he said. “We don’t tend to have wars or political controversies where one side is really ugly and wears dark clothing, where the other side wears white and has glowing magical swords.” He registered as a conscientious objector during Vietnam. In the wake of 9/11 he stopped writing for months. “I don’t think it really behooves the United States to try to stop all the conflicts in the world, to depose all the evil dictators,” he said. “It is never clear who is a bad guy and who is a good guy, who deserves to be supported.” Though he does not set out to write allegories, he is determined to make his fantasy as concrete and earthbound as possible.

As fantasy writers go, Martin makes minimal use of magic in A Song of Ice and Fire—he calls his otherworldly elements a kind of “low magic.” And in the first two seasons of the show, the supernatural moments can feel joltingly unreal. In season two the sorceress Melisandre delivers a demon baby that slithers out of her as terrible black smoke spews from between her legs. But even more salient is the brutal carnality of real trauma: a slaughtered infant, a horse’s head cleanly severed, a leg sawed through by a nurse on a battlefield. When the eunuch Varys explains, in an upcoming episode, that the sorcerer who castrated him instilled him with a lifelong hatred of magic, Tyrion Lannister replies: “I feel the need for actual revenge against the actual person who tried to have me killed.” The contrast between magic and assaultive biological reality is by design; Martin likes to keep the mechanics of his magic unknowable and the mechanics of the body concrete. “A lot of fantasists invent very elaborate magical systems but that to my mind is a mistake,” he said. “That reduces magic to a kind of false science. If you just mix some newt’s eye with blood of unicorn to get some result, then you don’t have to be a magician do to it. Then anyone who has a recipe can do it. It’s just science that doesn’t work.”

The third season of “Game of Thrones” is its biggest yet, in both budget and the scale of action. It opens with the rival families of Westeros still vying for the throne: Robb Stark is plotting to overthrow the Lannisters, Stannis Barantheon is conferring darkly with Melisandre, the odious Joffrey continues his reign of terror alongside his mother Cersei, grandfather Tywin, and uncle Tyrion, whom Peter Dinklage continues to play with twinkling intelligence. Daenerys Targaryen has recouped her dragons and is trying to gather an army. Theon Greyjoy is languishing in captivity. Jon Snow is wandering the northern tundra with the Wildlings.

The first two episodes are mostly expository, but by episode four the intrigue has been fully ratcheted up. Tyrion—who emerged as the show’s sly moral center after Ned Stark’s beheading—owned the second season. But in the first episodes of season three the women are by far the most layered and fascinating characters. Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth has a tough pathos as the female warrior leading Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing. The Daenerys plot line, which sagged as Khaleesi and her troupe of Dothrakis wandered fruitlessly through the desert in season two, is now newly fortified, with Daenerys gaining power. Joffrey is mesmerized by Natalie Dormer’s charming Margaery Tyrell. The final scene of episode four is a visually thrilling one: Daenerys gets her army at last, as her dragons swoop impressively overhead.

Critics were sent the first four episodes of the new season, but Martin has only watched the season premiere. It was a rush, he said, to see his new characters incarnated for the first time: Margaery’s grandmother, a sharp-tongued matriarch called the Queen of Thorns, particularly delighted him. (She is played by English actress and ’60s-era sex symbol Diana Rigg). Martin has been an adviser on each season of the show, but the process has inevitably required giving up much creative control. In some ways, though, Westeros got away from him long ago: At this point many of his fans know the world he created better than he does. The culture of fandom has changed; there are online communities devoted to fulminating over how long Martin takes to produce each book. One Sweden-based superfan, Elio M. Garcia Jr., runs, the main discussion forum for A Song of Ice and Fire, and controls Martin’s official Facebook and Twitter. If HBO needs to clarify details about Westeros, Martin occasionally fact-checks with Garcia. 

When we spoke, Martin was at home in Santa Fe, working “on the 747 things that I’m late on.” A Song of Ice and Fire, of course, is still unfinished, and the show’s producers are among the only people in the world whom Martin has told the answer to the biggest question surrounding his books: who will ultimately win the Iron Throne. With the HBO show, he often feels, he said, like “I’m laying track for a railroad and I can hear the locomotive coming up behind me and I can see the smokestack, so I better lay the rails faster.” The television production, the publishers and the editors with their deadlines, the fans clamoring for answers—it is a daily struggle to drown out the noise. So Martin tries to focus on the characters, plotting their triumphs and their ends. “You have to turn on the computer, and just look at the scene,” he said, “and suddenly Jon Snow is in the forest and there are enemies after him and what is he gonna eat and what is your next sentence, what is your next word?”