Daenerys has had a brief but impactful storyline in Game of Thrones Season 6. We haven’t seen her all that much, but when we have, she’s done big things. She was captured by the Dothraki, and now she controls the united Dothraki horde—the most powerful military force in the world. She’s returning to Meereen, where Tyrion… Continue reading
Actor Emilia Clarke has hyped up the anticipation for the Game of Thrones season six, saying it will be “epic” and will have many “shocking” moments. “It’s really exciting. Next season, I’ve said this before, but there are a lot of seasons where you need to [rightly so] kind of need to set the scene. And… Continue reading
While the spoilers are all out, many fans refused to believe the painful ending of season 5. Viewers by now might expect their favorite characters to die at any minute, but there’s just something about Jon Snow that they’ve refused to let go. Some strongly believe he is ‘the chosen one’ therefore he will be brought… Continue reading
She ruled the hearts of Game of Thrones fans with her impeccable and meticulous portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen and now, with the upcoming release of her latest action film Terminator Genisys, Emilia Clarke says she takes her time before choosing a role. The 28-year-old actor is embodying Sarah Connor in the forthcoming film and will be… Continue reading
The climate has been a persistent theme of Game of Thrones ever since Ned Stark (remember him?) told us “winter is coming” back at the start of season one. The Warden of the North was referring, of course, to the anticipated shift in Westerosi weather from a long summer to a brutal winter that can last for many years.
An unusual or changing climate is a big deal. George R R Martin’s world bears many similarities to Medieval Europe, where changes to the climate influenced social and economic developments through impacts on water resources, crop development and the potential for famine.
We’re interested in whether Westeros’s climate science adds up, given what we’ve learned about how these things work here on Earth.
It’s not easy to understand the mechanisms driving the climate system given we can’t climb into the Game of Thrones universe and take measurements ourselves. It’s hard enough to get an accurate picture of what’s driving the world’s climate even with many thousands of thermometers, buoys and satellite readings all plugging data into modern supercomputers – a few old maesters communicating by raven are bound to struggle.
The fundamental difference between our world and that of Westeros is of course the presence of seasons. Here on Earth, seasons are caused by the planet orbiting around the sun, which constantly bombards us with sunlight. However the amount of sunlight received is not the same throughout the year.
If you imagine the Earth with a long pole through its centre (with the top and bottom of the pole essentially the North and South Pole) and then tilt that by 23.5 degrees, the amount of sunlight received in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres will change throughout the year as the Earth orbits the Sun.
Clearly the unnamed planet on which Game of Thrones is set is missing this axis tilt – or some other crucial part of Earth’s climate system.
How longer seasons might work
The simplest explanation could be linked to spatial fluctuations in solar radiation (sunlight) received at the surface. A reduction in incoming solar radiation would mean more snow and ice likely remaining on the ground during the summer in Westeros’s far north. Compared to the more absorbent soil or rock, snow reflects more of the Sun’s energy back out to space where in effect it cannot warm the Earth‘s surface. So more snow leads to a cooler planet, which means more snow cover on previously snow-free regions, and so on. This process is known as the snow albedo feedback.
The collapse of large ice sheets north of the Wall could also rapidly destabilise ocean circulation, reducing northward heat transport and leading to the encroachment of snow and ice southwards towards King’s Landing.
To descend into glacial conditions would require a large decrease in solar radiation received at certain locations on the Earth’s surface and likewise an increase would be needed to return to warmer conditions.
This is roughly what happened during the switches between “glacial” and “interglacial” (milder) conditions throughout the past million years on Earth. This is controlled primarily by different orbital configurations known as “Milankovitch cycles”, which affect the seasonality and location of sunlight received on Earth.
However, these cycles are on the order of 23,000 to 100,000 years, whereas Game of Thrones seemingly has much shorter cycles of a decade or less.
When winter came back
Around 12,900 years ago there was a much more abrupt climate shift, known as the Younger Dryas, when a spell of near-glacial conditions interrupted a period of gradual rewarming after the last ice age peaked 21,000 years ago. The sudden thawing at the end of this cold spell happened in a matter of decades – a blink of an eye in geological terms – and led to the warm, interglacial conditions we still have today.
Various different theories have tried to explain why this spike occurred, including the sudden injection of freshwater into the North Atlantic from the outburst of North American glacial lakes, in response to the deglaciation, which destabilised ocean circulation by freshening the water and reducing ocean heat transport to the North Atlantic Ocean, cooling the regional climate.
Less likely explanations include shifts in the jet stream, volcanic eruptions blocking out the sun, or even an asteroid impact.
The shift from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age that began around 1300 AD represents a more recent, and more subtle, example of a “quick” climate change. Although the overall temperature change wasn’t too severe – a Northern Hemisphere decrease of around 1˚C compared with today – it was enough to cause much harsher winters in Northern Europe.
None of these events indicate the abrupt transitions from long summers to long winters as described in Game of Thrones – and they still all happen on a much longer timescale than a Westeros winter. However they do demonstrate how extreme climate shifts are possible even on geologically short timescales.
Regardless of the causes of the long and erratic seasons, winter in Westeros won’t be much fun. It may even make the struggle for the Iron Throne between the various factions seem irrelevant.
Indeed the House of Stark’s motto: “winter is coming” may have a lesson for us here on Earth. Anthropogenic climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind today and if left unmitigated the potential environmental impact on society may be far greater than any global recession. Stop worrying about the Iron Throne, everyone, winter is coming.
In the neighborhood where I lived as a graduate student in the mid-1970s, there was a man whose face was remarkably disfigured. Half of it seemed melted, as if it had been fashioned of candle wax. You would spot him after dark on the streets near my university, holding one hand in front of the burned part of his face while he walked. Seeing him filled me with pity, but also horror. And then shame at my own horror.
I thought of my long-ago reactions to the burned man when I heard about Greyscale, the fearsome disease that afflicts some of the characters on Game of Thrones (and also in the series of books the TV shows is based on). Characters with Greyscale are sometimes sent into lifelong quarantine – or exile, depending on how you look at it – in a ruined city.
The world Game of Thrones takes place in is ostensibly based on the medieval and early modern eras. To readers and viewers of the series, Greyscale and its disruptive terror might be a reminder of the Black Death or those mysterious poxes and fluxes that chroniclers wrote about in the era before medical advances allowed physicians to make specific diagnoses. But I wonder if Greyscale’s allure for contemporary audiences has to do with disfigurement.
We have always been fascinated (and repulsed) by disfiguring diseases. And disfigurement has long been burdened with presumptions about permanent moral taint. The capacity of this fantasy disease to grab so many people’s attention is an extension of a long historical line: the tension between loathing of the unsightly and shame over our own repulsion. It goes back at least to medieval Europeans’ dealings with lepers.
A biblical mistranslation shaped how the medieval world understood leprosy
As with leprosy, Greyscale can leave survivors alive, but disfigured – bearing a permanent mark of the disease. In the books, one character describes a girl who survived Greyscale saying that “the child is not clean.” And like leprosy in the medieval era, Greyscale disfigures, but how it is transmitted is not well understood.
Hans von Gersdorff via Images from the History of Medicine (NLM)
A mistranslation in the Bible lead to leprosy’s infamy. Chapter 13 of Leviticus concerns people whose spiritual impurity is reflected in a set of skin afflictions known collectively as tzara’at. The thrust of Leviticus, at this point, concerns the dramatic tension between polluting forces in the natural world and humans’ marshaling of nature’s pure, or purifying, forces (cedar, hyssop, clean water and so forth) in opposition. Indeed, Leviticus makes clear that tzara’at could be seen on cloth and the walls of houses, too. The crucial passage on tzara’at of human skin orders the spiritually impure person to dwell “outside the camp” for eight days. Reflection, along with priestly ministration, will restore the sufferer’s wholeness and allow him to be return to society.
When the text of the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the Septuagint in the third century BC, tzara’at was ambiguously rendered as lepra, from the Greek leprei, already in use by Hippocrates to describe a collection of scaly patches. The word lepra carried over into the commonly used Latin translation of the bible, called the Vulgate.
Thus, while medieval Christians’ banishment of lepers was supposed to be based on the Bible, the disease medieval Europeans called leprosy (and that we now know as Hansen’s disease) is the result of infection with Mycobacterium leprae. Yet, that bacterium almost certainly had not existed in the Near East at the time the relevant biblical text was being handed down, in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Biblical “leprosy” was not medieval leprosy.
Being a leper didn’t always mean you had leprosy
Leprosy came to denote not only those disfigured by Hansen’s disease – which was by then present in Europe – but people with all manner of skin conditions, or people who simply looked like they shouldn’t be allowed to circulate freely.
Rationalizing ostracism in biblical terms gave the shunning of lepers the force of moral imperative. And as time went on, the postulate in Leviticus that the leper, once cleansed, could return to normal society was lost. In its place came a sensibility about leprosy as fearsome. Although Hansen’s disease is not easily transmitted, the medieval Europeans sought ways to cleanse society of its disfigurement.
Richard Tennant Cooper via Wellcome Library, London
In the eighth century, for instance, Pope Gregory II said that lepers should not mix with healthy Christians at sacred events. By 1179, a papal council decreed that lepers be provided with their own churches, cemeteries and priests. On that basis, thousands of leprosaria were built in Europe to house the people deemed unfit.
Not only was leprosy itself disfiguring, but it carried moral taint through rumors that it was associated with sexual impropriety or resulted from a superabundance of melancholic (black) bile.
By this thinking, disfigurement of Hansen’s disease was inextricably linked with moral condemnation. Consider a statement by a 12th-century monk from the Abbey of St Victor, near Paris:
“fornicators, concubines, the incestuous, adulterers, the avaricious, userers, false witnesses, perjurers … all are judged to be leprous by the priests.”
We still associate disfigurement with moral failings
And perhaps disfigurement is even more terrifying today than in the Middle Ages. Certainly, when AIDS appeared in America in the early 1980s, the dark blotches of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the pallor, and the cachexia (wasting) that it often conferred made it both fascinating and repulsive.
Susan Sontag noted AIDS disfigurement’s “esthetic” aspects: that it made grotesque exactly those who were young and beautiful, in the prime of their erotic appeal, was one of the ways AIDS acquired cultural baggage. And indeed, the disfigurement AIDS produced was never far from the moral disapprobation heaped, in those days, on its sufferers, who were usually gay men or drug injectors.
As late as the 1990s, a survey showed that one in six Americans still admitted to feeling “disgust” at people with AIDS.
We are more tolerant of homosexuality today (and, to a lesser extent, drug injectors). And leprosy no longer bears the stigma it once did. But our culture is more than ever oriented to image. And there are more ways to do something about undesired aspects of physiognomy: orthodonture, cosmetics, smoothing and lifting, surgeries of all kinds, and so on.
Not surprisingly, we find other ways to layer moral disapproval on disfigurement. Isn’t this why obesity lends itself to narratives of gross (literally!) distortion of nature – eating too much, moving too little? We are so accustomed to looking at obesity as symptomic of a failure of sociability that a popular strain of research can claim that obesity “spreads” through social networks. The overlarge are the lepers of today.
I don’t know why so many people think that nature is always pretty, and that unpretty people must be, somehow, incontinent – why so many of us still make assumptions not too far from those about lepers in medieval Europe. But it’s not surprising that, in our culture, a disfiguring and incurable condition like Greyscale has an arch sort of allure.
This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 9, The Dance of Dragons.
Royal families in myths and legends are infamous for intrigue, murder and mayhem. These very deeds are part of what make the stories epic and immortal. Indeed, the moral complexities inherent in the outrageous acts perpetrated by the characters of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or Aeschylus’ Agamemnon have engaged audiences for thousands of years, inspiring commentaries, debates, philosophical musings and reinterpretations.
Some want to understand, for example, why Achilles drags Hector’s body around the walls of Troy for nine days. Others want to grapple with the motivations behind Medea’s murder of her sons in Euripides’ tragedy of 431 BC.
Such actions are frightening. People experience them vicariously through performance, text and screen and they shudder. They are also enticing. There is a fascination that inspires the turning of pages and the irritation at inconvenient commercial breaks.
The shocking actions of desperate super-humans determined to make sense of their world through seemingly incomprehensible solutions remain a major narrative motif. And, in the world of myth and legend, plot scenarios have changed very little over the course of millennia.
HBO. Game of Thrones airs on Foxtel’s showcase channel
This shocking twist is not merely the product of sadistic scriptwriters and producers. It is also the inclusion of a plot motif with a long heritage. Its most obvious correlative is the Greek tale of Iphigeneia, a small but significant component of the Trojan War myth cycle.
Her mother was Clytemnestra, sister of Helen and all-round power-crazed avenger.
Agamemnon, having insulted the goddess Artemis, was punished by her in the form of wild winds that prevented the Greek fleet from sailing to Troy.
Her revenge threatened Agamemnon’s position as the preeminent king of Greece: his reputation was rendered vulnerable and his ability to demonstrate military prowess thwarted.
Agamemnon was told by Calchas – the unfortunate messenger of the gods – that he must sacrifice Iphigeneia in order to appease the goddess. Agamemnon’s response? He cut his daughter’s throat. The winds subsided and he and the Greeks sailed to Troy to retrieve Helen.
The tale haunted the Greeks and, later, the Romans also. They told it and retold it over centuries, sometimes accentuating Agamemnon’s vainglorious ambition, sometimes pitying the man who ultimately payed the price for his decision at the hands of his axe-wielding wife.
Other versions saved the young princess from her bloody end by claiming that she was rescued by the very goddess who sought to torment her father in the first place. These happy variants, championed by Euripides in two fascinating plays, have Iphigeneia whisked away and a deer substituted in her place.
But, unfortunately, no deus ex machina saves Shireen. As she is led to the pyre, she screams for her father but he is nowhere to be seen (at least by the princess). Amid the snow and the sombre yet complicit witnesses, Shireen is offered to R’hllor (Lord of the Light and the Red God).
In recreating this perennial mythic tale, the creative taskforce behind Game of Thrones not only casts Shireen as a new Iphigeneia, but Stannis as Agamemnon and Melisandre as an equally zealous Calchas. In so doing, they simultaneously cast a dedicated fan-base as “modern ancients”.
HBO. Game of Thrones airs on Foxtel’s showcase channel
Like the myths that confronted and confounded the Greeks, this twist in Game of Thrones has challenged and disturbed its audience (see, for example, the plethora of blogging).
So, what do we make of a storyline that is decidedly counter-intuitive to contemporary ethics and mores? Dan Weiss, screenwriter, producer and occasional director of Game of Thrones has clearly given some thought to the moral conundrums underlying legendary narratives:
People who watch Game of Thrones don’t see the same world as Stannis and Melisandre […] To those characters, magic is real and it works. That’s something fun about this genre because when magic is real and you can see it with your own eyes in the show, it gives you a window into the heads of people who believe irrational things on faith.
Weiss’ opening statement is something of an understatement; of course fans of the series see the world differently to that of its protagonists. But he does make an interesting point about actions based on the irrationality of faith.
Like the religious backdrop to Agamemnon’s story, there is a powerful system of faith and fear of divine forces that underpin Stannis’ act of sacrifice. Like the offer of Iphigeneia to appease Artemis, Stannis offers his daughter in an attempt to save his people from the onset of starvation.
Yet, as with all great myths and legends, narcissism and megalomania are part of the narrative mix. Stannis, again like his Greek prototype, is also motivated by lust for power, as Weiss is quick to point out:
It’s obviously the hardest choice he’s ever made in his life and for Stannis it comes down to ambition versus familial love and for Stannis sadly that choice is ambition.
The perennial myths and legends of world cultures have lasted because what they have to say matters. What they say is not always nice – far from it – but it demands responses.
Great stories take audience indifference hostage. Great stories inspire fear and loathing and, hopefully, some form of understanding – Aristotle’s catharsis.
Is Game of Thrones a worthy successor to the powerful tales of antiquity?
Perhaps only the trials and tribulations of longevity shall tell.
This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.