JS: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Geopolitical Futures Podcast. I am joined today by our marketing director, Sam Dube. Welcome, Sam.
SD: Welcome, thank you for having me.
JS: So we are doing something a little bit different for today. This will be publishing on April Fools’ and it’s going to accompany a special edition piece that we’re doing for April Fools’ on “Game of Thrones,” which has turned into a hit HBO series. Before it was an HBO series, it was a series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. I know that some of our listeners will be completely uninterested in this, and for that, I apologize and you can just tune in next week for our regular turn at geopolitics.
But I actually think that “Game of Thrones” itself is an interesting laboratory for thinking about geopolitics, and I think that the level of interest that it has spawned, particularly in the United States, but not just in the United States, is also interesting to talk about from a geopolitical perspective. And since it was April Fools’, we wanted to have a little fun, so that’s what we’re going to do today. And Sam is joining me because she is a real fan and she is a true fan. She’s been reading all the books for a long time. I am just somebody who has come a little late to the party and has been watching the television show. So Sam, thank you for lending us your expertise.
I want to jump right into it, and people can read the piece that we wrote and stuff like that. But what I want to start off with rather than the actual content of “Game of Thrones” itself is a discussion of why you like it and why you think people are so drawn to it. I have my own answer, but maybe you can start us off by explaining to the audience why this is something that you gravitated to.
SD: Well sure. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy and in general those sorts of novels. I am also a big reader, so having something with a lot to sink my teeth into was really attractive. But what really kept me into the novels is the number of characters that there are, how dynamic they are and how they change over time. Normally with a novel or with a TV show, there’s one main character and you kind of follow them all the way through and you get one perspective.
But this is such a multi-person perspective that your emotional reaction to the show changes as they want you to change by following different character’s stories, having them meet different situations. It just really draws you in because there’s so much going on, and you can adjust your reaction to different people and see the same situation from many different angles.
JS: It’s funny, so would you say then that for you it’s more about the books, or is it more about the show itself?
SD: Well, now that there’s no more books coming before the shows, I would say now it’s about the show. When he was releasing the books ahead of time, it was more about the books for me. Although I won’t lie, I really do enjoy watching the shows quite a bit.
JS: Well, and also I mean I guess I would ask you as someone who has been reading the books and following George R.R. Martin for a long time, a lot has been made about the current and domestic political overtones of some of his work. So when Daenerys gets stuck in Meereen, for example, people have described that as very similar to the second Iraq War, or the political statement about the United States being stuck in the Iraq War in particular, or in the Middle East in general. Is that something you line up with or do you think it’s more abstract than that?
SD: I don’t know. I think so many of these themes were in play. I am really not sure about that. I haven’t seen that myself and I haven’t given that much thought. Usually when I am escaping into that, I am escaping into the fantasy of it and to tune everything else out. But I mean I could see it thinking back on many of the things that have happened. I can certainly see, you know, themes or thematically things that have happened in history kind of reappearing in the Westeros landscape.
JS: Speaking as somebody who really wasn’t into the books that much but is more into the TV show, but I am also somebody who is generally a fan of these types of things myself, and I have been asking myself why I am interested in these things and why I read these books. This is true of fantasy, it goes on down with “Lord of the Rings,” it goes on down to “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I would even extend it to science fiction. “Dune” is one of my favorite novels.
Our founder, George Friedman, in our weekly reading lists will throw a science fiction novel in there every once in a while, and he explains why it’s a really interesting way of thinking about the world. But one thing that’s really struck me thinking about “Game of Thrones” in general, but also just the general trend towards blockbuster superhero movies and huge franchises and fantasy novels and splitting seasons into multiple things. I mean “Harry Potter,” they had seven books, but we’re going to make nine different movies and a play and all this other stuff.
I think part of the reason for that, and I am playing a little bit of armchair psychologist here, but I hope people will forgive me, because I think what I am going to say is actually a bit true, which is that, I think that we live in this time of fake news, and we live in this time of spin, and we live in this time of people really aren’t sure what’s going on. There’s not a lot of clarity about what’s going on in the world. During the Cold War, for both sides, whether you were in the Soviet Union or you were in the United States, there was a defined enemy, there was a defined conflict. You sort of knew what was happening in the world as a way to orient yourself.
When people look back at the history of World War II, even World War I, it’s very easy to sort of identify, OK, well this was the good side and this was the bad side, and this was my country’s or my family’s or my particular tribe’s tie to that particular conflict. I don’t think we live in a world that’s like that anymore. It’s become less clear what’s going on in the world when we see these multinational institutions degrading and we see that there isn’t just one conflict.
The U.S. wars in the Middle East and with radical Islam is a really good example. Our founder, George Friedman, writes about this all the time. Most Muslims aren’t blowing things up or aren’t committing terrorist attacks in London. But some Muslims are, and it’s impossible to separate those two things from each other. So you can’t deny that you are in a war with radical Islam or with Islam itself, but then you also don’t want that to make it such that every single Muslim you see you want to ascribe some kind of hateful feeling to.
So for me, that’s a really long way of saying, I think people, and when I say people, I am really talking about myself here, I gravitate towards “Game of Thrones” because it is a story that tells me something about good and evil. It is something I can sink my teeth into. And I think the thing that is particularly unique about “Game of Thrones” from that point of view, and what I argue in this piece would make it geopolitical, is that it’s not clear, right? All of the different sides have some good things and some bad things, and there’s very, very few sides that are actually just completely evil, who are horrible, who you can’t relate to or understand at all.
I think this gets back to your point, because when you are talking about your attachment to it, you are talking about the characters and the different narratives and stories, and for me as an analyst who spends a lot of time doing empathetic analysis of other countries, and especially other political leaders, I relate to that, because that’s a lot of my job. A lot of my job is to put myself into the mindset of another person or another leader and try and see the constraints that are around them and see the things that they must do and then use that to analyze geopolitics. And I think that’s something as a watcher of “Game of Thrones” that people have to do.
As somebody who is a huge fan of this, does that sound sacrilegious to you, Sam, or do you feel like that gets along with the ethos of the general fandom of it?
SD: I think that goes along with it well. When you were talking about the Middle East and the conflict going on there, and how we approach that and how it’s not really clear who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, you can’t lump them all together. I actually thought of Tyrion Lannister and Jamie Lannister and all of the Lannisters, and how evil they seem from the outside, and how evil Tywin was, and how evil Cersei is. I don’t think that’s changed much.
But then you look at Tyrion Lannister, who’s good pretty much for the start. He’s a really snarky smart-ass, but he’s really very smart. And you look at Jamie Lannister, who’s gone from a king slayer to kind of almost an anti-hero. All those distinctions, good vs. evil, kind of get muddied in that. And then you look at the people who really are so good, like Ned Stark, who’s almost a martyr, and he doesn’t get anywhere with it. He’s a perfect example of nice guys really do finish last – or headless.
So, I think “Game of Thrones” does allow us to have that, you know that view of a world that’s as muddy and as hard to understand as our own, but with characters who are as easy to understand as our own political leaders. I mean we have a pulse on what these characters are that are running these various things, and whether or not we argue that the leader of any particular country is very important at any given moment is kind of a separate debate.
But in “Game of Thrones” you get that. It’s real life. You get these strong political leaders, you can understand their personalities, you can understand their priorities, their backstory, but in this case, I am kind of using the families as political entities, which kind of works for “Game of Thrones,” kind of doesn’t, because they shift so frequently. But it’s hard to tell if one house is all good or all bad based on the people who make it up.
JS: I think that’s a really good point. It actually helps segue into a discussion of “Game of Thrones” itself, because you are right “Game of Thrones” doesn’t really line up into our world in the sense that there aren’t nations. I make this point in the April Fools’ piece that we wrote. There really is no nationalism in “Game of Thrones.” There is no sense of national identity. Everything is really feudalistic.
One of the things that I realized, and you know just a full confession, I wrote that piece around Christmas time when I was in my grandmother’s house, and I had some time away from work, and I was just trying to relax. For fun, I was reading the first volume of Winston Churchill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” When Churchill is writing that first volume of “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” he goes through the way that the monarchy eventually emerges in England, and I was really, really struck by the way he described the transition from feudalism to monarchy and the differences between Britain and between the country in that regard. It really struck me that one of the things that Martin was really playing with was Europe.
It’s funny that United States has become so obsessed with “Game of Thrones.” And “Game of Thrones,” it’s really a worldwide phenomenon. I travel a lot for work. I am in Budapest right now, actually. I find that a lot of people in the world have watched “Game of Thrones,” and know these strange words in English just because they were used in “Game of Thrones” and will talk to me about “Game of Thrones.” It becomes a point of common conversation.
One of the things to me that is strange about that, in the United States I think people don’t realize that the world that Martin is describing really is very similar to the Medieval or the Middle Ages in Europe. He’s talking about a time where there’s feudalism, there’s monarchy. Religion still plays a great role and has a great deal of power throughout the “Game of Thrones” universe. And he’s talking about the intersection of all these things. And for me one of the greater themes in “Game of Thrones” is the collapse of all these things.
So the houses themselves are not nations, but you can see in them, in the fact that you know the houses become tied to particular geographies, you can sort of see the beginnings of what a nation might look like, even with the accents and the different faiths and different ethnicities that are attached with each region. So I think one of the reasons that America doesn’t even realize that the show is so popular in other places around the world is that it really does, on a certain level, speak to a European audience.
Sam, I was talking to you before, and one of the things that you wanted to touch on was the role of magic in “Game of Thrones.” And I think that for people who normally read our stuff, and people who normally are interested in international politics, magic is probably one of the things that turns them off the most about fantasy. You are either a person who likes magic and fantasy or you are a person who’s like, you know what, give me the real world stuff, this is a load of garbage, I want to go learn about current things. But you had some interesting things to say about what magic actually represents in the universe. How about you tell me a little about that.
SD: Sure. One of the things in the piece that you wrote for this is, you liken dragons to a technology that Valyrians had that allowed them to kind of take over and really dominate the whole world, and later the Targaryens once the Valyrians were wiped out. And I would say although it is fantasy, and I mean yeah, dragons are cool to talk about and of course they are completely unrealistic, there is something in the real world that we can liken magic to and that would be, hold on for this one, it’s a microchip. So microchip is a new technology that really changed the world and it really revolutionized a lot of new technologies. I mean it’s the grandfather of what I am talking on right now.
Likewise, magic was that for the Valeyrians when they went and found the dragons, they just found them slumbering in a bunch of volcanoes. They just went and found them and they were like, oh we can train these dragons. Let’s figure out some magic to do it. And it was that magic, it was them developing the magic or having the magic to be able to train those beasts, that allowed them to kind of turn dragons into the technology that made them great. I mean in addition to that, they also created some amazing roadways and Valyrian steel swords, which no one else has been able to match. So their true competitive advantage in the world was that technology, that magic which allowed them to tame things such as dragons which isn’t that unlike computers, microchips, laser-guided missiles, all that stuff couldn’t exist without the microchip. And all the things that the Valyrians, and later the Targaryens who came from the Valyrians, did to take over and to really force their way out into the world came from that one central thing, the magic that they were able to conjure that other groups of people in Westeros couldn’t conquer.
JS: It’s interesting. I didn’t think of this until you just said it just now, but for me, I always thought of the dragons as sort of the equivalent of a nuclear weapon. You know, like a weapon of mass destruction that makes one side completely invincible and makes other people bend to your will. But what you brought up about this, and this betrays that I watch the show and don’t read the books, but you said that they found the dragons in a cave somewhere, and for me that immediately goes to the Comanche Indians on the American Continent before the United States has sort of moved out and added Texas and all these other colonial holdings.
Because at the time in the West, there were a bunch of different Native American groups, and the Comanche were not the most dominant. What happened was the Comanche discovered the horse, and the Comanche interacted with the horse in a way that none of the other Native American tribes did, and they became the greatest cavalry archers that North America had ever seen and terrorized the Spanish to the point that the Spanish invited American settlers into Texas because they wanted some kind of buffer zone between the Spanish colonies and these Comanche Indians. And the Comanches ended up ruling a wide swath of the West, until eventually the Americans invented the six shooter, the Colt .45, and were able to develop the types of weapons that could neutralize them. But it’s funny, it just occurs to me that that’s another level in which the technology thing counts.
SD: Yeah, imagine if Cersei can come up with a Colt .45 to get rid of those dragons? I don’t know what that would look like.
JS: Yeah. I’ll throw another hard question at you, because I think the dragons are easy to explain in terms of technology. You can think in a religious world if somebody was making a myth that, OK, a weapon of mass destruction or some awesome weapon could totally be represented as a dragon mythically. What about the army of the dead?
So you know we’ve got Daenerys Targaryen is coming back to Westeros with her dragons to conquer, which she sees as rightfully hers, but the other thing that is happening, and it’s really going to pick up this season I think, is that this army of the dead, of these zombies, is marching from the north and is about to try and cross over this magic wall that’s separating from the rest of Westeros. And they seem completely invincible.
We know that they can be killed probably by dragon fire. I haven’t confirmed that, but I feel like that seems like an obvious one. Or Valyrian steel, which you mentioned earlier. But when you are thinking about technology and you are thinking about realism, and I think Martin really is a realistic writer, how do you explain the army of the dead? What do you think is the closest analogy to that?
SD: Well they’re just technology gone wrong. If the dragons are technology gone right, which I think a lot of people would argue they weren’t technology gone right, depends on what side you are on, so is the army of the dead. The army of the dead were created by the children of the forest when the First Men first invaded Westeros. Before any men went into Westeros, there was children of the forest, there were giants, there were other magical creatures. They were all over there having a grand old time, and then these First Men with their big swords of bronze and their armor came in, and this peaceful community wasn’t ready for it. So they couldn’t fight them, they just kept being dominated, dominated, dominated. So they created this army of the dead.
They created that with magic. Now the problem with any technology is if you create something that big and that serious, you better be able to control it. I mean, liken it to a virus. Some kid in a classroom somewhere is playing around and sets off a virus that infects 20 million computers. He might have meant to do that. He might have just been screwing around with his computer with a virus program. But once it’s out, it’s out. And this is kind of like that technology. They use magic to turn a dead person into the first person in this army of the dead, and then it spreads because like a virus, they kind of self-create like create more of themselves. So that’s how I would liken it to in terms of technology.
JS: I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s interesting. Another thing I would ask you, Sam, and it’s been fun for me because we’re a small team at Geopolitical Futures and we all work on basically all our pieces together. It’s really a communal effort every piece that comes out. But, you know, you are a marketing director, and I am over here in analysis, and sometimes we don’t get to talk as much about analysis, but this was a case where I think going into this you actually knew more than I did and we got to collaborate a little bit.
One of the things you said to me was that you had never thought of the series from the point of view of geography in the way we sort of laid it out. So can you talk a little bit about as a fan of “Game of Thrones,” what it was sort of like to read through it, approach this way with this particular methodology, and whether you were skeptical it was going to work at first and whether you think it did?
SD: I wasn’t really skeptical of it. I was wondering how it was going to be different, because there’s so much fan fiction out there. And I think the geographic approach that you took was really clever because you watch “Game of Thrones” and you don’t really have a view of where these things are in your head. Like, where is King’s Landing, where is The Reach, you know like where are all these things in relation to each other and it’s just a concept you can’t really grasp.
So the fact that you created this analysis that actually has a map that shows it against Europe so you get a real idea of how far these things are from each other. Everything just makes a little bit more sense. I can see the path that the Valryians took when they were beginning to take over the world after they found their dragons. I can see the little island that the Targaryens went to when one of the children of a Targaryen leader had a vision that Valyria was going to be destroyed. I can even see the destruction on the new map of Valryia because they refer to it as a peninsula. It’s not a peninsula. It’s a series of islands. I can even see the path that the Valryians took up that push the Andals over into Westeros when they first invaded thousands of years before the television show happened.
So it puts a completely different perspective on it all that makes it, I mean it’s not real, it’s obviously not real, but it makes it feel a little more real, feel a little more subjective and like something that you could actually step into because this is a real world. This is a real physical place and not just some abstract concept in my head. I really liked the fact that it pulls together a real understanding of the world that these people live in. I mean, you can say this army moved from point A to point B, but without seeing it on a map you really have no concept of that. And I think this analysis does a great job of putting that perspective into place. And I never had that before. It was really nice to see that.
JS: I appreciate you saying that, and for me, also it drives home one of the things that I think makes “Game of Thrones” really interesting, and for me valuable as a resource. It’s not just something I do to burn off time. For me, it’s intellectually engaging on a certain level, and this is true of a lot of different fiction. I am a self-confessed nerd and I’ve already said some of the things that I’ve read.
But I don’t know that Martin worked it this way, but it seems to me that Martin must’ve started with a map and started writing his story after the map. I think the same thing about “Dune,” which is a story about a desert planet where geography plays a huge role. Something like “The Chronicles of Narnia” is very clearly to me about faith. It’s very clearly to me about C.S. Lewis’ interaction with faith and him dealing with that. “Lord of the Rings” is another one that always gets lopped into this stuff and that has something to do with faith, but Tolkien was a linguist at the end of the day, and he is famous for saying that the first thing that began the whole “Lord of the Rings” saga was he invented a language. And then came all the maps and the geography and all of this other stuff.
So for me, approaching “Game of Thrones” for somebody who does geopolitics for a living, I think one of the reasons I gravitate towards “Game of Thrones” as much as I do is because it really is about a map. And I really do think that you can explain things through geography. And one of the things I am really curious about, and one of the reasons I indulged myself in this little exercise while I was on vacation to write this was that I really think this is an interesting laboratory for thinking about geopolitics.
I think of “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin in general as a very a realistic take on what politics looks like at a certain level and the way that people betray each other and make alliances and all these other things, and I am curious just how far it goes. I have a great deal of faith in the model that we use at Geopolitical Futures. It’s been very good at predicting a lot of events. And for me it’s kind of a litmus test, like just how realistic is George R.R. Martin going to be. Is it going to turn out to be just a fantasy series and something incredibly crazy that nobody could have predicted is going to happen, or can I use the same tools that I used to predict global geopolitics and think about this universe that Martin has created, which I think is much more realistic and much more based on geography than most of these types of universes are, and can I say something intelligent about what the future of this universe is going to be.
So that’s one of the reasons that I’ve sort of let myself go into that. But when you think about “Game of Thrones,” you think about other things that you’ve read. Harry Potter is another one in there. I don’t know exactly what the genesis was for that in J.K. Rowling’s mind, but do you think that Martin really was centered in geography, or do you think there’s something else going on there that I am missing?
SD: I feel like he couldn’t have written it the way he did if he wasn’t aware of the geography. I mean when you come at it from the story’s angle and then you look at the geography of it, it has to be geographic based. It is too well written to the map to not have had that in his head. It would be too coincidental that the way all of these people moved over time with their geography, there’s too many coincidences for him not to have done that on purpose.
However, I do think that he is a huge fan of throwing curveballs, things that you don’t expect and figures that people who have a lot of ability to change the scene of the world. There’s no way to know for sure whether or not Cersei will come up with that Colt .45 that can kill these dragons or, it probably won’t be Cersei, but there’s no way to know that Aegon Targaryen isn’t going to come back theoretically from the dead and claim his throne, and all of the sudden you have three dragons and three Targaryens. Like, who knows what is going to happen with that stuff.
So I think he will create twists within the constraints of geopolitics, but I do think it’s hard to predict just because he just really likes those twists. But I do think he will keep it constrained by the geography of the world he’s created.
JS: Well, thanks Sam. For our listeners, I hope you’ve enjoyed this. This was a little bit different than we normally do and we always appreciate your feedback. But if you liked this, we’d love to hear back from you with comments at www.geopoliticalfutures.com. If you didn’t like it, we’d also love to hear from you, too. Don’t worry, I promise we are not going to become a “Game of Thrones” website that is cataloging it all the time, and this was a special occasion for April Fools’, and we thought we’d just try it. But so as always, appreciate your feedback. I am Jacob Shapiro, I am the director of analysis, this was Sam Dube, who is our marketing director, and we will see you next week for some more podcasting about geopolitics. Thanks.