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The Geopolitics of Ice and Fire

April 1, 2017 On April Fools’ Day, Geopolitical Futures presents an analysis of the fictional world of Westeros.

Introduction

On this auspicious April Fools’ Day, Geopolitical Futures presents a net assessment of Westeros, the fictional world at the center of the novels written by George R. R. Martin and the hit HBO series it has spawned. This piece applies GPF’s methodology to the Game of Thrones universe and makes predictions about what the year holds in store for the upcoming seventh season of the show.

The Geography of Westeros


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Westeros is a large landmass, roughly the size of South America or triple size of Great Britain. It has eight distinct geographical regions: the Reach, the Riverlands, the Stormlands, Dorne, the Westerlands, the Vale of Arryn, the North (which includes the Gift) and the Iron Islands. The Crownlands, shown on the map below, is technically a constituent region. But as a geographic entity, it is part of the Stormlands, though power over the Crownlands often changes hands.


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The Reach and the Riverlands are the most densely populated and agriculturally fertile regions of the realm, but also its most indefensible. Both have large river systems. The Mander River flows through the Reach. The Trident River passes through the Riverlands and is formed by three major tributaries: the Green Fork, the Blue Fork and the Red Fork. Each of these two major population centers and food-producing regions are located on flat plains that are highly susceptible to both invasion from outside powers and power contests between local political communities. Sometimes these regions are controlled by a single ruler, as the Reach is currently by House Tyrell, which governs from its seat at Highgarden. Even so, these breadbaskets of Westeros are always in danger of attack from bordering regions.

To the east, the Stormlands and the Crownlands are located on wooded uplands, making them vulnerable to conquest. But they are still considerably more defensible than the Reach and the Riverlands. The Stormlands’ and Crownlands’ eastern coasts boast some of the realm’s best ports, most notably the city of King’s Landing, Westeros’ royal capital and largest city. King’s Landing, a walled city home to 500,000 souls, is beset with many chronic issues, including low food supply, crime and corruption. The city is located on a raised upland and is an ideal port for travel across the Narrow Sea to Essos. Whoever controls King’s Landing is in an ideal position to deal with the Iron Bank of Braavos, which funds most of the Crown’s activities and plays a key role in Westeros’ economy.

To the south of the Reach and the Stormlands is Dorne. Dorne is a resource-poor region and the least integrated into the rest of Westeros. It is separated from the rest of Westeros by mountains, making it almost impossible for outside forces to dominate the region. Dorne has little commercial value because its ports are located farther away from Essos than others in Westeros and it can only support a limited population. Dorne’s ruling families are the most diverse in Westeros, having integrated refugees from Essos (the Rhoynar) and the North (the First Men) into its society. Thus, Dorne’s culture is both cosmopolitan and unique compared to the rest of Westeros.

North of the Stormlands is the Vale, another mountainous region with a limited population. It is an extremely advantageous defensive point from which to launch attacks into the Riverlands. To the west, the Westerlands are rocky and blessed with abundant mining resources, especially gold. The region has a highly defensible staging ground for aggressive attacks, especially into the Riverlands.

North of the Riverlands, the geography of Westeros changes. The continent narrows considerably at what is called “the Neck,” a region beset with marshes and swamps that make the movement of large-scale troop formations extremely vulnerable to enemy attack. The only passable point in the Neck is marked by Moat Cailin, the boundary separating northern and southern Westeros for millennia. This is also the area in which ethnicity begins to change on Westeros, as the North is populated by the descendants of the First Men and the area south of Moat Cailin is populated by the descendants of the Andals. The Andals invaded Westeros thousands of years ago, but even they could not assert power past Moat Cailin. The North is a vast land, making up almost half of Westeros, and its population has its own unique religion and dialect. Direct control of the North, even by its native population, is extremely hard because it is such a wide expanse. No foreign power in Westeros’ recorded history has managed to subdue the North, though the Targaryens were able to keep the region under submission for a few centuries.

The two remaining regions are geographical outliers. The first is the area beyond the Wall, home to untold numbers of Wildlings who are separated from Westeros by a massive wall of ice and magic many times higher than any wall ever constructed in modern human history. The second is the Iron Islands, a dank and wet batch of relatively small islands to the west of the Riverlands that can support a limited population, albeit one that is highly skilled when it comes to naval warfare. At various points in Westeros’ history, the Iron Islands’ rulers have asserted control over the Riverlands and even parts of the North. Due to being disconnected from the main continent, the Iron Islands have developed a distinctive culture and religion.


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Political and Religious Transformation

Having laid out the basic geography of Westeros, it is now necessary to examine its history. Before the Targaryens crossed the Narrow Sea and asserted control over Westeros through their possession of an almost invincible technology (dragons), the continent was divided nominally into Seven Kingdoms – some highly fractious – each with its own king. The continent was also divided on religious grounds. The North continued to worship the Old Gods, while the rest of Westeros, except for the Iron Islands, was converted to the Faith of the Seven, brought over by the conquering Andal race thousands of years ago.

Politics

The Targaryen conquest of Westeros set in motion a series of conflicts on both political and religious fronts, which led directly to the War of the Five Kings. After the Andals invaded Westeros, a feudalistic system was set up throughout the continent. The basis of this system was the personal relationship between a liege lord and his subjects. The best evidence for this is how various Westeros regions are associated with different Houses. For example, House Stark rules the North and derives its power from the various lesser houses and communities that pledge allegiance to the Stark banner. House Stark’s bannermen, however, can transfer their allegiance if they choose, as the Karstarks did after Robb killed Rickard Karstark, the head of the House.

The Targaryens sought to impose a different system in which all of Westeros’ land was owned by the Crown and various Crown-sanctioned Houses were assigned Stewardship of those lands. The Targaryens wiped out Houses that did not bend the knee to Targaryen rule, and replaced them with Targaryen-sanctioned stewards. (House Tyrell, which governed the Reach, is the most prominent example.) The Targaryen monarchy managed to keep this system together for hundreds of years, though not without various rebellions and wars that challenged Targaryen rule. The Targaryen Crown could do this because the Targaryens had dragons. The United States’ development of nuclear weapons before any other country at the end of World War II is an apt analogy. House Targaryen could annihilate its enemies. This cowed many into submission; those who didn’t go along with the new system were wiped out.

But the dragons died out, partly because of constant Targaryen civil wars. The result was House Targaryen had to rule through prestige alone. This worked for a time, but required extremely deft political leadership. When the aptly named Mad King ascended to the throne, the result was catastrophe for the Targaryens. A rebellion against the Targaryens ensued that put House Baratheon on the throne. But a rebellion to King Robert Baratheon’s rule was inevitable, because House Baratheon could no more control the monarchy than could House Targaryen without its strategic weapon. During the War of the Five Kings, the old feudal system, developed over thousands of years, reasserted itself against the Crown’s authority, which is presently tenuous at best.

As the situation currently stands, a Lannister sits on the Iron Throne, and the Lannisters control the Westerlands, the Riverlands and much of the Stormlands, as well as the capital. But their control is maintained by a force that is spread far too thin and is facing rebellion against the Crown’s authority on all sides.

Religion

In Westeros, where nationhood as an organizing political principle does not exist, religious conflict remains of geopolitical consequence. Official history would have us believe that the Andals brought over the Faith of the Seven as conquerors and that over time most of Westeros adopted it. It is too convenient, however, that the Faith of the Seven would have existed before it encountered the Seven Kingdoms. More likely, the Andals sought a way to consolidate their hold over their new possessions and modified their religious beliefs to make them more acceptable to Westeros’ population (though the new religion never took hold in the North).

When the Targaryens arrived, they saw a ready-made lever they could use to install a new centralized monarchy. An alliance was forged between Aegon the Conqueror and the Faith of the Seven’s religious militia, the Faith Militant. The Faith thought it could manipulate the conquering Targaryens, and once it became clear that the Targaryens intended to rule, not to pray, the Faith turned against them, fighting a series of bloody conflicts against the Targaryen House. An agreement eventually was reached between the two sides: The seat of the High Septon, the Faith’s essential pope, was moved to King’s Landing, and the Crown pledged to protect the Faith at all costs.

After the War of the Five Kings, Cersei Lannister reached an agreement with the Faith. Cersei gained a militia to help her defend the Crown’s power. The Faith got their militia back. Instead of adhering to the desires of the Crown, the Faith decided to assert their own beliefs, even holding Cersei hostage. House Lannister has now crushed this rebellion and Cersei has been crowned Queen, but did so by wiping out all of the Faith’s fighters and most of the Septons in King’s Landing. News of this will travel far throughout the south, including in the Riverlands and even in Casterly Rock, the seat of House Lannister. In the North, the Old Gods continue to reign, and the coming of Winter has only reasserted their long-held influence.

Not coincidentally, other various religious movements have also begun to arise, the most prominent being the cultish, monotheistic faith imported from Essos that believes there is only one God, the Lord of Light. A band of vigilantes called the Brotherhood and a political adviser to one of the five kings known as the Red Priestess both subscribe to this faith, and have already shaped the political conflict in Westeros. The approaching Targaryen host also has ties to this faith; the Targaryens used the Faith of the Seven in their initial conquest of Westeros, but the approaching host has associated itself with the Lord of Light cult. The destruction of the Faith of the Seven’s leadership will reverberate throughout the realm. It will weaken House Lannister’s claim to the throne, be a rallying cry against the Crown, and lead to the proliferation of various groups seeking power amid chaos.

The inclusion of religion in politics and the rise of other religious movements were set in motion when the Andals first supplanted the native religion of the population they conquered. These issues were accelerated when House Targaryen attempted to impose a centralized monarchy on the Seven Kingdoms and saw fit to use the Faith for worldly issues. Westeros now faces invasion from two forces: a supernatural army from north of the Wall, and a Targaryen host seeking to reinstall a Targaryen upon the throne. But Westeros was already tearing itself apart before either of those forces were assembled. The most important, if less obvious, issue in Westeros will continue to be defining political power and the relationship between religious and political authority.

The Current Situation

Having defined the major political fault lines of the realm, we turn now to the present.

King’s Landing

House Lannister has taken control of King’s Landing and the Riverlands. House Lannister boasts a maximum of roughly 50,000 men at arms and a small naval fleet, but House Lannister’s strength has been significantly curtailed by two factors. The first is that its armies have been constantly at war for many months. In the war of the Five Kings, House Lannister called roughly 35,000 bannermen to arms, but thousands of those soldiers died, and many others returned to the Westerlands or were dispatched to King’s Landing or other places. The second factor is that House Lannister is financially broke; its Westeros mines have not produced gold for over a year.

Thus, House Lannister is highly indebted to the Iron Bank of Braavos. We estimate the ratio of non-performing loans to total loans the Iron Bank of Bravos issued to the Crown has ballooned to over 45 percent. House Lannister has also lost its most important alliances. In taking the throne for herself, recently anointed Queen Cersei destroyed the alliance with House Tyrell, the current rulers in the Reach. The Reach had provided King’s Landing with much-needed food and soldiers for defense, and without either it will be hard for the Lannisters to hold King’s Landing by any other way than brute force. Meanwhile, the Vale has, for now, sent the bulk of its fighters to the North to back a budding Stark restoration in the Northern stronghold of Winterfell. There are no sides unspoken for that the Lannisters can call for help.

The Lannister armies currently occupy the Westerlands, the Riverlands, the Stormlands, the Crownlands, and King’s Landing itself, but they are spread too thin, and their control over the Riverlands will dissipate from the strain of attempting to hold them. King’s Landing is in a highly defensible position, as it is a walled city surrounded on one side by water. An invasion of King’s Landing would require either an amphibious landing, which Stannis Baratheon learned the hard way is extremely difficult, or a direct assault on a walled city. Even if the walls were breached, the battle for King’s Landing would be a classic case of urban warfare, where the casualty rate for an invading force can easily reach 50 to 60 percent of total forces. The Lannister position is extremely weak from a power projection point of view, but uprooting the Lannisters by force from King’s Landing will be extremely difficult without the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians.

A Targaryen Invasion


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While the Lannister position in King’s Landing is extremely weak, it is not threatened by any of the other regions in the realm. The most serious threat is from an emerging alliance between the Reach and Dorne, but it is very difficult for Dorne to project force over such long distance and harsh geography. The Reach’s armies have been bloodied and lost some of their best fighters and commanders in King’s Landing. The Reach’s real power lies in its ability to cut off food and other supplies from King’s Landing and its ability to stage attacks in the Riverlands to cut off Lannister supply chains. The Reach cannot launch a full-scale invasion against King’s Landing, but it could invade the Riverlands and challenge Lannister dominion in the region. If successful, this would worsen the economic situation in the capital.

What King’s Landing does not expect is that a large and capable force armed with newly discovered dragons is about to make landfall in Westeros. Daenerys Targaryen, the last full-blooded member of her once-illustrious house, is sailing for Westeros at the head of a massive host. Her armed forces number roughly 20,000, not including Dothraki light cavalry, but all told her numbers swell to between 80,000 and 100,000 souls. This means that Daenerys cannot attempt a direct amphibious assault against King’s Landing. Daenerys needs food and supplies, as well as local Westerosi support and a safe place to land her forces. Dorne is too far removed from the action, but the Reach, with its combination of ample supplies and hatred for the Crown, is an ideal place for Daenerys to make landfall and plot her assault on King’s Landing.

Daenerys comes equipped with three flying weapons of massive destruction. No other force in the entire Seven Kingdoms contains anything like Daenerys’ dragons. This new technology gives Daenerys a great deal of power, but this power also has its limits. Daenerys has no interest in razing King’s Landing and its civilian population to the ground – she wants to conquer the city with popular support. Her dragons are only effective as a potential threat, if the goal is to conquer King’s Landing without killing most of the civilians living there. House Lannister has no reason to negotiate with Daenerys, and will turn the entire population of King’s Landing into a human shield. Daenerys’ dragons help very little in a direct assault on King’s Landing itself.

It is unlikely then that Daenerys will begin by waging a full-scale assault on King’s Landing. Daenerys’ dragons are highly effective in projecting both prestige and power to would-be allies, many who are dissatisfied with the Crown, especially in the regions below the Neck. Daenerys’ dragons also give her a far greater ability than any other force to project across distance. It so happens that the North, which has rallied behind a Stark restoration, is facing a massive invasion of the Army of the Dead, a military force without peer in the realm. Even the fresh 45,000 troops of the Vale, the main reason the Starks were able to retake Winterfell, stand little chance against the Army of the Dead, which likely numbers in the hundreds of thousands and is marching south toward the Wall. Daenerys can offer two things to House Stark.

First, she can offer fighters and troops of unquestionable loyalty. The Knights of the Vale currently swear allegiance to a pathetic, inbred, halfwit of a child who is as lame as he is unpredictable. But often this child-lord of the Knights of the Vale listens to the council of Petyr Baelish. Baelish seeks to divide the two Stark children currently ensconced at Winterfell against each other, which makes the Stark position extremely vulnerable. It also so happens that one of those Stark children is half Targaryen, though he is not aware of it yet. Bran Stark is en route south and has discovered the truth of Jon Snow’s identity. As soon as Bran relays this information to Jon, a potential alliance between House Stark and Daenerys will emerge.

Second, Daenerys’ dragons are needed more in the North than anywhere else in the realm. Daenerys’ dragons are the only weapon the human populations living south of the Wall have to resist the Dead force of the Night King. By dispatching her dragons to the North, Daenerys will solidify an alliance with the North and will also become its savior. This will significantly increase Daenerys’ prestige, and will make any House or region thinking of resisting her invasion of Westeros extremely wary of doing anything except pledging fealty to the new superpower of the realm. Daenerys is already in negotiations with the Reach and Dorne for an alliance. Once her position in the North is secure, Daenerys’ forces will be able to approach the Riverlands from both the north and south. This will enable her forces to cut King’s Landing off from all supplies and carry out a siege operation to force the Lannister’s hand. All of this also assumes that Daenerys’ host crosses the Narrow Sea mostly intact, which is not a foregone conclusion considering the dangerous nature of seaborne travel in this world.

Conclusion

Two disruptive events are about to change the course of Westeros’ history: Daenerys Targaryen will arrive in Westeros with three dragons, and the Night King will begin to push south of the Wall. These two forces will fight at some point – the only question is when the conflict will occur. This is the second time a Targaryen at the head of a mighty army and with vastly superior technology has set out to conquer Westeros, but the Westeros Daenerys is reaching has only just begun to tear itself apart. Geography is reasserting itself on the continent, and both political and religious authority is up for grabs. Daenerys’ dragons lend her significant but not absolute power, and Daenerys has been insistent that she intends not to resort to the type of tactics of her ancestors. It is a noble aim, but the road to the Red Waste is paved with noble aims, and if Daenerys means to succeed in her task, she will do so only because she lives long enough to see herself become the villain.

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