The geopolitics of Game of Thrones

Don’t be fooled by the dragons and resurrections and prophecies and reanimated corpses into believing that GoT was a fantasy series. Much of its storylines and events are driven and determined by sheer geographical contours.

May 22, 2019 04:44 pm | Updated 04:51 pm IST

Its visual depictions of battles for territory is what put Game of Thrones on the map.

Its visual depictions of battles for territory is what put Game of Thrones on the map.

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Geography is destiny. Not even  Game of Thrones,  the popular HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels, is free from this geopolitical dictum. In the many wars in the series, geography has been a constant factor influencing outcomes. It makes kingdoms stronger or vulnerable to external attacks, it delays the advances of formidable military forces and even springs surprises during the course of the war. The kings, queens, their hands and soldiers all plan either to maximise or to overcome the geographical barriers. Some of them win and some lose, as in the case of all wars.

In the known world in  Game of Thrones , there are two continents — Westeros and Essos — which are divided by the Narrow Sea. The Seven Kingdoms is a political entity in Westeros whose capital is King’s Landing. When the series opens, it’s the 17th year of the reign of King Robert Baratheon. He captured power through a rebellion against Aerys Targaryen, or the Mad King, bringing an end to hundreds of years of Targaryen rule.

Robert’s alliance

The Seven Kingdoms is not a coherent political entity. It’s a loose confederation of seven feudal kingdoms and another region called the Riverlands with each having its own noble houses as local rulers. Culturally, economically and geographically different, the regions are often at each other’s throats. The geographical location of King’s Landing, the seat of power, is perhaps one of the key advantages of the ruler. King’s Landing is the largest city in Westeros and it has one of the best ports in the Seven Kingdoms. Located on an upland, the city is partly covered by walls and partly by sea. From the port, the crown has easy access to the Narrow Sea and to the Iron Bank of Bravos across the sea. The bank is the main lender to the royal administration. King’s Landing is also connected to all the other kingdoms except the Iron Islands via road. To its north lie the Vale, the Riverlands and the North, and to the south Stormlands, the Reach and Dorne. On the west, there are the Westerlands and the Iron Islands.



When the Targaryens were in power, they ruled the kingdoms through fear. They had dragons, which instilled fear among the local feudal lords. But once the dragons were gone, the Targaryens’ power receded, and the Mad King couldn’t withstand Robert’s Rebellion. Unlike the Targaryens, King Robert stitched together an alliance to sustain his rule. Eddard Stark, the Warden of the North (the biggest kingdom in Westeros in terms of land mass), was a friend of King Robert Baratheon. The alliance between House Stark and House Baratheon was one of the main stability factors of Robert’s reign. Robert’s “hand” Jon Arryn is from the Vale. Robert’s wife Cersei is from the House Lannister, which rules the resource-rich Westerlands. Eddard is married to Catelyn of House Tully, which controls the Riverlands. The Stormlands belong to House Baratheon, Robert’s own clan. This was the alliance behind the Crown. The other southern kingdoms, the Reach and Dorne — one is a fertile plain agricultural region and the other is known for winemaking — followed suit in accepting Robert as King.

But this confederation would break down as soon as King Robert was assassinated. Eddard Stark would be beheaded by Robert’s successor, King Joffrey, following which the North would declare war on King’s Landing. In the series, in a broad sense, there were two major wars for the Iron Throne. One is the War of the Five Kings and the other the war — following the death of Joffrey — between Daenerys Targaryen, the Dragon Queen, and Cersei Lannister, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. In both wars, geography played a major part.

Revenge of geography

In the War of the Five Kings, the early hero is Eddard’s son Robb Stark, the King in the North, who makes swift moves through the battlefields and even surprises the Lannister army with early victories. But the geography of Westeros thwarts his advance. Robb’s final target was King’s Landing. From the North, there are two ways to reach Kings Landing — one can either sail across from White Harbour, the only main port in the North, or move by the land to Crownlands, where the capital is located. The Starks don’t have ships to stage a naval attack on the capital, and therefore they chose land war. But if they want to reach King’s Landing from the North, they have to cross the Riverlands that lies in between. There’s a problem. The Trident river and its three major tributaries — the Green Fork, the Blue Fork, and the Red Fork — criss-cross the Riverlands. Though House Tully, the family of Robb’s mother Catelyn Stark, is the ruler of the Riverlands, the main crossing of the Trident is in the control of House Frey.

Catelyn negotiates a deal with Walder Frey, the Lord of the Crossing, to allow Robb and his troops to cross the river and march towards King’s Landing. Walder agrees to Catelyn’s request but in return he wants Robb to marry one of his daughters. Catelyn gives her word. But Robb would fall in love with another woman and marry her, breaking this deal. The Freys would turn against the Starks, striike a secret deal with the Lannisters and then massacre Robb, his wife, mother and all their bannermen at the “Red Wedding” — the marriage between Edmure Tully, Robb’s uncle, and Roslin Frey, Walder’s daughter. That’s how Robb Stark, the King in the North, lost the War of the Five Kings. Following the Red Wedding, the Starks would lose even Winterfell, their seat of power in the North.

Crossing the Narrow Sea

After the War of the Five Kings comes to a close, the challenger to the Iron Throne is Daenerys Targaryen, the only surviving child of the Mad King from whom Robert took power. Daenerys is in Essos, the continent across the Narrow Sea. She has three fully grown dragons and has assembled an army of Dothraki, nomadic horse-mounted warriors, and the Unsullied, slave soldiers. Daenerys wants to take the Iron Throne. But first, she has to overcome the geographic hurdle. She doesn’t have ships to sail across the Narrow Sea to Westeros. This hurdle would be overcome only after Yara Greyjoy, of the Iron Islands, arrives in Essos, having fled with her ships after her uncle Euron Greyjoy had captured power in the islands. Yara offers her ships to Daenerys in return for revenge against Euron.

King’s Landing is largely a fortified city. Its ramparts keeps it safe on one side and the sea on the other. The fort is on raised upland, from where troops can destroy or slow down rival warships. Robb Stark’s plan was to breach the fortification, but he couldn’t even make it to King’s Landing, thanks to the traps in the Riverlands. When Stannis Baratheon, brother of the late King Robert and one of the Kings who fought the War of the Five Kings, attacked King’s Landing by sea (the Battle of Blackwater), he was welcomed with “wildfire”, a virulently flammable liquid, to which he lost most of his ships and a good number of soldiers. The remaining troops were butchered when reinforcements of Lannister cavalry arrived. Later, when Stannis attacks Winterfell, his troops are slowed by the extreme weather conditions in the North. And he would go on to lose the battle essentiallly because the defenders had superior knowledge of their home terrain.

Ahead of the final war, Daenerys and her troops dock at Dragonstrone, an island in Blackwater Bay that was the ancestral seat of House Targaryen. Located in the mouth of Crownlands, the capital region, Dragonstrone serves as a powerful redoubt for Daenerys while she plans her attack on King’s Landing. Queen Cersei tries to counter Daenerys’ naval might by building fresh ships with help from Euron Greyjoy and reinforces her army with an infusion of mercenaries. But, armed with a large composite army and the last of her remaining dragons, Daenerys proves far too much for Cersei, whose holdout, city, and citizens are destroyed by ruthless dragonfire.

Daenerys’ fate might have been different had she not possessed the dragons, a superior weapon of mass destruction that allowed her to overcome the natural battlefield challenges. Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon fought like common mortals equipped only with soldiers and horses, had to cross rivers, seas, mountains and forests on foot, while battling adverse weather conditions.

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