Life is full of insignificant events, small perturbations that are rarely of any consequence. But occasionally the conditions are right for a small perturbation to escalate into something that alters the entire world, leaving a permanent mark on history. Whether it’s the start of a World War or the beginning of a global pandemic, the impact of a single, seemingly insignificant event can grow to outsize proportions, pushing the world out of its delicate balance.
The same is true for A Game of Thrones, the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. A society full of opposing political factions and personal deceit hangs precariously on the assumption that hidden duplicity remains behind its shroud of secrecy. But then a seemingly insignificant event shatters that illusion—a young boy climbs a wall and sees something that he shouldn’t see and doesn’t even understand.
The impact of A Game of Thrones on the world of fantasy cannot be overstated. Its publication in 1996 brought about an irreversible step change in fantasy literature, which for decades had been following the blueprint laid out by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.
Since its release in the 1950s, The Lord of the Rings had become the single most influential work of fantasy ever written, spawning countless imitations, none of which could reach the same level of impact achieved by Tolkien. Tolkien’s cultural influence stretched far beyond the world of literature, encompassing cinema (Peter Jackson), music (Led Zeppelin), and any number of role-playing games, including both tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and video games such as the Final Fantasy series.
Tolkien combined expansive, detailed worldbuilding with an epic good-vs-evil struggle of biblical proportions. Although Frodo struggles mightily against the corrupting power of the One Ring, there is never any doubt that he is on the side of good, a Christ figure who is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. Only two notable characters in The Lord of the Rings exhibit discernable gray morality. The most obvious of these is Gollum/Sméagol, but his gray morality is just a superposition of two dichotomous personas, one of which is good (Sméagol) and the other evil (Gollum). The other character, of course, is Boromir, who is fundamentally good but ultimately seduced by the Ring, becoming the Judas Iscariot figure of the Fellowship.
In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin embraced Tolkienesque worldbuilding while taking an antithetical approach to character morality. Both Middle-earth and Westeros feel authentic because they are so fully realized, complete with their own history and culture, giving the reader a fully immersive experience where they can suspend their own reality while diving into a richly detailed new world.
The main difference comes in the gritty approach that Martin has taken toward character morality, making A Game of Thrones one of the first true grimdark fantasies. Whereas Middle-earth is a world of black and white, Martin uses a full palette of gray to paint his cast of characters. If Tolkien has written an allegory for the epic battle of Christ vs Satan, then George R.R. Martin is more interested in the sneering Pontius Pilate, questioning the meaning of truth itself.
In presenting a grittier, more realistic approach to fantasy, A Game of Thrones became part of a larger cultural movement that emerged in the 1990s. For example, at around the same time, grunge bands such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains came to prominence, bringing an unapologetic rawness and honesty to a music scene that, in the preceding decade, had been hiding behind a façade of synthetic sounds, big hair, and heavy makeup.
More than a quarter century later, A Game of Thrones has rightfully become one of the most respected and influential works of fantasy. A Song of Ice and Fire has sold close to 100 million books worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling series of all time.
Rereading A Game of Thrones, it’s easy to see why. George R.R. Martin is an outstanding writer. Given the complexity of the world and the plot, this book could have easily become unreadable in less capable hands. But Martin does a wonderful job introducing us to the characters and worldbuilding in a natural and accessible fashion. A Game of Thrones is never a chore, and the pacing is remarkably consistent throughout the book.
Although A Game of Thrones is fantasy, the magical elements are of secondary importance, at least in this first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire. Instead, A Game of Thrones is driven by its wonderful cast of characters. George R.R. Martin has crafted some of the finest characters in all of fantasy, including the inimitable Tyrion Lannister, whose astute political skills are coupled with a keen wit and a genuine kindness toward the less fortunate.
One of the interesting choices made by George R.R. Martin is that, out of the eight point-of-view characters in A Game of Thrones, five are children. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are both 14 years old at the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire. Among the Stark children, Sansa is 11, Arya is 9, and Bran is 7. Beyond these point-of-view characters, Robb Stark is 14 and Joffrey Baratheon is 12. This may be surprising for fans of the HBO series, since all the actors portraying these characters were significantly older than the characters themselves. Considering their young age, the terrible situations experienced by these children in A Game of Thrones become all the more harrowing. I particularly admire the way Daenerys overcomes unspeakably terrible abuse to grow into the strong, self-assured leader that she becomes.
We are living the legacy of A Game of Thrones now, with its indelible impact on both grimdark fantasy and epic fantasy in general. One prominent example is The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, which is clearly influenced by the narrative structure, expansive worldbuilding, and character-driven plot of A Game of Thrones. Both are full of political intrigue and focus on sparring factions of a fractured society who are fighting each other when they should be focused on a more sinister enemy posing an existential threat to their civilization.
Does this remind you of anyplace else? Although A Game of Thrones emerged in the 1990s, I would argue that it is even more relevant today in our own time wracked by political extremism and a breakdown of global order, where irrational nationalism trumps our ability to confront the serious existential threats facing our society.
A Game of Thrones is one of the finest and most influential books ever published, and its impact only continues to grow. If you have somehow put off reading A Game of Thrones, please put aside whatever reservations you may have and just dive in. You won’t be disappointed.