This weekend will see the release of two fairy tale inspired stories. The first is the movie, Huntsman: Winter’s War. We recommend that you don’t go see it, but we do recommend that you check out the second one, Game of Thrones. Yes, the story of sex, violence, and dragons returns this Sunday for its sixth season, but is it possible that the HBO fantasy drama is as much about fairy tales as it is about beheadings and boobies? Well, follow us down the road to grandma’s house as we set out to encounter big bad direwolves, giants, and a red witch or two. You might be surprised what we turn up, but don’t be surprised if we reveal spoilers for seasons 1-5.

Once Upon a Tyrion…
As everyone’s favorite Lannister might suggest, we need to first define the problem. What is a fairy tale? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a fairy tale is “a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins),” or “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” We have to admit that both of those things are true about fairy tales, but does that match up with A Song of Ice and Fire, or Game of Thrones? Both definitely have fantastic forces and creatures, but they are certainly not for children, at least not for children who don’t want to grow up to be Ramsey Bolton. Nor are the George RR Martin novel series and its subsequent TV show filled with happy endings, just ask anyone named Stark or Snow. So how can we compare them with a fairy tale?

Let’s start with the commonalities. Game of Thrones has dragons and even giants, but admittedly there is not a lot of them. Daenerys has just three dragons, and we only ever see that one frost giant among the wildlings. Yet, we are told that such things were more numerous in the ancient days. Things like dragons, giants, and even magic were more plentiful in the stories that Old Nan used to tell Brann Stark before he went to bed. Now those were fairy tales. They were all about heroes defeating monsters, grumpkins, and grave evil to save the kingdoms and winning the hearts of fair maidens. They were filled with love and chivalry and all the things we think of when we hear the word “fairy tale.” In those stories, which took place during the aptly named Age of Heroes, the protagonist were always the good guys. They were able to win the day against all odds and beat back the darkness with the help of magic and courage, just like every fairy tale we know. Old Nan’s stories were always scary, but the improbable events still led to a happy ending. However, it also seems that in the land of Westeros many of those stories -which took place during the Long Night– might actually be true.

Compare those stories to the story we are witnessing in Game of Thrones, which still involve magic and fantastical elements, but the outcome is hardly certain. In fact, things like chivalry, heroism, or true love are usually rewarded with daggers in the dark or even a red wedding. Every good and heroic character -Ned, Robb, Jon- are dead. The most valiant knights are either a narcissistic incestuous cripple, or the Knight of Flowers, who has very little interest in winning a fair lady’s heart -if you know what we mean. The queen is a ruthless power-hungry dictator, the beautiful princess is a conniving schemer. The most heroic character is a disfigured Imp, and for four seasons we were all actively rooting for the death of a blonde-haired child-king. So we ask again? How can we call this a fairy tale?

Joffrey and the Beanstalk
In fact, it’s not a fairy tale, at least not as we consider them. Game of Thrones is a subversion of the fairy tale ideal. The true genius of George RR Martin’s work is that he is showing us what a fairy tale really is. All those old stories that Old Nan used to tell Brann Stark, we can guess that they were probably real. After all, we know that the white walkers are real. The giants are real. The Wall is real. The stories form the Age of Heroes actually happened, but they probably did not happen as their fairy tale versions suggest. One day, in the world of Westeros people may tell the fairy tale version of the great Mother of Dragons and her conquest of Westeros and how the seven kingdoms fought back the invasion of the Others and the new Long Night, but it won’t be this story. It won’t be Game of Thrones. It will be something else.

The fairy tale version of A Song of Ice and Fire will have some of the same elements, but homogenized and embellished. As human beings we like to fit events into simplistic narrative structures. Thus, for the audience and the characters, who have lived and watched the highs and lows of Game of Thrones the series finale might be satisfactory, but probably not “happy.” Yet, to the children of Westeros who will hear the story centuries later, safe in their beds, they will get the happy ending. They will get the true love and the brave knights and all the rest. To them there will be clear cut villains and valiant heroes, and they both may not be who you expect. Remember, history and fairy tales are written by the victors.

The stories those children hear may tell of the evil betrayals of Ned Stark or the vile crimes of Tyrion Lannister. Children may grow up learning that the sweet and generous King Joffery was killed on his wedding day or that Tywin Lannister was a saint and a caring father. Fairy tales tend to wash out the gray and replace it with black and white, but if there is one thing we can say about Game of Thrones, it is almost entirely filled with gray. With very few expectations there are no completely good or completely bad characters. They are all humans with hopes, desires, flaws, and nude bodies, all of which we -the audience- get to see… a lot. So, Martin is telling us  the real story behind that future fairy tale, which will be a story that has no room for nuisance or character flaws. All of that will be wiped out in favor of a neat narrative and a clear cut moral. Yet, maybe you still don’t believe this was George RR Martin’s intent all along. You might be right except…

Little Ned Riding Stark
… He has already painted us a clear picture of this very idea. Maybe the vague connection between the Age of Heroes and the trials of Jon Snow are too obscure, but Martin has given us an even more relevant example. The rebellion of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark has already become something of a fairy tale, and it has only been a single generation since they deposed the Mad King and took over the kingdom. Yet, all the elements are there. Brave Robert Baratheon -enraged by the abduction of his beloved Lyanna Stark- starts a war to win her back. Along with her brother and his best friend, Ned, they rally the forces of justice and good to overthrow the Mad King, Aerys Targaryan, and his evil son Rhaegar. Robert and his mighty war hammer defeat Rhaegar in single combat during the heroic Battle of the Trident, but alas he is too late to save his beloved Lyanna. Still, he heroically defeats the Mad King and justice rules over the lands of Westeros once again.

That is typically how that story is often portrayed whenever characters in Game of Thrones talk about it, but we have already had some hints at cracks in that fantastical façade. First of all, Aerys Targaryan was killed by Jamie Lannister, his own kingsguard, who stabbed him through the back. That is the sort of thing people are aware of, but often gets left out of the “official” story. This dichotomy is also most clearly seen with Rhaegar. Whenever Robert talked about him we got an image of a mad man composed of butchery and evil. Yet, whenever Daenerys -his sister- talks about him we get the sense of a warm, caring, and brave individual. Two completely separate ideas from two completely opposing view points. We are seeing how point of view colors the retelling of tales, and how it is the winners who most often write history and fairy tales. This is further proven by the many many hints that Lyanna Stark was not abducted and raped by Rhaegar, but that she was in love with him. -r+l=j- However, this sort of nuance does not work for a heroic tale of good versus evil, and is all but forgotten in the retellings.

In the end, Robert Baratheon became king and married the beautiful Cersi Lannister. To the story that was the happy ending, but to Robert it was clearly bitter sweet. Martin is showing us that in real life there rarely is a “happily ever after,” and he is doing so by using a genre that epitomizes that idea. Robert and Ned may have won the day, but happy endings are only about where the story stops, because if you keep following the lives of Ned and Robert you know that their stories don’t end so happily after all. From the very first season, Game of Thrones has been trying to prove this point. The books and the TV series have always been about subverting expectations and bucking tropes.

So we ask again, “is A Song of Ice and Fire and its TV show a fairy tale?” Yes, it is about fairy tale ideas, knights, magic, bravery, princesses and kings, but it is showing us the story before it gets cleaned and homogenized and becomes just another bed time retelling. All the other elements, the fantasy, the swordplay, the magic are there. Game of Thrones is a real-life fairy tale. It is meant to expose the truth behind fairy tales, because they may be great as stories, but that is all they are, stories. The world cannot always be defined by “Once upon a time,” and especially never by “Happily ever after…” But then again, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe Season 6 will prove that Jon Snow is only just unconscious, and waiting for Love’s True Kiss.

The words of the Stark family are pretty straightforward. Unlike the other great houses they don’t “roar” or “not sow” or whatever it is the Tully’s do… swim, we’re assuming… Instead, the Stark words are a call to action and a reminder to never forget what waits just beyond the Wall. Yet, despite the ominous family motto, most of their southern and even northern cousins tend to forget that winter is indeed coming, and of all the fantastical elements in Game of Thrones, this denial of the inevitable is perhaps one of the most understandable. After all, it is a crime we are all guilty of in one form or another, and the people in Kings Landing and in other places have their hands full with worries other than snow and ice zombies.

Watchers on the Wall
The only group of people in all of Westeros who take the threat of the White Walkers seriously is the Night’s Watch. This chaste order of outcasts was established to maintain the Wall and “guard the realms of men.” The things they have been charged to guard against, White Walkers -or the Others- have mostly been relegated to fable and childhood nightmares. The Long Night occurred thousands of years in the past and most people in Westeros believe the tales to be nothing more than fantasy, like ghosts, goblins, or grumpkins. So even as the order urgently calls for more men and supply their pleas go unanswered by the great nations of the world.

It is unknown how many members of the Night’s Watch agree that the coming winter will bring a return of the White Walkers, but after the events of the past several seasons, we could probably agree that it would be at least 97%. Coincidentally, that is also the percentage of scientists that agree that climate change is real and it is happening. Like the Night’s Watch, our own chaste order of outcasts could also be considered a sort of “watcher on the wall.” It is their job to range the forests that lie north of all that is known. They are often forced to combat uncivilized wildling ideas in their quest to keep us safe, and worst of all they are seen as a necessary and minor annoyance by the ruling and the powerful of our land.

Perhaps, the allegory is a stretch, and George R. R. Martin never intended the connection to be made between his masterpiece work and the looming threat of global warming. However, authorial intent aside, the similarities are striking. His seminal work is based on an invisible looming force of change that is ultimately connected to intense and strange weather. The coming threat is slow and unbelievable, yet it threatens the known world, while politicians and armies squabble away unaffected and ultimately resistant to the knowledge of the approaching chaos.

You Know Nothing, Jon Snow
The threat in the fictional world is both staggering and real. Neither the Night’s Watch nor the audience can deny the existence of the White Walkers, but neither can we fault the Lannisters or the Tyrells for their willful ignorance. There is plenty we can fault them for, but maybe not for this. According to papers published by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law, it is not simply a matter of “knowledge illiteracy” that stops a rational understanding of science fact. Most people unwittingly shape their world view and their identity based upon a multitude of ideologies, especially politics. Thus, when a person of an opposing view point presents arguments and even cold icy facts that prove something like White Walkers, certain people will tend to reject it and employ a confirmation bias. They will analyze the problem and extract the details that strengthen their already existing world view. In other words, people shape facts to confirm their opinions, instead of the other way around.

Even worse, confirmation bias seems to only get stronger with technology, like the Internet, where people can find like-minded individuals to shelter and grow their opinions from any opposition. In this way, we don’t really get a debate, so much as two separate jousting matches where each opponent is basically facing a straw man. Each knight may sometimes briefly pause in between charges to glare across a wide field at the opposing side, but there is never really any meaningful engagement or change.

Maybe where this analogy falls apart is the fact that the reluctance of the belief for the humans of Game of Thrones is almost understandable. With medieval level education and slow lines of bird-driven communication and rumor, they have the excuse of ignorance to ignore the fact that supposed make-believe monsters are in fact coming for them on the winds of a long winter chill. People in Dorn or the Riverlands, have no evidence to prove the existence of the Others. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us and our looming threat. The evidence is all around us, and mounting faster than snow in Winterfell.

The Rains of Castamere
CO2 has passed the 400 part per million mark, which is the highest level since it has been in over 800,000 years, which only slightly longer ago than when Martin began writing his book series. Since the year 1900 temperatures around the world have increased almost a full degree, with the majority of the increase happening between 1970 and today. Even more damning, it is only the lower levels of the atmospheres that are increasing in temperature, thus confirming that it isn’t our sun that is getting hotter. If our current temperature change were due to solar activity then we would see a uniformed temperature increase throughout all levels of the atmosphere. The lower levels of the atmosphere is where the majority of CO2 is becoming trapped, and humans are responsible for 2,000 gigatons of it since 1870.

Much like the great houses of Game of Thrones, our own leaders have made it clear by their actions that they have more important things to worry about. Washington D. C. may not have the Sept of Baelor or the Red Keep, but the political maneuvering is no less real. Elections, wars, policy and cultural debates, sports, gun violence, and racism, we have no shortage of immediate problems that require attention. Climate change is nothing but a vague wind blowing down from the north. It seems like nothing to worry about, and nothing that can harm us, especially when there is so much around that can do us real harm. This kind of attitude is often classified as Optimism Bias, which is the belief that we, as individuals, are in less danger than those around us.

Optimism bias is why we think we will never get cancer or be in a plane crash. It’s why we think bad things only happen to other people and Sean Bean characters, and why we believe that any climate change problems will ultimately be a problem for the next generation and not us. Basically, if we can’t see the White Walkers than we do not believe they will do us any harm. That is just how our brain works, because our mental space is only so big.

Human beings only have so much concern they can fit in their head, whether it be about getting the kids to soccer practice, not getting fired from work, or making sure you are not shot to death by the musicians at your uncle’s wedding. Regardless of the reasons, it means we prioritize threats to our happiness and immediate well-being over future ones that seem distant and uncontrollable.

You Either Win or You Die
In 2011, 17 US citizens were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks, but 596,339 American were killed by heart disease, yet when it comes to issues that Americans care about from their elected officials most people will focus on terrorism as opposed to the vague fear of heart disease despite one being noticeably more likely than the other. It is also worth noting that approximately 600,000 deaths occurred worldwide as a result of weather-related natural disasters in the 90s, but again that is a statistic connected to a vague and uncontrollable menace. Our minds do not like thinking about problems we feel are out of our ability to influence. Our brain does not like to deal with problems we feel powerless to stop. That’s why we call it, an “Act of the God.” So we ignore them, and that means even people who acknowledge global warming may not see it as a threat. According to Scientific American, only 33% of the American general public believes climate change to be a serious problem, as opposed to 77% of scientists who say that is a serious problem.

Our leaders may not lose their head, but they know that in the Game of Elections you either win or you lose your pension. So, when every political move you make or enemy you create could mean your very real and immediate end in public office, it’s hard to push to for any real change against some far off threat, especially when their own constituency doesn’t even acknowledge it as a problem. Yet, rest assured, the night is dark and full of carbon dioxide, because if trends continue like this, by the end of this century Earth will be 4.7 F to 8.6 F degrees hotter (2.6 C to 4.8 C). The oceans will be a meter higher, and one third of all ocean life will be extinct. Unfortunately, unlike the Night’s Watch we will not be able to beat back our foes with weapons and dragon glass.

We like to talk to about George R. R. Martin’s epic tale in the light of our own past, equating situations, characters, and happenings to their historic counterparts, such as the events of the English War of the Roses. However, what if A Song of Ice and Fire and its subsequent HBO series is is not so much a nod to history but a true warning of what is to come? Any change will take all of us working together, and forcing this issue into prominence on the national stage. We will need to have an even greater resolve and a greater capacity for sacrifice and ingenuity, because our Wall will not stand forever.