Never Believe it’s Not So: The Mechanics of Magic in Game of Thrones

What are the rules of magic in Game of Thrones? Are there any? Does it matter?

Enjoy this article by guest writer Leonard Pierce!

“Hmm,” I remember thinking to myself, “this doesn’t make sense.”

Of course, I think this to myself roughly three hundred times a day, so it wasn’t something to be alarmed about in and of itself. What bothered me is that I was saying it about Game of Thrones, and I was saying it only 15 minutes into the very first episode.

I am not, as a rule, a huge fan of the fantasy genre, a claim you may feel free to laugh heartily at once you finish reading this article.  I also don’t much care for epic multi-volume fantasy series, which tend to require far too great an investment of time for far too paltry a reward; I read A Game of Thrones, the very first instalment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a while back and burned out about 400 pages in.  I was even late getting on board with the HBO television adaptation; there was so much going on in terms of quality television just on that network that it took me over a year to give it a chance.

Now, it’s not as if anything in my makeup made me inherently resistant to the idea of Game of Thrones.  It was described to me in the same way that’s basically become the series’ log line:  high fantasy, but with the emphasis on internecine politics instead of monsters and magic. Averse as I generally am to fantasy, political struggles are my meat, and the less mumbo-jumbo the better.  That’s why I was more than a little dismayed to see, in the very first scene of the very first episode, some kind of ice-zombie summit meeting.  I would come to learn that Game of Thrones was positively chock-a-block with magical goings-on: not just ghouls, but dragons, shape-shifters, giants, dire wolves, fire wizardry, and all manner of arcane exotica.


It wasn’t so much that I felt Martin and HBO had sold me a bill of goods.  I don’t have any particular objection to the mystical trappings; there is, after all, a reason why he’s writing a fantastic retelling of an alternate War of the Roses and not a historical retelling of the actual War of the Roses.  Viewers, myself included, are going to tune in more for dragons torching a slave city than they are for an explanation of how the Duke of Gloucester moved to block to Woodville family from participating in the Plantagenet minority government.  It was more that the magic, well, didn’t make sense.

For those of you who are already picturing me at an Itchy & Scratchy convention complaining to the animators about the logical inconsistencies of a magic xylophone, let me assure you, I’m not trying to be pedantic here.  I’ll leave the complaints about magic not functioning in harmony with real-world physics to Neil deGrasse Tyson.  What bothers me isn’t that magic in general doesn’t make sense – of course it doesn’t!  That’s the whole point of magic! – but rather that the magic in Game of Thrones doesn’t make sense within the rules it establishes for itself.

Magic is, by definition, a tricky thing.  There are as many approaches to using it in a fantasy setting as there are fantasy settings.  I won’t go into all of them, or presume (especially given my overall ignorance of the genre) to give a history of how magic has been portrayed in the great works of fantasy.  But if you’ll permit me a few highlights:  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the ur-text of fantasy literature this century, had tons of magic, but it was generally conceived of, even when used by wizards like Gandalf, as sort of a religious phenomenon.  If it had rules, we weren’t made privy to them, and while magic occurs on a regular basis, it belongs more or less to the supernatural world.  It’s ineffable.  We aren’t meant to be able to figure it out, to deduce its rules, to definitively answer whether something could or could not happen.  Wizards were a whole different race, creatures of the gods and not just learned mortals.  When something unnatural took place, we just had to accept it as belonging to that twilight world of magic beyond our ken.  And that was fine!  The best way to avoid problems of consistency in magical fiction is to not bother explaining it in the first place.

Later, writers like Jack Vance and Larry Niven, amongst others, decided it would be fun to come up with essentially comprehensible rules for magic.  It was still magic, but it had boundaries; it wasn’t an eternal mystery at which normal people could only shrug, but a difficult and malleable yet still coherent process of manipulating supernatural forces.  This idea was tremendously appealing, because it made magic more human and less divine; it made it more relatable and less easy to use as a way to get out of bad plotting.  (It was also a lot of fun, once you’d established these rules, to come up with ways of subverting them.)  Their approach became immensely profitable, almost the default setting for fantasy – and, more importantly for me, the model on which two things that influenced me far more than literary fantasy were based:  comic books and Dungeons & Dragons.


Naturally, this approach had its own flaws.  It was easy to cheat; if, like Tolkien, you never pretended magic made sense, you could make anything happen and not make readers feel like they’d been cheated.  But if you pretended magic had rules, and then you broke them for the sake of a plot contrivance (which happened all the time in comics), people started to believe they were getting ripped off – all that memorizing details to no good end!  D&D also could be frustrating; it was a game, to be sure, and not a story, and games have to have rules.  But the rules, especially as the game got more ambitious and more complex, became so hard to follow it was more like doing math problems than immersing yourself into a world of creative fantasy.

Game of Thrones, at least in its marketing, seemed like it represented a “third way” that would please everybody.  Magic existed, but it was mysterious, minimal, infrequent, and new.  The idea of “minimal magic,” especially one that had its roots in a Vance-ian hermetic logic, but was enigmatic enough to play like Tolkien’s divinely inspired mysticism, would appeal to fantasy fans, but wouldn’t alienate mainstream viewers who were turned off by such things.  At least, that was the idea.  The fact is, Game of Thrones has never really lived up to the claim that magic is a minimal part of the story.  By my count, every episode features at least some magical goings-ons, and some far more than others; there are entire subplots (anything involving Daenerys Targaryen, Melisandre, and Bran Stark, essentially), that outright rely on the supernatural to get anywhere.  Even the series’ most persistent tagline – “Winter is coming” – implies an inherent paraphysical difference from our own world that has yet to be fully explored.

None of this matters, it is true. Game of Thrones is under no obligation to explain its magic, and it just might wreck the series if it tried.  Plenty of fantastic stories from Tolkien on down have resisted explicating their magic, and readers who insist that they do so tend to be humorless pedants.  The problem isn’t that Game of Thrones uses too much magic, or even the kind of magic that it uses; it’s that, more and more, and especially as the show diverges from the books and goes to the magical well with increasing frequency, it seems to want to have it both ways, insisting on the idea that there is an essential logic behind magic but refusing to make that logic work for the viewer.  It is easy to suspect that, rather than representing a Third Way, the show is trying to have it both ways.

Examples abound.  The extinction, and subsequent reintroduction, of dragons is a prime example; the timeline is very muddled, but there is a strong implication that real magic, which vanished with the last dragon a lifetime ago, has been on the rise with their reappearance at the command of Daenerys.  This is fine, and actually a pretty appealing notion, but it’s clearly not true:  giants and ghouls persisted during that period, wildfire – clearly implied to be alchemical, if not outright magical – was made, and Pyat Pree demonstrates powerful sorcery in the House of the Undying that he is highly unlikely to have just figured out in the last few years.  The mighty Khal Drogo is laid waste and his son disfigured in the womb by the witchery of a simple village priestess – a reinforcement of the impression that the gods of Game of Thrones are entirely helpless, except when they aren’t. The Faceless Men are capable of something a lot more powerful than gluing on a false mustache.  And so on.


Again, there’s nothing wrong with all this if you accept it at face value.  But the more the show leans on its magic, the more it looks like there’s no real idea behind it – that it’s less a hands-off strategy à la Tolkien or a grand plan like Vance than something that’s being constructed as it happens.  That’s not necessarily bad magic, but it’s bad writing, and it all too often leads to the appearance of a deus ex machina that derails all the suspension of disbelief a story has built up over time.

Maybe Game of Thrones can avoid that; we’ve now arrived at a point where nobody knows what’s going to happen next.  But there’s one taboo that’s made several unwelcome appearances in the series so far, and which suggests bad things on the horizon:  the resurrection of the dead.  To return to our previous touchstones, Tolkien did this too, but the return of Gandalf from the dark lands was reverent, ominous, and infused with his usual conception of magic as akin to divine intervention.  D&D drew from sources like Vance and Niven that made it a rulesy, difficult process, one that could alter the fundamental truth of death, but only after a costly transactional procedure.  Comics resurrected dead characters nineteen to the dozen, creating exactly the kind of ill will that makes fans lose interest; it’s a move that, after all, significantly changes the stakes.

Game of Thrones has been a bit more cagey.  The return of Catelyn Stark as Lady Stoneheart has been evaded in the TV series, but it mirrors the books in another respect:  Lord Beric Dondarrion, the man who resurrects her, was himself resurrected no fewer than six times by Thoros of Myr, using the power of the Lord of Light.  When Arya Stark, grieving daughter of the late Lord Eddard, asks if her father might be thus brought back to life, Thoros’ non-fascinating response is “I don’t think it works that way,” to which Arya responds in the same nonplussed way the audience likely does to this unsatisfying answer:  “Oh.”

The whys and wherefores are less crucial than the blasé way in which a fairly important question of story is brushed off.  In a world as richly saturated with supernatural shadings as Westeros, magic should function as a character, in the same way as the setting and the language.  Making sense, internally if not metaphysically, is the least it can do.  If the writers don’t care any more than this, why should we?

Leonard Pierce is a Chicago-based writer who paid too much attention to pop culture when it was neither popular nor profitable.  His writing is collected at, and he still insists that Eddie Dane was the hero of Miller’s Crossing.

8 Comments on “Never Believe it’s Not So: The Mechanics of Magic in Game of Thrones”

  1. Jack Greenall #

    The innovation I felt like I was experiencing with GoT (at least when I was reading it) was that, whereas Tolkein asks you to suspend disbelief and accept that magic is real, GRRM has most all of his characters disbelieving of magic, while the reader knows that magic is real. This was huge for immersion for me – one by one my favourite characters get initiated into my mystery religion and learn the light and truth of magic, maybe hopefully possibly reducing the potential for dramatic irony biting them in arse cos they didn’t believe in that which we know to be real.

    I think the question of whether dragons brought the magic back or magic brought the dragons back is deliberately ambiguous, but I end up on the side of the latter, if only because the rising threat from beyond the wall seems to preceede the birth of dragons. Prior to the start of the series however, magic is very much confined to the edge of the world – beyond the wall, Asshai (Melisandre), Pyat Pree in Qaarth, the no-go areas surrounding where Valyria used to be. Wildfire still exists in Kings Landing but the pyromancers are a dying institution hanging on to the last of their prestige by their fingernails. The Faceless Men exist at the edge between criminal underworld and outright legend. And then more and more we see these edges coming closer because the rules of magic have changed.


  2. The Gryphon #

    It’s a little better in the books (like most things). It appears there are at least 2 tiers of magic: the alchemy of wildfyre, the Nameless’ face trick, and Greyscale belong to low magic. Low magic seems always accessible, but very difficult until the dragons return. After that, wildfyre is much easier to make, some other of the Maester’s arts appear to work better (like FrankenMountain), and so on. There could also be a geographical component. People from Slaver’s Bay don’t appear to be worried about Winter, maybe that only happens in Westeros? There also seems to be some sort of geographically tied curse on Valeria. The magic of the Walkers certainly appears stronger beyond the Wall, as well as that of the Children. The High Magic of the Dragon’s breath, the summoning of the shadow demon by the
    Red Lady and so forth seem to be of a different order. They appear to require the dragons to live, although maybe they work in the Walker lands north of the wall too?


  3. Jan #

    Great article, thanks. I too fear that resurrection might turn out to be the ‘jumping the shark’ of GoT, particularly since so much stress is placed on the idea that anyone can go anytime. When you have an extra life (like has already been done for Jon) for a main character, you’ve trespassed into very shaky territory in my appreciation. It makes his “don’t do it again” particularly pitiful, as if he had any control over it.


    • An Inside Joke #

      Not trying to argue with you (in fact, I mostly agree with you, although I’m not quite able to parse why) but wondering if it’s Jon Snow’s resurrection specifically, or the existence of resurrection in general? As noted in the article Beric Dondarrion had already been resurrected multiple times when he was introduced way back in season 2, but that didn’t feel like a Jump the Shark moment then. I’m assuming it’s because Dondarrion was a minor character who was allowed to break the rules of the universe without much consequence to the story overall (his LotR counterpart might be Tom Bombadil with his resistance to the ring and weird singing magic) while Jon Snow is a major character whose death is supposed to have stakes.

      I suspect, for me at least, the Jon Snow resurrection felt unearned because it came on the heels of so many other unlikely character returns (The Mountain is also resurrected, Lady Stoneheart is resurrected (books only), The Hound returns (TV show only)). There just seem to be a large number of characters running around who shouldn’t be around, and that’s a trick that shouldn’t be pulled more than once, maybe twice, per series.


      • Jan #

        Yep, totally. Also agree on the “unearned” bit, although I would count only Dondarrion and Stoneheart: the Mountain seems pretty zombified at this point without his original personality to me. Which ties in with the different kinds of magic?

        Or it could be that these resurrections were setup for the cheap Jon cliffhanger that nobody bought (readers nor viewers), and that once that’s behind us it won’t happen again. It would be a failed attempt but a minor flaw in the overall series. Time will tell.

        But, overthinking it even more, since now the series is entering its finale, it’s plausible that several major characters will die and without a need for resurrection, since all will be over, so we won’t really have any more valid data points?


        • Walkah #

          I kind of agree with both of your thoughts, but I don’t understand why you would count Stoneheart, but not the Mountain.

          “Mountain seems pretty zombified at this point without his original personality to me.” That description could also apply to Stoneheart as well, who’s less of a Catelyn and more of a vengeful spirit roaming on the world.

          In bookverse death changes things, which I guess is to make it still mean something. Dondarrion got parts of himself chipped away every time he was resurrected, to the point where he pretty much didn’t remember his life as a Lord and Ned Stark’s bannerman. When Jon returns in the books, I seriously doubt he will be like his series counterpart – unchanged, aside from a haircut.


          • Jan #

            I see your point and I hope Jon really changes meaningfully in the books. However, my comment was in the sense that Lady Stoneheart seems capable of independent thought (even if hate-filled) whereas the mountain looks more like your typical mindless-do-whatever-is-told golem (with built-in loyalty to Cersei or Qyburn?). Perhaps he was dead longer? ;-)

    • DeanMoriarty #

      I disagree with resurrection being a categorically different kind of magic than the rest of the magic in the book.
      I think in a sense, the whole series is building up to making believe that magic is real, like really real, not just some ‘conjurer’s trick.’ And what’s more real than death. What’s more magic than bringing someone back from the dead.
      Jon’s perfect resurrection is the culmination of many imperfect resurrections that start with the first scene in the first book. In the first scene we see that magic is a bringing the dead back (as a zombie, but still). Drogo comes back to life (though not really there) also in the first book. Then there’s Dondarrion and Stonehart and FrankenMountain. Even the dragon eggs are at least 150 years old and assumed to be ‘dead.’
      I also think that in-story the characters react pretty appropriately. Most of them are horrified, confused, and hostile to magic. They live in a fantastical world, full of wonders (ehem, giant ice wall, ehem) and a long folk history of magic. But it’s only when real, undeniable magic is doing the most fantastic thing possible in front of them that they start reckoning with the legacy of living in a land shaped by forces they don’t understand. think about how difficult it is for the Night’s Watch to get people to believe them when they say that “The dead are rising.” People’s reaction to the unbelievable, unless it’s an ice zombie running at them, is to not believe it. I may be in the minority, but I believe that the reaction to Jon’s coming back is pretty understandable. These people’s most fundamental understanding of the universe just got turned upside down. Do we really not believe that people would want to maybe just pretend it never happened? That seems like a very, very human, very understandable reaction.
      Also, I think one of the things that’s interesting about this take on magic is that the characters are also trying to understand it. No one really seems to know why it’s working the way it does. They all look to myths and stories, Sam’s the only one doing any kind of proper research, but mostly they’re just making semi-educated guesses or just treating magic as an expression of divine or demonic forces. But no one is taking a scientific approach to it, (except maybe the Citadel?) If they did, maybe the readers would be able to better understand it. Because this series is written so that we only know, and understand, what the characters know. After all, Melisandre isn’t asking if Jon’s heritage had an effect, or if nearness to the giant magical ice wall made a difference, or hell maybe resurrection just works better if it’s cold? The problem with wanting to completely understand magic is that it assumes that the characters interact with their own world’s with perfect awareness and understanding. Which we don’t. I’m typing this on my cell phone, but I’m not thinking about quantum mechanics (ok, now I am, kinda) and I’m not sure I could really explain it if you asked me how it works. But I know it makes my cell phone work. Just like the Night’s Watch is standing on top of a giant magical ice wall, but doesn’t understand how that relates to ice zombies. The problem with creating comprehensive rules of magic in a magical universe is that you basically have to create rules for a whole universe. That’s a tall order.


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