A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin has quickly become one of the signature works of the fantasy genre. This stardom has only continued to soar with the release of the highly acclaimed Game of Thrones television series on HBO.
This extra attention has caused some to wonder if this series fits the bill of high fantasy. I took it upon myself to uncover the answer to this query.
In this article, we will be diving into what fantasy sub-genre suits Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones fits the criteria of high fantasy. Game of Thrones encompasses several of the defining characteristics of high fantasy. These signature features include the presence of epic magical elements, a massive secondary world, and grandiose characters.
That being said, Game of Thrones does incorporate certain elements of low fantasy as well.
Rather than trying to exclusively categorize a fantasy work as exclusively high fantasy or exclusively low fantasy, it is useful to think of high fantasy and low fantasy on a sliding scale.
Many fantasy works, including Game of Thrones, do not lie on the ends of the spectra but rather somewhere in the middle between high fantasy and low fantasy.
Of course, there are those that argue for and against either side.
Everyone has their own subjective definition of what features characterize high fantasy versus low fantasy. Keep reading for a more in depth analysis of all the arguments and counterarguments for this reputable series qualifying as high fantasy.
*SIDE NOTE: If you have not read or watched Game of Thrones, this article may contain major spoilers ahead. I will be utilizing concrete examples from the novels and television show to back up the arguments for and against Game of Thrones as high fantasy.
Definition of High Fantasy
To make a case for Game of Thrones qualifying as high fantasy, we must first establish a definition to base the argument around. In this article, we will be applying the following definition of high fantasy that I pulled from my article High Fantasy vs Low Fantasy: A Detailed Guide.
“High fantasy is defined as a sub-genre of the broader category of fantasy that is characterized by extravagant characters and a massive fictional world that is extensively detailed.“
Arguments for Game of Thrones as High Fantasy
Now that we have defined what high fantasy is, it is time to dive into the notable arguments for Game of Thrones as high fantasy.
Epic Nature of Themes
There is a set of particular themes that standard high fantasy novels revolve around. These themes promote the grand ambience of the narrative and complement the epic nature of the story.
The most prominent of these high fantasy themes is good versus evil.
In nearly every work of high fantasy, the theme of good versus evil is the nucleus of the story. In Game of Thrones, this theme is present in the battle of humanity versus the white walkers.
The white walkers are a unified group of evil beings that threaten to overtake the lands of Westeros. Humanity must defend their home from these dark souls to preserve their way of life.
Obviously, humanity airs on the side of “good” whereas the white walkers air on the side of “evil.” This clash of good versus evil is just one of the arguments readers make to qualify Game of Thrones as high fantasy.
Another major high fantasy theme is coming of age.
Many fantasy works are founded on a young hero that matures and develops over the course of the fantasy narrative.
This character is introduced as immature and inexperienced at the start.
This hero then goes on to encounter harsh trials and acquire hard earned wisdom. The young hero leaves their old self behind in favor of becoming the strong, tenacious individual that the world needs.
This coming of age theme does not apply to not just one character in Game of Thrones, but several.
For instance, Arya Stark is not the little girl she was when Game of Thrones first began. She develops and matures into an ironclad warrior and abandons the societal expectation of her becoming a princess.
Another example is Jon Snow. At first, he belittles himself as nothing more than an illegitimate son. As the series progresses, Jon Snow expands the scope of what he is capable of, becoming the military leader that his friends and family need him to be.
Another signature aspect of high fantasy is the grandiose characterization of the variety of personas in the fantasy work.
In high fantasy novels, the characters are dynamic. They have distinct, individualized qualities that allow them to come into their own. More importantly, these characters change over the course of the story in response to their environment.
The characters in Game of Thrones certainly obey these conditions. Each persona in the Game of Thrones has their own set of personal ambitions that governs their behavior and attitude toward others. These characters are extremely complex with multiple layers of depth that make up their overall persona.
These characters also fit the bill of grandiose as well. For instance, Daenerys Targaryen is renowned for her title as the mother of dragons. She rides on the back of these winged beasts and commands them to rain fire upon her enemies.
Not only that, but she also has the might of a colossal army at her back. Daenerys is the unanimous leader of an esteemed military group called “The Unsullied.” They are known for their voracious and brutal nature, instilling fear wherever they go.
High fantasy characters cannot get much more epic than that.
A major focal point in any high fantasy novel is the concept of a power struggle. Protagonists and antagonists compete to obtain control, each faction believing that power would be best wielded in their hands.
As you can probably guess by the title of this series, conflicts of power struggle are littered throughout the Game of Thrones series… which almost always results in war.
Each family believes they are entitled to ruling as the governing body of Westeros. The heads of these families cook up some elaborate schemes to rise above the rest and set their dynasty in stone.
There are multiple families vying to claim the seat of the Iron Throne, the most sought after rank in Westeros. At the heart of all the romance, betrayal, alliances, and war lies the Iron Throne. It is the source of all the drama in Game of Thrones.
Definition of Low Fantasy
Again, to formulate the argument for Game of Thrones qualifying as low fantasy, we must first establish our definition of what low fantasy is exactly. We will be employing the subsequent definition of low fantasy that I pulled from my article High Fantasy vs Low Fantasy: A Detailed Guide.
“Low fantasy is defined as a subcategory of the fantasy genre that is identified by supernatural occurrences encroaching on the real (primary) world.“
Counterarguments against Game of Thrones as High Fantasy
With this definition in place, we can now take a detailed look at the counterarguments against Game of Thrones as high fantasy.
Narrative Not Based Around Saving the World
In most high fantasy novels, the stakes could not be higher. If the protagonists do not succeed, society crumbles beneath their feet and the world burns.
Game of Thrones incorporates this element somewhat with the addition of the White Walkers. Nonetheless, this fight takes a backseat to the primary conflict of who will rule over Westeros.
Nearly every character in the Game of Thrones series is concerned more so with their personal ambitions than anything else. Whether it be family, friendship, authority, or simply survival, the characters prioritize their own self interest above the needs of the world.
This is vastly different from high fantasy novels in that typically the protagonists are working toward one common goal. The primary characters of the story work together to permanently squash some evil or remove some wicked villain from existence.
Unclear Which Characters are Heroes and Which Characters are Villains
It is extraordinarily easy to decipher who the protagonists and antagonists are in high fantasy narratives. There is a definitive line that distinguishes the good from the bad.
In Game of Thrones, this classification of morals is not so easy. Characters often fall in the grey area between good and bad. These dynamic personas are unpredictable when faced with moral dilemmas.
The reader is unable to anticipate the actions of particular characters. It is unknown whether a character will do the righteous thing to put their mind at ease or commit some atrocity to satisfy their appetite for ambition.
The character arc of Jaime Lannister is a perfect example of this. When Jaime is first introduced, the reader automatically labels him as a villain. Jaime thrusts Bran Stark out of a window, crippling him for life. On top of that, he severely injures Ned Stark in the streets and murders his own cousin.
It is only much later that we start to dismantle these initial perceptions when Jaime exposes the more virtuous side of his character. Jaime reveals the truth of why he stabbed his king in the back. He did it to save the population of King’s Landing from burning to death.
Character arcs like that of Jaime Lannister are rarely ever seen in high fantasy novels. Thus, the lack of a clear distinction between good and evil has been a notable counterpoint against Game of Thrones as high fantasy.
Viewpoint Not from A Single Hero
Another crucial objection to Game of Thrones as high fantasy is that there is no central hero in the fantasy series.
It is standard in the high fantasy sub-genre for there to be a singular hero that the reader follows throughout the entirety of the story. The tale is based around the journey of this sole protagonist.
The reader shares every grief and hardship that this individual hero experiences, accompanying them every step of the way on their quest.
Game of Thrones takes an alternative approach to its fantastical story structure. Rather than centralizing the entire plot around one singular person, the plot follows a multitude of characters ranging across different lands and cultures.
Each of these characters receives relatively an equal amount of attention as every other character.
These characters are described with tremendous depth, however, there is not one shining hero among the bunch. The reader delves into the first person perspectives of Eddard Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark and a multitude of other characters.
The absence of the noble, gallant fantasy hero is another characteristic that contradicts the claim that Game of Thrones is high fantasy.
Points of Contention
There are some controversial topics that Game of Thrones fans go back and forth on. The following aspects can be considered features of high fantasy or low fantasy depending on how you look at it.
Primary World versus Secondary World
This is the biggest point of contention when debating whether or not Game of Thrones fits the label of high fantasy.
The definitions of high fantasy and low fantasy are founded upon discrepancy between the primary world and the secondary world.
What is the difference between a primary world and a secondary world?
To put it simply, the primary world is the world as we know it. It is the world that we are familiar with. All of the laws that govern the universe still hold true unless magic interferes.
The primary world is built around realism. Fantasy only interrupts the working of the real world.
A secondary world is regarded as a completely separate entity from that of the real world. Secondary worlds are constructed from scratch.
The world is built around fantasy elements, such as magic and mythical beings, rather than realism.
Now that you know this difference, you can probably imagine why people argue both sides of the coin when it comes to Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is set in the medieval times. It is undeniable that both magic and fantastical creatures, such as dragons and white walkers, exist.
The problem is determining the extent to which these supernatural elements influence the world of Westeros.
The citizens of Westeros seem stunned at the mere sight of dragons. Dragons have not been seen for centuries, so it invokes a sense of shock and awe with the general population.
This gives the impression that the supernatural is not commonplace in this fictional world. This supports the claim that Westeros is a primary world and should be labeled as low fantasy.
On the other hand, the supernatural plays a pivotal role in the plot structure of Game of Thrones.
Stannis Baratheon utilizes a red priestess, Melisandre, and her supernatural powers to press a unique advantage on his enemies. Melisandre births a mystical shadow that finds and kills Renly Baratheon, eliminating an entire sect from contending for the Iron Throne.
White Walkers, Children of the Forest and giants also stalk the Game of Thrones world. They alter the events of the plot to a significant degree.
These facts support the claim that Westeros is a secondary world and should be labeled as high fantasy.
I personally tend to lean toward seeing Westeros as a secondary world. In my eyes, Westeros is sufficiently dissimilar from the real world to qualify as a completely separate (or secondary) entity.
Nonetheless, it is evident that there are valid points for both sides of the argument. Whether you side with the majority is ultimately for you to choose on your own.
Epic Standing of Magical Elements
Another point of contention is the epic standing of the magical elements in the world of Westeros.
In the high fantasy sub-genre, the supernatural typically influences every facet of the story in some way, shape, or form. Epic magic is an integral part of how the world functions.
Game of Thrones fans question the degree to which magic influences everyday life in Westeros.
There are those fans that believe that magic is essential to the daily lifestyle of Westeros.
There are warriors that base their lives around the art of elemental control, such as commanding fire. There are priestesses whose duties are founded upon the practices seeing the future and raising the dead.
Other fans are of the opinion that magic is but a mere complement to the prevailing realism of the story.
At the end of the day, the warring kingdoms in the Game of Thrones would be fighting with or without magic. The bloody quarrel for the Iron Throne is reminiscent of the power struggles surrounding the feudal system in real history.
Since the main conflict of Game of Thrones is based around a real life situation, should this series be considered low fantasy?
Now that you have all of the facts, you are informed enough to make your own decision of what sub-genre Game of Thrones falls under.
There seems to be a bounty of evidence in support of high fantasy, but the counterarguments for low fantasy are not a thing to be scoffed at.