Military Historians Tell Us Who Will Win ‘Game of Thrones'
We asked the experts who will be sitting on the Iron Throne at the end of the HBO series.
Images courtesy of HBO / Art by Noel Ransome
It’s not the easiest thing to be a military historian and a Game of Thrones fan. Sure, a lifetime of studying armed conflict and seeing it reflected in an HBO fantasy series sounds rad, but in the case of historian Michael Livingston, there’s also Jon Snow to think about.
“Look, I love Jon, but he’s pulled a Leeroy Jenkins into battle without a fucking helmet,” Livingston jokes, referring to the Battle of the Bastards. “It’s like, I love him, but please, someone shoot an arrow in his head already.”
I couldn’t agree more.
With 67 episodes of Game of Thrones past us, we’ve witnessed the many ways George R.R. Martin’s GoT flirts with history as well as fantasy. In fact, it’s been a particular trait of GoT creator to borrow ideas from battles from history. With a single season left, and with my heart and yours aged for destruction, it stands reason that if we want answers to the most important question – who will take the Iron Throne and rule the seven kingdoms? – we might as well look to history for some hint of an answer, and I did just that.
As of last season’s end, we were left with an army of the wintery dead traversing past the wall, and towards civilisation. Our blue terminator The Night King how has a dragon – as if he wasn’t OP enough. In defense, the groups of Cersei Lannister (currently sitting on the Iron Throne), Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow have made a pact with the shelf-life of week old milk – Cersei can’t be trusted, and Jon himself, who we discovered is half Targaryen, slept with Daenerys, hinting at a new dynasty, continuing GoT’s odd obsession with incest.
With three weeks away from the season premiere, we spoke to some historians for a few hints, because frankly, our feels could all use some time to prepare.
Middle Ages historian, novelist, professor at the Citadel College, Charleston, South Carolina.
VICE: What does history tell us about the leaders who can rule and maintain an area as large as the seven kingdoms?
Livingston: History tells you a lot of competing bits of information. On one hand, we can rule massive land off of pure charisma. On another, we can do so with pure physical intimidation. The best most successful rulers of enormous swathes of land had both. Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great comes to mind. Both enormously charismatic individuals but frightening as hell. I’d never want to be within ten miles of the guy. Human life isn’t exactly on Alexander’s priority list (laughs). That can make for an incredibly successful ruler, but not as someone you’d want hanging around for too long.
In our current times, we’ve got bureaucracy. As a leader, you just keep things rolling without burning the house down in the process. But with Game of Thrones, that’s not applicable. We’ve got competing dynasties. Somebody’s got to rule because people are dying, armies are in the field, and someone has to come out on top. and that’s going to need both charisma and raw power.
Going with what history may tell us, who do you have on the Iron Throne?
Here’s how I look at it, and you can look this stuff up. At the core, George R.R. Martin began by imitating the War of the Roses, a series of English civil wars that lasted from 1455 to 1487. You had this guy Henry VI, the King of England during that era, also referred to as The Mad King. He was later removed by Edward IV of the house of York, followed by Edward V for a short period. Then came Richard III, who was famously known for being deformed in both body and spirit. He was later defeated and the civil wars ended when Henry VII came along across the sea with an army for a win at the Battle of Bosworth. He marries the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, and takes the throne and establishes a dynasty that’s still on the throne today.
We’ve got the foundation. Henry VI starts things off, and that’s Aerys, the second Targaryen in GoT speak. Who got rid of him? That’d be Robert Baratheon, also known as Edward IV, with his wife being Cersei. When we look at what Cersei has experienced, and her attitude, she matches nicely with the wife of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and mistress Jane Shore. There’s a nice connection there. With Edward V, that’s Tommen Baratheon, a young and decent enough guy, but things don’t go well (laughs).
So who’s left?
From a historian point of view, we have to figure out who Richard III is. Who’s going to defeat Richard, and establish a dynasty? There are three candidates. Stannis Baratheon, which makes sense in genealogy terms as a Baratheon. You could also say he was a bit deformed too, he had issues (laughs). Most may point to Tyrion Lannister due to his physical appearance, and the Night King who’s obviously a tad inhuman. That’s three possible final bosses.
And our winner?
We also have to consider who can be our Henry VII, the dynasty maker. In terms of genealogy, it’s our surviving Lancastrians from history, which would be our Targaryens in GoT speak. That’s Daenerys or Jon Snow. Both have a blood connection, so they have a legitimate claim; always necessary for a ruler of these times. It matches up with the real Henry VII, who was exiled. Both Jon and Daenerys were exiled across distances, and made a return. Now our Richard III has more context. Tyrion couldn’t be up against Jon or Daenerys, it wouldn’t make sense. Stannis is already dead. It really comes down to The Night King, who is a Richard III sort of figure. It may take one or both of them to defeat the Winter King, and they arguably have the most military strength making each or both of them our Henry VII. And to stabilise the term, they would need to marry.
Tyrion coming out on top is how I want to see this work out, but Tyrion is invested in Daenerys as a ruler. He’s trying his best to steer her power and charisma. She’s certainly the most qualified person in that department, and by all rights, she’s earned it, but this is George R.R. Martin. I see Daenerys going down with the ship to defeat GOT’s Richard III, leaving Jon alone if he doesn’t die stupidly.
Brian A. Pavlac, historian and Professor of History at King's College in Wilkes-Barre. Author of Game of Thrones versus History.
VICE: What kind of person is more than likely to rule the seven Kingdoms?
Brian Pavlac: Well historically, in a society where obedience is based on a combination of tradition and personal promises, the leader who can best honor both will succeed. Even better if the leader knows how to satisfy the desires of friends and foes. Under those conditions, Jon Snow would seem to be the best suited to rule. But it takes more than that.
For one, I’d have to mention that Jon Snow is a terrible commander. As the Battle of the Bastards show, he can't be dispassionate. He can’t keep order among his troops and only possesses personal heroism. Daenerys herself has no real military experience, her only advantage is her dragons. An ice dragon takes away a lot of that. Cersei herself seems ready to betray anyone at the moment she sees it as an advantage. Her ability to gain allies however, who don’t seem to consider her a threat enough to be worried about this trait, may continue to be useful.
For Tyrion, he’s shown himself outhought by others time and again, especially by Jamie Lannister. Jamie seems to have the best strategic and military mind of them all, mostly aided by his inability to be the hero. He’s no longer the swordsman he once was but Cersei is too much of a complication. By what we know, it would probably be Jon Snow.
History professor at American Intentional College and Westfield State University / Medieval and Renaissance historian. Author of Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War.
VICE: What is history telling you about the kind of person it takes to rule the Seven Kingdoms?
Ken Mondschein: The Seven Kingdoms are comparable to the medieval period, because it's this big centralised place that's been kind of static. Why is it static? Because Aegon the Conqueror came in with his dragons and the dragons can be seen as your nuclear equivalent, or the cannons in the 15th century. Naval war in itself was essentially about castles, castles control territory. Conquest and all that proceeded pretty slowly because you could simply hold up in your castle. But a cannon can easily subdue a fortress, so you've gotta go out and ultimately battle. Whoever has the most men is going to win. How do you get the most men? Well you've got to have the most money, and this is what we call the military revolution. It lead to the formation of states. If we're talking about who's going to rule Westeros, it's going to be the person who's going to be able to establish and rule a state.
So who can accomplish that?
Genghis Khan wouldn’t have worked, because they couldn’t centralise themselves in that way. They were basically a coalition and it fell apart. From my perspective, you don’t rule an empire like the Seven Kingdoms by fighting, you do it by, excuse my language, fucking. You inter-married those who you conquered. The best historical example is Hernan Cortes. He comes in, conquers the Aztec empire, but where did they go from there? They intermarried. That’s the pre-modern form of conquest and expansion; biracial powers that can speak both languages. Who’s most representative of that? It’s Daenerys and Jon who’s our William Wallace and the only person who can likely impregnate Daenerys due to his Targaryen blood. Absent Daenerys, the next best contender to that kind of expansion is the Night King. But my bets are on Daenerys sitting on the Iron Throne and keeping it because of sex. She also happens to have dragons, which is our military equivalent to 12th century cannons.
Maybe some might consider Cersei, but she's not the type to sleep with anyone, whether it be allies or potential enemies beyond Jaime. She's practicing incest, and that's why she can't win. Even if she sat on the Throne, it would never last. It's a harsh thing to say, but you could almost say that Cersei is sterile, despite being pregnant. There's no telling how her child will turn out this time around if she doesn't suffer a miscarriage.
Kelly DeVries, an American historian specialising in the warfare of the Middle Ages. Participated in HBOs documentary, "Historical Connections"
VICE: I know you’re sworn to secrecy since you know the outcome, but at least tell me what history suggests about characters that can win it all, and sustain it.
Kelly DeVries: Well there were empires that ruled for over 400 years, the Franks come to mind. No matter how dreadful, they were in power because no one else was strong. That’s the bottom line to conquering and maintaining peace in this age. The question of who’s going to sit on the throne and be effective as a ruler matters less than if they’re powerful enough to survive. For the better part of Game of Thrones, Daenerys was away from most danger and had the time to build herself up against very weak opponents. And then we had Jon snow, surviving by pure luck and resurrection.
The question I have to ask, in very Mark Twain form, is: would I want to be a member of any club with these as leaders? A 62-year-old woman once asked me that question, and my only thought of someone truly good was Tyrion, but he doesn’t have a chance. He was set up to be an advisor, and he was always going to advise someone against his sister because she blamed him for their mother's death in childbirth. Then there’s Jon, who’s a good example of leaders who rose from small beginnings throughout history. Jon and Danny at least are about to face the very worst in Cersei. I can’t say who will win, but ideally, it would be Jon and Danny.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.