How armies, not dragons, can win the war on Game of Thrones.

Why Game of Thrones’ Dragons Aren’t As Important As Its Armies

Why Game of Thrones’ Dragons Aren’t As Important As Its Armies

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Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 24 2017 11:41 AM

Even With Dragons on Both Sides, It’s Still Game of Thrones’ Armies That Matter Most

170824_BB_GoT-Dragons
They’re awful pretty, though.

HBO

Game of Thrones’ confrontation between Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons and an endless horde of undead might have proven Tywin Lannister correct in death. In Season 4, the late Lannister patriarch casually dismissed the threat of an increasingly influential Daenerys by saying, “Dragons haven’t won a war in 300 years. Armies win them all the time.” At the time, it seemed like a good candidate for the stupidest thing ever said by one of the smartest and most resourceful men to ever play the game of musical thrones. Even then, GOT seemed to hint that dragons were metaphors for nuclear weapons—the weapons of mass destruction of their day, proliferating not in numbers, but in size—so how could they not be a game-changer? But “Beyond the Wall” set  the show’s dragons up to act less as the Westerosi equivalent of a nuke and more like its version of a cannon—a weapon that could eventually help bring about a more civilized (if perhaps short-lived) era for Westeros, one defined by the existence of a united, centralized army.

In Europe, castle walls and siege weapons developed in parallel. Then the Ottomans came knocking with massive cannons capable of knocking down even Constantinople’s walls. Suddenly, stronger bricks were less important than larger standing armies. This incentivized the creation of better tax-collection systems, more centralized militaries, and a move away from siege warfare. As a looming specter of hellfire and war, the proverbial stick behind state-building diplomacy, Game of Thrones’ dragons are a nuclear deterrent. As a conqueror’s wall-melting harbingers of chaos, they’re cannons.

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On Game of Thrones, dragons, with fire capable of melting stone walls, haven taken the place of cannons but with one key difference: Ever since Dany’s ancestor Aegon Targaryen burned 4,000 soldiers alive while conquering of most of Westeros 300 years ago, dragons have also made assembling a large standing army in a field a really bad idea. (May the rains weep o’er the Tarlys’ halls.) There are many, many reasons why Westeros has stayed a medieval society for thousands of years—its long winters, the lack of gunpowder, the Seven Kingdoms being too large for one state to hold, its people’s general backstabbiness—but dragons are one living impediment to progress.

However, in their function as nukelike deterrents, dragons also have been used to build states. Aegon used dragons to conquer Westeros, but they couldn’t be everywhere at once. King’s Landing’s Red Keep and its walls were built because Aegon realized that dragons only provided a nuclear deterrent when they were actually present. Daenerys’ dragons and the Night King’s new pet might be able to demolish walls, but they can be killed by a massive air-defense battery of ballistas (scorpions, in Maester Qyburn–speak); they could be killed by another dragon; or their rider could be shot with an arrow—disabled like any other human-controlled piece of equipment.

There’s not much we know yet about the Night King’s reanimated pet. George R.R. Martin’s books make references to ice dragons, but they’re a different sort of beast from newly undead Viserion. Ice dragons live in the land of Always Winter, the far north whence the White Walkers hail. They’re much, much larger than normal Valyrian dragons and have icy breath.

Viserion is a previously unknown kind of creature, and what he is will determine his long-term usefulness. We see the Night King resurrect him by touching his face, which is how the Night King normally turns living people, like the babies left in the woods outside Craster’s Keep, into White Walkers. Dead things he’s animated from afar, and the result has been wights, not Walkers.

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Although zombears apparently take a while to notice they’re on fire, flames have long been established as the easiest way to kill the extra-flammable Wights. Dragons, on the other hand, are typically immune to fire. If Viserion has lost his immunity to fire—or even if he is only fire-resistant and not fireproof—killing him might not be so difficult. Provided Daenerys and her dragons don’t hesitate, they could dracarys him into oblivion.

If he’s a Walker, this would be harder. We’ve seen their mere presence cause flames to sputter and die. In Sunday’s episode, we even saw a line of fire created by one of Daenerys’ dragons make way for the Night King. But we’ve never seen a White Walker take a direct hit from dragonfire.

The show has a dualistic interpretation of dragonfire. One hand, the directors have taken inspiration of from gas-powered plasma torches. The column of fire his with an immense amount of pressure—enough to explode ice and wagons. Nevertheless, mechanically, as seen when Viserion’s cut throat gushed an oil-like substance, dragonfire works like a flamethrower. That opens the possibility that the dragons could be commanded to spit out just their oil, turning Viserion into a napalmsicle, before lighting him ablaze.

Even if that wouldn’t work, whether Viserion is a Walker or a wight, a dragonglass-tipped javelin should be able to kill him. If Cersei, Jon, and Dany put more resources behind building them, they could have hundreds of ballistas made within a month. In fact, we’ve seen the mere prick of dragonglass cause White Walkers to explode—which makes one wonder why none of the superpowered White Walkers wear more extensive armor, so they can’t be so easily felled. Hypothetically, a single dragonglass-tipped arrow could do the trick.

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We also don’t know what Viserion will breathe. If he still breathes fire, they’ll probably be blue flames (ironically hotter than Drogon’s orange fire), which could potentially melt a hole in the Wall. In the more likely event he breathes ice, he might still factor into the Night King’s plan to break through the magical barrier.

Either way, dragons can be a nuclear deterrent, as Dany’s will be at her meeting with Cersei, but we’re much more likely to see them used as cannons in the coming war against the White Walkers. Like every other cannon, they can destroy walls and formations, but they should act as support for an army. And it’s on the army front that Westeros should be focusing. Theoretically, repelling the White Walkers shouldn’t even be that hard.

There is a network of rivers that would allow Cersei, Jon, Dany, and whoever is currently in charge of Dorne to ferry troops to the north. They could use the forests in the area to make barriers on either side of the wall. Staggered rows of V-shaped ditches, for example, with outward-facing pikes on their inside edge, and filled with flammable material such as brush, pine pitch, tar, and wildfire, would pinch wights into tight, flammable areas. Even if only 35,000 untrained soldiers fired at the glacial pace of two arrows a minute, a hellfire of 70,000 flaming arrows could rain down every 60 seconds.

Retreating along such barriers, the soldiers could make the Walkers pay a terrible toll for every inch they gain. Armed with dragonglass-tipped arrows, the Dothraki could route any attempt by the Walkers or the Wights to flank the barriers. If they took inspiration from real history’s horseback warriors, they could charge at groups of wights with nets to down them, to be dispatched by other soldiers with dragonglass-tipped spears—without any need for brittle dragonglass swords or the long-lost secret to forging Valyrian steel.

WMD deterrents and sentient cannons won’t win against winter. If Westeros were to just focus a little less on the cannons, and more on the armies they support, then they might realize that the coming nuclear winter could be thawed out pretty quickly.

*Correction, Aug. 24: This post originally referred to Aegon Targaryen as the Mad King. Areys Targaryen was the Mad King.

An intelligence analyst–turned–science journalist, Ian Graber-Stiehl also writes for Popular Science and OZY.