What Is Game of Thrones?

By James T. Cains

Game of Thrones is the immensely popular television show that has aired for four seasons on HBO. The show is based on the epic fantasy novel series, A Song of Fire and Ice, written by George R. R. Martin. The first novel of the seven-book series is called A Game of Thrones; the show creators and HBO decided to keep that title as the overall name of the show. Here’s the complete list of novels in the series and when they were published:

  • A Game of Thrones (1996)

  • A Clash of Kings (1998)

  • A Storm of Swords (2000)

  • A Feast for Crows (2005)

  • A Dance with Dragons (2011)

  • The Winds of Winter (forthcoming)

  • A Dream of Spring (forthcoming)

Each season of Game of Thrones corresponds to a specific novel or parts of a novel. Fans often get confused and believe that each season corresponds to one entire novel, which is not always the case. Here’s how the seasons correlate to the novels:

  • Season 1: The entire first novel, The Game of Thrones

  • Season 2: The entire second novel, A Clash of Kings

  • Season 3: The first half of the third novel, A Storm of Swords

  • Season 4: The rest of the third novel, A Storm of Swords, and portions of the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows

  • Season 5: (Presumably) the rest of the fourth and fifth novels, A Feast of Crows and A Dance with Dragons, respectively.

HBO has renewed Game of Thrones for a sixth season, and presumably, it will cover the sixth novel and perhaps portions of the seventh novel. However, given how long Martin has taken to write the last two novels — five years for A Feast for Crows and six years for A Dance with Dragons — fans are concerned that the show’s writers may run out of material before Martin finishes the last two novels.

What is Game of Thrones all about?

Game of Thrones takes place on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos in a setting that very much resembles the Middle Ages of Earth — though, as in many fantasy novels, there’s no specific correlation to Earth history. While the story contains common fantasy elements, such as swordplay, magic, and fantastical creatures like dragons, those elements are downplayed in favor of political intrigue and human drama.

The show depicts the three core storylines of the book series. The first is the continuing civil war between the various houses of Westeros, each vying for the Iron Throne and control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — hence, the name Game of Thrones. The three principle houses involved in this civil war are the Starks of Winterfell, the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, and the Baratheons of Dragonstone. At the start of the series, the Baratheons control the Iron Throne. However, with the death of King Robert Baratheon, the Lannisters seize power when Robert’s wife Cersei Lannister becomes queen-regent after her son assumes the throne; Cersei’s brother, Tyrion Lannister, becomes their chief advisor. After that, many of the other houses rise up to fight Lannister control and claim their own right to the Iron Throne.

The second storyline takes place in Essos, a harsh land of mostly desert. Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter and last surviving heir to House Targaryen (which used to rule the Seven Kingdoms before the Baratheons came to power), seeks to build an army and return to Westeros to reclaim the Iron Throne. At first sold into marriage to the Dothraki tribal leader Khal Drogo by her older brother (who was later killed), Daenerys has become a powerful queen and has in her possession three dragons — a species thought instinct since the rule of the Targaryens. With her dragons and the massive army she’s building, Daenerys plans to cross the Narrow Sea, which separates the two continents, and defeat those who deposed and killed her father.

The third storyline takes place in the Northern part of Westeros at the massive ice structure called the Wall, which protects the southern lands from the “wildling” humans and supernatural creatures (such as White Walkers) that live “beyond the Wall.” Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark (head of House Stark) enlists with the Night’s Watch, the small army stationed at the Wall that is charged with protecting the southern lands. With the approach of a long winter, the Wall and the Night’s Watch are under siege from wildling invaders who seek to overtake the Seven Kingdoms. What’s happening at the Wall is mostly unknown to the rest of Westeros, and the peoples of the Seven Kingdoms are unprepared for the coming threat.

What you need to know to enjoy Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is not for the faint of heart. If you don’t care for adult language, nudity, sex, incest, gory violence, and lots of mean people doing mean things to other mean people (and to some good people, too), then this show is not for you. And this show is definitely not for children.

Unlike many television or film adaptions that stray too far from the source material, Game of Thrones has been fairly faithful in terms of the story, the characters, and the spirit of the novels. You may notice some changes, though, such as the addition of new characters or deletion of some storylines. The show’s writers work directly with Martin to ensure the changes make sense.

If you’re new to Game of Thrones (having never read the books or seen the show), you may want to watch the show first. Because the show follows the novels so closely, the novels contain spoilers. After you watch each season of the show, read the novel that it corresponds to. The novels are rich in detail and historical background that will enhance your enjoyment of the show. However, if you don’t care about spoilers, then reading the novels first can be helpful, because the show can be confusing with all the different characters, relationships, and settings.