The Law of the Game of Thrones

I’m looking to tell a story here and hopefully an entertaining and engrossing story. I’m not looking to do a study of socioeconomic systems or legal systems or any of these things so the really scholarly works, copious footnotes, and things like that, are less useful to me in some ways.

— George R. R. Martin

Game-of-Thrones-game-of-thrones-17629189-1280-720In 2007, I did an interview with GRRM as a part of CoOp’s then vibrant “Law and Hard Fantasy” series.  (Yes, I know I’ve let it drop for half-a-decade, but new interviews are now coming out.)

Given the new-found fame of the Game of Thrones, I decided to have the interview transcribed for those of you who don’t want to listen.  Thanks to Temple’s Danielle Pinol who did the work.  I’m going to provide the transcript in three parts.  Here’s part I, about the roots of sovereign power in Westeros.  Part II talks about lawyers and magic. Part III will talk about fantasy literature more generally.


DAVID HOFFMAN: Today’s edition of Law Talk is unique in two respects: first I’m obviously not Nate Oman your usual host, I’m instead Dave Hoffman a law professor at the Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and with Nate, a blogger with Concurring Opinions. Today’s guest is distinct as well. George R.R. Martin is not a law professor, but instead a best-selling author of fantasy books including the renowned multi-volume work, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The most recent book in that series, “A Feast for Crows,” was a New York Times #1 best seller. Martin is currently hard at work on the series’ next book, “A Dance for Dragons.” George joined me today to talk about the relationship of fantasy to law, a topic I recently blogged about several times. Along the way, we also talked about the laws of inheritance, copyright, and fan fiction; how to keep control over your work when it is filmed; remedies for breach of contract of sale in a magical world; and why most fantasy books seem to be set in England around the year 1400. I hope you enjoy it.  Ok well let’s get started, in some interviews you’ve suggested or other people have suggested that your books are fantasy for folks that don’t like fantasy. What does that mean?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Well, that’s a marketing slogan but there’s a certain element of truth to that. I do get a numbers of fans who write me and say they enjoy my books but they’re not normally fantasy readers. One of the things I attempted to do when I started a Song of Ice and Fire these many years ago was to give as much of a flavor of historical fiction as of fantasy. And I think to the extent I’ve succeeded in that the books are attracting some people who prefer historical fiction to fantasy for whatever reason. I also wanted to make it a little grittier and more realistic than a lot of the fantasy that was out there at the time.

HOFFMAN: It seems like in order to make that happen, you do an immense amount of historical research and the way I think you’ve described it is you create a couple of bookshelves of information, you try to soak it all up and instead of working it in like a —

MARTIN: Yeah it’s stopping me right now, my workshop bookshelf is, numerous shelves full of largely popular history of the middle ages and associated periods and —

HOFFMAN: Have you been tempted to go the Tolkien route of creating a huge appendix after the fact?

MARTIN: Well we do have a concordance coming out that will be published separately, that will be an appendix at the back of the book . We’re working on a book called “The World of Ice and Fire” which will have a lot of the historical background and information and a lot of beautiful art work and so forth and so on. A lot of background will get out that way. It’s amazing how many fans/readers are interested in that sort of thing. I think maybe Tolkien sets a template there as he did for so many other things.

HOFFMAN: Or maybe they’re just sort of interested in the stories behind the story. I guess the story I’m interested in, which is a little embarrassing, is I’m interested in the legal story behind the story. So how much of that bookshelf is law, if any?

MARTIN: Very little of it is law actually. I mean law comes into the general history of the time and underlies some of the general conflicts that take place but I don’t actually have any separate books on medieval law. Maybe I should, I’m not even aware that they exist. I have general books that include sections about law as one chapter or within a chapter. But if there is a specialized book about law, it’s not one I’m aware of, or it’s something that’s too esoteric. I typically use predominantly popular histories, certainly those are less detailed and less accurate then the really scholarly histories but I’m looking to tell a story here and hopefully an entertaining and engrossing story. I’m not looking to do a study of socioeconomic systems or legal systems or any of these things so the really scholarly works, copious footnotes, and things like that, are less useful to me in some ways.

HOFFMAN: Yea, I’d imagine that’s right, although I also imagine someone, somewhere listening to this will have spent his entire life doing the law of medieval England would feel very sad right now.

MARTIN: *laughing*

HOFFMAN: That’s not me fortunately. I guess, one thing as I was rereading the books a little bit, just in preparation for this interview, in comparison with our modern system where law is hierarchical and controlled by the state, there are lots of different sources of legal authority in your worlds; so executions come in private and public forms: the public Ned Stark execution, the semi-public Stark execution, and the night watchman was killed in the beginning of the first book and then very private executions by private parties.

MARTIN: Some are executions and some are murders.

HOFFMAN: What’s the difference?

MARTIN: One has to make a distinction. When Ned Stark executes the deserter at the beginning of the book, he is acting under proper legal authority as the Lord of Winterfell.

HOFFMAN: How about when Caitlyn Stark –

MARTIN: He is acting in the king’s name, he even says that in the little speech he gives.


MARTIN: In the name of Robert of House Baratheon, the first of his name, etc., etc. by the hand of Eddard Stark. There’s a concept which is touched on briefly in the books of what the difference between a lord and a knight. There is a hierarchical futile system in my world just as there was in medieval England and medieval Europe. It’s not exactly the same, there’s a certain number of changes and in some ways simplifications because as complex as Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms are, they are nowhere near as complex as what you actually had in the real middle ages where you need the scholarly books just to understand the relationships between some of the lords and their vassals and their lieges, etc. It got extremely complex the later you got into the period.


MARTIN: So I don’t have a 17titles of  baron, earl, duke.

HOFFMAN: But you do have the heraldry.

MARTIN: The real world had different ranks. I just have lords and knights. And if somebody asked me what is the difference between them, well, one of the differences is the lord has what’s called power of pit and gallows.


MARTIN: That is, a lord has the power to punish, to administer criminal law on his own authority without having to go to someone else, while a knight, even a landed knight has very extensive states. In some ways landed knights might have larger states than some of the lords, but the knight does not have the power of pit and gallows. The power of gallows is the ability to execute someone; pit is the ability to confine them.

HOFFMAN: You use the word power, I mean there are lots of folks who do execute people in the books who are not lords so I guess what you’re saying is just the lords have the legitimate power, right?

MARTIN: Yes, the legal power.

HOFFMAN: The legal power.

MARTIN: Yeah —

HOFFMAN: But where does it come from?

MARTIN: — there’s a war going on in much of the books

HOFFMAN: Right, and multiple halfway legitimate kings. Where does the power come from in your world? Where does the sovereignty arise?

MARTIN: As with medieval England, there’s a sense of the authority derives from the king and the king’s authority arises from God.

HOFFMAN: Is that why the church is able to arrest the queen for, I think it’s adultery, at the end of A Feast for Crows?

MARTIN: Well  the church is whole nother issue. We’re getting into a side issue here.

HOFFMAN: Mhm. I mean something that’s, in the US, there’s always this —

MARTIN: — before we get to the church, let me remind us of the history of the Seven Kingdoms. And the fact that they, although in the books it is one single realm, in the past it has been many different realms. It has been seven kingdoms who really were separate kingdoms at the time of Aegon’s conquest. And if you go back before that, it’s many more than seven. It’s hundreds of kingdoms; hundreds of tiny kingdoms, so some of these high lords in particular were kings in their own right at a certain point are still very powerful lords. Also, some regional differences would be inevitable and some of the kings. In particular, the kings that have never been conquered, never been forced to surrender, you can trace their lineage back to ancient kings who predated the Targaryan conquest by thousands of years. They might have traditions and rights that are a little bit at variance with one of the more centralized regimes have because at one time there’s this lingering tradition that they were their own authority, they were their own ones anointed by God or the Gods —


MARTIN: — in the case of Westeros. Now the church law comes from the faith of the seven, was Andel faith, they’re the second of the human invaders who moved into the Seven Kingdoms or whatever you’d call them. They go back thousands of years when they were hunters of kingdoms and they had these seven gods. And they’re probably the most organized religion in the context of Westeros and the one that most resembles a medieval Catholic church. And they each have their own courts and they did have their own systems of justice and punishment for sins or transgressions. Of course they weren’t powerful before the conquest. Before the conquest, you know, you had seven kingdoms but only one faith and only one High Septon even though there were seven kings which gave them a lot of influence. They also had a fighting arm and was much more powerful in the days before the Targaryen conquest when there was one High Septon but numerous smaller kings. The Targaryen conquest, when the Seven Kingdoms were largely unified, was followed by a period of conflict between state and church. The power of the church was essentially broken by a succession of Targaryen kings and their rights in some of these things were banished so by the time the present series opens, A Song of Ice and Fire, the church is influential but it’s no longer the power that it was 300 years before. Of course you see that changing during the books as a result of some of the events of the books. A series of new High Septons have come to power and the one that you see come to power in Feast for Crows is determined to restore the power of the church. In some instances he’s equal to a reforming pope.

HOFFMAN: Right. With the faith militant who is their military arm that they then deem the power to that.

MARTIN: Right, which, you know, then gives them the seven swords to back up the decrees and essentially restores the —

HOFFMAN: The reason why I found —

MARTIN: — as a player in the game of thrones.

HOFFMAN: Right. The reason why I found it so interesting was an ongoing issue in current political debates in the country is the degree to which the executive can be held to account in the civil court system and the trial of Cersei, the queen, by the civil court system and the church I thought was something which today we had an analogue with president Clinton being sued for sexual harassment and the civil court saying it was not going to distract his presidency. The question I had was what do you have in mind in the —

MARTIN: Like the trials like Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard in Tudor England.

HOFFMAN: Were they tried in church court? Or were they tried in the King’s court system? I have no idea.

MARTIN: Well, that’s interesting too because both of them were tried in England during a period of change where the King had recently assumed, had driven the pope and his representatives out of England —


MARTIN: — and appointed himself the Head of the Church of England. He wasn’t able to get the result, he wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon. He did take it to the church and he tried to work with Cardinal Wolsey, and especially the emissary that was sent from Rome to hear the divorce case, but he didn’t get the verdict that he wanted.


MARTIN: At that he said “well, I’ll make my own up.”

HOFFMAN: Is that the sort of historical period…I thought the historical period you had in mind was maybe a little bit earlier than Henry VIII.

MARTIN: Largely it is yes, but on the other hand it’s not one for one. I’m not just picking any particular event or war or character from history and filing off the serial numbers.  I’m mixing and mashing a number of things: 1) the Wars of the Roses, that is certainly an important influence on my books, but I’ve also looked at things like the Crusades, the Albigensian Crusade, the crusades in the Middle East, the Hundred Years War which was fascinating.

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