• Christopher Fenn

Historical Equivalents to Dragons on Game of Thrones

Photo Credit: HBO

On May 19, 2019, HBO aired its final episode of Game of Thrones, The Iron Throne. While the finale proved to be anticlimactic and inadequate, it offered insight into a debate among weapons of mass destruction (WMD) practitioners and scholars whether Daenerys’ dragons, Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion serve as the tactical equivalent of nuclear weapons. Prior analyses fail to be comprehensive and multifaceted because their sole focus is on dragons’ employment. However, a more nuanced assessment examines additional factors: (1) prior weapons’ evolution, (2) dragons’ effects, and (3) countermeasures developed. Such analytical framework reveals that dragons constitute weaponized airplanes armed with incendiary munitions.

Weapons’ evolution in Game of Thrones plays a significant role as a driver of the series’ plot and alters the balance of power between contenders for the Iron Throne. Further, it bears close resemblance to the historical advancement in weapons’ tactics and technology. Therefore, an examination of prior disruptive military capabilities illuminates dragons’ historical counterpart. It is critical to note that disruptive capabilities tend to decrease the physical proximity between combatants and render it easier for actors to inflict harm upon others.

One such weaponized technology that preceded the popularization of dragons’ employment in Game of Thrones is wildfire, a combustible and flammable liquid that resembles Greek fire and other chemical weapons. Chemical agents’ weaponization dates to the commencement of the Age of Antiquity. This period witnessed the inception of Greek fire, an incendiary substance utilized in warfare to decimate the adversary’s naval capabilities. However, while this technology proved to be lost, chemical agents remained a tool deployed in assassinations, executions, and warfare. World War I marked the first large-scale use of chemical warfare and resulted in an estimated 100,000 casualties and 1,300,000 injuries. Further, it imposed significant psychological costs on civilians and combatants alike and demonstrated chemical weapons’ indiscriminate nature. Chemical weapons, by nature, are designed to burn or suffocate their victims.

An additional disruptive technology emerged in World War I, the airplane. The German Air Service deployed the international community’s first militarized airplane in 1915, known as the Fokker Eindecker, armed with two machine guns. This technology served as a means to circumvent and neutralize the adversaries’ chemical warfare attacks and capabilities through offensive operations that targeted enemy combatants and strategic airstrikes. However, airplanes intensified civilians’ fears of chemical weapons due to their potential for future employment in chemical attacks on western European cities. Such fears drove the international community to codify the taboo against the employment of chemical weapons and construction of the Geneva Protocol, first signed on June 17, 1925.

The evolutionary progression of weaponry in Game of Thrones bears a significant resemblance to the progression of historical weapons’ technology. Cersei Lannister’s utilization of wildfire in the series constituted acts of chemical warfare and secured a favorable balance of power and decisive tactical military advantage. However, Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, like airplanes, upended the balance of power, and propagated fears of chemical weapons, as the dragons’ fire is an incendiary munition. Their employment in Season 8 Episode 5, The Bells, demonstrated airplanes’ potential to execute chemical weapons attacks against both civilians and combatants, as feared at the completion of World War I. The dragons’ fire imposed significant physical and psychological costs against the people of King’s Landing and a segment of Daenery’s forces themselves, composed of Arya Stark, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister. Their abhorrent reaction and statements subsequent to the human destruction and devastation caused by Daenery’s decision to use her dragons’ capabilities against combatants and noncombatants aligned with those of military leaders after World War I. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front in World War I, supported the use of chemical warfare prior to and during such armed hostilities. However, after he witnessed the weapons’ effects and noted their potential future use, he asserted, in 1922, that “chemical warfare should be abolished among nations, as abhorrent to civilization.” Therefore, dragons and the fire they produce constitute the historical equivalent of airplanes and chemical weapons, respectively, and serve as the fusion of two different tactical capabilities.

Countermeasures developed by the Lannister’s to attempt to neutralize Daenerys’ dragons offer additional support to the notion that dragons in Game of Thrones constitute weaponized airplanes armed with incendiary chemical weapons. In an attempt to eliminate Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion, Cersei Lannister directs the construction and production of large crossbows. These weapons, resulted in the death of Rhaegal in Season 8 Episode 4, The Last of the Starks, and serves as the fictional counterpart to antiaircraft artillery. Antiaircraft weapons date to the early to mid-1910s and were developed in response to the popularization of militarized airplanes. Like King Landing’s large crossbows, such antiaircraft artillery possesses limited effectiveness and is vulnerable to strategic airstrikes, as conducted by Daenerys in the series’ final episode, when her dragons eliminate their countermeasures and defeat the Iron Fleet.

The framework designed and adopted in this article to analyze Daenerys’ dragons and their fire, which incorporates assessments of (1) prior weapons’ evolution, (2) dragons’ effects, and (3) countermeasures developed highlights that dragons constitute weaponized airplanes, while their fire is the fictional counterpart to incendiary chemical weapons.


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