Is it possible that Game of Thrones is really a dark fairy tale? Let’s dig a little deeper into what makes a fairy tale to find out if this popular series might be a cousin to the more traditional tales we know.

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What makes a fairy tale?

The definition of a fairy tale is actually a little confusing. The broad version is a short story that features European folkloric fantasy characters. This seems like a simple definition, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that fairy tales have a lot in common with traditional tales, fables, and folklore. There are differences, but there is also a lot of grey area and many stories fall into a couple of the same categories.

Game of Thrones can also technically be categorized by couple of different labels. It’s fantasy, it’s drama, sometimes it’s horror… Game Of Thrones also seems to have all the classic fairy tale tropes at first glance. There is a warrior king, a glamorous queen, a dashing knight, not to mention freaking dragons! I mean, the entire story starts out with the fair maiden daughter (Sansa) of the king’s most trusted advisor (Ned Stark) pledged to be married to the handsome young price (Joffery)! But peel back just one little tiny layer, and you realize that nothing is at it seems. The king and the queen don’t love each other, the dashing knight looses his hand, the dragons are uncontrollable, the prince is a monster…

How does this stack up to fairy tales we know?

Let’s take a look at three specific fairy tales:

  1. Beauty And The Beast: The Disney version we all know and love is just one example of a beautiful maiden falling in love with a man who is ugly on the outside, but pretty on the inside. At first it seems like Sansa and The Hound may become another such tale when The Hound asks Sansa to leave during the Battle of Blackwater. However, Sansa doesn’t go and instead chooses to stay in Kings Landing with her captors and tormentors (so sort of the opposite of The Beast). Not only is Sansa not a perfect match for Beauty, The Hound isn’t exactly a model Beast. While he was certainly one of the people who treated Sansa the best at court, Sandor doesn’t exactly have a heart of gold.
  2. Snow White: A wicked queen attempts to kill a princess when she finds out that the princess is now the “fairest of them all”. It sounds pretty similar to the prophecy that the old witch Maggy gave Cersei actually… Only Cersei’s fate included all of her children dying too, which the magic mirror never mentioned.
  3. Rip Van Winkle: In the classic tale a man falls asleep to awaken and find that it is decades later and that everything around him has changed for the worse. I think that this is very similar to Ned Stark, only instead of sleeping he returns to The North. Once he returns to Kings Landing after years away, he finds that everything has changed and that in his absence the kingdom is falling apart. While Rip Van Winkle awakens in some version of the tale and is able to change his actions… Ned Stark dies.

So it seems like Game Of Thrones might not be a fairy tale. After all, doesn’t “fairy tale ending” mean that everything turns out to be perfect and happy? That certainly isn’t the case in Westeros! However, if you read the original stories instead of the Disney versions, many of them do not have a happy ending at all! In the original Beauty and the Beast, Beast asks Beauty to marry him every single night, which would definitely be considered harassment. In Grimm’s Snow White, the Evil Queen is forced to dance in hot iron shoes until she dies! Rip Van Winkle is technically an American folk tale, but even so in some versions Rip Van Winkle simply falls back into his idle and lazy ways instead of waking up.

So is Game of Thrones a fairy tale?

Although Game of Thrones shares the bleak view of many original fairy tales, it ends up flipping many character tropes on its head. Chivalry is hardly ever rewarded, and the damsels who wait around to be saved end up remaining in captivity until they take the initiative themselves. For example, Ned Stark always strove to do the right thing and he got beheaded. Brienne of Tarth is one of the most noble characters in the show and books, and she is not doing so great right now either. Jon Snow, who I still believe is the only character acting with the greater good of humanity in mind (not to be confused with the greater good of the realm that Tyrion and Viserys are acting towards) was recently stabbed to very close but not dead death.

However, most fairy tales do not end in complete tragedy. While there is a shocking amount of weddings that include murder in the celebrations (not completely unlike the Dothraki now that I think about it), in many cases the tale also ends in true love prevailing and evil being punished in some fashion. Game of Thrones is not over yet, and neither is A Song of Ice and Fire. George RR Martin himself has hinted in interviews that his ending would be a bittersweet one, so like many fairy tales I expect this tale will end in both celebration and tragedy.

If you want to read more about fairy tales in Game Of Thrones, here are some more great posts to read.  This one talks about how Arya is Little Red Riding Hood and Sanasa is Beauty, this one discusses masculinity in fairy tales and Game Of Thrones, and this one compares Arya to Robin Hood!