Oblivion Part 4: Learning from Stories

How do we remember? Stories. Since forever. Long before TV. Long before books. Humanity is hard-wired to LOVE stories, and pay attention to them.

In recent history, one story stands out. An epic narrative that gripped the west, the English speaking world in particular. Including parts of the world that have, incidentally, done a terrible job of handling the pandemic. Game of Thrones.

George R R Martin has sold around 100 million copies of his book series A Song of Ice and Fire. The television adaptation – Game of Thrones – drew up to 20 million viewers. That’s for each episode, when it was shown live. Total viewership would be in the billions. This narrative had reach, it had impact, it was celebrated: The TV show won more Emmy awards than any TV drama ever and regularly tops the list of best TV shows of all time. In the decade preceding the pandemic, it was the dominant piece of popular culture.

So what does this very long story have at its heart? A forgotten disaster.

Now, why did we need this again?

The fictional world of A Game of Thrones is centered on Westeros, a land with a big wall at its north. A wall – 200 metres high – separates the kingdom from badlands beyond. The story opens “beyond the wall,” where we discover a terrifying enemy is rising. An invasion force this society faced before, but to which it now pays scant heed.

Has the society of Westeros been investing in its defences? Oh no it has not. Once upon a time the wall boasted an enormous force, no longer. The wall has nineteen fortresses and towers but these days only three are staffed. Furthermore, the recruits into the force – known as the  Night’s Watch – are the dregs of society, supposedly criminals given the opportunity to join instead of being sentenced to death. 

This is the set-up. Thousands of pages of gripping narrative ensue, dozens of hours of extremely expensive premium television, lovingly shot on location. And the tension that illuminates the whole damn thing is that of a pantomime:

The frustration where the crowd yells “He’s behind you!!” and the actor looks over the wrong shoulder? Not seeing the threat that is totally obvious? This iswhat powers the book series A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series A Game of Thrones.

The kingdom of Westeros lavishes attention on power plays and assassinations – and gives thousands of lives to internecine wars – while vigorously ignoring desperate warnings that an existential threat is building.

Palace intrigue. Oooh Shiny!

The watchers on the wall are out of sight and out of mind for the decision makers, who live at the opposite end of the kingdom. Few powerful people have ever visited the wall. When one does, it is a surprise. That happens right at the start of the story, and notably the powerful person who makes that visit, (Tyrion Lannister, brother of the Queen) becomes a hero of the book.

The Night’s Watch use the surprise visit to make a request for additional help. Which is ignored. Its inability to raise much in the way of manpower is a consistent theme of the story. Even the organisation itself seems to have experienced strategic drift. It is now focused on repelling attacks by humans who live on the far side of the wall. The folly of this is apparent to the reader, but eventually, deep in the narrative, in book forty-four or something, Martin also spells it out:

The Night’s Watch has forgotten its true purpose …. You don’t build a wall seven hundred feet high to keep savages in skins from stealing women.

Which is to say: there’s a bigger threat than the one we are focusing on. What’s interesting about the White Walkers – this invasion force that is building, is the parallels with disease. They share similarities with zombies and can easily be read as a metaphor for infection.

So Game of Thrones is about a society that ignores its own history and warnings. Of course, it is about our society too, our petty spats and pathetic attention spans that mean we forget what matters and focus on what excites us. We run down our defences until it is almost too late. We take the bearers of warnings, and laugh at them.  We let a pandemic run riot.


There is one clan in the book that warns of impending doom. The Starks. Their motto: Winter is Coming. They’re the main heroes of the book, and – I hope I won’t spoil the story too much here –  few Starks get to have an especially lovely time of it.

Stark, adj. providing no shelter or sustenance. “A stark landscape.”

Now, what’s clever about the fictional world author George RR Martin has created is that winter is unpredictable. It comes when it pleases, lasts for an unknown amount of time. Winters are frightening. Some are brief,  few are harsh. A pareto distribution. Then every so often – just like quakes and fires and floods, volcanoes and recessions – a really big one comes.

Thousands of years ago, there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts; and women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept, and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks… In that darkness the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds.

This story is told by a character named Old Nan. She’s a fulltime childcarer. She has no status, meets with no powerful people. But this story – not told by anyone else – is one of the most important warnings in the entire narrative.

Her story – a kind of oral history if you like – has apparently been passed down for thousands of years. Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. If you write a book about a society that has forgotten its history, you must put in hundreds of generations between the last disaster and the present to help readers believe it is forgotten.

But of course the last huge global pandemic was in some people’s lifetime. In real life, we apparently discard memories and lessons of the last disaster rather sooner.

“If we forget where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. We’re just animals.” – Samwell Tarly, A Game of Thrones.

This is Part Four in the series on how we forget disasters. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

5 thoughts on “Oblivion Part 4: Learning from Stories”

  1. That was a very useful analogy ,in my view! GOT has been so popular, across all societal levels, that the Pandemic parallel is likely to be readily understood by millions!! Thank you!


  2. “But of course the last huge global pandemic was in some people’s lifetime.”
    Shades of Pauline here but; Please explain – what are you referring to?


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