Editor’s Note: This article does not contain Game of Thrones spoilers past season 3.
Can God make a boulder so big he can’t lift it?
That was a question once posed to me by a pastor at a catechism class as a teen. He asked it with fake exasperation, as though it was all anyone was talking about in hushed tones in the kitchen in-between masses at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.
My peers and I had never actually heard of it, but apparently it was a popular “what if” amongst the heathenry to pull a “Gotcha!” moment on God and prove there was one thing the infallible deity could actually fail at. Either he failed to make a boulder so big he couldn’t lift it or he just failed at lifting said boulder. Checkmate, theists.
“Don’t worry about it,” Pastor Woods said. “It’s a paradox beyond our understanding but yes, God can build that boulder and yes, he can also lift it somehow.”
George R.R. Martin, writer of “A Song of Ice and Fire” and mastermind of the literary basis for Game of Thrones, enjoys a saint-like appearance. After all, he crafts entire worlds out of nothing and may as well be God’s second cousin. The “boulder” test is therefore an apt one. And it’s clear that George R.R. Martin may have created a boulder so big that he cannot lift it.
One of the internet’s favorite pastimes is being angry. And a frequent target of that anger is Martin and the increasingly lengthy wait-times between volumes of his magnum opus. The fifth book in ASOIAF, A Dance With Dragons, came out on July 12, 2011. That represented an almost unheard of wait-time from the previous book for the series. The fourth book, A Feast for Crows, had been published on Oct. 17, 2005. The internet was, as always, angry. This entire Goodreads thread is devoted just to users pondering why this 1,300-ish page book took so long to write.
Granted, Martin did himself little favors—continuously offering new potential release year targets on his charmingly dated (and still active) LiveJournal blog. Still, A Dance with Dragons eventually saw the light of day and all was forgiven. Martin even offered up a compelling reason for the perceived delay. He was dealing with what he called a “Mereeneese Knot.” The Meereeneese Knot refers to the issue Martin had with the plot simply growing too large and the characters becoming too geographically disparate, and his struggle to begin the process of bringing them all together.
It was taken for granted by fans that the Meereeneese Knot dilemma had been solved with the release of A Dance With Dragons and that the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, was just around the corner. Now here we stand, a full eight years later and still no release date for The Winds of Winter in sight.
Every new Martin LiveJournal blog post is met with a fury of speculation and renewed fervor. Just this summer, Martin posted a blog entry that seemed to fully suggest Winter was finally coming. “Alas, Valyria” it was titled, and the text simply read “Alas, alas, that great city Valyria, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.” Surely, this was it! This was the hour that the book would finally be announced—and it made sense so close to the timing of the Game of Thrones season 7 premiere. Nope. No book. By all accounts, it seems to be referring to the introduction of the language High Valyrian into the Duolingo language app.
Despite the internet’s repeating assertions to the contrary, George R.R. Martin is not a troll. He’s presumably out there, typing away on his ancient word processor, trying to finish The Winds of Winter. What we fail to realize, however, is that this is a series that just might not be possible to finish.
The Meereeneese Knot is Martin’s self-created boulder, and he’s having trouble lifting it. When it’s all said and done, he may never be able to do so. Think about the sheer size of these books for a moment. The “A Song of Ice and Fire” series to date is approximately, 4,500 pages. That’s just counting the number of pages of the published work—it doesn’t even factor in the number of manuscript pages that were produced and then eventually cut.
Beyond that, page-length alone doesn’t even come close to telling the story of how massive the world George R.R. Martin has created is. A Wiki of Ice and Fire currently has 7,297 pages devoted to basically every proper noun that has ever appeared in the books. That includes details of the sprawling geography and every single branch on hundreds of family’s trees.
Sometimes, as a thought experiment to conceive of how truly massive this “boulder” is, imagine how many characters you would be realistically satisfied with receiving the very last scene of in a seventh book. Think of Tyrion gazing out at the encroaching spring over the top of the Wall. Or Sandor burying his brother Gregor and saying a silent prayer to all the victims lost in their cycle of family violence. Or even a pack of wolves, traversing a snowy hellscape—no humanity in sight.
That’s the thing about the sheer enormity of “A Song of Ice and Fire”—it’s not filled with just mentioned yet never seen characters, or hard to pronounce foreign cities the plot will never advance to; it’s filled with characters whose stories are rich enough to form the backbone of an entire other fantasy series.
Think of Beric Dondarrion is a knight tasked with tracking down and defeating a monstrous eight-foot murderer. In the process, he is killed and brought back to life by a combination of blood magic and friendship. This is done seven times until he finds his ultimate purpose in life and passes the gift of life on to a slain mother. That’s…. aweseome. And Beric is only like 30th on the “Song of Ice and Fire” call sheet.
Perhaps, this world of Ice and Fire is too big, too detailed, too richly-realized to ever be finished. In hindsight, maybe it’s more surprising that we ever expected it could be finished than it is that Martin is currently struggling with it.
And that leads me to another achingly saccharine and likely boring childhood anecdote. The first time I heard the phrase “making lemons out of lemonade” was many years before I heard the paradox “can God make a boulder so big he can’t lift it?” I was around five-years-old and had just broken my collarbone by falling off the side of a couch, at a hilariously low-height, and onto some plastic Power Ranger toys. I had been fitted with a cast that covered my entire chest to keep my smashed collarbone into place.
This was annoying, I announced to my mother.
“Oh well, you’ll just have to make lemonade out of lemons,” she told me. After she explained to me what that meant, I decided that my bulky cast kind of resembled the White Ranger’s breastplate armor (yes, the Power Ranger toys had got me in this mess, but I weren’t going to let them take everything else away, damn it).
What do we do now that every passing day makes a conclusion to “A Song of Ice and Fire” less likely? We turn that cast into the White Ranger’s armor, damn it.
For starters, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is going to get an ending of sorts in the form of Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones has diverged fairly extremely from its source material at this point. Season 8 will be the final season of Game of Thrones, and the story will have an ending. Martin even shared some information about the overall ending of the series with showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. How much of that ending resembles what would have been the ending to “A Song of Ice and Fire” may never be known, but at least it’s something.
Those in desperate need of a conclusion can choose to treat the Thrones ending as canon. Those who don’t enjoy the Thrones ending can just choose to ignore it. It’s like Schrodinger’s ending for fantasy books. It will simultaneously exist and not exist.
Wouldn’t everyone opt to accept the show’s ending regardless of how perfect or imperfect it may be? Not necessarily. As a culture, our perception of endings seems to be evolving. Think back to 2010 when Lost was about to air its final episode. There was an ongoing cultural discourse over how it needed to “stick the landing.” Most seem to agree that the show did not do so, and in the process it ruined our cheerful memories of the entire series (for my thoughts on the matter, you can click here).
Then in 2017, Lost creator Damon Lindelof ended another sci-fi-adjacent show in HBO’s The Leftovers, and the discourse was much different before the episode aired. Many previews tried to predict how the series might ultimately end, but very few if any of them adopted a “they’d better not fuck this up” tone. There was almost no conceivable ending that could have sullied our fond memories of many, many hours of TV.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is of course much different from The Leftovers and really any other mainstream entertainment than we currently have. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is as much the World of Ice and Fire as it is the story. Planetos, as fans often call the planet made up by the continents Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos, is a huge fictional entity with an almost literally infinite amount of possible stories to be told. There are thousands and thousands of years of Planetosi history to imagine and thousands and thousands of theoretical miles to be covered. The World of Ice and Fire is so massive and is filled with so much potential that it may as well be the World of… well, just the world. As in planet Earth.
In some aspects it seems silly to impose an ending on “A Song of Ice and Fire,” because it (probably) wouldn’t constitute the ending of Westeros. As fellow HBO classic The Sopranos taught us, endings are relative. (UPCOMING SPOILERS FOR THE SOPRANOS FINALE). The Sopranos rather brilliantly just… ends. It ends as the screen jarringly and abruptly cuts to black when Tony Soprano looks up in a diner to see who has walked through the door. Is it his daughter Meadow coming through the door? Or an assassin? A giraffe? It doesn’t matter because the story is over. It ends, right there at the diner. Stories are little more than windows. Sometimes you find a frame big enough to fit one character’s entire life story. But you’ll never find a frame big enough to encompass the entire entire world.
There are already many endings in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Those endings come on the battlefield as nameless Stark and Lannister soldiers die on a forested Westerland battlefield. They come at The Twins in the form of a dagger slashing across a mother’s throat. They even come in the form of an unexpected crossbow bolt on the toilet. It would come as a surprise to the literal hundreds of dead Ice and Fire characters that there is another “ending” to this “story.” As far as they’re concerned, it already happened.
Maybe Martin will one day be able to lift this unliftable boulder and finish this series. Whether he does or not—it won’t mean the end of the Game of Thrones franchise. There are more books to come (not canon ASOIAF books, but presumably at the very least some unauthorized guides or essay texts), more shows to come, and countless other avenues the IP will reach into.
When you play the A Game of Thrones card game, presumably you won’t care whether the series has an ending or not. You’ll get to make your own as you play. When you play Game of Thrones Risk, you get to decide the fates of Westeros and Essos for yourself anyway, book endings be damned. And when you play one of the many Game of Thrones video games in existence and those still yet to come, you’ll have many more endings to contend with.
Whether Winter and then Spring ever come or not for “A Song of Ice and Fire” is irrelevant. The series already features its fair share of endings. All signs point to this series standing the test of time so that there can be many more fan-generated endings to come. Martin created the unliftable boulder and now we can all decide for ourselves if we want to try to lift it for him.