'Game of Thrones' Doesn't Technically Have Dragons or Zombies, George R.R. Martin Explains

While it may appear Game of Thrones has both dragons and zombies, it actually doesn't, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin explained to Neil deGrasse Tyson on the astrophysicist's late-night National Geographic channel talk show, StarTalk (the ASOIAF series does, however, have unicorns).

"If you're engaged in worldbuilding, you have to try and get everything right, but you're not going to succeed, because I am not the font of all human knowledge," Martin explained, describing how he did his best to have Westeros feel as real as possible, counterbalancing magic, dragons and undead armies with as much realism as he could achieve.

Daenerys Targaryen's dragons were one area Martin found himself technically in the wrong. In A Song of Ice and Fire and on Game of Thrones, the dragons Rhaegal, Viserion and Drogon have back legs and winged forearms. Martin's dragons only have two legs, as opposed to other fantasy dragons with four legs and wings emerging from their backs. Since this corresponds to real-world animals, like bats, it feels more realistic. But Martin found that it's technically wrong to call these beasts dragons.

Not a dragon. HBO

"I've learned a fair amount while writing these books about medieval heraldry," Martin told Tyson. "In heraldry, the two-legged dragon is not a dragon, it's a wyvern. And only the four-legged dragon on a heraldic shield is counted as a dragon. So I have the heraldric purists on my ass."

Banners, shields and sigils of Great Houses like the Targaryens and lesser houses, like House Vance, prominently feature two-legged dragons with wings, but people from medieval Earth would properly recognize the creatures as wyverns, legendary creatures which didn't typically breathe fire.

Martin had a similar technical explanation for why the wights and undead raised by the Night King and the White Walkers aren't really zombies in the typical sense. "I don't know that they're alive. Obviously when you die—if I die five minutes from now: I have a heart attack and I'm dead on the floor—my body is still there. My body is still there and some force can animate it and bring it up and get it going again."

Martin went on to compare the wights to electrical impulses coming from somewhere other than our brain. "It's the Frankenstein thing. What inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein was read about experiments where dead frogs, if hooked up with electricity, their legs jumped," Martin said. "So, are they just reanimated dead people? Yes, essentially."

Not zombies. HBO

Martin using Frankenstein as a point of comparison muddles his point, since the titular monster has intelligence and independent agency. But what he seems to be getting at is a distinction between puppeteered flesh and reanimated life. A zombie, in Martin's formulation, has some remnant of humanity—there's a mind acting out its own agency. However reduced to vestigial instincts (like the zombie shoppers of Dawn of the Dead), they retain some modicum of personhood.

This isn't true with the wights, who are dead flesh, puppeted by the will of the Night King and the White Walkers who have reanimated them.

Does anyone of this materially change Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire? Does it spoil The Winds of Winter? No, of course not. But it does indicate the depth of thought Martin has put into his world, right down to the gradations between death and life, or the taxonomy of his fictional bestiary.