Game of Thrones has clearly lost its own thread, and I can’t help but feel held captive by the eight years I’ve already sunk into this series as I begrudgingly plod through its mercifully short final season. And yet, something wonderful happened in the midst of last week’s episode — “The Bells” — that I’ve been unable to shake since.
No, it wasn’t anything to do with David Benioff and D.B Weiss’ increasingly incoherent character decisions, or the 20-plus minutes of peasants running from falling rubble. It was a simple question asked by my girlfriend who, despite dropping off Game of Thrones somewhere in season four, is nice enough to suffer through its last hurrah with me. In the middle of Daenerys’ basically unmotivated decision to flame-broil the entirety of a surrendered King’s Landing while her own troops were still inside the city, she looked up from work emails, turned to me and asked something to the effect of: “So do the dragons just never run out of fire, or what?”
Dear reader, I had no answer. And so I turned to experts.
As you might imagine, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin did not respond to this query by publication time. But we reached out to a number of luminaries in fantasy fiction, and luckily two of them replied.
There isn’t really a canonical interpretation of how these mythic creatures function—especially given that, in some examples, they’re not just mythical but magical as well, they’re not always subject to the rules of biology.
“I was discussing it with my wife after yesterday’s episode of GoT,” Marcin Blacha, the story director of CD Projekt RED wrote. Blacha, the lead writer on the acclaimed high fantasy Witcher series of games, is no stranger to the mechanics of dragons, although Polish is his primary language, so I’ve done my best to edit his email for clarity.
“I believe dragons run on some kind of resource, let’s call it mythopoeion,” he wrote. “When dragons direct too much mythopoeion to frequent breathing fire [...] they can’t maintain other functions like [flying.]” To fans of role-playing games, Blacha’s conception is similar to the idea of mana. Unfortunately, he did not expound on exactly what a dragon does when this resource is depleted — other than imply they’d become exhausted. But still, the answer appears to be: Yes, dragons could theoretically run out of fire.
Even within the genre though, there’s no consensus. The urtext on RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons — which arguably The Witcher and any other fantasy roleplaying game owes some debt to—of course has the creatures of its namesake included in its considerable monster manual.
Take for example, the ancient red dragon — a dragon’s dragon — which has the very traditional flame breath ability. D&D handles the option to re-use a breath weapon by including a “recharge” function, where rolling a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on a six-sided die leaves the dragon without another shot, while a 5 or 6 grants the option to produce another 27.43m cone of flames.
Theoretically, (and actually, according to some player forums) rolls can go so badly for the player characters that a dragon hammers the party with the same powerful attack turn after turn.
Without a successful recharge roll, the only other way to regain this sort of attack is to take a rest—from which we can infer that breathing fire is at least a little tiring — but D&D’s basic rules don’t really explain if its a physical or magical sort of exhaustion. But the long and short is, there’s the mathematical possibility that, in that universe, a dragon would never run out of fire.
“I love mixing biology with magic. So my dragons had to make sense to me as top of the food chain predators,” author Margaret Ogden, better known by her pen name Robin Hobb, responded. “My dragons do not breathe fire. They spit acid. This makes more sense to me as we do have creatures in our reality who can do that. And things like the bombardier beetle! They can shoot boiling stuff out of the tip of their abdomen by mixing chemicals inside their bodies. How cool is that? But not fire.”
It's a cruel world out there, and animals will do just about anything to avoid being eaten. In the case of bombardier beetles, these crafty insects are able to escape after being swallowed by toads, which they do by ejecting hot, noxious chemicals that forces the predator to barf. It ain't pretty, but it works.
Functional biology notwithstanding, some of the earliest fictional dragons more closely resemble Hobb’s than the Middle Age-era, fire-breathing ones. A version of St. George and the Dragon from 1260, for instance, describes a creature which had “venomed the people with his breath.” (Another 1200's work — a beastiary—illustrates a dragon breathing what looks like fire, but claims its main source of lethality is in constricting prey. Go figure.)
“Now, can we just do the ‘hand wave’ and say it’s magic? Of course we can. I personally don’t find that as satisfying, but I never questioned that Smaug [from The Hobbit] had a lot of fire power,” she wrote, “I happen to believe that if magic or a magical ability has no limit, then the story is quickly boring. So I’ll stick to writing dragons that can only spit acid, and a limited supply of that!”
Hobb also referenced the late Anne McCaffrey, who’s best known for her Dragonriders of Pern series. “As I recall, her dragons chewed on some sort of stone, and that mixed with something in their digestive system, and yes, they could spout fire. At least for a time. But her dragon riders did have to make sure their dragons got enough rocks to fuel the fire breathing,” she wrote.
As expected, there’s no real decisive version of what a dragon should be, how they do what they do, and if they ever struggle to keep doing that thing. However, the key to properly immersive fiction—even where magical sky lizards are involved — is consistency. While Drogon, Daenerys’s last remaining dragon, is previously shown to be quite powerful, we’ve never seen it engage in destruction on the scale it did in “The Bells.”
Left unchecked, it destroyed the entire defences of a massive castle city and proceeded to set fire to every square inch of a town that’s home to tens of thousands—all without tiring or taking a scratch of damage.
Much like the other characters in Game of Thrones’s final season, even the dragons are becoming unmoored from the reality the previous 63 hours in Westeros established. Game of Thrones does not perfectly follow the as-yet-unfinished novels the HBO series is based on, however, so of course we’d still welcome answers from Martin himself.