The strategist's mind at play
Yuval Noah Harari on medieval logistics and Game of Thrones
In 2020, as the pandemic dominated much of life, a unique scholar spent nearly 4 hours talking about the meaning of it all. Yuval Noah Harari’s books and ideas have kicked-off conversations ever since the 2014 publication of his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Book success has given the Oxford-educated Israeli professor more time to think about ever bigger topics, including runaway AI, climate catastrophe, and the lingering threat from nuclear weapons.
He's a big thinker. So I found it curious to hear him describe what he does with his mind when it’s at rest from the big stuff. He smashes real-world ideas against fiction. In this example, part of a (really)long-form interview series with two German newspaper writers, conducted in English (Alles Gesagt?), Harari describes how he let his post-graduate education wander off into the fictional world in Game of Thrones.
If this is what one of the best minds in the world does at rest, we should all take note. If you listen to the interview—links above, starting about 15 minutes from the end—you’ll hear he’s just having fun. Maybe having a little intellectual fun with fiction can be a really good thing for sharpening the mind.
What follows is my transcription of the conversation. I’ve edited out minor interjections for clarity, and any and all errors are mine.
Harari: My expertise is medieval military history. If you want to talk to me about how to besiege a castle in the 13th century, I think I’m standing on very firm ground.
I wrote my MA thesis about logistics, supply in medieval warfare. And I watched…Game of Thrones…the logistics were wrong! I mean I don’t care, you have dragons, you have zombies, I don’t care. But get medieval logistics right.
I’ll give you an example. You have this point when the wild men from the North, they are attacking the Wall, and Jon Snow is defending the Wall, and everything seems lost and then at the very last moment the army from this general from the South, what’s his name, Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, and his giant army appear out of nowhere and save the day. Now I immediately think, “how did they find food?” I mean you land an army in the middle of wilderness, and you have lots of horses—what do they eat? I wrote my medieval thesis on how you supply a medieval army.
Interviewer: How would they have done it?
Harari: So there are two ways to supply an army in the Middle Ages. One way is to just rob the countryside. You pillage the local villages, you grab the chickens, the goats, the grain, and you eat from the supply of the local people. But the problem here is that it takes time and effort and it can only done if there are enough local people with food reserves. So if you’re campaigning in the wilderness, among ice, you can’t live off the land.
The other way is to take the supply with you. Now that means a lot of wagons and carts and pack horses and it’s extremely slow. Because these are very slow moving things. So yes maybe cavarlrymen can dash ahead and ride very quickly but a supply column in the middle ages is very, very slow.
So if I’m thinking about the army of Stannis Baratheon, there are no local supplies, so they must be taking supply with them, that means they are going very slow. Now I would imagine that the Wildlings [northmen], they know their country. They have scouts, they have people watching. So how can this huge army, with all their supply trains move through a frozen countryside that they don’t know, nobody’s ever been there, and not be discovered? Until at the very crucial moment of battle they—poof—they appear out of nowhere and the Wildlings are taken completely by surprise. That’s ridiculous. It can’t happen.
Harari: I have a lot more examples of wrong logistics in Game of Thrones if you want.
Another famous moment is when the queen…when Ceresi blows up the temple with all the high priest and all of her political rivals and everybody. Now this doesn’t make sense, because, there are two options. First of all for the entire previous episodes, she is being depicted as losing her political power. She is losing it to this cult, to these priests and their allies. The only thing she has is this big zombie guy who helps her, and a couple of protectors, and a couple of kids, like these street kids, that she inherited as a kind of espionage network. That’s all she has.
Now at the climactic moment, it turns out that there is an entire stockpile of gunpowder immediately under the big temple, and they light it and everybody blows up. Yeah, that’s how she gains power. Now there are two options how the gunpowder got there. One option is that the gunpowder was always there. That the main stockpile of gunpowder was immediately under the temple. Now if that’s true, first of all it’s not very likely…now you think “where will you put this gunpowder, ahhhh, under this temple,” so no not likely, and even if they decided to do that, they know it’s there, so obviously they would put some guards, right? And they have a lot of guards because they control the state, they control the police, they can do that. So it’s unlikely it was there.
Or, apparently, all the gunpowder was smuggled under the temple. Now who smuggled it? I mean we were told that she lost her political power. You have only these street kids. It would take a long time. How did she have access to the gunpowder in the first place. And then, OK, she has access. It takes a long time for these kids to move all the gunpowder there. Nobody notices it? Nobody informs the police that this evil Ceresi is moving all the gunpowder…? What is happening here?
The importance of political power is that you can do such things. When you have a lot of money, and when you control big organizations, these are the kinds of things you can do. You can move stockpiles of gunpowder, quickly, without other people knowing. But she doesn’t have the power, she lost it. So how is it possible to move all this gunpowder without anybody knowing? And so I found it very kind of deus ex machina. That this powerless woman suddenly manages to do something logistically that demands a lot of power.