Could Game of Thrones's Dragons Really Fly? We Asked Some Experts

HBO
HBO

Game of Thrones is a show that requires a serious suspension of disbelief. It exists in a universe where the dead can rise from their graves, humans can see through the eyes of animals, anyone can travel between Dragonstone and Eastwatch at or near the speed of light, and Jon Snow can hold an unbroken frown for seven straight seasons.

Still, as we anticipate the premiere of Game of Thrones's eighth and final season on April 14—and as we remember cowering each time Drogon hovered in midair to pour a throatful of flame over one of Daenerys Targaryen’s enemies in last season's big-budget battles—we started to wonder: Could a beast that big really maneuver through the air like that? Fortunately, two scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying flying creatures agreed to clear that up for us.

Kevin McGowan, a Cornell ornithologist who specializes in crows, says there’s one major problem with dragon flight: physics. “They’re just so damn big,” he says. “Way too big to ever get off the ground.”

For comparison, there's the albatross, which weighs around 25 pounds and needs a 10-foot wingspan in order to heave itself into the air. And birds don’t scale up easily. McGowan says that as a bird gets heavier, its wingspan has to grow exponentially to keep up: “If you need a 10 foot wingspan for a 25-pound bird, what would you need for a 2000-pound dragon?” (Last season, one eagle-eyed engineer estimated that Drogon weighed around three tons and flew with a wingspan under 60 feet—and the dragons are even bigger now.)

In the real world, bird species generally stay small to avoid having to grow their wings exponentially. Those that do grow large wings, like the albatross, can travel long distances—but pay the price in maneuverability. Birds with smaller wings can maneuver in tighter spaces, but have to expend much more energy to stay aloft. “Birds make a lot of compromises to fly,” McGowan says, “and dragons just aren’t doing that.”

Still, there is some hope for letting our dragon-sized fantasies take flight. Michael Habib, a paleontologist and assistant professor of clinical integrative anatomical sciences at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, studies the flight mechanics of extinct animals, including giant pterosaurs once thought to be too big to get off the ground. He also works with film studios like Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm to design believable flying monsters like griffins, hippogriffs, and pegasi. There are three tricks, he says, for plausibly scaling up fantasy flying creatures.

First, you want to give them the right wing type. Like modern day bats, pterosaurs—which lived from 228 to 66 million years ago—had membrane wings, made of skin stretched over a series of elongated fingers. These are good for slow, maneuverable flight, and they don’t have to be as large compared to the body as a bird’s feather wings. Habib tells Mental Floss that a dragon with a good pair of wings would be able to sustain flight easily once it was in the air—but it could only get there “if it came with a catapult for takeoff.”

Second, a dragon needs to have the right skeletal structure. Their bones should be strong enough to withstand the massive mechanical forces involved in flight without getting too heavy. Hollow bones are best; they're actually stronger than a very dense bone with a similar mass. Habib explains that’s because the bone’s ability to withstand the strain of flight depends on its diameter—the wider it is, the more force it can take. A hollow, air-filled bone can be much wider than a dense bone full of marrow, and it will still weigh less than the dense bone.

Third, and most importantly, a dragon needs to have as much power available for takeoff as possible. Habib says that almost every animal that takes flight, from birds to flying squirrels to winged snakes, gets into the air by jumping, not flapping its wings.

“What birds get stuck on is they only have two hind limbs available for jumping power,” Habib says. “Bats do better—and pterosaurs did, too—because they walk on their wings and they can jump off of all four limbs.”

That makes a big difference, especially because most of a bird’s strength is in its wings. While birds take off with less than half their bodies’ muscle power, bats and pterosaurs launch themselves with everything they’ve got. That’s what allowed the largest pterosaurs to grow into 550-pound behemoths, while the heaviest-ever flying bird—the extinct Argentavis magnificens—maxed out around 150 pounds.

The dragons in Game of Thrones do have membrane wings, and they could conceivably have hollow bones. Back in season three, WIRED reported that the show’s animators based the dragons on a cross between an eagle and a bat. (Their strenuous, flappy hovering certainly takes after fruit bats.) Although the dragons walk around on their wings like bats, they don’t seem to jump off of them during takeoff. Throughout the series, we see them dive from cliffs and glide into flight, leap off their hind legs after a running start, and sometimes just flap their wings and leave the ground.

Habib says even if a dragon followed all of his specifications, it could only grow up to about 1000 pounds without grounding itself—not several tons, like Daenerys’s children.

“They’re probably beyond the flight limit for any anatomy,” Habib concedes, “unless they’re secretly made out of carbon fiber and titanium.”

“Maybe they’re full of hot air,” suggests McGowan, “or maybe it’s just magic.”

And what would happen if a dragon got a hole in one of its membrane wings, like Viserion displays after rising from the dead in the finale of season seven? Could it still fly? "The short answer is, probably a bit, but not as well as normal," Habib says.

Bats can fly with similarly damaged wings thanks to the way wings move through air. We tend to think of them as paddles pushing the air, but wings actually pull air. Like any other fluid, air has a certain amount of intrinsic stickiness to it, so air sticks to other air. "As the wing is pulling on the air, it's flowing over and around the wing, and it will skip over the air within the wing's small gaps and imperfections just as water will jump over the holes in a storm grate," Habib says. "Obviously, the more holes you put in the wing, the more inefficient it becomes, but it will still work up to a point. If there are too many holes, it will fail."

To McGowan, though, how the dragons fly doesn't really matter: “I think all day. When I go home, I don’t want to think anymore. I can just say it’s magic. I don’t care.”

How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The star of dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comics, and one big-screen feature (which spawned a couple of straight-to-video follow-ups), Casper the Friendly Ghost has enjoyed a great deal of spooky success since he debuted in 1945. An affable spirit, the seemingly pre-adolescent blob of ectoplasm only wants to make friends. Unfortunately, people are consistently wary of his ethereal qualities. In the earliest shorts, he preferred to hang out by himself near a tombstone.

Does the tombstone belong to him? By virtue of being a ghost, doesn’t that mean Casper was once a real, live boy who suffered a tragic fate at a young age?

The Ghost With No Name

When Casper was created back in 1940 by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, the question apparently didn’t come up. Reit and Oriolo planned to have Casper—who did not yet have a name—be the star of an illustrated children’s book, with Reit writing and Oriolo illustrating it. They never got the chance. The two, who worked at Fleischer Studios on animated shorts, were both drafted to serve in World War II. When they returned, Fleischer Studios had been purchased by Paramount, renamed Famous Studios, and wanted complete control over the intellectual property of work created by employees. The two sold Casper and other characters for a total of $200 to Paramount.

When Casper made his animated debut in the 1945 Famous Studios short “The Friendly Ghost,” he finally got a name, but no mention was made of his origins. The short references his “brothers and sisters” who enjoy scaring people but offers no other details of his private life.

A second short, 1948’s “There’s Good Boos To-Night,” shows Casper leaning on a tombstone while reading a book, with a “Love Thy Neighbor” sign hanging nearby. The ghosts in the cemetery are referred to as his “neighbors” and appear to rise from their respective resting places when it’s time to go haunting. This would imply Casper is relaxing at his own gravesite, though his name doesn’t appear on the tombstone. If so, it would support the idea he once occupied the land of the living.

As Casper moved into another medium, however, a case began to be made for his existence as something other than human. In 1949, St. John Publishing produced five Casper comics. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over the license. In an effort to expand Casper’s world, Harvey gave him a ghost family, including a mom and three uncles. None of them were named until 1955, when the uncles were dubbed Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether Casper’s relatives were all deceased as well or whether the Casper mythology implies ghosts are simply "born" ghosts.

The Pneumonia Theory

When the Casper feature film starring Christina Ricci was released in 1995, producers apparently thought moviegoers would be confused by a lack of explanation, and so the Casper of that film was portrayed as a boy named Casper McFadden. He was said to have died of pneumonia at the age of 12 after staying out in cold weather for too long playing with a sled he had just received as a gift.

There is one alternative, and slightly darker, theory that was purportedly first floated by The Simpsons. In the 1991 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book,” Bart and Lisa speculate that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey Comics icon. (The two bear a resemblance.) Lisa believes that his realization of “how hollow the pursuit of money really is” caused Richie to take his own life. Other observers have speculated that perhaps Richie’s parents killed their son for the insurance money.

This is, of course, virtually impossible, as Richie Rich wasn’t created until 1953, 13 years after Reit and Oriolo conceived of Casper.

So what is Casper—former boy or forever ghost? Given his comfort hanging around a tombstone and his pleasant nature preventing him from besmirching the grave of another, it seems likely he was once human. To date, only the 1995 feature has attempted to detail what led him to the afterlife. Considering Casper's appeal as a children's property, that's probably for the best.

Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

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