Last season was a big one for Game of Thrones, wasn’t it? While it was certainly successful before then, I’d say this is the season it became a true pop culture phenomenon. The ratings have gone through the roof. The show’s cast members, like Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, have parlayed their success into starring roles in blockbuster movies (X-Men: Days of Future Past and the upcoming Terminator reboot, respectively). Heck, even George R.R. Martin has now joined the ranks of the Rowlings, Kings, and Grishams of the world as a celebrity author.
And with that success has come an increased interest in the history behind A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series from which Game of Thrones is adapted. Just google “game of thrones historical basis” and check out all of the articles that have been written about the parallels between Martin’s lore and real-world history. However, I have mixed feelings about this trend. On the one hand, the author undoubtedly did a lot of research in crafting the world of his novels, which as we all know are loosely based on the Middle Ages, particularly in Britain. But the key word of that last sentence was “loosely.” While I’m sure only very few people (if any) think Game of Thrones is based on actual history, the historical parallels between this story and real history have been hyped to the point where I’m afraid it might create new historical misconceptions.
With that, I have taken it upon myself to list the major analogies between Martin’s work and actual historical events to show where the parallels end. Before I get into the meat of this blog, I want to make a few things clear. Firstly, I’m not going to point out the obvious. Everyone knows that magic and fantasy creatures don’t exist, so I’m not going to touch that for the most part. Secondly, while I’m going to cite sources whenever the historical information I’m sharing strays from common knowledge (well, common knowledge in the academic world), this will by no means be an exhaustive article, just a bare-bones overview. If you want something more in-depth, go read a book. For any information from the books I am referring to the Game of Thrones Wiki1 and “A Wiki of Ice and Fire”2. Finally, this is NOT intended to be a criticism of George R.R. Martin, his work or any adaptations thereof. I have tremendous respect for the man.
With that being said, let’s get started.
The First Men as the Celts: In George R.R. Martin’s world, the First Men are intended to be analogous to the Celts of historical Britain, with the North as traditionally ruled by the House Stark intended as analogous to Scotland. The North is portrayed as one of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and the only one in which the First Men are ethnically predominant, though they are also present to various degrees in other parts of the continent. North of the Wall, the wildling tribes also claim descent from the First Men.
Ignoring the fact that Scotland did not share the same monarch with England until 1603 and that it wasn’t until the Acts of Union in 1707 that the two countries were politically united1, there’s a huge problem with this First Men/Celt connection. As the name implies, the First Men were the first humans to inhabit Westeros. Prior to their migration, only fantasy creatures such as giants and the Children of the Forest lived on the continent2. In real life, the Celts were far from the first human inhabitants of the British Isles. The consensus among modern historians is that the spread of Celtic language and culture had less to do with any massive migration of people from continental Europe to Britain and more to do with cultural exchange.3 Furthermore, while the Northerners of Westeros are roughly analogous to the medieval Scots, Martin’s world does not contain any direct equivalents of the Welsh, Irish or Cornish peoples. Likewise, if we are to accept the Wall was Martin’s version of Hadrian’s Wall, making the wildlings his version of the Picts, placing them in a setting that is for the most part inspired by a Late Medieval England is anachronistic.
The Andals as the Anglo-Saxons: While the blood of the First Men runs thick in the North, the vast majority of Seven Kingdoms’ human population is of Andal descent. Having made landfall in Westeros some 6,000 years before the events of the novels (and series), they displaced or assimilated the First Men already present, except for those in the very north of the continent, and exterminated most of the remaining Children of the Forest. They brought with them iron weapons and most of the cultural traditions present in Martin’s story, including the Common Tongue.
In terms of historical parallels, as the First Men are meant to represent the Celts, the Andals are meant to represent the Anglo-Saxons who first migrated from what is modern-day Germany to the British Isles in the 5th century AD. The Andal invasion as presented in the story’s background is superficially similar to the historical Anglo-Saxon migrations. As is the case with the Celts, modern scholars are beginning to place more importance on acculturation than migration in that process4, and to Martin’s credit he does note that many people of Andal culture are actually descended from the First Men (the Lannisters claim Lan the Clever, a historical figure who lived in Westeros prior to the Andal migration, as their forefather). However, the big problem with this parallel is thus: while in Martin’s universe the migration is presented as an isolated incident, historically the Anglo-Saxon migrations were part of a larger trend in Late Antiquity. They were a subset of the Germanic migrations that were occurring at the time, wreaking havoc for the crumbling Roman Empire. Today Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the German-speaking countries and others besides the English can all trace their origins back to these Germanic tribes. Compare this to Martin’s world, where it would seem any relatives of the Andals who did not migrate to Westeros either died out or assimilated into other cultures.
Religion in Westeros: The religious differences between Westeros and historical Britain is arguably the biggest and most important difference. In the North and beyond the Wall, the Old Gods of the Forest are worshipped. Taught to the First Men by the Children of the Forest, it is a simple faith with few rituals and no complex theology. It is obviously supposed to be a representation of Celtic paganism. Meanwhile, most of the denizens of southern Westeros follow the Faith of the Seven, the religion that inspired the Andals to invade Westeros. While in common parlance most adherents refer to the Seven as distinct entities (called “the New Gods” in order to distinguish them from the Old Gods of the Forest), in actuality Martin has made in clear that they are each an aspect of a singular deity, similar to the concept of the Trinity in Christianity. Indeed, the Faith of the Seven is intended to be reminiscent of the Medieval Catholic Church, complete with its own pope, the High Septon.
However, this actually isn’t very analogous with the actual religious situation in Medieval Britain at all. The Celts were actually introduced to Christianity well before the Anglo-Saxons ever crossed over, having been part of the Roman Empire when it was Christianized. In fact, the Anglo-Saxons were pagan during their migration period, with some in England resisting Christianity as late as the middle of the 7th century7. Furthermore, while it has the trappings of Catholicism, the Faith of the Seven seems to be more of an ethnic religion for the Andals than a proselytizing faith like Christianity. Yes, the First Men who were assimilated into Andal culture adopted it, and yes, the Targaryens converted to it upon conquering Westeros, but this seems more the result of acculturation than any concerted effort to convert as many people to the Faith of the Seven as possible. After all, the North has been politically and culturally dominated by their southern neighbors for a long time, and they still largely worship the Old Gods, and no one across the Narrow Sea seems to be an adherent, except for Westerosi transplants. The only religion that seems to be actively courting converts is the cult of R’hllor, the Lord of Light, whose Red Priestess managed to ensnare Stannis Baratheon. Having originated far to the east, Martin says that this religion was inspired by Zoroastrianism8, a Manichaen religion that had many followers in classical Persia but never had any real presence in Europe.
Finally, just as the Andals are presented as not having any related ethnic groups, the Faith of the Seven does not exist under any umbrella equivalent to the real-life Abrahamic faiths. Thus far, we have not encountered any parallels to Judaism, Islam, or even Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Martin’s world.
The Targaryens as the Normans: In the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Targaryen conquest of Westeros is roughly comparable to the Norman conquest of England, with William the Conqueror turned into Aegon the Conqueror. The Targaryen dynasty were survivors of the Doom, a cataclysmic event which destroyed the Valyrian Freehold, this world’s Roman Empire. Roughly 300 years before the events of the books and series, Aegon launched an invasion of Westeros from the island of Dragonstone. Using a handful of dragons, he successfully conquered most of the continent, eventually leading it to become politically unified for the first time in its history. House Targaryen would reign for centuries before they were overthrown in Robert’s Rebellion, leaving the exiled siblings Viserys and Danaerys as the only known surviving members of their family at the start of the story.
However, the Normans were not direct descendants of any Roman aristocracy, but rather the result of a melting pot of different cultures passing through the Normandy region of what is now France. While Aegon did not even pretend to have a claim to rule Westeros other than the fact that he wanted it, William was actually the cousin of King Edward of England, giving him at least a tenuous claim to the throne when he landed on English shores in 1066. But most importantly, aside from unifying the realm, the War of Conquest seemed to change very little about Westerosi culture. Most families kept their lands and their traditions remained unmolested. Indeed, it was the Targaryens who changed their customs in order to seek the approval of their subjects, adopting the Common Tongue and converting to Faith of the Seven. Aside from House Targaryen itself and the related Houses Baratheon and Blackfyre, no major family in Westeros has significant Valyrian ancestry. However, in real life the changes wrought by the Norman conquest were far more extensive. As detailed in the Domesday Book, the aftermath left most of England’s lands in the hands of the Normans, effectively creating a new class a nobility in the country – one that spoke French. This introduction of French elements into the English language would permanently change it into the idiosyncratic mix it is today.
One of the things the Targaryens did do was build a new capital, King’s Landing. However, London, the traditional capital of England, far predates the Norman conquest, having been built by the Romans as Londinium. Westeros never fell under the control of Valyria, though it is interesting that the Targaryens built the city, considering that they are practically refugees from that world’s Roman Empire.
Other Cultures of Westeros: There a two other sizeable ethnic groups in Westeros that have gone hitherto unmentioned in this blog. They are the ironborn and the Dornishmen, and neither of them are directly based on actual historical peoples.
The Iron Islands are an archipelago to the immediate northwest of Westeros. The inhabitants of the islands are technically Andals who converted to the worship of the Drowned God, a deity worshipped by the First Men who already lived there (how this religion came to be has never been explained by Martin). While their tendency to launch amphibious raids on their neighbors is superficially similar to the practices of early Medieval Vikings, the similarities between the ironborn and the Norse end there.
The Dornishmen are the descendents of the Rhoynar, an ethnic group who fled the Valyrian Freehold in Essos and intermingled with the inhabitants of Dorne, a peninsula in the far south of Westeros. They converted to the Faith of the Seven and adopted the Common Tongue, but otherwise remain culturally distinct from the rest of the continent. They are described as having olive skin in the books, and Pedro Pascal portrayed Oberyn Martell with a vaguely Spanish accent in the series (he is a native Chilean, though he grew up in the United States) but otherwise there is no suggestion in the books or series that they are supposed to be analogies of any of the peoples of Medieval Spain, which was at the time divided between several Christian kingdoms and Muslim Al-Andalus.
The Peoples of the Known World: Aside from Westeros, there are two other continents mentioned in the A Song of Ice and Fire, Sothoryos and Essos. All that is known of Sothoryos is that it is this world’s version of Africa, but none of the action of the story has taken place there thus far. Essos, this world’s version of Eurasia, has been the setting for Danaerys Targaryen’s storyline, so the audience can learn quite a bit about the people and places of this continent.
The Free Cities of the western seaboard are former colonies of the Valyrian Freehold that achieved independence after the Doom (with the exception of Braavos, which was founded by those fleeing the Valyrians). While they could be considered analogous to Western Europe, there is no equivalent of central Europe in this world, nor eastern Europe, nor Iberia, nor even France, which historically England continued to have ties to, eventually resulting in the Hundred Years’ War and other unpleasantness. So perhaps a better description of the Free Cities is that they are almost like the Italian city-states of the Late Middle Ages, writ large.
But without any version of eastern Europe to serve as a buffer, the Free Cities remain in constant fear of Dothraki onslaught. The Dothraki are a based in a huge area of grasslands known as the Dothraki Sea, whose mounted warriors have carved out a huge swath of Essos. They are supposed to be based on a variety of steppe-based nomad peoples of the Middle Ages, primarily the Mongols, and hearkening to the Mongolian khanates, the Dothraki are divided into a series of khalasars, headed by a khal. However, the further one goes east is Essos, the weaker parallels with historical events seems to be. There is no strong analogy for East Asia, the Arab World, or India in Martin’s world, and if there is an equivalent to Australia or Americas, the audience probably will not get there in the events of the series anyway, so it is pointlessly to speculate on the possibility
3Discounting the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries, in which England attempted to take over Scotland by force. Ever seen Braveheart? Not a great historical source, but you get the picture.
4Though I wouldn’t put it past Martin that he was subtly referencing the Historia Regum Britanniae, a Medieval text which claimed that a race of giants were the first inhabitants of Britain.
5James, Simon, Dr. “Peoples of Britain.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.
6Härke, Heinrich. “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis.” Medieval Archaeology 55.1 (2011): 1-28. Web.
7 Mayr-Harting, Henry. Preface. The Coming of Christianity to England. N.p.: Penn State, 2010. 7. Print.
8Though the name “R’hllor” looks an awful lot like it was inspired by the naming conventions of gods in the Cthulhu mythos.
Well, that’s it for this post. If there are any other analogies between the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and actual history that you don’t think really work, let me know!
Off-topic, but since I mentioned Pedro Pascal in this post, I gotta say one more thing: Marvel Studios NEEDS to cast this man as Doctor Strange. I know I’m not the first fan to request this, I just want to officially get on this bandwagon.