The Iron Islands are one of the most isolated human factions in the entire series but they are also incredibly important to the history and development of Westeros and have accomplished far more than their tiny island nation should have any right to accomplish.
The Iron Islands are a small chain of islands in the Sunset Sea, Westeros’ western ocean and, as far as anyone in Westeros knew, was the end of the world. They are windswept, desolate islands with very poor soil and very little in the way of resources. Despite the fact that only an idiot would try to live there they were settled by a group of First Men in ancient times and absorbed the Andal invasion with little to no resistance. Due to their geographic isolation, or possibly a desire to separate themselves from the rest of their people, the people who lived there adopted a new religion: The religion of the Drowned God.
The religion is simple when compared to the other systems of faith in Westeros. The Drowned God is a single deity who brought fire out from the ocean (somehow), was engaged in a constant battle with the rival Storm God, and created the men of the Iron Islands specifically to sack, pillage, and murder whenever and wherever they pleased. This rather bleak outlook on creation coupled with their location led to the Iron born, the name the people of the Iron Islands give themselves, to become exceptional sailors and raiders. During the time of the Andal conquest the Iron born struck out to sea in giant longships to pillage the coast of Westeros, taking everything from valuables to food and slaves.
This strategy proved quite successful and in time the Iron born controlled a massive empire that occupied most of the coast and several thousand miles inland. Thanks to a strong lack of unified central leadership the Iron born prospered, although the Starks in the North and Gardeners in the South did manage to drive them off from select parts of the continent (I would show you a picture but alas I couldn’t find anything). For a time the Iron born ruled and the height of their power would be achieved under House Hoare. By the time of King Harren the Black the Iron born controlled most of Westeros and in order to solidify his power King Harren ordered the construction of Harrenhall, a location that was incredibly important in season 2 of the show. It was the biggest castle in all of Westeros and was designed to withstand sieges for years. However, it would wind up being conquered in a day by forces we will talk about next week.
Before we start talking about the historical equivalent of the Iron born I must confess something. Most of of my comparisons are made based on speculation, a love of Game of Thrones, and my own historical knowledge (plus what I find on the internet for research purposes). With that being said this is one of the easiest comparisons I’ve ever had to make and something that George himself has alluded to many times. The Iron born share several similarities to the Vikings, these guys.
Like the Iron born, the Vikings were a group of raiders and soldiers who struck out from their homes in modern day Scandinavia in long ships and began raiding around 780 A.D.
Fun fact: the word “Viking” does not describe a certain ethnic group, it’s a general term to describe someone who raids or takes what doesn’t belong to him/her. We don’t know exactly what was the cause of these raids but it is speculated that one of the biggest causes was a population explosion and a lack of farm land, something they share with the Iron born.
The final biggest similarity the Vikings and the Iron born share is the impact they had on Westeros/Britain. The age of the Viking raids roughly began with the pillaging of the Lindisfarne monastery in 793 A.D. After a couple of decades of raiding and pillaging the Viking raiders decided that it would be much easier to simply stay in Britain and settle down. After all, why risk a long perilous boat ride back to Norway when you can have all the farm land and gold you can take? Eventually enough Vikings settled in Britain form them to take over a huge part of Britain, a territory they called the Danelaw.
You’ll notice that large parts of the North and West remained unconquered due to the Celts and Scots (a reflection of the North and the First Men beating back the Iron born) and the South remained a Saxon stronghold under the strong leadership of Alfred the Great (that would be the Andals and House Gardener in the books). This would continue for some time until the Vikings were overthrown by a much scarier enemy, which we will talk about next week.
Most of the links will take you to sources used for the article that contain a lot more information about the Iron born and the Vikings. Also, there is a very good television show on the History Channel that dramatizes the Viking invasion of England.