History and legends of Game of Thrones: The Wall and Age of Heroes.

So our last blog post covered the Andal invasion of Westeros and the Saxon invasion of Britain.  We’re going to back the timeline up a bit and talk about a time period before the Andals which led to the foundation of several of the key ruling families of Westeros and the creation of one of the series most iconic landmarks: The Wall.

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The Age of Heroes was a time after the First Men and the Children of the Forest made their peace where things stabilized and mankind to focus of ruling.  During this time there were several legends of certain kings, lords, and vagabonds who accomplished deeds so great they were remembered in legends.  In fact, they were so integral to the history of Westeros that several of the most important families of Westeros believed it was important to claim ancestry to these special individuals in order to lend credibility and pedigree to their names.  Four of the biggest names were:

Durran the Storm King: 

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Durran was the first Storm King and the alleged founding ancestor of the Baratheon household.  According to legend Durran was a mortal king who fell in love with Elenei the daughter of the god of the sea and the goddess of the winds.  Despite her parent’s displeasure they were married anyway and the sea and wind resolved to make Durran miserable.  They destroyed every castle he attempted to build and almost succeed, until Durran finally built Storms End, a castle with walls so thick not even the sea and wind could knock it down.  Durran and his Baratheon descendants made Storm’s End the seat of their power and it has survived to this day.

Lann the Clever:

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Lann the Clever is more famous for his wit and intelligence rather than strength and brawn.  According to legend he was a bastard with no title or prospects, until he poisoned a son of one of the great lords of the Reach named Garth Greenhand and made away with part of the son’s inheritance.  But by far his most famous story is how he became the Lord of Casterly Rock, the current stronghold of House Lannister and the House that claims his legacy.  The story states that Casterly Rock used to belong to House Casterly and was an impregnable fortress, until Lann discovered a secret passage that was so small he had to coat himself in butter to fit.  Once he was inside, he proceeded to drive the residents insane by stealing trinkets, terrifying them with screams and unseen threats, and picking them off one by one until the Casterlies gave up and left.

Bran the Builder:

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Bran the Builder is one of the most stalwart legends to arise from the Age of Heroes and is the mind behind its most lasting legacy: The Wall.  Legend has it he also helped build Winterfell with the help of the giants and while not much is known about his birth and life, his building projects have secured his legacy to a point where the Starks of Winterfell claim the be his descendants.  He is also known as the first King of the North, a title that has been used in the books and the show by many of the Northerners to assert their independence and as a symbol for them to rally around.

We decided to talk about the Age of Heroes after the Andals because the Age of Heroes is based more around early British mythology rather than history, although the Wall does have definite historical counterpart: Hadrian’s Wall which was created to keep the Scots away from Roman occupied Britain.  Granted Hadrian’s wall isn’t as epic as the Westeros counterpart, but they both set out to accomplish the same thing.

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Once we get past Hadrian’s Wall the Age of Heroes shares more similarities with Celtic folklore and mythic heroes.  Like what we see in Game of Thrones, Celtic folklore deals with men of exceptional talent and skill interacting with the gods and elements and eventually triumphing over them to gain great power and wealth.  An exact match to a specific god or hero is almost impossible considering that the records of these stories are quite vague but there are two important figures of note: Gwydion and Culhwch.

Gwydion:

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Prince Gwydion shares quite a few similarities to Lann the Clever in the books.  Like Lann he is a trickster and has no problem using other people to his own nefarious ends.  In one famous instance Gwydion, who is the nephew of a Welsh King Math the Mighty steals a herd of pigs from a rival king in order to incite a war between the king and his uncle so he can sleep with one of his uncle’s servants.  In another instance, Gwydion assists his kingdom by enchanting a forest of trees to fight the forces of the Underworld.

Culhwch:

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The story of Culhwch and Olwen is another Welsh folktale that shares some similarities with the story of Durran and Elenni.  Like their Westerosi counterparts Culhwch and Olwen fall in love despite Olwen’s family objecting to the marriage.  The difference in this story is that while Elenni is the daughter of gods, Olwen is the daughter of giants.  Culhwch resolves to marry her and after gaining the help of his cousin King Arthur (this story is also one of the earliest accounts of King Arthur and his knights) and after accomplishing a series of seemingly impossible tasks Culhwch and Olwen are married.

Besides the story itself the legend of Culhwch and Olwen is important for another reason.  I mentioned that this story is one of the earliest records of King Arthur, another very important figure in British mythology.  Now, Arthur’s adventures would take up another article, but the most important detail is how he is viewed.  It is told that Arthur is the King of the Britons and will arise from the grave when his people need him the most.  This has made him an important political tool through the ages as a rallying cry for the British against any oppressors, just like how the great men in the Age of Heroes are used by the ruling families of Westeros to claim their identities and assert their status as rulers.

Further Reading:

Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion is one of the definitive translations of Welsh mythology and tall tales and the source of both the stories mentioned in the article.

There are also several very good BBC documentaries about Welsh and Celtic mythology that can be found on the internet.

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History and legends of Game of Thrones: The First Men

The Children of the Forest existed in Westeros for thousands of years until everything changed.  Over 12,000 years before the events of the books and show Westeros saw the arrival of its first human inhabitants: The First Men.

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They arrived from the neighboring continent of Essos and they brought two important innovations from their homeland: bronze and agriculture.  It also should be noted that while the First Men had a basic runic language they preferred to spread their traditions orally.  This resulted in the First Men cutting down large portions of forest to grow food, including the weirwood trees (the trees with faces in them) that the Children found sacred.  This, coupled with mounting pressure for living space, resulted in a war between the First Men and the Children.  While the Children had their greenseers and powerful magic the First Men eventually ground them down due to higher numbers, bigger stature, and better weapons.  The war was long and brutal and the effects are still seen in Westeros thousands of years later.

 

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If you look at the very bottom left of the map you’ll see that Westeros and Essos are separated by a narrow stretch of water.  That was originally a land bridge between the two continents and was created by the Children of the Forest in an attempt to cut off the First Men from Essos.  Despite this the war dragged on and eventually the First Men and Children made peace.  The First Men settled into Westeros creating a thousand small kingdoms, built their farms, and most importantly adopted the religion of the Children by worshiping the weirwood trees with faces carved into them.

At the start of the book the First Men are still around.  Although they suffered from the invasion of another group of people called the Andals (we’ll talk about them next) they still survive in places like the North, where the natural defenses of the Neck (a series of bogs and swamps created by the Children in another attempt to fend off the First Men) made sure that Northern First Men culture remained isolated.  The Starks of Winterfell still claim to be members of the First Men.

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As do many common folk throughout Westeros and the Wildlings north of the Wall.

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In short, the First Men hold an important part in the history of Westeros and while they had no written records they are still remembered through stories, lineage, and their surviving descendants living in the North.

The clearest historical similarity for the First Men would be the Celtic tribes of ancient and modern day Britain.

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The Celts arrived in Britain around 500 B.C from Europe and like the First Men the Celts introduced bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, to the region.  They divided Britain into a large number of petty kingdoms that were constantly warring with each other and had a basic written language, but preferred to pass down their traditions and history orally.   Even though these are two important similarities they share with the First Men there are two more similarities that are much more important: their religion and their eventual fate as a people.

When we start talking about Celtic religion and traditions some really spooky similarities start cropping up.  When the First Men started carving faces into trees they were literally living with their gods among them.  The Celts worshiped nature and animal spirits, that their gods surrounded them and played a part of their everyday life.  One of most important aspects of Celtic religion was the worship of trees like the oak, apple, and yew tree.  Fun fact: the expression “knock on wood” comes from Celtic religion where it was believed that knocking on a tree would invite a spirit to come out and assist you with whatever you needed.

The second similarity between the Celts and the First Men is their eventual fate.  At the beginning of the Bronze Age there is archaeological evidence that the Celts were spread out all over Europe.

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Unfortunately, mounting pressure from the Romans in the South and Germanic people in the West ensured that the Celts would eventually loose most of their cultural dominance until they were pushed back into the northern parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales which remain holdouts of Celtic culture to this day.

Next time we’ll talk about the Andal invasion of Westeros and several key locations that play a major part of in the story.

Further Reading:

 If you’d like to learn more about the Celts themselves there is a whole host of academic work about them.  Some of the more prominent names are Barry Cunliffe, Simon James, and Lloyd Laing.

The history and myths behind Game of Thrones: The Children of the Forest

Due to the non profit educational value of the material presented in this post all images and sources are used under Fair Use of the Copyright Act of 1976.  All images and sources used belong to their respective owners.  This blog post is presented without spoilers to the television show or the books.  Please read at your leisure.

Welcome to our first post about the history and mythology behind Game of Thrones.  In honor of beginning this epic odyssey we are going to start from the group of people who occupy the continent of Westeros at the very beginning: the Children of the Forest.

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In the books George Martin describes the Children as the original residents of Westeros before the continent was settled by mankind and roughly 12,000 years before the events of the show (don’t worry we’re only going to discuss things that have no relation to the plot, I said this is spoiler free and I meant it).  Not a lot is known about the Children because they left no ruins and had no written language to leave records behind.   They preferred to live off the land, foraging for berries and roots, and wearing clothing made from bark and leaves.  There are two more details about the Children that will be important for our discussion.  First, they worshiped the Old Gods of Westeros (we’ll get to them later) by carving faces into trees and second, they had very powerful magicians called Greenseers that used magic that drew its power from nature to create spells that could allow its user to talk to animals or control the elements.

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The three known facts about the Children of the Forest: their lack of evidence about their existence, their worship of trees and naturalistic spirits, and the fact they utilized powerful magic rooted in nature would lead us to believe that the Children of the Forest were heavily rooted in Celtic mythology.

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Now the Celts are a group of people we will be talking about later but for now all we need to know is that they were one of the first people to inhabit Britain and it is widely believed they were animists and spiritualists.  They believed that the world around them was part of the divine, that their gods and goddesses lived in and influenced the world around them.  One of the most important aspects of Celtic religion was the worship of trees (again, we’ll get to that later) but another important aspect of their culture was the belief in fairy folk.

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Now, there is more to the Fairy folk then wings and pointy ears, a lot of tropes we associate with elves in modern fantasy comes from fairy lore and there are so many different types and so many different interpretations between different cultures that could fill several books, but almost every interpretation can agree on a couple of things that solidify the similarities between faeries and the Children of the Forest.  First, the Fairy Folk were smaller than humans.  Second, they used powerful magic that was tied to nature and the world around them (woe betide a farmer who angered even the smallest fairy, for his milk would go bad and his crops would fail) and it is widely believed that they once shared the world with mankind but were slowly driven extinct or forced into hiding, a topic that leads nicely into our next article: the arrival of the First Men and their war with the Children of the Forest.

Further reading:

If you would like to learn more about the Children of the Forest and how they relate to the Game of Thrones books and show there is a very good wiki about the novels which you can find here

If you would like to know more about Celtic mythology and the Fairy Folk there are countless books on the subject.  Here are a few to get you started.

If you’re looking for a more academic view on Celtic mythology then Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis is pretty good and so is Celtic Gods and Heroes by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt.

If you want more of an entertaining fictionalized look at Celtic mythology then I suggest the works of Stephen Grundy, Juliet Marillier, and Morgan Llywelyn.