History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Why I like the show so much

WARNING: SPOILERS.

So the fifth season of Game of Thrones has come to an end (yes I know it happened this Saturday bear with me) and this means we have reached the end of the blog series.  Oh, the series will still go on, there is still so much to talk about, it’s just that I want to save it for the next season and in the mean time I’d like to talk about something else.

I would like to close off this season of blog posts by talking about why I love the show so much.  I am a lover of history, I love reading about it, talking about it, and I was a History major in college.  One of my favorite books of all time is a epic work of historical nonfiction called “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” by historian Barbara Tuchman.

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The book is Tuchman’s account of the 14th century where she talks about everything from the 100 Years War, to the spread of the Black Plague, to peasant uprisings, and political intrigue.  Besides having a badass cover, that’s the white horseman of war leading an army of dead against the living, Tuchman’s book helps her portray the 14th Century as a dark parallel to early 20th century Europe suffering from the aftermath of the First World War (I should note that Tuchman’s most well known work is August 1914 where she talks about the prelude to WW1).  This book is really good and I highly recommend it.

The reason I bring this up is because history and fantasy, especially really good and well written history and fantasy, can help us understand the world we live in by drawing parallels to our society and filtering them through the fantastic and the epic.  I’ve spent the last couple of weeks showing the events, groups, and people that George R.R Martin has used as inspiration for his masterpiece but if we apply the same treatment to Game of Thrones that Tuchman applied to 14th century Europe a lot of interesting things start to appear.  For example:

One of the most powerful organizations in the Game of Thrones universe is the Iron Bank, able to change the fortunes of everyone from peasants to kings.  Does that seem so strange when our modern banks like Goldman Sachs and J.P Morgan have such a huge stake in our world today?  How many of us are tied to a bank because we wanted to buy a house or car or go to college?

Some of the most brutal and evil lords and rulers in Game of Thrones are currently, and formerly, some of the most effective and powerful rulers.

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It’s no secret that quite a few parts of our world are run by terrible people.

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But when you consider the situations that led to their rise to power and the ability of these monsters to keep and hold on to their power their continued existence, while not very justifiable, can certainly be explained.

Speaking of leadership let’s talk about some of the “good” leaders.  While there are plenty of horrible people in power both in the show and in real life there are people in charge that are trying their best to do the right thing.

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Sometimes it all works out and the good guys win but what a lot of leaders who start out with good intentions eventually learn is that it’s always a bit more complicated than it originally seemed and things can go wrong very quickly.

This is just a small sample of some of the parallels between the Game of Thrones universe and our own world.  We could go on for hours on subjects like money, torture, ethics, proper leadership, terrorism, environmentalism, and slavery but to do that would require a book’s worth of time and research.

Thank you for reading this blog and sticking with me for the fifth season of Game of Thrones.  We produce a comic strip about a family of supervillains (something completely different from this) for your enjoyment and I hope you’ll stick around in the future where we have plenty of fun and interesting topics lined up for you.

Valar Morghulis…see you next season.

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History and Legends of Game of Thrones: the Valyrian Freehold

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!

Today we are going to talk about the big one, the empire that dragged the continent of Essos into the modern age and set the stage for every good and bad thing that has happened to Westeros in the past thousand years: The Valyrian Freehold.

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The story goes something like this.  About 5,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones the Ghiscari Empire dominated Essos and the Valyrians were simple shepherds living in the southern most peninsula in Essos.  One day, some unknown shepherd discovered dragon eggs in a volcano chain known as the Fourteen Fires.

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Realizing what they had discovered the Valyrians waited for the dragons to hatch and bent them to their will.  The discovery of dragons was the equivalent of learning how to make an atom bomb while the rest of the world was still using swords and the Valyrians quickly built a small empire in the Valyrian Peninsula.

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This attracted the attention of the Ghiscari who promptly invaded the Peninsula in an attempt to nip the problem in the bud.  Over the course of five brutal wars the Valyrians defeated the Ghiscari and eventually sacked and burned their capital city of Old Ghis.

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Now the most powerful force in all of Essos the Valyrians settled down to rule.  After sparing what was left of the Ghiscari (and reaping the benefits of having a group of experienced slave masters to make their lives comfortable) the Valyrians established an empire that would dominate Essos and become the glory of the world, reaching as far west as Dragonstone where the ancestors of Aegon Targaryen would come to rule.

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Even after the decline and fall of the Valyrian Empire people still talk about it as one of the greatest and most important chapters in the world’s history and many look back on it fondly as one of the most influential empires on earth.

The rise of the Valyrian Empire is similar to the rise of Ancient Rome of classical history.  Like the Valyrians the Romans began in a peninsula.

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Also, the Italian peninsula is known for a long string of volcanoes, but sadly dragons have yet to be discovered in any of them.  Although the Romans didn’t have access to dragons they were incredibly disciplined and very good at winning battles with a new type of military formation: the legion.

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The legion was made up of citizens and allies of Rome and proved to be so effective that by 290 B.C they had conquered most of central Italy.  However, this brought the attention of the ancient world’s equivalent of the Ghiscari: the Greeks.  By the time the Romans had begun their rise to power the Greeks had a well established presence in Italy, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea.

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Rome’s expansion worried the Greek cities in Italy and the Western Mediterranean so in 280 B.C a Greek general named Phyrrus of Epirus landed in Italy with an army of 25,000 men and a group of elephants.

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Despite winning almost every battle, Phyrrus suffered so badly that he once joked that with one more victory he would be lost.  And like the Ghiscari being driven back after attempting to invade the Valyrian Freehold, the Romans eventually beat back the Greeks.

There is another piece of this historical parallel that would come later in Roman history.  After the Romans had beaten back the Greeks they established themselves as the dominant power in Italy.  This would bring them into conflict with another great Mediterranean power: Carthage.

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The Carthaginians and the Romans initially disagreed over who should control the island of Sicily and over the course of a century and two massive wars that many people have talked about in greater detail then I can here.  Long story short, Rome won and in 146 B.C they burned Carthage to the ground.

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We’ll talk about Rome and Valyria’s impact on their respective worlds in another post but from what we’ve seen so far both Valyria and Rome were similar city states that would eventually rise to dominate the known world and establish empires that would last through the ages.

History and legends of Game of Thrones: The Field of Fire

So this is probably going to be my shortest post ever in this series.  For this article we’re going to look at one specific event in the Game of Thrones universe, the Field of Fire, and it’s historical counterpart the Battle of Hastings.

So after Aegon landed in Westeros he set about the daunting challenge of conquering the Seven Andal kingdoms.  While the Seven Kingdoms were divided each one of them had larger armies than his own.  Thankfully, their constant bickering meant that they couldn’t unite against Aegon and he could take them on piecemeal.  His greatest challenge would arise when two of the biggest kings of Westeros: King Lorren Lannister of the Rock ( from whom the Lannisters from the show trace their ancestry) and King Mern XI of the Reach (the place where the Tyrells would eventually rule, but that’s later).  Both kings realized that this foreign invader would have to be crushed and they united to form the biggest army Westeros had ever seen.

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All told the two kings had an army numbering over 50,000 including 5,000 heavy cavalry while Aegon could only field an army one fifth that size.  In the end it didn’t really matter though because Aegon had an ace in the hole: his three dragons.

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The battle went about as well as anyone would expect with a total rout of the Andals and complete victory for Aegon.  King Mern would perish in the fire and King Loren realized that he rather liked living and decided to yield to Aegon and submit to his rule.  The victory meant that Aegon controlled most of the South of Westeros and while there was still plenty of fighting to do, the Field of Fire showed that final victory was all but inevitable.

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The closet historical equivalent to the Field of Fire in real life history is the Battle of Hastings, fought in 1066 near the town of Battle in Essex England between the forces of the Anglo Saxon/Andal Harold II and the Norman/Targareyen army of William of Normandy.  You can visit the site to this day, it’s actually quite nice.

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Like Aegon, William had just landed his Norman Army and was facing the daunting task of subjugating an entire country with a comparatively small force.  Harold meanwhile had just finished fighting off another threat to his crown at the Battle of Stamford Bridge against a Norwegian king named Harald III (you see this a lot in history, not a whole lot of original names) and was unable to oppose William from landing safely.  However, once both sides were ready, a battle was set at Hastings that would decide the fate of Britain forever.

The battle itself does not share a whole lot of similarities with its fantasy counterpart.  While William had a unique weapon at his disposal in the form of the first mounted knights to ever be used on British soil they did not have the dramatic impact that Aegon’s dragons had in the Field of Fire.

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While it is interesting to think of a line of armored warriors moving quickly on horseback being similar to a dragon the Saxon army was actually quite resilient and even almost won the day.  Harold was not a stupid man, he understood the strengths of his army and weaknesses of his enemy.  Harold was able to seize the high ground at Hastings and formed a Saxon shield wall made up of his best warriors and a collection of local militia.

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Despite what people might think, horses actually have a very strong will to live and are usually not keen on riding into a tightly packed wall of shields and spears.  What William was able to do though was to slowly break the Saxon army apart and defeat them piecemeal until only Harold and his elite bodyguard remained.  Harold was eventually cut down and while it is unclear exactly how he died, popular accounts say he was slain by an arrow in the eye.

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A quick note: the image above is from the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most well known sources of William’s invasion and the battle itself.

While the Field of Fire and the Battle of Hastings do not share many details the most important thing is that they had the same impact on both their worlds.  The Field of Fire cemented the foreign Aegon as a major ruler in Westeros while the Battle of Hastings settled the dispute over who should rule England and placed William the Conqueror firmly in control over most of the island.  Both these men were huge figures in their respective histories and both of them would go on to found ruling dynasties that would last for centuries.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Aegon the Conqueror

Welcome to the post in this blog that is about one specific person.  The one man who united all of Westeros under his sole rule and shaped the modern day events of the book and show more than any one individual: Aegon I Targaryen more commonly known as Aegon the Conqueror.

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Aegon was not a native of Westeros and did not claim to be a descendant of any ethnic group that made up the population of Westeros.  He was from the neighboring continent of Essos and, unlike the Andals, he claimed to be one of the last surviving members of one of the continent’s last great superpowers, The Freehold of Valyria.  We’ll talk about Valyria and Essos later but for now all we have to know is that Aegon saw that his homeland was dying and there was a large continent to the west that was divided among seven squabbling kingdoms and was ripe for conquering.  With his two sister wives, Visenya and Rhaynes, Aegon looked west and headed towards Westeros.

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After successfully sailing his army across the sea and making landfall at the spot that would eventually become the city of King’s Landing (the people of Westeros are many things but creative naming is not one of their forte) Aegon would set about the daunting task of subjugating and ruling the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.  It would not be easy.  Even though the Seven Kingdoms were not united and were fighting among each other they still possessed armies and resources that were vastly superior to his own and Aegon was a foreign king in a strange land who didn’t even speak the language of the people.  However, he did have one distinct advantage over everyone else, one that would prove to be so successful and complete that it allowed him to conquer a continent and establish a legacy that would last for thousands of years: dragons.

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After the Viking invasion of Britain, and their eventual assimilation into British culture, the cultural hodgepodge that was the British Islands would experience one final invasion that would forever change their culture and way of life: the invasion of William the Conqueror.

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Now, while there are several parallels between Aegon and William there are several key differences.  First and foremost, Aegon was Valyrian, a group of people who were ethnically and culturally different from the people of Westeros while William was the Duke of Normandy, a kingdom in Northern France that was founded by Viking settlers at the point of a spear.  Fun fact: the name “Normandy” literally means “land of the Northmen”

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Also, William had loose familial ties to the kings of England, and in fact the reason he invaded was over a dispute over who should hold the title of King of England while Aegon was completely separated from the culture and ruling class of Westeros.  He was a foreign invader in every sense of the word.

That being said, there are still many similarities between the two.  For example, while the Norman invaders of England did share the same ethnic background they had spent enough time apart to develop their own distinct culture and language.  The Normans spoke an early version of French and had developed many ideas that we would later associate with the Medieval Ages.  Ideas like chivalry, reverence for the sword as the weapon of choice, and the use of plate and mail armor.  However, the biggest similarity is that both Aegon and William had a secret weapon up their sleeve.  A weapon that would allow a comparatively small fighting force to conquer a large collection of many different kingdoms under their rule.  While Aegon had his dragons William brought a new style of fighting from his home that would prove very effective: armored cavalry.

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We’ll talk about how both rulers would use their innovations on Wednesday.

History and legends of Game of Thrones: The Iron Islands

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Further Reading:

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.

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.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Andals

So after the First Men and the Children of the Forest fought, made peace, and beat back an invasion of evil undead winter themed zombies which we won’t talk about here because they are pure fantasy and have no real historical counterpart, peace reigned in Westeros for a while barring a few small land disputes and the odd local war.  All of that would be changed again with the arrival of another new ethnic group coming from Essos across the sea: the Andals.

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The Andals came to Westeros roughly 6,000 years before the events of the book and they are the group who has the biggest influence over Westeros politics and culture.  Their two biggest contributions to the land where the use of iron tools and weapons and a new religion: the Faith of the Seven.  The Faith of the Seven or the “New Gods” is interesting in one aspect that it’s not really worshiping seven separate gods but rather one God divided into seven parts or aspects: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the ever popular Stranger.

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To talk about the Seven in further detail would take more up more time then we have but for now all we need to understand is that the Andal occupation of Westeros was incredibly successful and the end result were the seven kingdoms of Westeros: Dorne, the Reach, the Stormlands, the Rock, the Vale, the Riverlands, and the North.  It is Andal language, ideology, and armed knights that dominate Westeros in the books, although it should be noted that most of the ruling class considers themselves to be mostly Andals, especially the ruling families of the Vale and the Lannisters, the Andals also did quite a bit of intermingling with the First Men and to this day a lot of common folk consider themselves to be a mix of both with the North claiming almost no influence by the Andals at all.

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Culturally the Andals are a mix of several important ethnic and cultural groups that played an important role in Britain.  However, if we look at them within the context of history there are two very distinct ethnic groups the Andals share similarities with: the Angles and the Saxons.

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After the Celts arrived in Britain the island was relatively peaceful.  Then the Roman Empire came marching in and Britain remained under Roman rule for the better part of 400 years.  The Romans don’t play very much into the Game of Thrones mythology although there was one very important structure they created that has a huge impact in the books (the image presented is a hint for later)

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Around 400 A.D the Romans left Britain and it was thrown wide open to marauding Germanic tribes, two of biggest were the Angles and the Saxons.  Both these tribes fought and conquered the Celtic inhabitants, although they had difficulty conquering what is now known as Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall.

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The map above shows the Celtic territory in green with the Saxon held kingdoms all named.  As you can see there are seven of them.  It is also important to consider that there was quite a bit of intermingling between the Saxons and the Celts, especially in the lower classes since Britain was a big place and it was easier to simply assimilate into the culture than try to replace it.  Finally, there is also the name.  Andal could be seen as a combination of Angle and Vandal (another group of barbarians who sacked Rome further to  the south) so the similarities are almost uncanny.

There is another similarity between the Saxons and the Andals: religion.  The Andals were responsible for bringing the dominant religion of the Seven to Westeros and the Saxons were responsible for bringing Christianity to Britain.  We’re going to run an article on religion in Game of Thrones next week but for now all we need to understand is that the Saxons were eventually converted to Christianity after meeting missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church.

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So we have the third and biggest mass migration to Westeros/Britain.  The Andals/Saxons were effective conquerors and were able to assimilate the First Men/Celts into their way of life so effectively that they became the dominant culture of their new home.

Further Reading:

Simon Schama’s History of Britain is a very good book for looking into the Saxons within a wider context while The Anglo Saxons by James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald is a great insight into the history and culture of the Saxons specifically.

 

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.

 400px-Bran_Stark_and_the_Children_of_the_Forest

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.

The history and myths behind Game of Thrones: Introduction

Before we begin it should be noted that this article, and every article concerning Game of Thrones that runs on this website, is intended to fulfill a non profit educational purpose and therefore claims protection under the Copyright Act of 1976.  All images are not owned by Cambrian Comics and belong to their respective owners.  Should anyone viewing these articles see something they view as incorrect (and if you should be reading this George Martin, hello, huge fan of your work) please direct you complaints to corrections@cambriancomics.com.  Thank you

So this little show is starting its fifth season today.

  GOT

As you might imagine we here at Cambrian Comics are huge fans and are very excited for the show to start again.  It’s pretty obvious that Game of Thrones is kind of a big deal and that it has created a legacy that will change the landscape of television and the fantasy genre for a long time.  But what exactly makes this show so popular?  What makes it so appealing that millions of people tune in every week to watch this epic tale of kings and dragons?  Well, over the next couple of weeks we are going to attempt to answer this questions and look at the legends and stories behind the show and who knows, maybe at the very end we’ll all have learned something.

In order to try to figure out what makes Game of Thrones so great we have to go back to its source material and in order to do that we have to go back to the beginning of the modern fantasy genre, which starts with this man.

JRRTolkien-Writing

This is J.R.R Tolkien, a professor of languages at Merton College and a titan of the fantasy genre.  It’s fair to say that his contributions to fantasy have had some of the most substantial and longest lasting effects on the genre and it wouldn’t be where it is today without him.  Seriously, when was the last time you read a fantasy book from 1954 to 2000 that DIDN’T include elves, dwarfs, orcs, the rise of man, and some great implacable evil that had to be stopped for some vague yet definitive reason or at the very least paid homage to it?  What Tolkien did was special, creating an entire set story tropes that influenced a generation and Game of Thrones took all that and threw it out the window.  George R.R Martin is the anti-Tolkien and we are going to find out why.

In order to figure out what makes George R.R Martin’s work so different form Tolkien’s we have to go back to the source material for each of these epics.  Tolkien was a professor of Anglo Saxon and English literature and spent a lot of time studying and translating the epic Old English poem Beowulf which meant he was surrounded by images like this.

beowolf

 You can see all of these influences in Tolkien’s work.  and there are other similarities as well: Norse and Anglo Saxon mythology also feature such fantasy stalwarts as elves and dwarfs quite heavily and the final climactic battle of the Lord of Rings can draw several parallels to Ragnarok, the world changing confrontation between good and evil in Norse mythology.

If The Lord of the Rings is special because it created the standard from which most fantasy is based off of then Game of Thrones is special because it destroys most of these conventions and helps create a new standard.  What George R.R Martin did was nothing short of revolutionary.  Instead of basing his epic around mythology Martin bases his work around history.

Again you can see the influences throughout the books and television show.  Take one look at a map of Westeros and tell me it doesn’t look a bit familiar.  Here, I’ll help.map-of-westeros-1351122403britain

If you compare a map of Westeros to a map of modern day Britain you have to admit they look a bit similar, and that is what makes Game of Thrones so great.  So much of what George Martin puts in the history and lore of Westeros is taken from Early and Medieval British history and we are going to break it down bit by bit.

Starting tomorrow we will take one aspect from the extensive pre-history of the books and compare it to its real world historical equivalent. It will be a long, bloody, and enlightening journey filled with legend, invasion, blood, warfare, politics, and excitement because sometimes actual history can be just as exciting as the stories it inspires.  We hope you enjoy this series and that it is as exciting and interesting to you as it is to us.