History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The White Walkers

WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS FROM THE MOST RECENT SEASON FINALE IN THIS ARTICLE.

So since we talked about the dragons and how they’re representations of man’s ability to find more efficient ways of killing his fellow man I thought today we would dedicate our second to last post of the season to the other extreme: the White Walkers.

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The White Walkers are a primal force of nature and right now they represent the greatest threat to ever confront the human race, a threat that humanity is woefully under equipped to handle at the moment, especially with the death of Jon Snow.

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Deadly, extremely capable, and above all…patient the White Walkers are not only extremely capable warriors but able to raise an army of the dead which gives them a huge advantage.  While the humans grow weaker the Walkers can only grow stronger.

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Winter is coming, and if nothing is done to halt the Walker’s advance winter will stay for a very long time.

In today’s day and age we are somewhat obsessed with the weather.  Whether you believe it or not there aren’t that many people out there who aren’t aware of global warming.  But despite the endless debates and inaction going on today we do know that climate change is a thing that has happened.  We know this because the Little Ice Age was a thing and it had a huge impact on world history…mostly for the worse.

The Little Ice Age was a period in history of intense global cooling, which is a thing.  Starting just before 1300 the Earth experienced a dramatic drop in temperatures (I should note here that a “dramatic drop” in environmental science is only a couple of degrees) resulting in longer winters and shorter growing seasons.

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The human race had been experiencing a period of remarkable growth during the time period Europeans call the High Middle Ages and while there was still quite a bit of violence and death in Europe, things were starting to calm down which led to increased economic and cultural growth under the rule of the Catholic Church.

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All of that would change with the Little Ice Age and the beginning of the 14th century.  Cooler temperatures led to shorter growing seasons and more frequent rain storms.  Shorter growing seasons meant less food to feed a large population and the results were devastating.  The world changed practically over night as humans devolved into violence and desperation, fighting over land and resources that could not support everyone.

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But all that pales in comparison to what came after the famine and warfare: a horrifying pestilence known as the Black Death.

The Black Death.  London was such a filty place at the time of the plague that nothing could be done to stop the disease.  The death cart seen in the background of the picture was in constant use.  Original artwork for illustration on p19 of Look and Learn issue no 763 (28 August 1976).

The Black Death was one of the most singular and deadly events to ever take place in human history.  We’ve all heard the stories about how the plague was brought to Europe from the East on trading ships and the combination of filthy streets and towns coupled with a lack of understanding of how disease worked allowed the plague to wipe out almost a third of Europe’s population.

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To a population that feared dropping dead in a heartbeat and watching as friends and family died all around them it must have seemed like the end of the world.  This led to some very fatalistic world views and gave birth to an artistic genre known as the Danse Macabre, the idea that death walks with everyone from the lowliest peasant to the most powerful lord.  You can see examples of the artwork everywhere, normal people going about their lives always accompanied by an emaciated waling skeleton that looks for all the world like some of the White Walkers and zombies from Game of Thrones.

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It was the cold that brought plague and death to Medieval Europe, a long winter that lasted for decades and destroyed most of Europe…just like what the White Walkers threaten to do to Westeros if nobody stops them.

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History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Century of Blood

After the Doom, a huge cataclysmic event that destroyed the Valyrian peninsula and the seat of Valyrian power, everything started to go to hell in a hand basket.

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With the center of their empire destroyed all the little city states and lords with half a brain realized that they no longer had to fear a legion of dragons descending from on high to wipe them out if they stepped out of line and promptly revolted.  There were three major events during the Century of Blood that would shape the history of the Westeros and Essos for ever.

The first of these big events was the attempted reconquest of the Valyrian Empire by the city of Volantis.  Volantis was the single largest Valyrian city that survived the Doom and realized that it was in a position to reconquer and preserve the Valyrian Freehold.  As a result, they promptly invaded and re conquered the cities of Myr and Lys.  However, their attempts to conquer the remaining cities who had declared their independence: Pentos, Norvos, Quohor, Tyrosh, and Lorath met with failure and eventual military defeat partly due to the aid of the mysterious “secret city” of Braavos and the refusal of the last remaining Dragonlords to help Volantis re establish control: the Targaryens of Dragonstone.

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While all this was going on in the former empire the Targaryens were busy plotting their own moves on Dragonstone.  Aegon did not want to re establish the Valyrian Empire, instead he looked west and saw a massive land filled with rival kings and ruler ripe for the taking.  Westeros was currently undergoing two huge invasions: the Ironborn from the north and what would become the Dornish from the south.

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We’ve already talked about the Ironborn and their empire but it’s worth mentioning Dorne.  They currently live in the southern most part of Westeros and are not native to the island.  They were actually from Essos and came to Westeros as refugees from the rule of the Valyrians.  We’ll talk about them later but for now there is one more important event we need to talk about, one that shook the entire known world to its core and still makes the cities of Essos and Westeros shake in terror: the Dothraki.

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The Dothraki were nomadic horsemen from the large steppes of central Essos known as the Dothraki Sea.

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We’ll cover aspects of Dothraki culture and their historical counterparts next time because it really deserves a post of its own but for now all you need to understand is the impact they had on Essos.  The Dothraki came charging out of the steppes like wildfire and with no central power to keep them in check they ran rampant, killing and burning everything in their path.

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Only two cities were able to withstand their rampage.  Mureen was able to buy them off with gold while Qohor was able to finally halt the advances of the horde by beating them in a pitched battle thanks to a contingent of Unsullied warrior eunuchs.  Despite the Century of Blood living up to its name the cities and culture of Essos remained and even began to prosper.  While the Valyrians had fallen it was replaced by a patchwork of old tradition and new cultures, ready to welcome the rise of Westeros with everything from goods to soldiers.

As stated in the previous article the Doom of Valyria mirrors the fall of the Roman Empire in our history.  While there was no cataclysmic event that shattered the Romans all at once there were several smaller events that led to the collapse of half the Empire and the sack of Rome itself.

While theories about the fall of Rome abound from the the struggling economy to the decline of moral principles, one of the most popular and dramatic explanations was the hostile takeover of Rome by barbarian hordes. See, the Empire had been suffering almost constant civil war, plague, and barbarian raids starting in 235 A.D and ending around 285 A.D, a time known as the Crisis of the Third Century.  By its end the Empire was teetering on the brink of collapse when the emperor Diocletian decided to split the Empire into the East and West Roman Empires.

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It worked for a while with Rome continuing to exist and the new Eastern Roman Empire flourishing from its new capital of Constantinople.  However, while the East prospered the West faced a new set of challenges when a large number of Germanic tribes began to move into Roman territory and set of a new set of wars.

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These new tribes like Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals were fleeing a greater threat, one of the many historical equivalents to the Dothraki, the Huns.

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We’ll talk more about the Huns and their descendants later but for now all we need to know is that they fought from horseback, came from the steppes of Central Eurasia, and were reknown for their ferocity in battle.  Once the Germanic tribes were clear of the Huns by entering Roman territory they struck a deal with Rome.  In exchange for allowing to live on Roman land the Germanic tribes would help protect the empire from the Huns.  Sadly, it didn’t work out for long and in 476 A.D an Ostrogoth leader named Odoacer (who had adopted Roman customs and rules but was still culturally Germanic) sacked Rome in order to pay his soldiers and by default became King of Italy.  For all intensive purposes, Rome had fallen.

The reaction to the sacking of Rome mirrors the ending of the Century of Blood in the Game of Thrones universe both in the reactions it fostered and effect it would have on the former empire.  After the hostile takeover by the barbarian hordes Italy was no longer unified.  Instead it was carved into various small kingdoms ruled by different ethnic groups that would eventually looked like this.

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How each of those states sprung into existence is for another time but it mirrors the formation of the Free Cities in Essos.

As for the attempted re establishment of the Valaryian Freehold by Volantis that shares similarities with the Eastern Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that Rome had fallen in 476 the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople was thriving.  Under the rule of the emperor Justinian.

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The Byzantines invaded and retook most of Italy, and while he was initially successful his reconquest stretched Byzantine resources too far and left them vulnerable to revolt and even more foreign invasions.  The Roman Empire was done with for good this time and would never rise again.  Europe was fractured into hundreds of petty kingdoms all fighting with each other.  Now all the players and pieces are in place for the events of Game of Thrones and the Medieval Ages.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: An Introduction to Essos

So now we’re at a point in the history of Game of Thrones where we can take a break from Westeros and explore some of the other parts of George R.R Martin’s universe.  Before we go on there is a quick correction.  I stated in previous posts that Aegon the Conqueror was born in Essos, the continent across the sea from Westeros.  It turns out that several very kind and helpful people have pointed out he was actually born on Dragonstone, a small island technically part of Westeros.  I was wrong and the internet was right.

Aegon’s lineage is interesting because while he was born in Westeros his family legacy places him firmly in the neighboring continent of Essos.

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Now if you thought Westeros was big, Essos is even more massive.  Essos plays an important part in several key subplots of the books and show serving as the base of operations for Daenerys “I am a goddess among men because I have the last three dragons and I am drop dead gorgeous” Targaryen and as a nice and busy stopover for any character that needs to either run away from Westerosi political intrigue or hire someone to make their problems go away.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse and interesting ethnic groups and cultures to look at and observe and most excitingly (and welcoming considering I need at least six more weeks of material for this blog) it has a long and detailed history of mighty empires and great works of art, culture, and magic created while the First Men and Andals were still fighting in Westeros.  Starting with the slave masters of the Ghiscari Empire and ending with the Doom of Valyria and the beginnings of Aegon’s Conquest, we are going to spend the next couple of weeks talking about the pre history of Essos.

This blog post may seem strange and short since we’re simply laying the ground work for future posts but it just wouldn’t be complete without a historical comparison.  It’s been widely alluded to before, and you probably won’t be too shocked to hear this, but Essos is basically Continental Europe and Russia.

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You can see the resemblance in shape and if we look at the history of Europe, especially everything east of Germany and around the Mediterranean Sea, there are quite a few similarities.  While the Celts still ruled Britain and the Saxons hadn’t arrived, the rest of Europe had already seen some of the greatest empires and civilizations known to world history rise and fall.  Starting with the Golden Age of Greece and ending with the Saxon invasion of Britain, we are going to compare the pre history of Essos to the long and detailed history of pre Medieval Continental Europe.

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.

 

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.