Blood on the Snow – The Possible Meanings of the Colours Red and White in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Part I)

Was the beginning of both George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones partly inspired by a scene in two medieval versions of Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail, when Perceval sees three blood drops in the snow?

In George R.R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and its TV-adaptation Game of Thrones (GoT) Jon Snow’s storyline arguably indicates slight similarities to Perceval’s journey in the two medieval romances or Holy Grail legends Perceval ou le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes and Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Both ASOIAF and GoT also refer to a common feature in Holy Grail legends – the wasteland motif.

Further allusions to the aforementioned versions of Perceval’s quest may be the frequent use of particular combinations of different colours. For example, the various references to black and white perhaps allude to the magpie image in Wolfram’s Parzival. Alongside these colours, we as readers or viewers notice several depictions, events or scenes which explicitly or implicitly mention the colours red and white.

We can, for instance, just point to Jon’s direwolf, Ghost, with his white fur and red eyes. Moreover, particularly with regard to ASOIAF, at the Wall in the snow-covered area far north of the fictional continent of Westeros Jon Snow suddenly imagines his uncle Benjen Stark’s death, when his uncle leaves Castle Black for an expedition into the haunted forest:

“As he watched his uncle lead his horse into the tunnel, Jon had remembered the things that Tyrion Lannister told him on the kingsroad, and in his mind’s eye he saw Ben Stark lying dead, his blood red on the snow.” (A Game of Thrones (GT), 179)

Later – before fleeing from the free folk beyond the Wall – he remembers the execution of  the deserter from the Night’s Watch:

“Jon remembered another killing; the deserter on his knees, his head rolling, the brightness of blood on snow…his father’s sword, his father’s words, his father’s face…” (A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow (SoS), 566)

Intriguingly, there is a reference to blood on the snow in the consulted versions of Perceval’s quest, too.

Three Blood Drops in the Snow – Perceval’s Inner Vision

At one point, Perceval rides across a snowy field, spotting three blood drops. It is noteworthy that the snowfall during the night before borders on a miraculous event because it is summer (cf. esp. Wolfram’s Parzival). The three blood drops in the snow result from a bleeding bird (or, more precisely, a goose) after a falcon’s attack.

Perceval and the Three Blood Drops in the Snow
Perceval (or Parzival) and the three blood drops in the snow

Seeing the blood drops in the snow, Perceval falls into a trance-like state. Although scholars assess this episode in Wolfram’s Parzival differently, through the mix of the colours red and white he thinks to recognize his beloved’s beautiful face. Note that in Chrétien’s version his beloved is Blancheflor, whereas in Wolfram’s Parzival her name is Condwiramurs.

Undoubtedly, the three blood drops in the snow cast a kind of love spell over Perceval who experiences a form of inner vision or introspection. Consequently, the interplay of red and white enables Perceval to look inwardly. His thoughts of his beloved in his  trance-like state apparently gives him strength to continue his search for the Holy Grail.

Since Perceval has this inner vision of his beloved’s facial beauty that encourages him to resume his quest for the Holy Grail, this scene is a significant event. If we now put the emphasis on the analysis of the possible meanings of the colours red and white in ASOIAF as well as in GoT, we may figure out slight similarities between the scene above and an event in the beginning parts of the first novel and the pilot episode.

White Fur and Red Eyes – A Close Look at the Discovery of the Dead Female Direwolf and Her Pups

The Prologue of A Game of Thrones about the horrifying confrontation between three men of the Night’s Watch and the Others (i.e. the White Walkers and the wights / undead) is followed by a chapter with Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark’s son Bran as the point-of-view (POV) character. GoTASOIAF’s TV-adaptation, roughly adheres to this order in its opening sequences of scenes. However, it is appropriate to primarily concentrate on the novel.

Ned Stark on the Iron Throne
Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on the Iron Throne

Subsequent to the execution of the deserter from the Night’s Watch, Ned Stark, his sons Robb and Bran(don), his alleged bastard son Jon Snow, his ward Theon Greyjoy and other men return to the home of the Starks, Winterfell. On their way back Robb Stark discovers a dead female direwolf that was killed by a stag’s antler. (Contrary to the descriptions in the novel, in GoT Ned Stark and the boys together with Theon as well as two other members of the Stark household first find a dead stag and, then, the dead direwolf.)

 

Given that the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark and the stag is the sigil of House Baratheon, the dead animal is certainly a potent of the upcoming disaster for House Stark, as the course of ASOIAF and GoT reveals. Regardless of this bad omen, the direwolf’s pups are alive. Evidently, Ned Stark decides not to have the pups killed due to Jon’s insightful remarks:

““There are five pups,”…“Three male, two female.”…

“You have five true born children,” Jon said. “Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord”

Bran saw his father’s face change, saw the other men exchange glances. He loved Jon with all his heart at that moment…The count had come right only because Jon had omitted himself.” (GT, 19)

Nevertheless, a sixth pup emerges shortly afterwards.

Jon’s discovery of the sixth pup is significant because of the little animal’s appearance:

“His fur was white, where the rest of the litter was grey. His eyes were as red as the blood of the ragged man [i.e. the deserterwho had died that morning. Bran thought it curious that this pup alone would have opened his eyes while the others were still blind.” (Ibid., 21)

The male pup’s striking features are his white fur and his red eyes. Jon eventually gives him the name Ghost.

In general, this beginning part of the story contains important aspects concerning foreshadowings, symbolism and the meanings of the colours red and white. Additionally, the text mentions clear deviations from the norm in the represented (quasi-medieval) fantasy world. All these issues not only underscore the significance of this event but also help to point out some possible connections to the scene when Perceval sees the three blood drops in the snow.

Besides the potent of the upcoming disaster and the portrayal of Ghost’s appearance, other distinctive features of this part (including the Prologue) in addition to specific signs allow us to link this sequence of scenes to future events, to interpret the meanings of red and white and to draw (,at least, slight) parallels to the Perceval scene above. We will list these points in the following:

  • The banner or blazon of the Starks is “a grey direwolf racing across an ice-white field” (GT, 14; cf. 813).
  • Bran witnesses the beheading of the deserter: “Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine…Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched” (ibid.15). (There is no snow during the execution scene in the pilot of the TV-series.)
  • Ned Stark beheads the deserter with one single stroke. He carries out the execution with his greatsword Ice. We later learn that this greatsword is used by Ser Ilyn Payne to execute Ned in the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing (cf. Ibid., 727; season 1.9).
  • As indicated in the Prologue, the alleged deserter from the Night’s Watch, Gared, encounters the Others (or the White Walkers). He is on an expedition into the haunted forest together with two other rangers – the young commander Ser Waymar Royce and Will, who – from a tree – sees the killing of Royce. (By the way, in GoT the roles are swapped. Will survives the violent encounter, becomes witness of Gared’s decapitation by a White Walker and is, then, executed as a deserter by Ned Stark.)
  • A few striking passages that depict the bloody confrontation between Royce and the Others read as follows: “The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow” (GT, 10).
  • Gared (or Will) just flees south to escape from the horrifying beings. However, he is viewed as a deserter. (Technically, he is one.) Before his execution he insists on having encountered the Others or the White Walkers.
  • While Gared (or Will) is sentenced to death by Ned Stark for alleged desertion, the latter is subsequently decapitated on Joffrey’s order for alleged treason (cf. Ibid., 726). Prior to his beheading he, in vain, tries to prevent Joffrey from becoming king, after uncovering that this boy is actually the product of the incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime, the Kingslayer.
  • Several lines in the beginning parts of the first novel draw the attention to the weather conditions in the north of the represented world: „The late summer snows had been heavy this moonturn” (ibid., 17). For this reason, when the other men together with Bran arrive at the site of the dead direwolf, Robb stands “kneedeep in white, his hood pulled back so the sun [shines] in his hair” (ibid.). (We already noted the absence of snow during this scene in GoT.)
  • The emergence of a (big) dead direwolf or direwolves, so to speak, apparently deviates from the represented world’s norms. According to Theon, ““[t]here’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years”” (ibid., 18). (In the TV-adaptation Robb makes a similar statement.)
  • Undoubtedly, the female direwolf’s death was caused by a struggle or confrontation between two animals (i.e. the direwolf and a stag). 

Almost probably, the list is not sufficient. Yet, it will do for our purpose.

The Prologue / the opening scene, the execution of Gared / Will and the discovery of the dead female direwolf and her living pups undeniably mark important events. Especially in the first novel of ASOIAF, certain issues make possible connections between these events and the Perceval scene appear more plausible. Hence, perhaps the scene of Perceval looking at the three blood drops partly inspired George R.R. Martin, as far as the beginning of ASOIAF is concerned.

Among these aspects are the references to the heavy summer snow, the violent struggle between the animals and, of course, the blood on the snow as well as the colours red and white, even though the summer snow does not amount to a miraculous incident in this area of the represented world, the direwolf is dead and the explicitly mentioned blood is the result of the beheadings of men. Instead of truly “miraculous” weather conditions as in (Wolfram’s version of) the Perceval scene, strange incidents take place.

With respect to the “reality” and rules of this quasi-medieval fantasy world, transgressions of norms occur at the beginning of ASOIAF and GoT on differet levels. Apart from the occurrence of the Others / White Walkers, the onset of the fantastic, and the deserter who breaks the “law”, such a deviation from the norm is the presence of the big female direwolf and her pups on the southern side of the Wall.

Strangely enough, as Jon accurately observes, the number and sexes of the five direwolf pups correspond to the number and sexes of the “legitimate” Stark children (i.e. Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon). Therefore, the five Stark children, in Jon’s words, are really “meant to have these pups” (GT, 19). Fittingly, the grey direwolves later resemble the grey one on the sigil of House Stark in contrast to the sixth pup, Ghost, whose fur is white and whose eyes are red.

This pup stands out from the rest of the grey looking litter. By differing from the other five pups, Ghost – with his white fur and red eyes – is a good match for Jon Snow, the alleged bastard. His direwolf, in a way, mirrors Jon’s situation or position within the Stark family. He somehow belongs to the Starks without being (treated as) a full family member.

Ghost’s distinctive physical characteristics – his white fur and his red eyes – are  occasionally emphasized in the course of ASOIAF, when Jon is the POV character: “…Ghost hunched with white fur bristling. He made no sound, but his dark red eyes spoke blood (A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow (SoS), 219).” In particular, the red eyes may imply the concept of vision.

As the final sentence indicates, part II will deal with the idea of vision in connection to the colours red and white.

Sources

Bumke, Joachim. Wolfram von Eschenbach. 7th ed. Stuttgart, Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 1997. 

Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Ruffel. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Freese, Peter. “Parzival als Baseballstar: Bernard Malamuds The Natural.” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien 13 (1968): 143-157.

Game of Thrones: Die komplette erste Staffel. DVDs. HBO, 2012. -> The blog post also refers to the other seasons of GoT.

Johnson, Sidney M. “Wolfram von Eschenbach.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. 1996. 

Lacy, Norris J. Ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996. 

Lacy, Norris J. “Chrétien de Troyes.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. 1996. 

Lacy, Norris J. “Perceval.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. 1996. 

Larrington, Carolyne. Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016.  

Loomis, Sherman Roger. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Renewed ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.   

Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. (1996) -> The blog post also refers to the other novel of ASOIAF.

Martin, George R.R. A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow. London: Harper Voyager, 2011.

Martin, George R.R. Westeros: Die Welt von Eis und Feuer: Game of Thrones. Trans. Andreas Helweg. 5th ed. Munich: Penhaligon, 2015.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival. Illus. Dieter Asmus. Trans. Peter Knecht. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2011. 

 

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Nils Zumbansen, Ph.D. You can contact me under the following email // Sie können mich über die folgende E-Mail-Addresse erreichen: freedomfactsandstories@gmail.com