In George R.R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire and its TV-adaptation, Game of Thrones, the frequent reference to the colours black and white may allude to the magpie image in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parzival.
Apart from this, the mighty Wall of ice rises up behind Castle Black. By joining the Night’s Watch, recruits take the black since the men of the Watch, called crows by the free folk, are dressed in black. Appropriately enough, in the snowy areas in the far north or at the Wall they are confronted with the free folk and the White Walkers that together with the Army of the Dead pose a threat to the living.
Usually, we associate white with good, whereas we link black to evil. If all these information are taken into consideration, the frequent use of black and white might be interpreted as an indication that in ASOIAF and GoT the line between good and evil blurs. Or, perhaps we deal with an allusion to the magpie image in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parzival, which was probably written in the first quarter of 13th century.
Broadly speaking, the Eurasian magpie has a black and white plumage. Hence, the magpie image represents the idea of an ambivalent or contradictory human being. Such a person can be characterized as – in metaphorical terms – internally black and white spotted.Simply put, good and evil or good and bad traits exist side by side.
With regard to Wolfram’s medieval romance, maybe the magpie image is applicable to Parzival (or Eng. Perceval) who commits sins and, nonetheless, finds grace. Needless to mention, in ASOIAF as well as in GoT several characters embody ambivalent human beings with moral flaws. Moreover, one of the main protagonists, Jon Snow, to a certain extent, appears to show slight similarities to Perceval or Parzival.
Jon Snow’s storyline in Game of Thrones or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire shows slight parallels with the way the legendary character Perceval is depicted in medieval Arthurian romances. (Warning! This text contains spoilers.)
“Every craft requires clear eyes, and effort, and heart: These three conditions are all one needs. But since you know nothing, and have seen nothing, decide, if you will, to learn nothing, and no one will blame you.” (ll: 1466-72; these lines are taken from the following version: Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Ruffel. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1999. The text and the above lines were translated by Ruffel from Old French into English.)
The mentor figure Gornemant makes this statement, when talking to Perceval.
In the course of the popular TV-series Game of Thrones (GoT) – which is based on George R. R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) – Jon Snow has developed from an alleged bastard into the King in the North of the fictional continent of Westeros. As it turns out, he is actually descended from a royal lineage.
While several characters in the quasi-medieval fantasy world take their inspiration from historical personalities, the portrayal of Jon Snow prompts the question of whether he is a purely original creation or partly inspired by a legendary figure. The same may apply, for instance, to Bran Stark or Arya Stark.
Jon Snow’s storyline seems to show similar features with Perceval’s quest or journey in the medieval Holy Grail legends or Arthurian romances, which frequently employ the wasteland motif. Perceval makes the transition from comical bumpkin to Grail hero. His development is remarkable since he is, at first, deficient in knowledge, understanding and insight.
Parzival or Perceval (as fool)
Although some of Jon’s traits may allude to other legendary characters, we will mainly focus on the comparison between Perceval and Jon by looking at their respective background and their particular characteristics. In this way, slight parallels – together with many differences – become more comprehensible.
Needless to say, the major primary sources for this comparison are GoT as well as ASOIAF – especially the novels A Game of Thrones (GT) and A Storm of Swords (SS) – and two versions of the Holy Grail legend in which Perceval is the protagonist. The following analysis will concentrate on the unfinished Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes. His version provided the main source for Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
Later more emphasis will be laid on Wolfram’s version due to a pointed description of Parzival and a few interesting details. But, first of all, it is worth examining Perceval’s and Jon’s respective upbringing.
Unfamiliar with Their Noble Blood – Perceval’s and Jon Snow’s Respective Family Background
According to Chrétien’s Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, Perceval grows up in the Welsh woods. Here his mother raises him in isolation and in ignorance of knighthood since she does not want him to become a knight. After seeing a group of five armoured knights, however, the simple-minded boy immediately wishes to be one.
Subsequently, Perceval’s worried mother informs him of his noble lineage by telling him about his father as well as his brothers. All three were knights but his siblings were killed, while his father lost his wealth because of a wound and then died of grief over his dead sons. With respect to Wolfram’s version, Parzival’s grandfather was King Gandin and his mother is the sister of the Grail King, Anfortas. That means, he comes from a royal background.
Jon Snow, by contrast, is introduced as Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark’s alleged bastard son: “[T]he bastard…bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to all those in the north unlucky enough to be born with no name of their own” (GT: 19). Unlike Perceval, he is not brought up apart from civilization but alongside the lawful Stark children at Winterfell, the power centre of Westeros‘ northern kingdom.
His bastard status, however, prevents him from inheriting Winterfell or another castle and enjoying special privileges. Consequently, he often seems to feel excluded.
Notwithstanding the differences between the two characters concerning their family background, there are some possibilities to draw slight parallels in terms of their descent. For example, Perceval does not know about his father until his mother tells him, whereas Jon has no idea who his biological mother is.
Moreover, as it turns out later in GoT, Jon is of royal blood because he is the secret son of Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Likewise, in the consulted versions of the Holy Grail legend Perceval is of noble or royal birth. Besides this, the locations – particularly in Westeros – deserve closer attention.
North vs South, Winterfell vs King’s Landing, the Woods vs King Arthur’s Court…
Jon Snow certainly does not spend his childhood in isolation. Yet, Winterfell and the north are significantly different from the south and Westeros‘ capital, King’s Landing, with its southern customs. The north, in other words, distinguishes itself from the south like the (Welsh) woods from King Arthur’s court in the aforementioned versions of the Holy Grail legend.
Broadly speaking, the northern kingdom is, first and foremost, a place for warriors in contrast to King’s Landing (or the south) with its codes of chivalry. It is necessary to add that there are knights in the north and at Castle Black among the Night’s Watch which, to a certain extent, gives the impression of being organized like a knightly brotherhood. Regardless of this remark, we cannot neglect the existing differences between Westeros‘ various regions.
As for Winterfell, although the home of the Starks clearly differs from the Welsh woods, where Perceval is raised by his mother, some features regarding this castle are striking. In her book Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones Carolyne Larrington, for instance, states that “Winterfell’s architecture is reminiscent of the great Norman concentric castles built by Edward I, most notably in Wales…” (2016: 56).
This castle with its enormous fortification walls also lies close to the Wolfswood. Another noteworthy location is Winterfell’s godswood: “It was a dark, primal place, three acres of old forest…” (GT: 22).
Instead of overemphasising these aspects, I will continue to summarize Perceval’s quest to liken it to Jon Snow’s development. With regard to Perceval, he emerges as a simple-minded and naïve boy. To stress his foolishness as well as his naivety, especially Wolfram’s Parzival depicts him as a ‘tumbe Tor’ (Eng. naïve, dumb or stupid fool or idiot).
A Dumb Idiot, Who Knows Nothing (about Knighthood) – A Look at Perceval’s and Jon’s Respective Quest
Perceval’s actual quest begins when the innocent boy leaves home in the hope to become a knight, even though he lacks knowledge about knighthood. During his first encounter with knights, for instance, he confuses them with heavenly beings. Thus, the description of Perceval as a naïve or stupid idiot is fitting.
Later Perceval arrives at King Arthur’s court where he inappropriately addresses the King and hurriedly demands to be knighted. After asking King Arthur to be granted the red armour of the Red Knight, he is taunted by seneschal Kay.
Despite the fact that he does not know how to behave like a knight, Perceval instinctively possesses all necessary fighting skills. He, accordingly, kills the Red Knight and takes his armour, before encountering Gornemant, a mentor figure. This experienced man instructs the boy in fighting with different weapons and in knightly behaviour. Perceval, afterwards, faces some adventures, in which he, amongst other things, falls in love with Gornemant’s niece and comes across the castle of the Fisher King.
Similar to Perceval, Jon Snow is an excellent fighter. Early in the story, Jon also expresses his intention to join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch, when he talks to his uncle, Benjen Stark. In their ensuing argument Benjen tries to warn Jon of this step at his young age.
Of course, we should not equate the Night’s Watch with King Arthur’s court. Nevertheless, the Night’s Watch at Castle Black constitutes a sworn brotherhood of men who dedicate their lives at the Wall to the protection of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Up to a certain degree, the Night’s Watch bears resemblance to medieval military (religious) orders like the Knights Templar.
At the Wall, Jon first despises the other boys or young men with whom he practices fighting. He thinks that he is better than his fellow trainees. Consequently, he makes no friends, while the master-at-arms, Ser Alliser Thorne, mocks Jon by calling him “Lord Snow” (GT, 177). Because Benjen Stark refuses to allow Jon to accompany him on a ranging, Jon’s anger increases, even though his behavior eventually changes.
He befriends most of the other trainees, matures into a leader and finds in Lord Commander Mormont and Maester Aemon mentor figures. Prior to his development, Jon’s aloof, distant, arrogant, aggressive and strange attitude indicates his inexperience, lack of knowledge and – at least in the beginning – immaturity. Considering this, we are reminded of the following well-known statement: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
During the end of the second novel A Clash of Kings and the first part of A Storm of Swords or the second and third seasons of GoT Jon Snow is among the wildlings or the free folk beyond the Wall and begins a love affair with Ygritte, a wildling woman. She keeps on saying the words “[y]ou know nothing, Jon Snow” in his presence (i.e. c. 17 times in A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow and a number of times in the TV-series).
Ygritte, on the one hand, uses these words to tease him. On the other hand, she arguably wants to make him aware that he is not familiar with the history, situation, customs and conditions beyond the Wall. A case in point is their short conversation immediately after a group of wildlings sings the song The Last of the Giants:
“There were tears on Ygritte’s cheeks when the song ended.
“Why are you weeping?” Jon asked. “It was only a song. There are hundreds of giants, I’ve just seen them.” – “Oh, hundreds,” she said furiously. “You know nothing, John Snow. You – JON!”” (SS; hereA Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow: 213).
Her often-repeated line entails some possibilities for interpretation.
It not only refers to Jon’s lack of knowledge of the area far north but also allows for interpretive connections to his previous attitude and inexperience concerning particular issues as well as to Perceval’s behaviour. On his journey Perceval really acts like an inexperienced or dumb idiot who knows nothing about knighthood.
Admittedly, contrary to Perceval, Jon – even before his development – does not present himself like an uneducated fool. That said, additional blog posts will discuss the symbolism of the combination of different colours.
Since this blog often deals with issues concerning the Anglosphere, it is worth quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. In the 19th century he famously stated:
It is true that each people has a special character independent of its political interest. One might say that America gives the most perfect picture, for good or ill, of the special character of the English race. The American is the Englishman left to himself.
This quote is taken from Daniel Hannan’s book How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (London: Head of Zeus, 2013).
Both George R.R. Martin’s epic series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones not only present an amalgamation of fantasy, history and other elements but also allude to the wasteland of the Holy Grail Legends. (Warning! The following text contains spoilers.)
The highly popular TV-series Game of Thrones (GoT) plunges the audience into a quasi-medieval fantasy world full of intrigues, wars between royal houses and mysteries. During the complex storylines, which are based on the series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) by the American writer George R. R. Martin, many characters play the murderous game of thrones, whereas others are involved in different power struggles and adventures.
Both ASOIAF and GoT contain typical ingredients of fantasy fiction. We as readers or viewers notice supernatural forces as well as mythical creatures like dragons. Additionally, the storylines are set in the fictional or represented world of Westeros and Essos.
Besides this, various characters, events and other features are clearly inspired by real historical figures and incidents. Sources of inspiration include parts of British history like the late medieval Wars of the Roses. These civil wars between the two dynasties of Lancaster and York are also addressed in some of William Shakespeare’s history plays.
Moreover, the complex storylines seem to allude to traditional myths or mythological elements. Among them is the wasteland motif of the Holy Grail legends. What is, thus, remarkable about ASOIAF and GoT is that they both consist of a complex composition of fantasy, history, references to other literary works, myths and possible indications to the wasteland whose characteristics will be outlined next.
What Is theWasteland? – The Use of the Wasteland Motif in the Holy Grail Legends
Merriam-Webster gives three definitions for the term wasteland: “(1) barren or uncultivated land; (2) an ugly often devastated or barely inhabitable place or area; (3) something (such as a way of life) that is spiritually and emotionally arid and unsatisfying.” Further meanings can be found in a mythological context. Originally, the wasteland motif had arguably appeared in Celtic mythology, before it emerged in the medieval Arthurian or Holy Grail legends, which are imbued with Christian symbolism.
A look at some aspects of the Arthurian or Holy Grail legends allows us to understand how the motif is used. Several versions of these legends have the following main features in common: (1) a king, who sins against God’s commandments, suffers from an incurable wound. His bad state of health affects and reflects the condition of his realm which is hit by a war or – in most of the cases – devastated by a prolonged drought.
Eventually, (2) after many battles and humiliating experiences, a young knight finally arrives in the war-torn and / or drought-stricken kingdom. By redeeming the suffering king, he fulfils the central task of his quest.
As far as these major characteristics are concerned, the wasteland motif connects the fertility or vegetation of the land to its king’s or leader’s state of health. Over time this motif has been modified and has been employed in different ways in modern American literature.
An Endangered and Meaningless World – The Waste Land Tradition in Modern American Literature
In 1922 the famous American-British poet, dramatist, editor and literary critic T.S. Eliot published his poem The Waste Land, the best-known treatment of the wasteland motif in the modern period. Eliot took his inspiration from Jessie L. Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance. With regard to his poem, the wasteland serves as a metaphor for the deplorable conditions of the modern world.
Since the publication of The Waste Land, references to the wasteland motif have been usual in novels by renowned American authors. Examples range from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby(1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises(1926) to Bernard Malamud’s The Natural(1952) and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Here it is also necessary to mention William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) because his works are praised by George R.R. Martin.
When looking at these examples, we can, in John M. Howell’s words, speak of a “Waste Land Tradition in the American Novel.” Similar to T.S. Eliot’s poem, the wasteland (or waste land) in the aforementioned novels becomes a figurative or symbolic expression for the endangered and meaningless world of modernity. We will now see that it is possible to apply the concept of the wasteland to the represented world of Westeros.
The Wasteland of Westeros – Rebellion, Civil War and Devastation
At the beginning of both the books and the series, King Robert Baratheon I rules over Westeros‘ Seven Kingdoms. He seized the Iron Throne of Westeros through a rebellion against the Mad King Aerys II, ending the long lasting Targaryen dynasty. His friend Eddard (or Ned) Stark and, in the end, the Lannisters helped him bring down the Targaryens in Robert’s Rebellion, during which the House Targaryen was almost exterminated.
The crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen was killed by Robert and Aerys II was stabbed to death by Ser Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard. This act has earned Jaime the nickname Kingslayer.
Generally speaking, Robert’s Rebellion amounted to a usurpation. However, the Mad King deserved his reputation. For instance, before threatening to kill Ned Stark and Robert, Aerys II had had Ned’s father and elder brother brutally executed. House Targaryen has also been known for its history of incest. Moreover, from Robert’s point of view, Rhaegar abducted and raped his betrothed Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, even though, as revealed in season 7 of the TV-series, these accusations are not true.
Interestingly enough, the events that led to the rebellion were set in motion by what happened to Lyanna. Nevertheless, the cause of Robert’s Rebellion was ultimately based on a lie since Lyanna and Rhaegar loved each other. Judging from these aspects, we can already detect signs of the wasteland motif, notwithstanding the fact that so far our main focus has been on the backstory.
Throughout the first novel A Game of Thronesor the first season more allusions to the wasteland motif are evident. Notably, King Robert I has turned from a handsome and powerful young adult into an obese, lethargic, heavily drinking and lustful man. Eventually, Robert dies of the wounds he inflicted during a hunting “accident.” Yet, this event is partly arranged by his incestuous wife Cersei Lannister.
Subsequently, the Hand of the King, Ned Stark – who is appointed Protector of the Realm by the dying King Robert – intends to prevent Joffrey Baratheon from becoming king, but fails. Instead, Joffrey is crowned king, while Ned Stark is arrested and later beheaded. As a consequence, a civil war breaks out. During this civil war between the different Houses of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros the major opponents are the Lannisters and the Starks of Winterfell.
The advancing war wreaks havoc on many areas of the fictional continent. It results in mass death, destruction, devastation and the Red Wedding, where – among a lot of others – Ned’s wife, Catelyn Stark, and her eldest son Robb are murdered. Needless to say, apart from the civil war, additional (armed) conflicts take place.
If we take the devastation into account, Westeros undoubtedly resembles a wasteland. Therefore, it is appropriate to conceive of the fictional continent as thewasteland of Westeros. What corroborates this idea is the frequent occurrence of moral transgressions.
A Moral Wasteland
Joffrey presents himself as a cruel ruler with an uncontrollable temper. He as well as his younger brother Tommen and his sister Myrcella were actually born from the incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. We should remark that in the course of ASOIAF and GoT Joffrey is poisoned at the Purple Wedding.
Clearly, Westeros is also a moral wasteland, in which heinous crimes regularly occur. Early on in the story, Jaime tosses Ned’s son, Bran Stark, out of the window of the Broken Tower at the home of the Starks, Winterfell, to get rid of the witness to his incestuous relationship to his sister. Cersei and Jaime even try to have the maimed boy assassinated afterwards. Unsurprisingly, the justified suspicion of their attempted murder raises the tension between the two Houses.
From our point of view, a number of characters transgress moral norms. Nevertheless, there is no point in discussing whether they violate divine commandments since – despite the various beliefs in gods or religions in Westeros – several of the main characters are apparently skeptics.
In any case, Westeros represents a wasteland on a political, spiritual and moral level. Likewise, we recognize the wasteland motif in the geography of the north and in the seasons of this fictional world.
The Barren Winds of Winter – The Expanding Icy Wasteland in the North and the Coming of the White Walkers
Each of the seasons in this world can last at least a few years. All the same, winter is a fact of life at the Wall and in the vast snow-covered area beyond the Wall, where the rules of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros do not apply. On the whole, the territory north of the Wall looks like an uncanny wasteland of ice. It has a low degree of vegetation in comparison to numerous other regions.
For the preceding three seasons of GoT winter has reached the north of Westeros and, ultimately, King’s Landing as the icy landscapes around the enormous castle Winterfell and some scenes towards the end of season 7 illustrate. Consequently, the icy wasteland has expanded.
That means, the moral, spiritual, political and war-stricken wasteland of Westeros is in danger of being gradually transformed into a total wasteland in geographical, topographical and environmental terms. Furthermore, this time – in reference to the title of the final episode of season 6 The Winds of Winter and Martin’s upcoming novel – the barren Winds of Winter are accompanied by a terrifying threat for the living – the coming of the Night King, the White Walkers and the Army of the Dead or Undead.
Appropriately enough, the Stark words are Winter Is Coming. Considering the aforementioned aspects, we may add to these words Winter Is Coming (or, more precisely, Winter Has Been Coming) to the Wasteland of Westeros. But the final scenes together with the slogan of season 7 make us aware that Winter Is Here. Let’s now sum up what we have learnt so far and very briefly discuss whether there is any form of redemption.
Is There Any Hope for a Dream of Spring? – A Summary and a Very Brief Outlook
GoT and ASOIAF seemingly draw on the wasteland motif. First of all, transgressions of moral principles are recognizable with respect to various characters. Kings like the Mad King, Robert Baratheon and Joffrey as well as members of the royal family such as Cersei contravene moral norms and / or show signs of degeneracy. Fittingly, a civil war and additional conflicts, then, rip through the Seven Kingdoms.
It is worth noting that in the first novel and in the first season Bran Stark is maimed and Ned Stark is wounded in the leg. Their injuries may allow for interpretations that associate them with the Fisher King in the Holy Grail legends. The Fisher King suffers from a wound in the legs or groin. Despite these possible interpretations, Bran and Ned – who are not kings – should not be equated with this figure.
Apart from this point, the territory beyond the Wall has close similarities to an icy wasteland with a low degree of vegetation. Because of the onset of winter,the area of the icy wasteland has apparently increased gradually. To a certain extent, the approaching winter can be compared with the droughts in the Holy Grail legends.
In this winter a Long Night looms since the Night King, the White Walkers and the Army of the Dead turn out to be real, threatening the living. Regardless of this threat, Westeros corresponds to a wasteland on several different levels.
Intriguingly, George R.R. Martin’s upcoming novels bear the titles TheWinds of Winterand A Dream of Spring. Is there any hope for such a dream or a kind of redemption for the wasteland of Westeros?
As for the medieval Holy Grail legends, a hero usually redeems the war-torn or drought-stricken land. Whether the fictional world is ultimately redeemed and restored to fertility by Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, – who each, on a meta-level, represent the antonyms ice (Jon) and fire (Daenerys) – or in any other way remains an open question.
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Game of Thrones: Die komplette erste Staffel. DVDs. HBO, 2012. -> The blog post also refers to the other seasons of GoT.
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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.
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Pavlac, Brian A. “Introduction.” Game of Thrones Versus History: Written in Blood. Ed. Brian A. Pavlac. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017. 1-15.
In London criminals used to be executed close to the modern Marble Arch.
From the Middle Ages to 1783 a location near the modern Marble Arch served as the principal place of public execution in England’s capital. In past times this place was called Tyburn. Today, on a traffic island we can see a plate that marks the spot where the infamous Tyburn Hanging Tree stood.
Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Note: All photos were taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in 2012.