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.

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. 

 

Do We Really Know Nothing about Jon Snow? – Is One of the Protagonists in Game of Thrones Partly Inspired by Perceval in the Holy Grail Legends?

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.

 

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 (SoS)  –  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 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. (It should be noted that – in spite of these aspects – Jon, of course, does not go south but joins the Night’s Watch in the far north.)

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 behaviour eventually changes.

He befriends most of the other trainees, finds in Lord Commander Mormont and Maester Aemon mentor figures and matures into a leader. Jon even rises to the position of Lord Commander. Prior to his development, his 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.”

John Snow2
Jon Snow (Kit Harington)

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!”” (SoS; here A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow213).

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.

Note: In this context, there is no point in discussing whether Melisandre, the red woman, can be compared to Cundrîe, the messenger of the grail. It is also beyond the scope of this blog post whether Ygritte (or, later, Daenerys Targaryen) has any similarities to Perceval’s beloved Blancheflor (or Condwiramurs).

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.

Game of Thrones: Die komplette dritte Staffel. DVDs. HBO, 2014.

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.

Pavlac, Brian A. “Introduction.” Game of Thrones versus History: Written in Blood. Ed. Brian A. Pavlac. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017. 1-15.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Band 1: Mittelhochdeutsch / Neuhochdeutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Band 2: Mittelhochdeutsch / Neuhochdeutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981.

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

 

Winter Is Coming to the Wasteland of Westeros – The Wasteland Motif in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire

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.

IMG_4876

Both ASOIAF and GoT contain typical ingredients of fantasy fiction. We as readers or viewers notice supernatural forces as well as mythical creatures such as 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 mythological or legendary 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, legends and possible indications to the wasteland whose characteristics will be outlined next.

What Is the Wasteland? – 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 TV-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 GoT, 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 Thrones or 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.

Ned Stark on the Iron Throne

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 the wasteland 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 an abandoned 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 / the Others

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 / the Others and the Army of the Dead or Undead.

IMG_4861
The Night King

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 / the Others 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 The Winds of Winter and 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 SnowDaenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, – who respectively, on a meta-level, represent the antonyms ice (Jon) and fire (Daenerys) – or in any other way remains an open question.

Sources

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

Game of Thrones: Die komplette erste Staffel. 2011. DVDs. HBO, 2012. -> The blog post also refers to the other seasons of GoT.

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

Lacy, Norris J. “Wasteland.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 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.   

Lupack, Alan, and Barbara Tepa Lupack. King Arthur in America. Cambridge: Brewer, 2001.

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

May, Markus, Michael Baumann, Robert Baumgartner, and Tobias Eder. “Vorwort.” Die Welt von »Game of Thrones«: Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven auf George R.R. Martins »A Song of Ice and Fire«. Eds. Markus May, Michael Baumann, Robert Baumgartner, and Tobias Eder. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2016. 11-25. 

Pavlac, Brian A. “Introduction.” Game of Thrones Versus History: Written in Blood. Ed. Brian A. Pavlac. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017. 1-15. 

Weinreich, Frank. Fantasy: Einführung. Essen: Oldib Verlag, 2007.