The Idea of Vision – The Possible Meanings of the Colours Red and White in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Part II)

While part I mainly focuses on the discovery of the dead direwolf and her pups, Ghost’s appearance as well as the possible similarities between this event and the Perceval scene (i.e. ‘the three blood drops in the snow’), the second part will attempt to work out the concept of vision in connection to the colours red and white.  

Unlike Perceval, who stares at the blood drops in the snow, at the beginning of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) or Game of Thrones (GoT) Jon Snow, at first sight, does not appear to have an inner vision. It is apposite to repeat that in A Game of Thrones the chapter after the Prologue is narrated in the third person from Bran Stark’s point of view.

Yet, from some of the following chapters with Jon as a P-O-V character we can infer an idea of vision regarding specific situations and conditions. Jon, as pointed out in part I, later recollects the beheading of the deserter, a past event, and sees “in his mind’s eye” (GT, 179) his uncle’s death, a vision of a potential future event. Remarkably, his recollection and his imagination of Benjen Stark’s death involve blood on the snow.

(A note about his uncle in the TV-series: During the sixth season of GoT Benjen Stark returns, rescuing Bran and Meera Reed. After a White Walker stabbed him, he was saved by the Children of the Forest. Benjen also helps Jon escape from the White Walkers and the Army of the Dead before sacrificing himself.)

At this point, we may recall his insightful remark, in which he attributes the number and sexes of the five direwolf pups to the five “legitimate” Stark children (i.e. three boys and two girls). Another notable event in this regard happens in the hunted forest (i.e. close to Castle Black, the main stronghold of the Night’s Watch). Here Jon says the vows of the Night’s Watch together with his friend Sam(well) Tarley before a heart tree.

White Weirwood Trees with Blood-Red Leaves and Red Eyes – The Notion of Vision

What strikes us (i.e. the readers or viewers) is the appearance of these trees since they are weirwoods with white barks, blood-red leaves and red sap. They look like the heart tree in Winterfell’s godswood:

“The weirwood’s bark was white as bone, its leaves dark red, like a thousand bloodstained hands. A face had been carved in the trunk of the great [heart] tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful. They were old, those eyes; older than Winterfell itself.” (A Game of Thrones (GT), 23)

Likewise, the heart trees or weirwoods in the haunted forest have faces and red eyes which were carved into their white or pale trunks:

“The sun was sinking below the trees when they reached their destination, a small clearing in the deep of the wood where nine weirwoods grew in a rough circle…Even in the wolfswood [near Winterfell], you never found more than two or three of the white trees growing together; a grove of nine was unheard of. The forest floor was carpeted with fallen leaves, bloodred on top, black rot beneath. The wide trunks were bone pale, and nine faces stared inward. The dried sap that crusted in the eyes was red and hard as ruby.” (GT, 521-2)

These lines again stress the importance of the colours red and white.

Ghost accompanies them but vanishes for a while. Subsequent to the taking of the vows, Ghost suddenly reappears with a hand of a human corpse in his jaws. In this context, Jon’s realization is very interesting: “And suddenly Ghost was back, stalking softly between two weirwoods. White fur and red eyes, Jon realized, disquieted. Like the trees… (ibid., 522).”

By making a connection between Ghost’s distinctive features and the weirwood trees, Jon gives the impression of having a flash of insight. He apparently becomes aware of the possible link between his direwolf and the trees through the colours red and white and, particularly, the red eyes. Eventually, the discovery of the hand turns out to be significant because, shortly thereafter, – amongst other things – Jon experiences his first encounter with a wight – a blue-eyed reanimated corpse.

Generally speaking, due to his flashes of insight in these events Jon can be compared, in a way, to Perceval when he has an inner vision by looking at the three blood drops in the snow. Now, it is not necessary to analyze the similarities and differences between Jon Snow and Perceval or Parzival, the medieval hero in some of the Holy Grail legends.

Nevertheless, the above mentioned aspects open the door to speculations whether the Perceval scene provided inspiration for George R.R. Martin. During these events, in any case, the idea of vision comes to the fore, as Jon’s flashes of insight, Ghost’s red eyes, the red eyes on the white weirwood trees, specific passages in the novels (e.g. “…in his mind’s eye [Jon] saw…(GT, 179)”) or particular shots of eyes and other scenes in GoT underline.

Furthermore, through the notion of vision we recognize a link between Jon and the P-O-V character of the beginning chapter after the Prologue, Bran Stark, who in GoT transforms into the Three-Eyed Raven. Fittingly, in Welsh bran or Brân means “crow or raven”.

As in the TV-series, in ASOIAF Bran is summoned through visions or dreams to a cave far north beyond the Wall, where he encounters the three-eyed crow (or the former Three-Eyed Raven in GoT), a mysterious figure. Inside the cave there are numerous weirwood roots.

White Skin, White Hair, a Bloody Blotch and a Red Eye – The Mysterious Three-Eyed Crow / Raven and Another Reference to Inner Vision

Sitting on a kind of throne of weirwood roots and being twined about with these roots, the crow / Raven appears to be interconnected with the weirwoods all over the north or even Westeros. His appearance in the show markedly differs from how he is depicted in ASOIAF. For our purposes it is useful to resort to the description of his frightening appearance in the fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons.

The mystical three-eyed crow is portrayed as a pale figure with white skin, white hair, a missing eye, a red eye and a red blotch that covers (a part of) his neck and cheek.

“His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotten that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotchy that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His (long) white hair was fine…A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through…A three-eyed crow should have three eyes. He has only one, and that one red.” (A Dance with Dragons (DD), 177-8)

Such characteristics link him not only to the weirwood trees but also, up to a certain degree, to Ghost. Again this connection is established by the colours red and white. Interestingly enough, the red eyes contrast with the (cold) blue eyes of the wights and the Others / White Walkers.

Let us consider for a moment the cultural depictions of ravens or crows on an abstract level. Unsurprisingly, in mythology as well as in classical literature ravens or crows with their black plumage evoke negative associations. More precisely, these carrion birds are associated with uncleanliness, loss, death and bad omens.

Alongside the wolf and the vulture / eagle (another carrion-eater) the raven is also known as one of the beasts of battle in Old Norse and Old English poetry. Notably, the entry for ‘Raven’ in A Dictionary of Literary Symbols includes an interesting detail: “It was proverbial that ravens peck out the eyes of the slain” (168).

Martin’s ASOIAF clearly identifies crows as eaters of carrion. Suffice it to say that the title of the forth novel is A Feast for Crows. On a side note, ravens function as an integral part of the communication network in the fictional continent of Westeros, carrying letters from place to place. Instead of dwelling on their functions in the represented world, we should return to the mysterious three-eyed crow / Three-Eyed Raven.

The very name three-eyed crow / Three-Eyed Raven entails the mystical and even esoteric notion of an interior and invisible third eye. By means of this “eye” a person gains access to a kind of perception or insight beyond ordinary sight and forms of arcane knowledge. Appropriately enough, the third eye is also regarded as the inner or the mind’s eye.

It is possible to interpret the third eye as another reference to the idea of inner vision. This not only allows us to connect Bran to the three-eyed crow / the Three-Eyed Raven but also permits the possibility to establish a connection between the three-eyed crow / Raven, Bran and Jon Snow in the aforementioned events.

The link between them is primarily suggested through the colours red and white. Other intriguing aspects are recognizable, when the three-eyed cow’s / Raven’s (or Bran’s) abilities are taken into account.

He Has the Greensight – The Three-Eyed Crow’s / Raven’s (or Bran’s) Abilities

We learn in ASOIAF that he is the last greenseer who were, according to some legends of the fictional continent of Westeros, the wise men of the Children of the Forest. They allegedly could see through the eyes the Children carved on the weirwood trees, were able to see events from a far distance, could control the minds of animals like wolves or direwolves and had the ability to look into the past and to predict the future.

Presumably, Bran, as it is revealed in GoT, eventually possesses all of these abilities. He, in fact, is the new Three-Eyed Raven, after the old one was killed by the Night King in season 6.

In A Dance with Dragons the three-eyed crow teaches Bran Stark about skinchanging (i.e. the “power” to enter an animal’s body) and greensight (i.e. the capability to have dreams about the future and to see flashes of past events). Bran evidently develops the ability of greenseeing.

Besides this, in the course of ASOIAF as well as in GoT he is a skinchanger or a warg since he frequently inhabits his direwolf’s (i.e. Summer’s) body for a period of time. Additionally, he projects his mind into a raven and his simple-minded friend Hodor. To a lesser extent, Jon and Arya, for example, also have a sort of warg bond with their direwolves, Ghost and Nymeria, in ASOIAF, although only Bran has been actively honing this ability.

Strikingly, with reference to the idea of vision, Bran witnesses the execution of the deserter at the beginning, whereas Yoren of the Night’s Watch prevents Arya from seeing the execution of her father, Ned Stark. It is worth adding that Arya loses her sight, while she trains to become a Faceless Man and assassin in Braavos.

Finally, in part III some of Melisandre’s features will be analyzed. Apart from this, this part will elaborate on how the connection between Jon Snow and the Targaryens is alluded to through the colours red and white. 


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

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.

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. A Dance with Dragons: Book Five of A Song of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 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.

Riggs, Don. “Continuity and Transformation in the Religions of Westeros and Western Europe.” Game of Thrones versus History: Written in Blood. Ed. Brian A. Pavlac. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017. 173-184. 


Black vs White or Black with White – Do Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire Allude to the Magpie Image in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival?

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.  

What strikes us in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and Game of Thrones (GoT) – alongside many other aspects – is the frequent reference to the colours black and white or the combination of these colours. In her storyline Arya Stark, for instance, trains to be a Faceless Men in the mysterious House of Black and White in Braavos.

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 / the Others that together with the wights or 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.


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

Johnson, Sidney M. “Wolfram von Eschenbach.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Ed. Norris J. Lacy. Updated paperback ed. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.  

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).


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.


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.

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.


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