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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