Parallel Worlds – Events in Game of Thrones Based on Real Historical Events
The television series, Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, has been praised for its gritty realism and epic storyline. G.R.R. Martin has been referred to as the “American Tolkien.” Game of Thrones, however, was not made up from scratch and some events do have parallels in real world history, which makes sense, being that the author of the original books wanted it to be realistic and explore themes pertinent to the real world including politics, gender, religion, and identity. Most of the real world historical events and personalities which served or may have served as inspiration for events and characters in Game of Thrones and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire are events that took place during the Middle Ages, though a few of them took place in classical antiquity.
Game of Thrones Draws from The War of the Roses
For example, the entire Game of Thrones storyline itself is partly inspired by a real-world conflict, the War of the Roses (1455-1487). In the show, Game of Thrones, two rival houses compete for control of the Iron Throne. The two houses are the northern House of Stark known for being poor but, relatively, virtuous and the southern House of Lannister which is extremely rich and very devious.
In the same way, the War of the Roses was a conflict between two branches of the royal house of England, the Plantagenets. The two rival branches were the northern House of York and the southern House of Lancaster. The Yorkists and Lancastrians had reputations parallel to the Starks and the Lannisters respectively.
War of the Roses - the Houses of Lancaster and York ( AGZYM)
One of the causes of the War of the Roses was when King Henry VI who was forced out in favor of Edward IV because King Henry VI was considered unfit to rule because of mental health issues. This is similar to how the War of the Usurper started with the overthrow of the insane, tyrannical King Aerys II Targaryen by Robert Baratheon.
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The Game of Thrones Weapon of Mass Destruction Existed in Greece
Another example, on a smaller scale, would be the naval Battle of Blackwater. In the battle, Tyrian Lannister orders the use of magical fire called “wildfire” to destroy the enemy fleet commanded by Stannis Baratheon. The magical green fire appears to light water on fire and destroys many of the enemy ships. This is very similar to the real world second Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-718 AD) where the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, was used by the Byzantines against the Arab fleet.
A Byzantine ship uses Greek fire against a ship of the rebel, Thomas the Slav, 821. 12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes (Public Domain)
Greek fire was of unknown composition, but it was probably some sort of chemical that was flammable and lighter than water. Thus, a layer of the substance floating over a body of water could be lit on fire, giving the appearance that the water itself was burning, similar to the way that gasoline can be ignited while in water since it is lighter than the water and thus does not mix. The main difference between Greek fire and “wildfire” of course is that the former was (probably) made through science whereas the latter was made through magic.
Game of Thrones Assassinations
One particularly dramatic assassination scene in the Game of Thrones is when King Joffrey I Baratheon keels over and dies during his wedding after drinking wine that was poisoned. Although there were many kings and nobles who were poisoned in history, a particularly close parallel would be the Medieval prince Eustace of Boulogne who is said to have died mysteriously in a feast in 1153. He was apparently considered to be an evil man who caused a lot of suffering for many people. It is thus not unbelievable that he was poisoned just like Joffrey.
Another underhand murder plot unfolds at the ‘Red Wedding’ where Rob Stark, several of his family members, and many of his soldiers are slaughtered at a wedding feast by disgruntled allies of the House of Lannister. What may be either reassuring or disturbing depending on how you look at it is that the Red Wedding may have been inspired by real events.
The Black Dinner (Den of Geek)
One such event, called the Black Dinner, is where the king of Scotland invited a sworn enemy, the Earl of Douglas, to a feast. He promised that the Earl would not be harmed. Part way through the feast, however, the Earl was served a black boar’s head, an omen of death. Shortly afterwards, the unfortunate least favorite of the king was hauled to courtyard and put to death. In another account, known as the Glencoe Massacre, a clan called Campbell invited its rival clan, MacDonald, to spend the night. During the night, however, the Campbells killed all the MacDonald men in their sleep.
Replacement Limbs Happened
Over the course of the series, Jaime Lannister has his hand cut off and replaced with a golden hand. This is comparable to the real-world Gottfried von Berlichingen, a German knight whose severed hand was replaced with an iron hand after his fleshly one was blown off with a cannon.
The prosthetic metal hand of Gottfried von Berlichingen (Public Domain)
An Ancient Game of Thrones Comparison
In addition to Medieval history, there may also be references to classical history. In the books, though not the Game of Thrones series, Lyanna Stark, the sister of Eddard Stark, is kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen. This is one of the events that triggers the War of the Usurper or Robert’s Rebellion. The story depicted is similar to the story of Lucretia. Lucretia was a Roman woman who was raped by the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, the last Etruscan king of Rome. This crime outraged the Romans who subsequently overthrew King Tarquin. This was quickly followed by the establishment of the Roman republic, at least so the story goes.
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The Rape of Lucretia (by Felice Ficherelli, 17 th century) (Public Domain)
Another example of a parallel between Game of Thrones and real-world history might be the order of the Sparrows, a religious movement within the Faith of Seven, the major religion of Westeros. The Sparrows believe the religious establishment of Westeros to be corrupt and decadent, advocating humility and poverty. This mirrors the Protestant Reformation during which the former monk, Martin Luther, denounced the Medieval Catholic Church and accused it, among many other things of a more theological nature, of having become corrupt and more concerned about money and power than spiritual renewal.
The Wider Game of Thrones World
In addition to depicting European cultures and events from European history, there are also ethnic groups featured in the show which appear to be derived from non-European cultures. An example of this would be the Dothraki, a dangerous group of nomads who dwell on the continent of Essos. In the world of the Game of Thrones, the Dothraki pillaged the Kingdom of Sarnor and the Qaathi cities several centuries before the books or the television series start. This is comparable to the Mongol threat which came to bear on European and Asian civilizations in the 13th century. It can also be compared to the invasion of Attila the Hun in the 5th century AD which rocked the late Roman Empire.
Detail of Attila the Hun from ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’ (1847) by Eugène Delacroix. (Public Domain)
Family Matters in Game of Thrones
Incest is something that, in the past, was more common in royalty than in the general population mainly for dynastic reasons. Ruling dynasties wanted to keep the throne in the family, so they would ensure that their children married into the family even if that meant marrying their siblings.
A Game of Thrones depiction of this tendency among royals towards incest in the series is Cersei Lannister who engages in an incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime. There is actually a close real-world parallel in the form of a rumor about Ann Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII. One of the reasons that she was executed by the king may have been related to an accusation that she had slept with her brother.
Another example of a real-world parallel of a frowned upon relationship can be drawn between Talisa Stark and Elizabeth Woodville. Rob Stark seriously angers certain parties when he marries Talisa even though she is not wealthy and has no significant family connections. This is very similar to what happened to Edward IV when he married Elizabeth Woodville more out of her beauty than her status. This gained Edward IV enemies including a former ally, the Earl of Warwick, who aided Henry VI in overthrowing him in 1470, as a result. The reason for such a reaction was that a marriage based on romance rather than social or political considerations compromised the political and social ambitions of the nobility.
Elizabeth Woodville (1437–92), Queen Consort of Edward IV of England (Public Domain)
The best stories are those that contain some realism. These stories, since they are based on real-world events, have an air of credibility since something like them actually happened. This is probably also true of the most enduring myths. They endure so long because there probably is some truth to them. The story of Game of Thrones is fictional, but many of the themes and situations it discusses are realistic situations that actually happened to someone once. It may be partly for this reason that it is so appealing.
Top image: View of the Castle of Zafra, Campillo de Dueñas, Guadalajara, Spain. The castle was built in the late 12th or early 13th centuries (CC BY SA 4.0)
By Caleb Strom
“1455: War of the Roses.” History.com. Available at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-war-of-the-roses
Taplin, Oliver. Greek fire. Vol. 4. Jonathan Cape, 1989.
“Seven Historical Parallels to Game of Thrones” by Christian Bond (2014). Mental Floss. Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/56558/7-historical-parallels-game-thrones