The Real History Behind Game of Thrones (Part one)
Game of Thrones is a series of fantasy books by acclaimed author George R.R. Martin and a highly popular television show on HBO. It is a world unto its own, but like other popular fantasy series, such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, it also has a fictional history that stretches back in time. From its beginnings to the most current episode, the storyline, characters and places share key similarities with real events and locations that have occurred in our world history.
The World of Game of Thrones and the Medieval World
The world of Game of Thrones is made up of three separate continents: namely Sothoryos, Essos and Westeros. While the lands represented in the show differ from the real world, the basic idea is clear; these places are based on the old maps of the medieval world. The world of Sothoryos is the continent of Africa, Essos is Asia, and Westeros is Britain (and to a lesser extent Europe.) For example, The “Narrow Sea”, which separates the continents of Westeros and Essos, is very reminiscent of the English channel. The division of the seven kingdoms, with a lord in each of these realms, is much like the 7 kingdoms of England - between 500 to 850 AD, England had seven self-governing kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex.
Map of Continents - Game of Thrones (Alan Parkinson/Flickr)
Another component to the makeup of Westeros is the character by the name of Aegon I Targaryen. He was a foreigner to Westeros who came and conquered the lands in a dramatic war, founding the Targarian dynasty which ruled Westeros for nearly 300 years. This is similar to William the Conqueror who crossed the English channel from Normandy in 1066 AD and created a French dynasty in England that lasted until it was pushed out of France after the 100 years war in 1453 AD “Aegon” the Targarian is often called “Aegon” the conqueror.
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One of the oldest empires in the world of Game of Thrones is known as the Ghiscari Empire. It is similar to the North African empires of the ancient world, mainly Egypt and Carthage, as well as the Persian empire. Ghiscari is the oldest known culture in the world just like Egypt was to Europe during the medieval ages.
Screencap in Old Valyria from Game of Thrones (Youtube)
Then there is the Valyrian Freehold located on the continent of Essos. At the height of its power, this empire conquered much of the known world and turned the southern sea into its own lake. It defeated the Ghiscari Empire and reigned supreme for a thousand years until a natural disaster, called the Doom of Valyria, caused its collapse. Before this cataclysm, the capital, Valyria, was the greatest city in the world with Valerians having some of the greatest technology of the day. The Valerian Freehold is thought to be the equivalent of the Roman empire with its political structure reminiscent of the Roman republic and the broken island of its capital resembling that of Greece.
Winter is Coming
In Game of Thrones, “The Wall” is a massive fortification located on the Northern border of the Seven Kingdoms that stretches 300 miles (482.8 kilometers), is approximately 700 feet (213.4 meters) high and made of solid ice and stone. 7,000 years ago, it was used for protection from a mythological race of beings known as the White Walkers.
This great Northern wall has a historical basis and was the wall the Roman Empire used to separate England from Scotland. Known as Hadrian’s Wall, it was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia.
Winter is coming. Screencap from Game of Thrones (Wiki of Ice and Fire)
The Romans were never able to conquer all of Britain so, in order to keep control of its borders, the emperor Hadrian built this wall to keep the Celts out of the Roman area of Britain. The Romans knew what they were doing when they chose a narrow neck between the Solway Firth and Tynemouth. The landscape in Game of Thrones is called the Whin Sill. During the Silurian Period (about 420 million years ago) this long slab of granite rock broke up through the surface, creating a series of east-west rocky precipices with sheer cliffs facing towards the north.
Hadrian's Wall near Caw Gap (Wikimedia Commons)
The phrase “Winter is Coming” is used quite often on the show and the Starks, being the lords of the North, are always preparing for this season, which hits their lands hardest. In real history, what passes for the end of the Westeros "long summer” closely resembles the year 1300 AD. This is the period when the weather shifted from the Medieval Warm Period in northern Europe. At the time, European temperatures averaged at least 2 degrees Celsius higher (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) than they do today. When winter arrived, along with giant storms that destroyed harvests throughout northern Europe, it brought the greatest famine in Europe, and ushered in what has come to be known as the Little Ice Age.
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The Old Gods in the Forest
Another historical basis in Game of Thrones is in ancient religion. At an ancient house in the North of Westeros, the Starks follow their “Old Gods in the Forest.” Similarly, the ancient Celts of Europe believed their gods inhabited local forests, lakes and mountains and that certain animals could transmit messages with them from the gods. In the show, some characters are born with special powers or gifts which enable them to have a special relationship to animals and receive warnings from them. For example, Wargs are people with the ability to enter the minds of animals and perceive the world through their senses and control their actions.
Another example of religious similarities is in the character of Stannis Baratheon, head of the House Baratheon of Dragonstone. He follows the advice of the “Red Woman,” known as Melisandre who worships a foreign “Lord of Light” or “Great Other” called R’hllor. The faith of the R’hllor seems to have its historical roots in the ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism. In Zoroastrianism, fire is considered a means of channeling spiritual wisdom and awakening , with worshipers often praying in the presence of fire or in fire temples. Just like the followers of R’hllor, Zoroastrianism also emphasizes a great struggle and the duality between good and evil.
The Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda executed in glazed tile,Taft, Iran (A. Davey/Flickr)
The Red Wedding and the Black Dinner
The Red Wedding is an event when the Starks are betrayed and killed by the Freys during a wedding between their two respective houses. This is similar to a real historical event that occurred in Scotland known as the Black Dinner in 1440. In R.R. Martin’s words:
"The king of Scotland was fighting the Black Douglas clan. He reached out to make peace. He offered the young Earl of Douglas safe passage. He came to Edinburgh Castle and had a great feast. Then at the end of the feast, [the king's men] started pounding on a single drum. They brought out a covered plate and put it in front of the Earl and revealed it was the head of a black boar — the symbol of death. And as soon as he saw it, he knew what it meant. They dragged them out and put them to death in the courtyard.”
The Black Dinner (Den of Geek)
Truth in Fiction
The old saying by Mark Twain goes that truth is often stranger than fiction and this seems to ring true with Game of Thrones. In works of fiction and particularly fantasy, authors will often resort to referencing people, places and events in history in order to create their imaginary worlds. Such is the case with Game of Thrones where borrowing from medieval Europe seems to be done almost out of necessity. While the dragons and zombies and magical powers found in the books and show were only supernatural ideas in our world, there are historical counterparts for many of the characters - with the most obvious stemming from what is known as the War of the Roses.
Top Image: Walls of the Middle Age city of Dubrovnik, Croatia - one of the filming sites of Game of Thrones (Wikimedia Commons)
By Bryan Hill
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