I’m reading “A Song of Ice and Fire”

When I’m not working on my dissertation, I’m barreling through George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. You may know it better as the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

I love it.

Even though I’ve been familiar with the series for a while, it took the television show to get me to read the books. The fifth novel, the long-awaited (for longer-term fans, that is) “A Dance With Dragons,” comes out next week. I decided to try to read the first four before then.

While the novels most definitely fall into “fantasy” territory — their entire world is fictional and includes magic and supernatural creatures — they stand out to me for two reasons. The first is their extreme realism, or as much realism as a fantasy series can get. They have a depth, a moral ambiguity and a complex social and cultural fabric that would be impressive in a mainstream fiction novel, let alone one in which virtually everything stems from the author’s imagination.

The second reason I love them is that they contain what I like to think of as a dog whistle for British history enthusiasts. It’s completely possible to read and love the series without ever thinking about its real-world parallels, but I loved reading it and picking out its historical counterparts. Martin based the series at least in part on the Wars of the Roses, and you can plainly see our own world history in the story.

  • Westeros, the continent on which most of the story unfolds, was originally settled by rural “children of the forest” and subsequently invaded by the First Men, Andals and the Targaryens. I interpreted these to be the Celts/Picts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, in that order. Like the Normans, the Targaryens came from an eastern landmass and brought their own language and culture. Like Aegon the Conquerer, William the Conquerer consolidated independent kingdoms and clans.
  • The southern kingdom of Dorne, the last to join the Seven Kingdoms, reminds me somewhat of Wales.
  • The brother-against-sister civil war in the series is a clear parallel to Matilda and Stephen in English history, and even had the same outcome (the brother defeated his sister, but her son succeeded to the throne).
  • Like the long Plantagenet line, the Targaryens ruled for several hundred years. A dynastic shake-up in the series that occurred roughly two generations before the novel’s present could be a parallel to Henry IV overtaking Richard II.
  • Robert Baratheon and his line appear to Yorkist, overthrowing their Lancaster/Targaryen cousins, and sending the surviving heirs into hiding/exile. By plotting her return to Westeros from across the Narrow Sea (i.e. the English Channel), Daenerys Targaryen reminds me of Henry VII.
  • Henry VI suffered from a mental breakdown, and though he never became murderous, it is easy to identify him with Aerys II Targaryen, the murdered Mad King.
  • Robert Baratheon is a clear Edward IV figure, a warrior-king who eventually fell into excess. His victories in the Trident, where he first won his crown, and against Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion remind me of Edward IV’s Towton and Tewkesbury.
  • Robert’s queen, Cersei Lannister, and their son, the eventual king Joffrey, appear to be a composite of Margaret of Anjou and Edward of Lancaster (Edward VI’s wife and son), and Elizabeth Wydville and Edward V (Edward IV’s wife and son). Like Margaret, Cersei is the real power behind the throne and “scheming.” Like Elizabeth, she’s protective of her children and has to contend with outside interests when her son becomes king. Like Edward of Lancaster, Joffrey’s parentage is suspect and he has violent, cruel tendencies. Like Edward V, he succeeds his father as king at a young age.
  • Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis, and Cersei’s, Tyrion and Jaime, display various aspects of Edward IV’s brothers, George and Richard. One is blamed for his nephew’s murder (Tyrion, like Richard) while two openly defy the line of succession (Renly and Stannis, like George and Richard). Another killed the previous king (Jaime, like George and Richard, allegedly).
  • Tywin Lannister is akin to Warwick the Kingmaker, in that his immense wealth sustains the crown, and his loyalties shift based on expediency. Mace Tyrell, a powerful lord whose daughter weds three kings in succession (like the Neville girls wed kings and/or heirs to the throne), is also reminiscent of Warwick.
  • The basic geography of Martin’s world is extremely similar to our own. Westeros is Britain on a larger scale, while Essos is the mega continent of Europe and Asia, and Southros is like Africa. The free cities of Essos are very similar to the duchies and city-states of Germany, France and Italy, while its eastern desert is like the Middle East and the mysterious Asshai is Asia (they even look/sound similar).
  • Northern Westeros is divided from the south by an ancient wall (similar to Hadrian’s), and is home to tribal groups that southerners consider socially inferior — a nod to the Scots. Like England, the Seven Kingdoms also have a distinct north/south dichotomy in terms of wealth and culture.
  • Finally, and perhaps most tragically, Ned Stark reminds me of William Hastings, Edward IV’s honorable friend who ended up on the wrong side after the king’s death and found himself short a head.

I’m sure that other similarities exist, but those are the principal ones. Other characters in the series, such as the Stark children, do seem to be relatively independent of exact historical parallels, but the groundwork is there, plain as day. That just makes it more interesting and adds a different perspective to the reading. Note that I’m not sure that those exact parallels are the ones Martin had in mind; they’re just what came to me as I was reading. The series is long and grueling in places — the third book, though the best, is also a beast — but well worth the time and energy for a great story. I can’t wait until next week when I can pick up the fifth book. And yes, I’m a geek.

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