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A Game of Thrones: The Norse and the North
In George R. R. Martin’s first novel A Game of Thrones from the saga A Song of
Ice and Fire, the story centers on a mythical land called Westeros and its ruling
families, primarily focusing on the Northern family called the Starks of Winterfell.
While the main inspiration for Martin’s A Game of Thrones has a foundation in the
War of the Roses, Martin also includes several major Norse themes that are
exhibited by the Stark family, representing a combination of his own Scandinavian
studies and influences drawn from J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Specifically,
Martin’s Norse themes are reflected in his chronicles of the Stark Family with battles
for inheritance, outlawry, wolves, Valkyries, and Ragnarok. As a result, the Northern
Kingdom of the realm of Westeros demonstrates a clear likeness to Norse and
Icelandic literature in the form of an inheritance battle between brothers Robb Stark
and Jon Snow, Jon’s outlawry as a bastard son being punished in his ‘exile’ to the
Wall, a Valkyrie-esque mother Catelyn Stark urging her son, Robb on to war, the
Stark family’s clan kinship with wolves as their sigil, and their motto ‘Winter is
Coming’ similar to the apocalyptic Norse Myth ‘Ragnarok.’
When George R. R. Martin published A Game of Thrones in 1996, he garnered
Norse elements from several sources of inspiration, notably from J. R. R. Tolkien’s
Lord of the Rings and also from classes he took as a student at Northwestern
University. In particular, while taking a course on Scandinavian history, Martin
received his first professional rejection letter from the American Scandinavian
Review after being prompted by his professor to submit a historical fiction piece
(Newsmakers). Even though Martin majored in journalism while at Northwestern,
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his bodies of work as a writer predominantly reflect his interests in medieval and
Scandinavian history. Consequently, when Martin began writing A Game of Thrones,
he acknowledged that the largest source of inspiration was Tolkien’s Lord of the
Rings, which also features similar Scandinavian themes, and the English War of the
Roses (Newsmakers). However, when Martin borrowed elements of warfare from
Tolkien with “the kingdoms of men [and] dark armies of…. ringwraiths,” (Serwer) he
modified the material to reflect his own interpretations of Scandinavian history. As a
result, while Tolkien’s characters are either starkly villains or heroes, Martin’s
heroes are also villains, being “old bullies who father… children out of wedlock”
(Serwer) and therefore closer to Viking characters who exhibit factions of both good
and evil. In addition, Martin’s more distinctly Norse characters contend with bastard
sons fighting trueborn sons, and involve mistresses, and other marital relations
reminiscent of the Viking Sagas of the Volsungs or People of Laxardal. Ultimately,
although Martin consciously copies elements of war and the battle for inheritance
from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he also utilizes his own knowledge of Norse
mythology in A Game of Thrones with the inclusion of outlawry as a form of
punishment, bastardry, Valkyries, and an apocalyptic ‘Ragnarok’ doomsday.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Northern providence of Winterfell, a
large portion of the land of Westeros. Specifically, the story centers on Lord Eddard
Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, and his family’s trials in the
aftermath of a rebellion against the Targaryens, the previous ruling dynasty of
Westeros. In particular, the Starks of Winterfell are afforded distinct characteristics
from the other ruling families of Westeros, especially their doomsday motto ‘Winter
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is Coming’ ultimately preparing for an impending decade-long winter, but also for
their sigil, the direwolf. The Stark children Jon, Robb, Sansa, Bran, Arya, and Rickon
all exhibit the kinship with wolves as six direwolf pups are found in the forest, four
boys and two girls, precisely match the genders of the children themselves.
When Eddard leaves for Winterfell for the job of Hand of the King in the
capital city of Westeros, he leaves behind two fifteen year-old boys in his stead – his
legitimate heir, Robb, born to his wife Catelyn Stark, and his bastard born son, Jon
Snow. Both sons are in potential competition for the seat of Winterfell should
Eddard die. Catelyn is preoccupied with asserting Robb’s trueborn right to inherit
Winterfell, offering him guidance as the future ruler in a Valkyrie-esque manner,
and consistently downplays and undermines Jon’s rights to Winterfell, working
directly to remove him as a potential competitor. Bastard Jon Snow is then sent
(effectively exiled) to the farthest North region known as the Wall, joining the
brotherhood of the Night’s Watch whose vows mean that he can make no claim to
Winterfell, but instead faces his own imminent threats from the undead people and
wildlings beyond the Wall, battling alongside other criminals and outlaws of society.
When Eddard is taken as a political prisoner in the capital of Westeros, Catelyn
focuses on aiding Robb’s quest to rescue his father rather than defending his claim
to the North, by gathering together a force of subservient lords of the North, like the
Greyjoys, and negotiating loyalties amongst other houses.
However, as the novel comes to an end, Eddard is unjustly executed during a
power grab for the Iron Throne of Westeros, making Robb’s claim to the inheritance
of the North critical. Not only does Robb then take up the physical seat at Winterfell,
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he also takes on the task of avenging his father’s death, a job that Jon, now apart of
the Nights’ Watch Brotherhood, is unable to take. Moreover, Robb asserts himself by
taking the mantle of King of the North, under the suggestion from his mother and
fellow lords, thereby separating his domain from the King in Westeros. As a result,
the novel concludes with Robb fighting his way to the Westeros capital King’s
Landing, with his mother Catelyn at his side, while Jon fights off undead White
Walkers far North of the wall, alluding to the impending ‘Winter [that] is Coming,’
The battle for the inheritance of Winterfell between Robb Stark and Jon Snow
is one of the explicitly Norse themes immediately evident in A Game of Thrones.
Specifically, the battle between Robb and Jon begins early, with the differences
emphasized in their physical features, names, and status, but places them as equals
due to their blood relationship. In terms of birth order, Robb and Jon are set on a
collision course because they are born in the same year, Robb to Catelyn, and Jon,
brought home by Ned from an affair with a supposed prostitute. In particular, Robb
and Jon’s competition echoes a similar instance within an Icelandic Saga called the
People of Laxardal, between Hoskuld and his two sons, Thorliek and Olaf Peacock.
While Thorliek is Hoskuld’s legal son, Hoskuld favors his bastard-born, Olaf, stating
he had “never seen a handsomer or more distinguished-looking child,” (Smiley 289).
Not only does Hoskuld’s favoritism create animosity between Thorliek and Olaf’s
mothers, but it also lessens the significance of the sons’ blood, since they are both
recognized as Hoskuld’s sons, and more emphasis on their later accomplishments.
As with Hoskuld and Olaf, Eddard favors Jon, not just in bringing his bastard home
from the war, but “calling him ‘son’ for the North to see,” (Martin 54) and going as
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far as to defend Jon from his wife Catelyn when she tries to send Jon away, stating
“he is [of] my blood” (Martin 54). Moreover, as the boys grow up together they
compete physically in racing horses and play-fighting, thereby continually testing
one another where “Robb is a stronger lance, [and Jon is] the better sword,” (Martin
44). In addition, Robb and Jon differ in physical appearance, name, and status. Robb
is “big and broad… with his mother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue
eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun,” (Martin 13) whereas Jon is dark, with grey eyes,
looking “more like Ned than any of [his] trueborn sons,” (55). Robb and Jon are
known by different last names too, which is “the simplest form of inheritance…
children receive the names… of their parents” as Robb’s surname is Stark, whereas
Jon’s is Snow (Drout 204). Their individual status is also marked at court; as a
Prince of Winterfell, Robb is seated “with the royal children” and other nobles, but
Jon takes “his place on the bench among the younger squires,” (41). However, for all
their differences, Robb and Jon share Stark blood, which equalizes them in terms of
rights of inheritance. Within the Norse inheritance system there are two criteria
where “some may benefit more from a greater emphasis on blood, others might gain
more under a more deeds-focused system,” (Drout 203). As a result because “blood
inheritance was not enough” (Drout 206) Robb and Jon’s deeds will ultimately
determine who inherits Winterfell. That test occurs when Eddard is taken prisoner
and executed. Both Robb and Jon individually attempt to avenge their father, but
Robb is more successful, raising an army and riding to Kings’ Landing, while Jon is
prevented by his vows to Nights’ Watch from riding to the capital, having been
‘outlawed’ by Catelyn Stark.
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Jon’s outlawry by Catelyn Stark is another of the major Norse elements
included by Martin to demonstrate his knowledge of Scandinavian history.
Specifically, since Catelyn sees Jon as a threat to Robb’s ‘rightful’ inheritance of
Winterfell, she mandates that Eddard send Jon into an ‘exile’ at the farthest North of
Westeros, to the Wall. Consequently, Jon’s outlawry to the Wall represents a
common “prerogative of the crown… often used as a political weapon to remove
enemies or powerful rivals… by exiling them,” (Lindahl, McNamara, Lindow 748).
The Wall, essentially a massive wall of ice that divides the lands of Westeros from
the Far North, is guarded by a brotherhood of exiles and outlaws called the Night’s
Watch. The Night’s Watch itself includes some men of noble rank, a category that Jon
fits, but also serves as a place of banishment for Westeros’ criminals, with “debtors,
poachers, rapers, thieves, bastards… and all other monsters” (Martin 104), all of
whom have chosen exile to the Wall as their punishment instead of death. Similarly
in Norse literature “outlawry remained a common punishment for lawbreakers,
particularly for those who committed crimes against society,” (Lindahl, McNamara,
Lindow 748) emphasized in the Saga of the Volsungs with the exile of Sigi for killing
his kinsmen (Byock 35). Although Jon is not convicted of killing his kinsmen like
Sigi, his outlaw sentence to the Wall and the vows he takes to become a member of
the Nights’ Watch represent a critical factor that prevents him from contesting with
Robb as the vows state “I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children… wear
no crowns and win no glory,” (Martin 436) therefore voiding Jon’s claims to the
throne of Winterfell. In effect, Jon’s outlawry to the Wall alongside other criminals of
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society removed him as a political threat to Robb’s inheritance and his vow to
Night’s Watch solidifies his permanent exile.
However, Catelyn Stark’s actions in Jon’s outlawry reflect another important
aspect of Norse mythology regarding the use of Valkyries. Traditionally, Valkyries
were “female spirits… who wait on the warriors in Valhalla…[carrying] out Odin’s
commands while battles rage,” (Davidson 61). Although Catelyn never explicitly
fights on the battlefield in defense of her son, Robb, she acts as a Valkyrie in several
other ways by guiding Robb as a young hero, inciting Robb to seek revenge for
Eddard’s execution, and even strategizing Robb’s war plans. In the first instance, not
only does Catelyn advocate that Jon to be sent to the Wall, thus defending Robb’s
claim to Winterfell, but she also assists in Robb’s transition to becoming the Lord of
Winterfell, “[making] him part of councils” (Martin 54). Her guidance of Robb
validates her as a guardian spirit, a different type of Valkyrie, “encourage[ing] and
support[ing] young warriors, especially princes, throughout life” (Lindahl,
McNamara, Lindow 1015). Furthermore, when Eddard is executed, Catelyn
performs a “hvöt… a lament for the deceased” (Borovsky 16), mourning the loss of
her husband and old life, calling for vengeance in front of Robb’s war council. Thus,
after her public lament, Catelyn’s role as a Valkyrie extends into the traditional role
in warfare when she watches Robb’s battles “high on a ridge [and listens to] the hiss
of arrows, the thunder of drums,” (Martin 584). When the battle ends, Catelyn even
issues commands to Robb’s soldiers to take Robb’s prisoner, Jamie Lannister, “away
and put him in irons,” (Martin 585). Although Catelyn never actually stands on a
battlefield, she clearly acts as a Norse Valkyrie by defending Robb and his claims to
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Winterfell, inciting him to seek revenge for his father’s death, and commanding his
troops.
Separate from fighting over inheritance, outlawry, or Valkyries, the Stark
family’s sigil, the direwolf, also demonstrates a Norse influence whereby the wolf
epitomizes two distinct factions of the Starks, and acts as a guardian spirit to the
Stark children. The direwolf is depicted as “grey… racing across an ice-white field”
(Martin 12) on the family banners. While the wolf has a negative connotation, as an
“archetype of chaos” (Lindahl, McNamara, Lindow 1057), there are actually two
ideologies surrounding the wolf in Norse myth including a “wolf beneficent… as
Odin’s noble guardian” (1057) and “wolf malevolent” (1057). In particular, when the
Stark men come across a litter of direwolf pups in the woods, the pups match with
both the children’s gender, and the divisions of nobility in the family by their color.
There are “five pups, three male, and two female” (Martin 16) that match up with
the trueborn three Stark boys and two Stark girls, plus a sixth pup, almost left
behind because he is so far from the litter, that symbolizes Jon. In their color, the
pups signify the divisions of status between the trueborn children and bastard-born
Jon because the sixth pup has “white fur [with piercing red eyes] where the rest of
the litter was grey” (Martin 17). In essence, they divide the noble children, like
Odin’s guardians, from the ‘malevolent’ bastard. Subsequently, as the wolves grow,
despite the status divisions, all six become guardians to their individual Stark child.
Indeed, one instance that epitomizes the Stark connections to their wolves occurs
when Jon is under a verbal attack from Tyrion Lannister. Jon turns away, unable to
respond verbally against the lord for fear of retaliation, but his direwolf, Ghost,
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lunges at Tyrion, getting between them, not growling but “looking at him with those
bright red eyes,” (Martin 105) attacking Tyrion physically where Jon cannot.
Therefore, the Stark family direwolf sigil represents one part of a twofold inference
of Norse mythology, where the wolves mirror the children’s identities and serve as
their guardians.
The Stark family motto ‘Winter is Coming’ represents another clear inference
to Norse mythology by specific parallels to the doomsday legend of ‘Ragnarok.’ For
the Starks, their house ‘words’ represent the long-standing prediction of a mass
winter sweeping across Westeros, where the undead rise, and the apocalypse
commences. Similarly, ‘fimbulvetr,’ a precedent to ‘Ragnarok’ reflects a “catastrophic
winter… with snow from every quarter, great frosts, and sharp winds… pitting
brother against brother,” (Lindahl, McNamara, Lindow 63) which echoes the Stark’s
words. Even the idea of the undead White Walkers, although not specifically
referenced in fimbulvetr, alludes to two separate Norse beliefs in the draugr,
Scandinavian ghosts, and the warriors of Valhalla that come to fight at Ragnarok
alongside Odin. While in the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow comes across one of these
White Walkers when he is standing guard one night, seeing “a shadow in the
shadows… eyes [shining] with icy blue radiance” (Martin 473). When neither his
sword, nor wolf can kill the dead man, Jon resorts to fire to defeat the animated
corpse. Coincidently, the White Walkers resemble Scandinavian legends of the
draugr, “Scandinavian ghosts, or… animated corpses that frequently come out of
their barrows, and walk… [occurring] frequently in the evening” (Chadwick 54).
Moreover, the White Walkers can be warriors too, as is the corpse that Jon faces,
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reproducing the notion of the ‘Ragnarok’ Valhalla warriors, since “while Odin [is
not] exclusively the host of those fallen in battle… there is always a dimension to his
involvement with the dead” (Wanner 336). As a result, the Stark words ‘Winter is
Coming’ has a multi-faceted connection to Norse mythology, not just with the
connection to fimbulvetr and Ragnarok, but also with the inclusion of White Walkers
to symbolize Scandinavian ghosts and warriors of Valhalla.
In A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin drew extensively from knowledge
acquired during his Scandinavian studies at university when he created the Stark
family and North region in the land of Westeros. Consequently, there are several
evident Norse elements incorporated within the story, such as the concepts of
inheritance, outlawry, Valkyries, wolves, and Ragnarok. Specifically, the battle for
inheritance between half-brothers Robb Stark and Jon Snow parallels the Icelandic
brothers Thorliek and Olaf Peacock. Similarly, Jon’s outlawry to the Wall is distinctly
Norse since it accomplishes both his removal from the line of inheritance and
initiation into a clan of outlaws called the Night’s Watch. Catelyn Stark is also
portrayed as a Valkyrie through guiding Robb to extract vengeance for his father’s
death. Finally, the very symbols of the Stark family have direct links to Norse
mythology as the direwolf sigil is both reminiscent of Odin’s guardians, and serves
as a badge that forewarns the impending doomsday winter.
Works Cited:
Borovsky, Zoe. "Never in Public: Women and Performance in Old Norse Literature."
The Journal of American Folklore 112.443 (1999): 6-39. American Folklore
Society. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
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Byock, Jesse L., trans. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon
Slayer. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Chadwick, N. K. "Norse Ghosts (A Study in the Draugr and the Haugbúi)." Folklore
57.2 (1946): 50-65. Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin, 1964.
Print.
Drout, Michael D. "Blood and Deeds: The Inheritance Systems in 'Beowulf'" Studies
in Philology 104.2 (2007): 199-226. The University of North Carolina Press.
Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
“George R.R. Martin.” Newsmakers. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale 2011. Biography in Context.
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Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia
of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Santa Barbara (California):
ABC-Clio, 2000. Print.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 1996. Print.
Serwer, Adam. “A Liberal’s Guide to Middle Earth: HBO’s New Show Game of Thrones
Goes Beyond the Black and White of Good Versus Evil and Delves Into the
Grey.” The American Prospect 22.4 (2011): 33+. Biography in Context. Web. 4
Mar. 2015.
Smiley, Jane. The Saga of Icelanders. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.
Wanner, Kevin J. "Gods on the Margins: Dislocation and Transience in the Myths of
Óδinn." History of Religions 46.4 (2007): 316-50. The University of Chicago
Pres. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
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