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Historical Inspiration for "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George Martin

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Mher is a "Game of Thrones" fan who likes to research the historical inspirations for fantasy literature.

How much of "A Song of Ice and Fire" is informed by real historical events?

How much of "A Song of Ice and Fire" is informed by real historical events?

Are the Game of Thrones Books Inspired by Historical Events?

History teaches us that power corrupts, destroys friendships and families, and makes the highest members of society live their lives in the shadow of fear. A Song of Ice and Fire's medieval setting makes us think of honor and dignity, romantic yet tragic endings, and violent societies. It's interesting to return to the history that inspires the story to try to decode the messages, thoughts, and lessons embedded in literature but sourced from history.

"Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you." —Tyrion Lannister (A Game of Thrones: 56)

This history gives us models for rulers like Daenerys and Cersei and shows us how their leadership style panned out in reality, which offers compelling predictions for how they'll fare in A Song of Ice and Fire.

"The books are about who wants power, and probably more than anything else, it's about what power costs people." —D.B.Weiss

The English Wars of the Roses

The English Wars of the Roses in the late 15th century are the books' most significant historical influence. The conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters echoes the longstanding battle between two real noble families: Lancaster and York. The name "Wars of the Roses" comes from the fact that William Shakespeare and others have written that the Lancaster family used a red rose as an emblem, while the York family used a white rose.

At first, the Lannisters are much like the victorious Lancastrians. The Starks are like the Yorkists, many of whom were killed. The names even sound similar: Lannister-Lancaster and Stark-York. The families' respective emblem colors are also similar.

Another name for the Wars of the Roses was the "Cousins Wars" since the noble families were related. The brutal and tragic deaths in A Song of Ice and Fire are not just for ratings or excitement; they highlight the gruesome realities of these historical wars like the Wars of the Roses, in which families often found themselves suddenly hunted or nearly wiped out.

Martin is hardly the first to take inspiration from these wars. Shakespeare used them as loose material for some of his most notable histories. And looking closer at the Wars of the Roses, we can see the themes that Shakespeare found so dramatic: ambition, betrayal, and family members battling each other to death. It's striking that one of the most popular books today draws from the same material that entertained crowds in the bard's day, suggesting its timeless appeal.

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." —King Henry IV (The Second part of King Henry the Fourth, Act 3, Scene I)

The famous line from Shakespeare encapsulates a key focus in A Song of Ice and Fire as well—power is never secure, just as no one ever sits comfortably on an iron throne made of sharp swords.

"I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I've won it." —Robert to Eddard Stark (A Game of Thrones: 287)

The main takeaway from the Wars of the Roses for A Song of Ice and Fire is that the greatness and rule these characters strive for can be lost in an instant. These people live at the top of society with wealth and class superiority, yet they are unsafe and insecure of their positions—they live in fear for their lives.

Henry Tudor and Daenerys Targaryen

Within the history of the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor shared some critical similarities with Daenerys Targaryen's storyline. Tudor eventually emerged triumphant in the Wars of the Roses, so this could be a good omen for Dany. A direct successor of the first Duke of Lancaster, he also claimed to be a descendant to King Arthur himself, just as Dany descends from a mythical figure: Aegon the Conqueror who united six of the seven kingdoms and established the Iron Throne.

Like Daenerys, Henry spent much of his early life in exile. And just as the Targaryens have a special connection to dragons and use the dragon and use it on their house sigil, Henry Tudor sometimes displayed Arthur's standard, a dragon. Tudor bridged an alliance with the Yorkists when he married Elizabeth of York, and his Tudor descendants ruled until 1603. If his story proves to be anything like Daenerys', she may be able to claim the Iron Throne and bring peace to the Seven Kingdoms through a strategic marriage.

Like Henry, Daenerys is an outsider who appears like a long shot for the Throne, but who represents to people a new form of rule, and an end to the infighting. However, we see that Daenerys, like others before her, finds the climb to power a slippery slope, and she risks losing track of the ideals that were easier to serve when she wasn't so close to claiming the Throne she fervently desires.

"Viserys sold my mother's crown, and men called him a beggar. I shall keep this one, so men will call me a queen." —Daenerys Targaryen (A Clash of Kings: 308)

Although there is a heated discussion on whether or not Tudor was a great king, we know that he was a successful one. He strengthened the treasury and judicial system and left the monarchy secure and wealthy for his son. His history could imply that Daenerys will be a successful leader and affect some lasting change in the end.

Margaret of Anjou, Anne Boleyn, Guinevere, and Cersei Lannister

The other queen in the picture, Cersei Lannister, channels iconic examples of the fallen or unfaithful woman from history and legend. She has a strikingly similar history to Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI—who was defeated in the Wars of Roses, again a good omen for Dany. Margaret had an unhappy arranged marriage like Cersei's to Robert Baratheon, and rumors swirled that her son Edward was illegitimate, just like Cersei's three children.

Another historical character that Cersei can relate to is Anne Boleyn, who was charged with crimes of adultery, including sleeping with her own twin brother. In Boleyn's case, the rumors might not have been true and were more likely motivated by Henry VIII's desire to get rid of his second wife via beheading.

Cersei also evokes the mythical queen Guinevere who committed adultery with King Arthur's best knight Lancelot. Guinevere was sentenced to public humiliation for these crimes like Walk of Shame in A Song of Ice and Fire, while the knightly Jaime is a twist on a Lancelot figure.

Meanwhile, Cersei's Walk of Shame is rooted in French medieval history; adultery was punishable by the man and woman being roped together naked and forced to walk through town. Although A Song of Ice and Fire adds the fantastical element and exaggerates this kind of history. Knowing that Cersei descends from these fallen women of history and legend who were vilified for their infidelity or other sexual behavior, makes the character all the more intriguing and real. And these connections help us understand that she is human underneath the many wounds she's lived through.

"You love your children, do you not? No less do I love mine." —Cersei Lannister to Eddard Stark (A Game of Thrones: 446)

Richard of York and Ned Stark

Ned Stark's fate was sealed, much like Richard of York's luck. Richard of York was the closest advisor and trusted friend of Henry VI, just as Ned Stark was to Robert Baratheon.

The wife of Henry VI, Margaret, echoing Cersei, was distrustful of Richard and did everything in her power to keep York down. Later, York was banished to Ireland but became Protector of England, similar to Ned's title of Hand of the King. York eventually died at the hands of Margaret's armies. The real-life story reminds us that, amidst the brutality, members of these warring houses did try to form bonds and alliances. We can all relate to the underlying realities of betrayals and friendships that were sacrificed to ambition.

Richard III and Stannis Baratheon

The Baratheon infighting takes after the story of Richard III, the son of the Richard of York, who was famously villainized in Shakespeare's play. Richard argued that his older brother, Edward IV's sons were illegitimate and took the Throne for himself. This reminds us of Stannis Baratheon, who claims, in this case correctly, that his nephews Joffrey and Tommen are illegitimate.

The story of Richard III is evidence of how power rots families from within, causing not just cousins and friends, but brothers, uncles, and nephews, to war. Just like the Baratheons, historical family members have pitted themselves against each other in the name of seizing the crown.

George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin

When History Informs Fantasy

Martin has blended together multiple inspirations and mixed-and-matched histories in his characters, to draw on the material that best serves his deeper themes.

"It's hard to put a leash on a dog once You've put a crown on its head." —Tyrion Lannister (A Game of Thrones: 103)

The fact that these historical truths are as relevant as ever today tells us how little we tend to learn from our own history, and how inevitably this history repeats again and again.

"If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." —Ramsay Bolton (A Storm of Swords: 544)

George R. R. Martin loaded the story with films of symbolism, usually associated with families or houses. Each family has a sigil, a sign or symbol that identifies the family, colors, words to follow, and specific qualities that characterize them. Within the story, the importance of sigils emphasizes that in this world, with its extremely structured society and its medieval echoes, a person’s origin or family mainly decides their destiny.

On the metaphorical level, A Song of Ice and Fire employs the houses to embody specific essential characteristics within human nature, which might exist in us all, but which are distributed and amplified in the individual houses. One of the more profound intrigues we feel reading about the houses battling for dominance is identifying with the dynasties that embody our own values and wondering which features of human nature may eventually prevail.

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