10 Sources That Inspired Game of Thrones' Dark Storytelling

Katharine Trendacosta and Charlie Jane Anders

At last, fans of the Game of Thrones TV series fully understand the anguish that readers of George R.R. Martin's novels have long since suffered. Why? Why do these terrible things happen? One reason is that Martin's source material is equally brutal and horrific. Here are 10 sources that Martin drew on for his epic fantasy tale.

Top image: The Glencoe Massacre by James Hamilton.

Major spoilers here for those who aren't up to date with the TV series...


1) Hadrian's Wall

The massive wall that protects Westeros from the Wildlings and the Others is based on the very real Hadrian's Wall. As Martin said in an 2000 interview:

Well, some of it will be revealed later so I won't talk about that aspect of it, but certainly the Wall comes from Hadrian's Wall, which I saw while visiting Scotland. I stood on Hadrian's Wall and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier sent here from Italy or Antioch. To stand here, to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest. Of course fantasy is the stuff of bright colors and being larger than real life, so my Wall is bigger and considerably longer and more magical. And, of course, what lies beyond it has to be more than just Scots.

2) J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

You probably won't be surprised to hear that Martin borrowed a lot from Tolkien for his epic fantasy series. Both the idea of a "secondary world," in which certain things (like the seasons) are very different, but also the initial structure. Tolkien was "my great model" for the handling of the characters in Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has said. Lord of the Rings "begins with a tight focus, and all the characters are together. Then by end of the first book the Fellowship splits up, and they have different adventures." Apart from Daenerys, all of Martin's characters are together in his first book, and they all split into groups, which eventually split up as well. Adds Martin: "The intent was to fan out, then curve and come back together. Finding the point where that turn begins has been one of the issues I’ve wrestled with." Another major influence from Tolkien: the restrained use of magic. You don't see Gandalf casting a lot of spells or throwing fireballs in the Lord of the Rings saga. When there's danger, Gandalf mostly pulls out his sword.


3) The conventions of television writing

Martin told Time Magazine that writing for network TV (including Beauty and the Beast) taught him the importance of the "act break." This means going to a commercial on a moment of "revelation, a twist, or a cliff-hanger." He wanted the books to keep readers engaged, so he "tried to end every chapter with an act break." This doesn't mean he wanted to always end chapters with cliffhangers, though: "A cliff hanger is a good act break certainly, but it’s not the only kind of act break. It can just be a moment… a character moment, a moment of revelation, it has to end with something that makes you want to read more about this character."


4) The Wars of the Roses

Martin has admitted he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses from 1455 to 1485 — but fans have gone even further to draw direct parallels between characters and events in his books and real historical people and events — even though Martin has insisted "there's really no one-for-one character-for-character correspondence. I like to use history to flavor my fantasy, to add texture and verisimilitude, but simply rewriting history with the names changed has no appeal for me. I prefer to re-imagine it all, and take it in new and unexpected directions." For example, some people see the Starks and Lannisters as the Houses of York and Lancaster, and Bran and Rickon as the "Princes in the Tower," among other things. Robert Baratheon is either Henry IV or Henry V, depending on whom you ask.


5) Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

People have pointed out some similarities between Williams' four-book series and Martin's seven-book one. Including Mongol-esque horse warriors, monsters in the frozen North, pet wolves and a boy who likes to run along the rooftops. And in fact, Martin freely admits reading this series "was one of the things that inspired me" to write A Game of Thrones. Fantasy had gotten "a bad rep for being very formulaic and ritual," said Martin. "And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, 'My god, they can do something with this form,' and it’s Tad doing it. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series."


6) Historical Fiction

Martin has spoken of his admiration for historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Frank Yerby, Sharon Kay Penman and Philippa Gregory. He tried to get some of the "grittiness and realism and complexity of historical fiction" into his fantasy writing, as a counterpoint to the "wonder and imagination" of fantasy works. He felt that Tolkien's imitators had created a sort of "Disneyland Middle Ages," and he wanted to bring some realism back to the fantasy genre.


7) Classic SF and Fantasy

Martin's world combines dragons and zombies, and often feels like it has elements of different subgenres in other ways as well. That carefree approach to genre probably comes from Martin's childhood reading habits. He's said that he read Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert A. Heinlein, Eric Frank Russell, and Andre Norton "pretty much interchangeably" and that he has always loved science fiction, horror, and fantasy and moved between them "pretty freely." His father just called it "weird stuff." And more than that, he sees them as being really similar, saying "I think that for science fiction, fantasy, and even horror to some extent, the differences are skin-deep... An elf or an alien may in some ways fulfill the same function, as a literary trope."


8) Real Mating and Courtship Practices

Martin points to lots of historical precdents he drew on for various aspects of his sex and courtship practices in these books. The incest between Jaime And Cersei Lannister alludes to real historical practices, including the practice of incest in the Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt and the recent European monarchies, which famously had a bit of an inbreeding problem. Marrying off 13-year-old girls, like Daenerys, was a common practice in the Middle Ages, even if you can't really show this on television. And arranged marriages, like most of the unions in these books, were an incredibly common practice, and people never ran off or married the stableboy instead. "This never fucking happened. It just didn’t," says Martin. "There were thousands, tens of thousand, perhaps hundreds of thousands of arranged marriages in the nobility through the thousand years of Middle Ages and people went through with them."


9) World Religions

Martin invented a few religions for his book series, but they have their roots in real-life faiths. For example, the Faith of the Seven, based on seven aspects of one god, is derived from the Christian Holy Trinity and the Mother, Maiden, and Crone come from Pagan views. Or in Greek mythology, it's the Fates who embody this aspect, while the Father, Smith and Warrior come from "abrahamic" masculine elements. Meanwhile, the Lord of Light, R'hllor, is roughly based on Zoroastrianism and the Cathars (who were destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade.)


10) Real-Life Massacres

And finally, the Red Wedding is inspired by two events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre. In the Black Dinner (1440), the king of Scotland was fighting the Black Douglas clan, but he still offered William Douglas, the 6th Earl of Douglas, and his brother safe passage. When he came to Edinburgh, they had a feast which ended with the Earl being presented with the head of a black bull (or boar, depending on the account), which was a symbol of death. The Earl and his brother faced a mock trial before being executed. The Glencoe Massacre was in 1692, where 38 members of the clan were murdered by those who had accepted their hospitality. As for the rules of hospitality, which say a host cannot harm a guest, Martin says those are directly "stolen from history."


Bonus: The Multiple Viewpoints Came from Wild Cards:

The interlocking viewpoints in Martin's series largely came from his experience editing the Wild Card series:

I gained a great deal of experience doing this with the Wild Card series. If you are familiar with it, you'll know that every third book was a mosaic book where we had six or seven authors writing from their own characters' point of view. We had a common timeline — "the weather will be sunny," "somebody gets murdered at noon in the park" — and then each author would have their own story lines that we would review to make sure they all matched together. I was the editor. It wasn't so much being an editor as the chief wild man at the mad house. It was interesting because we had characters crossing paths and working at cross-purposes. So when I started writing this novel it was really a Wild Cards collaboration with me writing all the parts.


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