Where does George R.R. Martin turn to for inspiration when it comes to writing his epic A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books? We've been cracking open the history books to find out...
We’re big fans of Game of Thrones here at Vodafone Social, and with the show’s sixth season landing on NOW TV Entertainment this month, we can’t get the goings on in Westeros and Essos out of our minds. But how much justice does HBO’s award-winning show do to the books that inspired it?
To find out, and to glean what else we can learn from the literary side of the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) saga, we’ve been speaking to Jack McGowan – English Literature tutor and PhD research grad at Warwick University. Read on to gain a much deeper insight into everything GoT…
Shakespeare, Tolkien and UK history rolled into one
First up, let’s get literary. Game of Thrones may be a dark, adult fantasy world unlike any we’ve seen before, but where does Jack think series author George R.R. Martin get his inspiration?
“Martin definitely demonstrates a large number of influences,” he tells us; “literary, cultural, and historical. You could argue a lot of contemporary fantasy authors owe a debt to J.R.R. Tolkien, and there are certainly parallels to be made there. But I think that outside of literary influences there’s a good deal of history and folklore from many different cultures. Westerosi Sers supposedly represent the chivalry of Arthurian knights, for instance – though this virtuousness is rarely upheld.
“The Ironborn are certainly inspired by Medieval Vikings,” he explains, “and the Dothraki are analogous to Central Asian and Eastern European Nomadic cultures. George R.R. Martin has stated publicly that the Wall was influenced by a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, while major events in the books mirror real historical events – the fictional Red Wedding and the real Glencoe Massacre for example. The best fantasy authors pick their material from a wide range of sources, it helps to create a richer world.”
With April marking 400 years since the death of Shakespeare, we’d feel bad if we didn’t ask about parallels between the gruesome and dramatic happenings in ASOIAF and some of the Bard’s greatest works…
“Shakespeare himself was influenced by lots of narratives from myth, literature, and history,” says Jack, “to the extent that it can become quite hard to pick out the explicitly ‘Shakespearean’ parts. However, I do see resemblances in George R.R. Martin’s commitment to giving space to all of his characters; meek or mighty. The books are crammed full of kings, queens, and heroes but we also hear from rather less heroic mercenaries like Bronn or Daario Naharis, and from characters like Shae or Grenn or Hot Pie.
“One of the most commonly cited historical influences for the show’s eponymous ‘game of thrones’ is the 15th century ‘War of the Roses’. This period, which saw ferocious warring for the throne of England, was the source material for some of Shakespeare’s earliest history plays. If this really was an influence for George R.R. Martin I can’t imagine that he hasn’t borrowed from some of the more exciting elements of Shakespeare’s dramatizations.
“There are a lot of traditional fantasy literature tropes at play in the books too,” says Jack. “Not least the idea of light versus darkness (or fire versus ice). That said, George R.R. Martin certainly plays with a number of these by twisting them, inverting them, or even breaking them. This is part of the reason that the narrative of the series is so compelling. ‘Bad’ characters can redeem themselves, whereas ‘good’ characters frequently find themselves slipping off the moral high ground.
“Power is certainly a theme which heavily influences the way the story develops, perhaps the central theme, and I think the re-branding of ASOIAF as Game of Thrones is on point in that respect.”
Jumping from book to screen
R.R. Martin’s sabotaging of classic tropes is something that’s definitely made the transition from books to TV intact; character motivations are always more grey than black and white, and good guys get killed left right and centre with very little warning. Or so we thought. According to Jack, the books have the whole foreshadowing game nailed:
“The big challenge facing a fantasy author is to build a convincing world in the limited space they have. Even with big, door-stopper books like the ASOIAF series, there’s always a battle to hide the hard limits where the author’s description has to end and the reader’s imagination takes over. This is where a lot of the world building gets done; by the reader working with the author to fill in the gaps.
“As soon as you think you might have cracked what’s going to happen someone critical to your theory gets stabbed or poisoned or eaten by something…”
“When it comes to foreshadowing a lot of fantasy authors get this balance wrong – they do too much work for the reader and the plot twists become predictable. But as anyone who has read the books or seen the shows will know, George R.R. Martin is anything but predictable. When I think about where the books are going there are things I’m fairly sure will play out, but I’ve learnt not to put too much trust in trying to unpick the hints. As soon as you think you might have cracked what’s going to happen someone critical to your theory gets stabbed or poisoned or eaten by something and you’re back to square one.”
And that leads us on to an interesting point: with the show now having overtaken the books, and with the show needing to fit into its 10-episode seasons, there’s a building discrepancy between the two entities. So how well does Jack think the show represent George R.R. Martin’s vision?
“With book-to-screen translations it seems fairly inevitable that someone somewhere is going to be upset by something no matter how similar the ends results are,” he says.
“I tend to see the two as separate things, though I think that in all the places that count the GoT showrunners have done a great job. They’ve captured the essence of the books and the ASOIAF world while showing a lot of respect for the source material. That’s not to say that I’ve not been disappointed when one of the book characters gets ignominiously killed off before their time (or worse, when they don’t turn up at all). However, the show has to squeeze a lot in and I think they’ve managed to keep the most important parts as well as expanding on characters and plot lines.”
All of which leads us onto season six – the first time fans of the books will be watching completely new events unfold…
‘I don’t want to spoil anything…’
“I can’t wait to see what happens,” Jack says of the latest season. “We haven’t had a book from the main series since A Dance with Dragons in 2011, and though I don’t really begrudge George R.R. Martin taking his time to perfect the last two planned novels, it is great to have some more of the story earlier than we could have expected it.
“It also presents a really fascinating opportunity. I think it’s the first TV show as mainstream as Game of Thrones that has overtaken its source material. It’s something we’ve never seen before and I think it has some pretty important implications for how we as a society tell stories. I read somewhere that back in 2013 when the showrunners flew to New Mexico to meet George R.R. Martin and heard how the end of the story was going to pan out, they were there for a week with Martin to make sure that they were going to capture it right. The show and the books may end up diverging, taking different approaches to telling the story, but I’m certain that both will unfold in exciting ways.”
The big question then: where does Jack, as an ardent fan of the books, see the show ending up?
“I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t caught up with the latest books or episodes,” he says. “I think that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is a fairly clear indicator of where the endgame narrative is going, but to be honest I don’t really think that’s the most interesting part. I’m definitely looking forward to what seems to be a likely showdown between Ice and Fire and their respective champions, but there are also a heap of loose ends I want to see tied up.
“This might be smaller stuff than the fate of the world, but it’s the little details; the minor mysteries and the future of secondary characters which first caught my attention and refused to let go, and it’s these details I’d like to see resolved.”
You can watch season six unfold along with Jack and a whole world of Game of Thrones fans on NOW TV Entertainment – click here for more info. Keen reader? To help mark the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death, we’ve recently partnered with the British Library to make some of Shakespeare’s literary classics free for mobile devices. You can find loads more on that here.
A Song of Apps and Sites… Want to get your Game of Thrones fix on the go? Here are the apps, sites, downloads and streams you need in your pocket.