What Inspired Game of Thrones, by Kate Voss
Game of Thrones has become a pop culture juggernaut, crossing from the realm of literature into a hit HBO series and helping complete the evolution of cable into the premiere platform for captivating television series. While the writing skill of George R.R. Martin is what has catapulted this property to stardom, there are many things that have been borrowed from other ‘sword and sorcery’ fantasy stories.
It is almost impossible to mention any great work of fantasy without bringing up J.R.R. Tolkien. Martin has read and enjoyed The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but he has also pulled some subtle influences from those great pieces of literature. Tolkien has a way of presenting his characters that make you care about them, and then he splits them up for their own adventures. In Song of Ice and Fire, the majority of Martin’s main characters are together but then they also splinter off into their own groups again and again. Eventually, these groups are to come around full circle, as are their respective adventures.
Other, more subtle, influences from Tolkien are present in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Much like Middle-Earth, Martin has created a whole new world which is very similar to the real one, but just different enough to help our imaginations run wild. The use of magic is also much more constrained than in other fantasy tales. George Martin, much like Tolkien before him, prefers his powerful wizards to be proficient in swordplay as well as magic casting.
Game of Thrones has often been called a derivative of the classic Conan stories and original 1982 film which, for true buffs of the genre, is being run on the El Rey network this month (channel info here). In fact, one could easily point to the ultra-violent ‘sword and sorcery’ stories of pulp writers like Robert E. Howard when describing Martin’s epic fantasy series.
Unlike Tolkien who wrote with a very straight moral compass, Howard and Martin have created characters that are more similar to each other than to any Tolkien characters. The stories of Conan feature many characters who are not perfect and act very human. These characters booze it up, have sex and aren’t always looking to be the good guy. Revenge is a key factor in both Howard and Martin’s stories, lending even more to the derivative nature of Game of Thrones.
Martin and Howard shared a love for history, but neither simply wanted to re-write history with new characters. Howard created the Hyborian Age in which to set his pulp-fiction stories, an era “outside” of real history between the fall of Atlantis and ancient civilizations we know, as a way to avoid having to research actual historical events too closely. Along these lines, Martin has created Westeros to reflect European historical themes and events, but still have the flexibility to take the events in the plot in whatever direction he chooses.
Being a history buff, Martin has said in many interviews that his main inspiration for writing his Song of Fire and Ice series was the Wars of the Roses. For 30 years, two rival houses fought for control of England’s throne – the houses Lancaster and York. Some fans have even claimed that the houses of Lannister and Stark are directly inspired by Lancaster and York. The great wall that protects Westeros could even be based off the real-life Hadrian’s Wall, which protected the Roman province of Britannia from invaders.
While George R.R. Martin has great skill in creating new worlds and adventures for us to get lost in, he owes a great deal to the greats that have come before him. To appreciate Game of Thrones is to appreciate both history and fantastical creations of the past.