It is well known that George RR Martin borrowed heavily from English history to create his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire - with almost every major plot-line (perhaps not the dragons) coming from historical events such as the War of the Roses between the Lancasters (Lannisters) and Yorks (Starks). But is there, perhaps, another key medieval influence on the Game of Thrones universe?
HBO’s Game of Thrones (based on the books by Martin) seems to draw inspiration from the Nordic peoples, and has Viking threads weaved throughout its complex tapestry of plots, subplots and imagined societies.
That being said, if you’re not completely up to date there may be spoilers ahead - so consider yourself fairly warned! Also, if you are not up to date, what in Loki's name have you been doing this past year?
Whilst there are a few groups in the Game of Thrones universe who have a ring of the Norse about them, it’s difficult to ignore the similarities between the Nordic peoples and the Ironborn, who bear them the closest resemblance.
The Ironborn are a seafaring people who constantly raid and pillage Westeros’s coastal settlements. They are fierce warriors who judge another man’s worth based on his strength and success in battle. Personal wealth is built by ‘paying the iron price’ - taking what they want from enemies they have personally killed.
Like Vikings, the Ironborn travel the seas in fast long-ships carrying a full complement of armored and ready-to-fight raiders. They attack merchant ships and coastal settlements to pillage whatever they can, carrying off treasure, women and thralls back to the Iron Islands with them.
While at first glance the religious beliefs of the Ironborn and Norse are very different - the old Norse worshiped a pantheon of Gods whilst the Ironborn are devoted to the Drowned God, there is a clear similarity in their respective views of the afterlife. The Ironborn believe that slain warriors are brought to the great, underwater halls of the Drowned God, where they feast and are attended to by mermaids. This resembles a submerged version of Valhalla - Odin’s great hall where warriors killed in battle fight every day and feast each night.
Though the way the Ironborn are portrayed on Game of Thrones has similarities with aspects of Norse culture, they aren’t a mirror image and it is also worth noting some of the ways in which they differ - lest you think you can learn everything you need to know about Vikings by watching the show!
A major difference between the Norse and Ironborn is how they spend their time, besides going on missions of pillage and plunder. As well as being warriors who were rightly feared throughout the continent, the Norse were also great traders, explorers, craftsmen, and farmers. Many Vikings were more comfortable with a mundane life. Settling land, farming and building a home your family sounds pretty nice too, right? Ironborn culture, on the other hand, strongly rejects farming or trade. As Balon Greyjoy declared, they ‘do not plow the field or toil in the mines’! Instead, the only way an Ironborn can grow rich is by paying the iron price and taking what they in battle. A warrior leaves the inconvenience of manual work to the thralls they capture on their raids. You might say, they are the hard-asses of Westeros!
The Vikings were also much stronger fighters on land than the Ironborn, who seem to struggle whenever they are too far from their ships. Vikings achieved great military success - settling and bringing much of what would become England under the Danelaw, founding the city of Dublin and the Duchy of Normandy, to mention just a handful. The strength of the Ironborn appears to rely heavily on being near to the sea and their ships, with their military tactics found wanting in when they fight on land for more than an initial attack. Consider the Invasion of the North. While the Ironborn at first succeed in capturing key strategic strongholds such as Deepwood Motte, Moat Cailin and the Stark’s seat of Winterfell, they prove utterly incapable of holding them and all are retaken with the Ironborn suffering severe casualties. Unlike the Vikings, who proved that they could secure and build on their military successes, the Ironborn don’t plan beyond their initial victories or sufficiently reinforce their new holdings for the long term. The fools!
It is clear that George RR Martin was heavily inspired by the Norse when he developed the Ironborn. However, the Ironborn are ultimately a watered-down (excuse the pun!) version of Norse culture who share similarities in their raiding nature but are much less nuanced politically and have failed to settle and impact the destiny of Westeros in the same way the Norse were able to influence medieval Europe.
The Three-Eyed Raven
Odin, the Allfather, is the chief Norse god and ruler of Asgard. Famously he sacrificed an eye, gouging it out with his own hands, in exchange for knowledge of all things. He is closely associated with two ravens - Huginn and Muninn, who fly all over Midgard (Earth) and report back to their master, bringing him news from the world of men. Because of this divine association, the raven was a symbol frequently featured on the flags of Norse armies to curry the favor of the Allfather when heading into battle.
In Game of Thrones, the Three-Eyed Raven’ is the last greenseer, a man who has lived for countless centuries and has incredible magical power. As the name he is known by suggests, he takes the form of a raven when he begins to appear in Bran Stark’s dreams following his fall.
The Three-Eyed Raven’s unnatural age, knowledge of all things and ability to see events across the past, present and future certainly share similarities with Odin’s legendary omniscience. It isn’t a stretch to link the two characters, and it’s clear that the Norse god was an influence on the character’s creation.
The links between Odin and the Three-Eyed Raven don’t stop there, either. The greenseer’s home is a cave underneath an enormous weirwood tree with roots boring deep into the ground, merging with the Three-Eyed Raven himself. This mighty tree has strong similarities with Yggdrasil - the ‘tree of life’ that connects the nine worlds in Norse mythology and is the meeting place of the gods.
The White Walkers
The Jötunn - known in English as the Frost Giants, are figures that appear in many old Norse myths. The Jötunn, despite their English name, were not necessarily physically massive - instead they were more similar to what we would think of as ‘trolls’ (the mythical, not internet kind) today. Commonly viewed as enemies of the gods of Asgard and humans of Midgard, the Jötun were functionally immortal, though they could be slain in battle. They lived in Jötunheim - a constantly snowy and frozen land separated from Midgard by high mountains and dense forests. This rough natural terrain acts as a barrier between the worlds of men and the Frost Giants, making crossing between the worlds almost impossible.
To fans of Game of Thrones, the above description of the Jötun and their frozen home of Jötunheim should be familiar - with strong shades of the White Walkers, who live in the Lands of Always Winter and are separated, until recently, from the rest of Westeros by the Wall.
Like the Jötun, the White Walkers are immeasurably old and it is only through extreme difficulty, not to mention a blade of Dragonglass or Valyrian Steel, that they can be defeated.
In Game of Thrones, Wargs are people who have the ability to enter the minds of animals - viewing the world through their eyes and, in some cases, controlling them. Several characters within the show have demonstrated this ability - Bran Stark being perhaps the most notable character to do so.
In Norse mythology, the Wargs are the mythical wolves Fenrir, Sköll, Hati and Garmr. In the books, four of the ‘natural born’ Starks - Robb, Arya, Bran and Rickon, have all demonstrated a connection with their Direwolves that implies each of them is a Warg.
If the four Starks are indeed wargs, they could be an allusion to the wolves of Norse myth - a revelation that takes on significance when you consider that Fenrir is the wolf who plays a central role in Ragnarok- the Norse prophecy telling of the end of all things. Could one of the Starks, channeling the role of the Great Wolf, be responsible for an apocalyptic end to Game of Thrones?
It’s clear that Norse culture and myth is linked to the creation, and perhaps the final outcome, of Game of Thrones. When he set out to write one of the greatest fantasy tales of modern times, it’s only natural that Martin would look to the Norse - the greatest saga tellers the world has ever known, for inspiration.