In case you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, one of the biggest phenomena in pop culture right now is the hit HBO television series Game of Thrones. The show itself is largely based on the medieval fantasy book series known as a Song of Ice and Fire by famed writer George R. R. Martin. While it's fun to be ahead of the curve and to brag about having liked the series a decade before the show debuted, I can honestly say I only started reading the books in 2009. A writeup of this type has been something I've been interested in doing for a while, but I thought the audience to appreciate it might be too narrow, so it's fortunate that the series (in one form or another) has reached a higher degree of mainstream saturation where it will make sense to a broader group of readers.

Like many works in the medieval fantasy genre, ASOIAF takes place in a world not dissimilar to our own (with horses, knights, and familiar political institutions) but still recognizably different. For example, seasons are not annual occurrences, but rather last for several years at a time. Despite the fact that the books are not set on our world (or so it seems currently; the series is on-going, so anything is possible later on) there are several commonalities and clear inspirations drawn from real history. This is a common trait of the medieval fantasy genre, seen for instance in the Lord of the Rings or even in the Elder Scrolls series of video games. For Martin's works, most of the references to the real world are essentially background information (i.e. relating to events that take place before the events of the main story) but are still important to understanding the setting of ASOIAF. By necessity, this write-up may contain minor spoilers, but I will take pains not to reveal major plot points.

Setting

The main events of ASOIAF take place on a continent-sized island called Westeros. To the east across the Narrow Sea is a significantly larger mass called Essos and still another to the South called Sothoros. Westeros is roughly the shape of the United Kingdom but on a much larger scale. Essos is therefore a clear parallel to Eurasia while Sothoros -- which so far has not featured into the story as a locale -- is apparently Africa-shaped. Almost the entirety of Westeros is politically united in a state called the Seven Kingdoms, which (unsurprisingly) is comprised of what used to be seven formerly independent kingdoms. At the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms is a giant wall (which is simply called the Wall) stretching from coast to coast that marks the end of Westerosi civilization and the beginning of a perpetually cold, inhospitable, uncharted land populated by people called either Wildlings (by the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms) or the Free Folk (their name for themselves). The Seven Kingdoms themselves run the gamut in climate and topography, from the moderate Riverlands, to the desolate Iron Islands, to the warm and sandy Dorne, to the mountainous Vale (and everywhere in between).

The first big historical parallel for something in ASOIAF is the Wall. It's clearly patterned after Hadrian's Wall, the defensive structure built in the first century AD at the behest of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the north of the Roman province of Britannia. Like Martin's Wall, Hadrian's extended virtually from coast to coast and was likely meant to keep troublesome northern tribes out of the better controlled south. At the very least, it was designed to regulate the flow of people in and out of the Romans' area of authority to a more manageable level. Two major points of departure from history are that the Wall in ASOIAF is designed to stop a looming threat greater than the Wildlings and that the people manning the wall are a brotherhood comprised primarily of criminals seeking an escape from their punishment known as the Night's Watch, while the men stationed at Hadrian's Wall were professional Roman soldiers. The Night's Watch is similar in some respects to the historical French Foreign Legion in that anyone can join and have his past crimes forgotten, although the oath of the Night's Watch is irrevocable and goes for the duration of one's natural life, while service in the FFL was temporary. I use the past tense because the Legion is significantly more professional and has more stringent entry requirements today that would preclude most criminals from serving in it.

While some of the regions in the Seven Kingdoms are generic to the point of being similar to just about any environment, a few of them are specific enough that real comparisons between our world and theirs can be easily established. The mountainous environment of the Vale, for example, allows for a simple comparison to the Alpine regions of Europe, complete with elaborate castles on the tops of the mountains. The southernmost kingdom, Dorne, is an analogue to the Iberian peninsula, due to its arid climate as well as its culture, which includes a love of spicy foods and a stereotypically liberated, "exotic" notion of sexuality; it's also the most ethnically diverse area of the Seven Kingdoms, perhaps an allusion to the heritage of Muslim Spain. The grim and grey Iron Islands are a troublesome collection of stones in the northwestern part of the country. Famous for several rebellions, the economy of the Iron Islands seems to be based around fishing and maritime raiding, and the very hard-hearted, laconic strength-based culture is probably derived from the Viking era in Scandinavia.

On Essos, the main area the reader is exposed to is a collection of largely coastal towns on the extreme west of the continent known as the Free Cities. The Free Cities differ in character, but are independent of one another and are collectively the remnants of a great empire that formerly controlled most of the continent. The city of Pentos, with its luxury-based maritime economy and artistic/cultural refinement, is similar to an ancient Greek island. Braavos is similar to Pentos but is more powerful, posessing as it does the Iron Bank of Braavos, which it uses to finance everything from shipping to attempted regime change in Westeros. Braavos can be compared to a Renaissance-era Italian city-state such as Venice, preferring diplomacy and finance to outright military power. Other cities fight for control over an area unhelpfully called the Disputed Lands, which is also reminiscent of the constant warfare and shifting alliances of Renaissance Italy. While the languages of the Free Cities are all different from one another, they are all ultimately derived from the language spoken by their former metropole, Valyria, which is similar to the way the Romance languages proliferated over the course of a few centuries in Europe after the fall of the Latin-speaking Roman Empire. On the Far East of Essos, the barbarous, nomadic Dothraki people are likely based on the historical Huns or Mongols, given their reverence for horses and their lack of established cities and towns.

In-World Historical Background

The easiest and most basic way to sum up the saga of a Song of Ice and Fire is to describe it as a story about many different personalities engaged in constantly shifting dynastic conflicts. As is noted on the main ASOIAF node, the main historical precedent for the story would be the War of the Roses, a series of conflicts that engulfed late medieval England over questions of succession to the throne. Indeed, the names of the two principle houses (at least in the first book/season) are Stark and Lannister, clear analogues to the Houses of York and Lancaster. Beyond the names, however, the Starks and the Lannisters bear little resemblance to their real-life counterparts, particularly because the Starks possess no ambition to rule over the Seven Kingdoms. Two other major houses, however, have more direct parallels: Targaryen and Baratheon. The Targaryens were the ruling dynasty of the Seven Kingdoms for roughly 300 years before being overthrown by a coalition of Baratheons, Starks, and Lannisters. Like the Yorks and the Lancasters, the Baratheons and the Targaryens were related, although this is seldom mentioned in the series.

A more direct comparison to the Targaryen dynasty is the Tarquinian kingship in ancient Rome. Before Rome was an empire, it was a republic, and before it was a republic, it was a kingdom. The Tarquinii were a family of partly Greek, partly Etruscan rulers who came to Rome in the 7th century BC. The last king of Rome was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (his cognomen meaning "the Proud"), an arrogant despot who alienated the nobility of Rome with his heavy-handed rule and his family's bad behavior. The dynasty was brought down at the end of the 6th century when Lucius' son Sextus abducted and raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia who committed suicide out of shame. Her male relatives (led by Lucius Junius Brutus, a distant relation of the Tarquinii) killed most of the Tarquinian family and drove the king into permanent exile. In ASOIAF, the Targaryens came to Westeros from Essos a few centuries before the events of the story take place. The last Targaryen king was Aerys II, called Aerys the Mad, who devolved into a tyrant in his last years. His son, Rhaegar, abducted Lyanna Stark, the fiancée of Robert Baratheon, who led a rebellion against the Targaryens in response. The Baratheon-Stark-Lannister alliance destroyed the Targaryen dynasty and forced the only two surviving members into (seemingly) permanent exile, although Lyanna died in the process, making the victory bittersweet.

As I mentioned earlier, Essos was dominated at one point by a powerful empire that has since collapsed by the time of the story's events. This state, the Valyrian Freehold, was based on a peninsula and was the mightiest land and sea power of the day. The peninsula itself was destroyed in a cataclysmic event known as the Doom of Valyria, the precise nature of which is still unknown. Valyria rose to prominence after fighting a series of wars with another regional power, Ghis, before completely annihilating it at the end of the final conflict. Valyrian language, culture, and technology are still prominent in the locations the empire had previously controlled, thousands of years after its collapse. Obviously, Valyria is a parallel to the ancient Roman Empire, with the spread and differentiation of the dialects and political institutions in its formerly controlled areas being the most obvious sources of inspiration. The war with Ghis is similar to the Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage, down to the ultimate destruction of the latter at the end of the final conflict. The main difference is that while the Roman Empire ceased to exist, it was not physically destroyed in an apocalyptic scenario like Valyria; in ASOIAF, the Valyrian peninsula is completely uninhabitable as a result of the Doom, even after a few millennia.

Culture

In the world of a Song of Ice and Fire, there are many obvious comparisons between the real world and theirs that are not particularly worth pointing out, such as the fact that we both use money and that prostitution exists. On the other hand, seemingly minor or insignificant details and events are based on our own culture or at least on our historical cultural heritage.

As I mentioned earlier, the Free Cities of Essos frequently engage each other in seemingly pointless and unending wars over a basically uninhabited and resource-poor area. Typically, these conflicts are not actually fought by the armies of the Free Cities themselves (as they do not seem to have their own armed forces) but rather by companies of mercenaries. While this is perhaps a commentary about the rise of private military companies in the modern era, I see it as a comparison to the semi-professional condottieri troupes of the Renaissance. Like the condottieri, the Essonian companies (with names like the Brave Companions or the Golden Company) have less interest in actually fighting and are more concerned with getting paid. The loyalty of a particular sellsword company can be easily purchased either by a city fearing invasion or a city planning one. Not surprisingly, the sellsword companies in ASOIAF are poorly regarded but are seen as something of a necessary evil.

Religion plays a major role in the series, particularly the burgeoning conflict between the main faith of Westeros and a new god from across the Narrow Sea. The state-sponsored religion in the Seven Kingdoms is similar to Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, being very centered on hierarchy and ritual. The religion is based around seven aspects of one god, similar to Christian trinitarianism. The head of the Faith of the Seven is analogous to the Pope and both male and female monastic orders exist for it. Like Orthodox Catholicism, repentance is a major component of the Faith of the Seven. A military organization known as the Faith Militant existed at one point within the church but was banned after becoming too powerful, similar to the manner in which the Knights Templar were purged from medieval Europe for identical reasons. In the northern part of the Seven Kingdoms (and beyond the Wall), people practice an almost animistic form of nature worship that has no precise comparison. Some references to Celtic paganism are possible to infer, but this might be a stretch.

Beginning in the second book/season, one of the claimants to the throne brings to Westeros a fire-obsessed religion. The practitioners of this religion put their faith in one god, R'hllor, who represents light and goodness in stark contrast to a dark and evil deity whose name cannot even be said. The savior figure of this cult is a great warrior named Azor Ahai who will one day vanquish all the darkness in the universe; one of the many plot threads still unresolved as of now is whether or not any of the characters in the books are Azor Ahai reborn. The R'hllor cult is obviously based on Zoroastrianism, with its dualistic conception of the world and its emphasis on an eternal struggle between light/good and dark/evil. Phonetically, Azor Ahai is similar to the main god of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda.

While not based on anything "historical," the other major religion readers of ASOIAF are exposed to is the one practiced by the Iron Islanders. Like everything else on the Iron Islands, the religion is tied to the sea, with the chief deity being called the Drowned God. While their conception of the afterlife (a great feast at the bottom of the ocean) is a watery variant on the Norse Valhalla, everything else about it seems to be based on H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. The main statement of faith among the Iron Islanders is "what is dead may never die," which is similar to the Lovecraftian credo "that is not dead which can eternal lie." Other in-jokes relating to krakens and a mighty folk hero called Dagon demonstrate the connection between Lovecraft and the Iron Islands.

Conclusion

There are several other connections I can think of between the real world and the fantasy world of George R. R. Martin's books, but the evidence I have for them is perhaps not as convincing as that of some of the other things I've discussed. References to the real world are of course prominent in all works of fiction, especially ones that are just ever so slightly different from the real world. For me, finding these hidden (or not so hidden, as the case may be) references only serve to enhance the story because it makes me feel as though I've unravelled some great secret. While there's obviously no one-to-one correllation between anything I've discussed and the contents of the books/show, it's pleasing to see as a student of history that these ideas and events are getting at least some type of exposure.

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