Widespread viewer enthusiasm for Game of Thrones escalates with each episode, making it the most popular and engaging show of today. The opening episode of the show’s final season (which aired 4/14/19) broke all of HBO’s previous records with a viewership of 17.4 million people. One of the joys of watching, reading, or writing fantasy is that a creator can craft their story drawing from different sources without being restricted by them. George R.R. Martin (the veteran author of the series A Song of Ice and Fire from which the show Game of Thrones is adapted from) said that he was directly inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s classic, Ivanhoe, and by the real-life history of England’s War of the Roses. But Martin clearly drew inspiration from many other sources, too. Undeniably, one of the major wells of thematic and symbolic elements in Game of Thrones is the myths and legends pulled from Norse Mythology, such as the 'Viking funeral' seen in season 3, episode 3.
As some viewers have keyed into this over the years, Norse mythology has been applied to numerous, diverse fan theories – especially as everyone tries to figure out what will happen next. This article will not tread down these paths guessing how things will end, but instead point out some of the Norse symbolism and themes that Game of Thrones has been built on thus far.
Winter is Coming: Ragnarok and Cyclical Time
From the very first episode, we heard the warning, “Winter is coming.” It has become the catchphrase of Game of Thrones. From the very beginning, the White Walkers are growing in number and strength on the other side of the Wall. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the living are embroiled in civil war, intrigues, and accelerating chaos, unaware of their imminent destruction. While we do not know what is going to happen in this final season of Game of Thrones, it has been clear from the beginning that we are headed towards a great cataclysm that could destroy everything.
The Vikings believed that their world would end in a tremendous battle between the gods and the ice giants (forces of chaos). This epic last stand is called Ragnarok. Ragnarok will happen when a great winter overcomes the earth and the ice giants breach the barrier between their domain and the domain of the gods, Asgard. This barrier is the Bifrost bridge in the legends, but the Wall in the series. To fight against this horrible doom, Odin gathers the spirits of the bravest warriors in Valhalla. Even though these Vikings may have been enemies before, they will fight together against the ice giants at Ragnarok.
Many (but not all) experts believed that the Norse vision of time was cyclical. Ragnarok may be the final destruction of everything, but it also paves the way for the rebirth of a new world and starting the entire story over again. In the Norse creation story, the world is a void between a field of ice and a river of fire, and life springs up from the interaction of these elements.
Similarly (and particularly in the novels), Martin describes a geographical and political situation much like Europe and Asia at other points in history but includes flora and fauna (such as the dire wolf) from the Late Pleistocene Era (commonly called "the Ice Age"). That era, characterized by periods of freezing weather and glacial advances, ended 11,700 years ago – long before recorded history began. Ned Stark saying, "winter is coming" as he stands in the snow is referring to a longer, deeper period of “winter," or a glacial period. Thus, Martin seems to be suggesting a cyclical view of human history, in that a world much like what existed in the Middle Ages existed 12 millennia ago. Perhaps human history rose and fell several times… or even many times. This is a similar idea to the Norse Creation-Ragnarok cycle.
The White Walkers and Ice Giants
The precursor and herald of Ragnarok is widespread civil war and humankind falling into betrayal and violence. Similarly, much of the story of Game of Thrones is the various competing human characters pitched against each other – when the real threat is preparing to destroy them all. In Game of Thrones, the White Walkers (called the Others in the novels) are cold, nearly-indestructible creatures with frosty skin and eyes like ice. They have many similar characteristics to the ice giants (or frost giants) of Norse lore.
Norse giants were more like anti-gods than the towering, dull-witted hulks of later European folklore, and they represented chaos and destruction. When the White Walkers kill, their victim comes back as a wight (basically, a zombie). This, too, may have Norse inspirations in that at Ragnarok the giants will be helped by the goddess of the underworld, Hel and her undead hordes. In Norse myth, the gods often needed magic weapons (like Odin’s spear, Gungnir, or Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir) to defeat the giants, while in Game of Thrones, the White Walkers are only susceptible to Valerian steel or dragon glass (obsidian).
Wolves can have both positive and negative connotations in Norse myth. The great evil wolf, Fenrir, and his pack are one of the driving forces behind Ragnarok. But Odin himself created his two wolves, Geri and Freki (both names basically meaning “ravenous” or “greedy”) who follow him into every battle. In history, select Viking champions would take on the spirit (and hide) of a wolf and were called the Úlfhéðnar, very similar to the Viking warriors who were called berserkers, which stands for bear shirt (or bear skin).
The crest of the Stark family – the central family in Game of Thrones – is the Direwolf. Direwolves existed in our world during the Late Pleistocene ice age and were bigger and deadlier than gray wolves. Like Odin, each of the Stark family has a direwolf that accompanies him or her and acts similarly to the familiars (or spirit animals) of Norse gods.
Ravens may be the animal most associated with the Vikings. Like wolves, Ravens are the familiars of Odin, the Allfather. Odin was a god of war, and ravens feasting on the slain were a common sight on the battlefields of the Viking Age. Odin was accompanied by two ravens – Huginn (“Thought”) and Muninn (“Memory”). Huginn and Muninn fly throughout the nine worlds, and whatever their far-seeing eyes find they whisper back to Odin. Odin is often called Hrafnaguð – the Raven God – and is often depicted with Huginn and Muninn sitting on his shoulders or flying around him.
In Game of Thrones, ravens are used as messengers by the elites of Westeros, but the symbolism goes far deeper than that. Bran Stark is confronted in his dreams by the Three-Eyed Raven, an otherworldly messenger. When Bran finally meets (and eventually becomes) the Three-Eyed Raven, he finds that he is a very powerful “greenseer” who can see the past, present, and future. This wizard appears in human form, his body fused to the roots of the weirwood tree (the prefix ‘weir’ derived from Old English “wyrd” or Norse “urd” which refer to fate). This imagery is very similar to Odin (who often takes the form of an old wizard) hanging from Yggdrasil – the World Tree growing next to the Well of Urd to obtain the ability to perceive the secrets of runes.
In Norse myth, dragons have both positive and negative connotations (sometimes even at the same time). These creatures were ubiquitous in Norse art and, of course, Vikings would carve the prows of their beloved warships to resemble dragon heads. Dragons and serpents were associated with mythical heroes like Sigurd Fafnir’s Bane and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, but also semi-legendary figures like Ragnar Lothbrok. Sometimes dragons represented cosmic forces, like Níðhöggr who wraps around Yggdrasil’s roots or Jörmungandr who coils around the whole world.
As in Norse myth, dragons in Game of Thrones are powerful forces that can either be applied to good or to evil. They serve Daenerys, who was reborn in fire when she hatched the dragon eggs on Drogo’s funeral pyre. But as we have already seen, one of the dragons is now being controlled by the Night King.
One of the biggest Norse influences on Game of Thrones is not a theme or symbolism, but rather the form of the story itself. While great epics have been around forever, the literary form of the saga is thought to have grown out of the Norse poetic tradition in Iceland around the time of the Viking Age (they were written down a while later in the 13th and 14th centuries). While sagas often contain sections of poetry, they were straightforward prose narratives with intricate, interwoven plot lines and vivid characters. These stories might cover several generations, and while they sometimes starred kings and queens, they also focused on real, believable characters like farmers, soldiers, sailors, or poets. While many sagas are very down-to-earth accounts that have been called histories – or at least, historical fiction – some feature many fantastic elements such as gods, dwarves, or dragons. These are called “legendary sagas” or Fornaldarsögur.
Perhaps the most famous of these legendary sagas is the Volsunga Saga. It tells the story of several generations of the Volsung family, including the dragon-slayer, Sigurd and his tragic love affair with the shield maiden, Brynhild. It is a heady mix of heroism, revenge, family legacy, duplicity and betrayal, violence and torture, forbidden love and illicit sex, hero’s quests, dragons, werewolves, fantastic creatures, gods, kings, curses, shape-shifting, magic, fate, glory, sorrow, sea faring, pitched battles, and the complex relationships between amazing characters. The Volsunga Saga (as well as the continental version of the same tale, Nibelungenlied) have directly or indirectly influenced almost every modern fantasy novel, especially Game of Thrones.
Other Viking Homages
Another nod to the Vikings in Game of Thrones is the Ironborn. The Ironborn are a warrior class of free men and women from the Iron Isles whose grim faith in the Drowned God dictates that they live a life of “reeving (taking), raiding, and carving their names in blood and song.” The inhospitable lands they come from dictate this fierce lifestyle. As the motto for their ruling household states, “We do not sow!” – meaning the Ironborn take everything they need through daring and force. These raids, of course, are via their long, sleek ships.
While this imagery immediately conjures Vikings to the popular imagination, many Viking enthusiasts find this a bunch of onerous stereotypes. The Vikings were infamous raiders striking from forbidding lands, but they were also farmers, craftsmen, traders, fishers, trappers, and artists. This perspective of the Ironborn still finds some traction though, and at least describes how the enemies of the Vikings saw them. House Greyjoy’s motto of "We do not sow!" is reflected in the 10th century Arab geographer, traveler, and eyewitness Ibn Rustah’s description of Vikings in Eastern Europe, “They have no fields but simply live on what they get from the Slav's lands."
Most Norse-centered fan theories are also quick to associate Jaime Lannister – one of Westeros’ greatest warriors in Game of Thrones – with the Norse one-handed god of war, Tyr. Some have seen Frigga in Jaime’s sister, Cercei. The relationship between the two may be more like Frey and Freya, at least according to Loki in the Lokasanna. Other Viking gods and heroes have been spotted, hiding in plain sight, by sharp-eyed enthusiasts, such as Gendry with his Mjolnir-like hammer. As we said in the beginning, one of the joys of fantasy is that a creator can draw from influences without being bound by them, and inspirations can change midstream. Seeing these influences, homages, themes and symbols along the way can heighten one’s enjoyment and understanding of the new art unfolding before us
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