A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), better known for its TV counterpart Game of Thrones, became a pop culture phenomenon late in the last decade. It has since garnered a worldwide fan base and a cult of die-hard fans that seek clues and dream up theories of the story’s arc and plots. Of course, this isn’t the first time medieval fantasy has swept the modern world by storm. The general public seems to have a curiosity with the “Dark Ages,” and given its structure has a fecundity with which to draw inspiration.
H. T. Hansen’s Foreword to Julius Evola’s Mystery of the Grail elaborates on this curiosity:
To what can this fascination for the Middle Ages be attributed, beyond the presumption that people have become weary of rapidly changing technology and the uninterrupted reorientations it demands? Does the paradox apply that it is progressive to be against progress and to question the power of science, as well as that of the purely utilitarian and rational? Only a short step separates a preoccupation with the past from a secret desire for another way of life. … Added to this are new historical findings … that no longer leave the Middle Ages the Enlightenment painted it. Not only were the houses colorful, but so was life.
Whether a preoccupation or a secret desire, ASOIAF, even in spite of long gaps between books, kept fans occupied, satisfied, and even glutted.
What initially shocked readers and viewers alike was quite simple: they killed off the perceived hero, Eddard “Ned” Stark, in the very first book. This began the adventure and signaled for many twists and turns in the coming pages. George R. R. Martin, the author, has stated himself that he wishes the reader to be unsteady as the pages turn, while invoking Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself” as a foundation for his characters in his conflicts.
Despite its twists and subversions, ASOIAF immerses itself in a world of tradition, hierarchy, and duty. Within this structure, Martin paints a vivid world that is full of flawed characters that deal with issues both timeless and contemporary. Martin deftly explores the limits and paradoxes of such things while also showing how these structures can be stable.
In the following essays, I will elaborate on the inherent traditionalist aspects of the work as they have consequences both in the real world, and in the World of Ice and Fire. I will not try to dispel every modern aspect of the book, but rather see how timeless themes, incidents, and symbols are not only inextricable to a good story, but are unavoidable. I may comment on subversion here and there, but it will only be to extract a larger understanding.
The main point is that there are a lot of major philosophical questions that are raised, and despite this world’s suspicion of an education in the Classics, it does a lot of good to see how the characters — and even the author — deal with these questions.
However, before we get into the specific essays proper to characters and locales, I must do a brief-as-possible introduction to the players and pawns of the Game of Thrones — and even the planet itself. If you’re familiar with the story, my apologies, but I feel it is necessary to have a primer and point of reference for when we began to venture into the deep end. Feel free to leave any comments that may help guide this series of essays. I cannot elaborate on Dolorous Edd, epistemology, and Winter, if the readership is not familiar with two of the three.
A Planet of Ice and Fire
The planet, affectionately called “Planetos” by fans, has no name but two major continents.
The singly most unique aspect of this planet, is that the climate was messed up by a supernatural cataclysm long ago. Now summers can last a decade, and winters can last a generation — but you don’t want that to happen as you’ll find out. This has a huge influence on the planet, which is reflected in the names of locations (e.g., Winterfell, Summerhall, the Summer Isles, etc.).
Most of the story is based on the continent and is similar to Great Britain in shape.
For most of its history it had disparate kingdoms with two major migrations.
The First Men came before time from the east to Westeros, and shared the continent — not always peacefully — with the Children of the Forest, whom we will get with the Old Gods in a different essay. The First Men are one of three ethnic groups native to Westeros. The others being the Andals, and the Rhoynar. The First Men worship the Old Gods, “nameless deities of stone and earth and tree” through sacred weirwood trees. They are called “The Old Gods” due to an invasion of another people with another religion, namely, the Andals.
Some thousands years ago, a people “from the hills of Andalos in western Essos” came to the shores of Westeros. They brought with them the Faith of the Seven which is clearly inspired by the medieval Catholic Church, its pontiff and chivalric orders. Where the First Men wielded bronze, the Andals wielded iron. The Andals conquered everything south of the Neck.
The last migration before the Targaryens was the Rhoynar. Forced to flee Essos due to the expanding Freehold of Valyria (and its dragons), their warrior queen married into one of the leading families of Dorne, the Martells, and with the help of her people became ascendant in Dornish politics. They have a clear Mediterranean look to them, and are known by the rest of the peoples as cunning and lascivious. The Dornish, with the help of guerilla tactics and a desert sun, staved off the Targaryens until a marriage alliance brought Dorne into the fold 130 years ago.
Lastly was the Conquest, which happened about 300 years ago when Aegon Targaryen united all six kingdoms with the help of his two sister-wives and their dragons. ASOIAF proper starts after the Targaryens were defeated in a civil war and a tepid peace is over the land with the remaining Great Houses. Long ago, The Wall was built in the far north to keep someone or something from the rest of the south. It is the border of the civilized world and modelled off of Hadrian’s Wall. There are tribes beyond the wall, as well, known to their southern counterparts as Wildlings.
The regions coincide with the families.
It is a Eurasian-style land mass. A supernatural Fall-of-Rome cataclysm (see a pattern?) called the Doom of Valyria occurred leaving a once unified western half in distinct regional powers that have petty mercenary wars for borderlands. Whereas Westeros has feudal lords, most of Essos’ leaderships are made up of triumvirates, magisters, and are similar to the old merchant republics of our world. They’re called Free Cities. The rest of Essos is made up of: the distant Yi Ti (the Far East), the Dohtraki Grass Sea (Mongol Empire), Kingdom of Sarnor (Rus), the Shivering Sea (Iceland, Orkney, etc.), Slavers’ Bay (Egypt, Arabia, Persia), Lhazar (nomadic shepherds, perhaps based on the ancient Hebrews), and Qarth. Qarth is in the vein of a Silk Road trading hub with a port, uniquely located on the cusp of Eastern Essos. Lastly is Asshai, which is veiled in mystery, prophecy, and magic.
Now, let’s rundown the leading families of Westeros. This is a hierarchical, familial world, after all, and competing families (and family members) jostle to go from pawns to players, and ultimately win the game of thrones. As the cynical Cersei Lannister says matter-of-factly to a politically naive Ned Stark, “When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die.”
The Great Houses
Each family has a sigil and motto that typifies the familial disposition and overarching philosophy. Many times the mottoes are a boast, like the Lannisters’ “Hear Me Roar,” or the Baratheons’ “Ours is the Fury,” but others, like the Starks are simple declarative statements, “Winter is Coming.” The sigils are usually animals (e.g., Lannisters have a lion, Starks a direwolf, Baratheons a stag, etc.) but are not limited to it. For instance, the age-old nemesis of the Starks, the Boltons, have a flayed man on a pink backdrop with blood drops (or, Rose gouttée-de-sang, a flayed man gules if you’re into heraldry) and their motto is “Our Blades Are Sharp.”
The Boltons are pretty upfront about their pastimes.
The first proper chapter belongs to the Starks, so let’s start with them.
House Stark Many of the point-of-view (POV) characters come from the family. They’ve held the North for thousands and thousands of years. Like most other noble families have a legendary founder, in this case, Bran the Builder. Bran built their ancestral seat, Winterfell. Like the other major families, their role was diminished with Aegon the Conqueror and are referred to as Lords and Wardens, but are essentially dukes with duchies. The King in the North is unique among the conquered kings, as he was the only one to bend the knee to Aegon upon seeing his dragons and hearing of the destruction of other Houses. Their words are “Winter is Coming.” They rule the North.
House Lannister According to legend, they are matrilineally descended from Lann the Clever, a First Man mythological figure, and patrilineally from a ruggedly handsome Andal conqueror. The foundation myths differ, but it is certain Lann used his cunning to swindle property from a higher authority. Whether it is Casterly Rock from the Casterlys, or all the Westerlands from the high king, Garth Greenhand, the principle is the same. Lann has cunning, the Lannisters are clever. They’re also the richest house in Westeros due to sitting on a gold mine and lending money. Their words are “Hear Me Roar.” They rule the Westerlands.
House Targaryen Three hundred years ago, the family united the Seven Kingdoms through “fire and blood.” Originally nobles from the Freehold of Valyria, there is an uncanny beauty and attraction to the family. The Targaryens assimilated as much as possible after the conquest, taking the Faith of the Seven, allowing the Great Houses to rule their traditional lands or elevated minor families, and only carved out a relatively small duchy for themselves called “The Crownlands.” ASOIAF takes place right after the surviving family members fled to Essos. There three major uprising against Targaryen rule. Two were internecine struggles amongst the Targaryens, the last was Robert’s Rebellion, which took place about a decade before the story begins. Daenarys Targaryen, daughter of the last Targaryen king, is a major POV character. She is the last confirmed Targaryen. Their words are “Fire and Blood.”
House Baratheon A consequence of Aegon’s Conquest. A fierce general of Aegon’s, called Baratheon, slew the last of the Storm Kings and married his daughter. As such, they’re the youngest of the Great Houses and have a drop of Valyrian blood in their Andal veins. Due to intermittent marriages with the Targaryens, Robert Baratheon, the leader of the last rebellion, had the best claim to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms upon slaying his cousin, Rhaegar Targaryen. They rule the Stormlands. The Baratheons kept the sigil and words of the Storm Kings, “Ours is the Fury.”
House Tyrell Relatively late bloomers in the game of thrones, the Tyrells were stewards, rather than kings, and given power over the land by the Targaryens after their liege was burnt to a crisp by dragons. They control The Reach, a fertile area of land, as well as their own fleet, and even a university in the city of Old Town, where the Maesters are trained. It is known as the heart of chivalry, but the family also has a penchant as political operatives. They are the second wealthiest family after the Lannisters, control the largest army and Westeros’ breadbasket. Their words are “Growing Strong.”
House Tully Another minor noble house that ascended with the Conquest, they control the Riverlands, which are located in south central Westeros. The Riverlands lack any natural boundaries, thus have seen the lion’s share of battles throughout history. Despite their humble disposition, the Tullys are key to the events of ASOIAF. Their words are “Family, Duty, Honor.”
House Martell After assimilating with the exiled Rhoynar, the Martells quickly became the family in Dorne. The southernmost region of Westeros, it is the hottest and comprised of craggy coasts, hot deserts and dunes, and the odd oasis. Though fielding the smallest army, they stayed autonomous almost two centuries after the dragons came to Westeros. The Martells maintain close contacts with a variety of Essosi cities, utilize intel over arms, and as such, could be considered the biggest X-factor of the families. Dornish succession laws allow for women to inherit. They married into the Targaryens and since then have an elevated prestige from their relation to royalty. Their words are “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
House Arryn Considered the oldest and purest of the Andal nobility, they are cautious of up-and-comers and are prickly about their honor. They rule the Vale, an isolated part of Westeros thanks to a coast on the east, mountains throughout, and a river to the west. They rule from the impregnable Eyrie. The Arryns were subdued because, well, dragons can fly. Their knights are renowned for their honor and martial prowess. Their words are “As High as Honor.”
Last and somewhat least is:
House Greyjoy They rule over the Iron Islands, a set of penurious, rocky islands. The Greyjoys and their people, the Ironborn, have been most affected by the Conquest. Similar to the Vikings, the Ironborn relied on reaving north, south, and east. They enslaved some, known as thralls, kidnapped women that they call saltwives, and relied on their naval prowess and martial instincts to subjugate more fertile and wealthier lands. The Greyjoys’ predecessors, House Hoare, actually conquered the entirety of the Riverlands, but was roasted alive behind the stonewalls of the castle Harrenhall by, you guessed it, dragons. The Greyjoys typify the Ironborn philosophy in their words, “We Will Not Sow.”
Well, that will limit your options.
That does it for the introduction and primer to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Thank you for bearing with this lengthy introduction. I promise it will be necessary for the upcoming essays. Even this article is scratching the surface of all things Ice and Fire.
Upcoming topics will delve further into the philosophy in ASOIAF, including epistemology in the Kali Yuga; the Lannisters and Machiavelli; Jon Snow and leadership, Daenerys Targaryen and the Platonic tyrant, the Great Northern Conspiracy, the Old Gods and the New and much, much more. We haven’t even covered all the major players in this world let alone all the conspiracies, histories, and happenings.
 Julius Evola, The Mystery of the Grail, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1997), x-xi.
 James Hibberd, “Game of Thrones” Author George R.R. Martin: Why He Wrote The Red Wedding http://ew.com/article/2013/06/02/game-of-thrones-author-george-r-r-martin-why-he-wrote-the-red-wedding/
 Rachel Brown, “George R.R. Martin on Sex, Fantasy and ‘A Dance with Dragons’” https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/george-rr-martin-on-sex-fantasy-and-a-dance-with-dragons/241738/
 Andal invasion, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Andal_invasion
 George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), p. 488.
 House Lannister, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/House_Lannister
 House Targaryen, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/House_Targaryen
 House Baratheon, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/House_Baratheon
 House Martell, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/House_Martell
 House Greyjoy, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/House_Greyjoy