Although Game of Thrones is a huge contemporary (and seemingly revolutionary) hit, much of the content in the novels is borrowed from older works. Authors such as Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien have influenced the creation and content of Game of Thrones, making the novel and show have deeper meanings that many may not realize. With the premiere of the fifth season of the HBO show approaching, now is the perfect time to examine some of Martin’s influences and learn more about how the series was created.
Game of Thrones is often described as being very different from the fantasy stories that came before it. While this is true on some levels, George R. R. Martin admits that he incorporated some material from other writers in the fantasy genre. For example, Martin has mentioned that J. R. R. Tolkien’s storytelling style in Lord of the Rings influenced his own; in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, the characters embark on their journey together, but then split up and take different paths. Those who watch Game of Thrones will be familiar with the way Martin tells the stories of several characters at once, many of whom are in different parts of the world. While both sagas contain magic in some regard, Tolkien’s decision to use magic sparingly led Martin to do the same. Both writers often have characters resolve issues without it, and the scarcity of magical powers makes the occasional use of sorcery even more significant. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams was also a major influence for Martin. Wolves as pets, Mongolian horse warriors, and monsters descending from an arctic North are just a few elements found in both series.
Martin’s stylistic writing choices are part of what makes the A Song of Ice and Fire series so successful. His experience writing for television taught him the importance of the “act break,” which he uses at the end of every chapter he writes. This strategy is intended to keep the audience interested in reading his next chapter in the same way a show engages the audience before a commercial.
Martin’s well-known penchant for violence in his books comes partially from his love of historical fiction; the darker, more realistic plotlines led him to steer clear of the more fanciful and cheerful elements of traditional fantasy novels. His infamous plot twists are inspired by pulp horror writers, like Robert Bloch’s infamous twist ending for Psycho. Martin has spoken openly about his distaste for predictable stories, and he aspires to surprise his readers at every turn.
Martin’s interest in history has led him to incorporate real places and events into his story, in much the same way that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories did. The Wall found in the north of Westeros, for example, is based on Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. The Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century closely mirror the rivalry between houses Stark and Lannister, with Bran and Rickon Stark possibly being the famous Princes of the Tower. Martin makes an effort throughout the series to stay true to the lifestyles of people living in the Middle Ages. The foods, clothing, and social rituals of that time period are described in detail, even when such behavior would be shocking today. For instance, the romantic relationship between twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister or the marriage of thirteen-year-old Daenerys Targaryen would not have raised eyebrows centuries ago, when incest and underage marriages were commonplace. Martin draws inspiration from legends as well, particularly Norse mythology. In fact, many of his plot points match closely with stories from the violent Völsunga Saga.
Although Game of Thrones has been the first story of its kind to have such widespread success, the individual elements of the story are far from new. Influences from other writers, historical events, and even ancient mythology have all been masterfully weaved together into this epic story. If you need to catch up with the show before the season premiere, look for older Game of Thrones episodes through HBO Go and on-demand as local direct television specials. With the premiere of the fifth season happening yesterday, fans can be sure that exciting new (and in some cases, old) material is yet to come.