The Vikings are not the only ones to go raiding. Sometimes it is the Vikings themselves whom are raided. So it is that fantasy authors have been ruthless pirates of the treasures of Viking mythology. This is true from medieval times, through Tolkien to the present day.
Game of Thrones author George R R Martin is not the first, nor the last but he may yet be the most rapacious of raiders for Viking legend. What follows here is a comprehensive accounting of the loot and spoils which George R R Martin dragged away from the Nordic mythology.
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A pivotal concept of the game of thrones is The Wall. This 700 foot high wall of ice separates and protects the civilised world of men from the wild and frozen lands of the north. The former is a world of laws and rules while the latter is an untamed place and an abode of monsters.
George R R Martin lifts this concept straight out of Nordic mythology. In the Nordic world view walls marked the boundaries both of law and civility. That which is inside the wall, “innangard”, is lawful, orderly and rule based. That which is outside the wall, “utangard”, is wild, chaotic and unconstrained. A high wall encloses Asgard, the abode of the gods of order, the Aesir. Midgard is the world of mankind. Utgard, “outside the wall”, is the wild lands of the Jotnar, the chaotic counterparts to the Aesir beyond them. “Gard” means wall.
If the duality of Good versus Evil defines the Christian world view then the duality of Order versus Chaos, or law versus wildness, defines the Norse world view. Of this world view one can not be so easily sure that one side is better than the other. The Aesir represent Order but are frequently perpetrators of crimes against the Jotnar who represent Chaos. The Jotnar for their part are not always attacking the Aesir.
The Game of Thrones cosmos and characters too contain considerable moral ambiguities too numerous to list here. As a single instructive example:
The people south of The Wall call those who live beyond the wall “Wildlings”. Southerners view them with hostility and contempt for being merciless raiders. Yet to themselves the Wildlings are the “Freefolk” and they have their own grudges against the Southerners. The Freefolk resent the Southerners for hunting them and walling them out. This is certainly reminiscent of the rivalry between the lawful Aesir and the wild Jotnar.
Fire and Ice
George R R Martin’s incomplete series of novels called A Song of Fire and Ice is the source for the Game of Thrones. In both the novels and the TV series the dialectic between fire and ice is the overarching dynamic. On one side the Whitewalkers and their army of the dead represent the encroaching ice. Daenerys and her new hatched dragons are the revival of “fire made flesh”.
There is nothing here the Vikings would not recognise from their own creation myth in which at the beginning of the cosmos a primordial world of ice called Niflheim and a primordial world of fire called Muspelheim each expand into the abyss between them until in coming into contact with the other the cosmos explodes into being.
A number of characters in Game of Thrones have a special affinity with certain animals. This is usually wolves though also ravens and eagles. The special affinity allows them to dive into their minds, use their senses and even take control of their bodies. Notable wargs are Jon Snow and Brandon Stark.
The word warg is an Anglicisation of the Old Norse word vargr meaning “wolf” but also “destroyer”. In the Nordic legends certain warrior cults were said to take on the spirits and powers of animals, particularly wolves and bears. Some are even said to be able to physically change into the animal forms. These are the berserkir, “bear shirts”, and ulfhednar, “wolf coats”.
A Red God
The red god is a fire god and his most notable servant is the Lady Melisandre. She is full of tricks and deceptions. In the Norse myth the god Loki is also a fire god. He also is especially notorious for being deceptive and treacherous, such is the fickle nature of fire.
Witches and Seers
Melisandre is more often than not referred to as a witch. She has classic witch powers: the ability to divine the future, mix potions, curse and charm. The witch is a common fantasy trope since at least medieval times. Ultimately all are derived from the female magicians of the Norse world called seidr. The Norse did not hold the seidr to be evil, as later depictions of witches generally show. Seidr could read the future, contact the spirits and make charms and curses. The seidr would place magical staves between their legs during rituals. This is the likely origin of the idea of witches riding broomsticks
The Walking Dead
The greatest threat to Westeros comes from an army of the dead summoned by the Whitewalkers. Walking and fighting dead men were also a hazard for the Vikings. There are a number of sagas which feature warriors disinclined to die in a permanent way. These living-dead warriors were called draugr. The sagas describe them as heavy and blue coloured, “hel-blár”, or the palest white. The wights of the Game of Thrones are distinctive for their icy blue eyes. The draugr could die a second death if their corpse was burned up. So also fire was the way to kill the wights of Westeros.
In the wild lands north of The Wall there are more than Whitewalkers and Wildlings, there are giants. Giants are a feature of myths from all over the world but not from Norse legend except by a translation error. The wild Jotnar of the Utgard are still today translated as “giants” though a more accurate translation would be “devourer”.
The women folk of the Wildlings often carry weapons and are handy with them quite unlike the ladies south of The Wall who are largely kept from martial pursuits. These Wildling women, such as Ygritte, are known as “spearwives”.
“Spearwives” is an obvious derivation from the Norse idea of shield-maidens. These warrior women exist not only in the legendary sagas but also it seems took part in historical battles.
Ironborn and the Kraken
The Ironborn are seafaring raiders from the Iron Islands who just from being seafaring raiders make for a plausible derivation of the vikings. Their god and emblem is The Drowned God. It appears to have the form of the legendary sea monster of Norse legend called the kraken. In the books the Iron Islanders call their slaves “thralls” which is the Old Norse word for slave.
A staple of fantasy fiction dragons also feature prominently in Game of Thrones standing in for the primordial force of fire.
It would be a stretch to say George R R Martin sourced his dragons exclusively from Nordic legend. Dragons are plentifully present within Norse legend, such as the treasure hoarding dragon called Fafnir. However they are also present in mythologies throughout the world even as far away as China.
Ravens have great significance in Game of Thrones. Mundanely they serve as couriers carrying news from one end of the world to another. Mystically a special raven, the three eyed raven, leads Brandon Stark to his destiny as a demi-god who can see the unseen of the past, the present and the future.
The above is an unambiguous lifting from Norse myth in which two ravens serve the god Odin as messengers and spies. These ravens are called Hugin, meaning “thought” and Munin which means something like “imagination”. Odin is the magician of the Norse gods, who prizes knowledge above all.
Brandon Stark bears a few significant similarities with Odin the magician of the Norse gods. The three eyed raven leads Brandon to gain the powers to obtain unseen knowledge. Just so Odin’s ravens bring him the news of the world. Odin sacrifices himself upon the World Tree in order to gain the knowledge of a magical script called the runes and he also sacrifices an eye to gain the ability to see the future. Where Odin hangs from a tree, Bran falls from a tower. Where Odin loses a physical eye to gain extrasensory perception, Bran loses his legs to gain the ability to spirit-walk.
The Old Gods and the New
In Westeros there is a tension between two pantheons of gods, the Old and the New. The Old Gods are closely related to special trees called Weirwood trees. The New Gods are an ensemble of seven gods who came from across the sea carried by aggressively proselytising invaders called the Andals.
There is a striking similarity here to the situation of the Vikings during the Viking Age. There the old gods of the Norse faced increasing competition from a trinity of new gods brought by Christian missionaries from the south. Seven gods echo the Trinity.
The Weirwood Trees
The Weirwood trees of Westeros are psychic gateways which are closely associated with the Old Gods. While in the Norse mythology a certain great tree called Yggdrasil serves as the connective tissue between the nine worlds of the Viking cosmos. Weirwoods echo the World Tree, Yggdrasil.
The Children of the Forest
The diminutive nature spirits of Westeros called the Children of the Forest resemble rather closely medieval myths of elves. The medieval myths of elves were a rather heavy distortion of earlier Norse myths of elves. However Tolkien’s version of elves as tall and powerful is closer to the Nordic conception. If not elves the Children of the Forest bear not a little comparison to the shy but defensive land spirits, Landvættir, of Norse legend.
Heroes and Weapons with Names
Of course Game of Thrones has heroes defined by their prowess with weapons and although The Hound maintains that “a lot of c**ts” name their swords more than a few heroes in Westeros have weapons with names. Arya has Needle, Briene has Oathkeeper and Jon Snow has Longclaw.
The Norse gods also were defined not only by their prowess with weapons but the names they gave them too. Mjölnir, “Lightning”, is the name of Thor’s hammer and Gungnir, “Swaying One”, is the name of Odin’s spear.
Winter is Coming
Over arching the dense weave of plots and counter plots in the Game of Thrones is the ever present threat of a looming apocalypse. The elemental forces of death and life, fire and ice, wildness and order will collide bringing forth ruin upon all. This is the fate which the Stark’s warning “Winter is Coming” forebodes.
The Norse too foreboded of a great cosmological clash of opposing forces which would render all destroyed. This is the legend of Ragnarok. In the Ragnarok the Aesir and the Jotnar will fight each other in a great battle until they are all slain.
We don’t know yet if the Winter of Westeros will be as mutually catastrophic as the Ragnarok but thus far the close parallels between the Game of Thrones cosmos and that of the Nordic myth strongly suggest it will be.