When 'Game of Thrones' was first published, no-one noticed it. It was one more romance among many, and few people spared it a thought. As time went by, though, those few became more, and more, until it seemed all the world had heard of the book, watched its T.V. series, or both, and every newspaper sang its praises: ‘Stunning!’ ‘Enthralling!’ ‘Delightfully paced!’ ‘A marvellously original story!’, etc.
Of all these adjectives, that of ‘Original’ proved to me, the most irksome. There was nothing ‘original’ about the 'Ice and Fire' series, as far as your friendly neighborhood reader could see: it was simply a romance like any other, comparable (for example) to Wolfram’s 'Parzival' or Spenser’s 'Faerie Queene'. Thus began the three-part article, of which this is the first segment, entitled: Game of Thrones’ Origins, to trace some of the more evident motifs in Mr. Martin’s work, and answer every reader’s most tiresome question: ‘Where did the author get its ideas?’.
Item One: let us examine the titles. Such names as 'Game of Thrones', 'Clash of Kings', 'Feast for Crows', 'Storm of Swords', 'Dance with Dragons' and the like, are all poetic names for War: concocted by the author, after the fashion of the Norse poetic lexicon, which features such circumlocutions as ‘spear-grab’, ‘game of iron’, ‘dart-storm’, ‘spear-storm’, ‘weapon-weather’, and endless references to wolves, ravens, eagles, and other scavengers ‘getting fed’. Even the Homeric 'Iliad', in Greece, refers to the indignity of a dead man ‘eaten by dogs and birds’ on the battlefield. In this respect, then, Mr. Martin is, as Confucius said, faithful to the ancients, and rather to be praised than blamed for it.
Item Two: the Plot: essentially that of Voltaire’s 'Candide', in which (as here) a naiïve Everyman goes around the world; faces the various dreadful realities of war; and returns, to establish himself a peaceful life. Alternatively, we might see 'Ice and Fire' as a modernized form of Spenser's 'Faerie Queen', which features several heroes on several long, complicated quests, which seem pointless at first, but turn out to be decisive in the establishment of future civilizations.
Item Three: the Setting! As a general rule, the 'Ice and Fire' novels depict a feudal society of stone castles, hereditary lordships, gimcrack priesthoods, dynastic marriages, plate armour, and an equestrian order to enforce the ever-changing laws of any number of small, quarrelsome kingdoms. At the same time, the continent’s seasons last for years; the northern border is held by a wall of ice; there is no English Channel; the human race is threatened by personnifications of wintry cold; and the wild areas are infested with dire wolves, sabre-toothed cats, woolly mammoths, and even sasquatches: signs, one and all, of an Ice Age. This juxtaposition would seem to indicate, no less an antecedent, than Perry’s 'Conan the Barbarian', which boasts the same attributes.
As if that were not enough: Perry’s 'Conan' is often famously said to be set, ‘After the fall of Atlantis and before the rise of the sons of Aryas’: i.e., immediately before the appearance of the Indo-European peoples in the archaeological record. The action of the Ice and Fire series is set in the shadow of the ‘Doom of Valyria’: i.e., the fall of a lost civilization, which might be said in a way to occupy the same place in the characters’ imaginations, held by Atlantis in ours; and in the T.V. series, though not in the books, the character named ‘Arya’ goes over the hills and far away, east of the Sun and west of the Moon: presumably to establish a people of her own. Thus, the character of Arya becomes a mythical progenitress and namesake of the Indo-European continuum; and the Ice and Fire series proper, becomes set in the interval between the fall of the mythical, and the rise of the historical first civilization.
As an aside, here: the name of ‘Valyria’ seems to derive from a Roman patrician name: the feminine form of the family name of ‘Valerius’. But there is also an American children’s story entitled, Valyra and the Dragons, in which the eponymous heroine creates a preserve, of sorts, for the titular endangered species. This may go somewhere to explain Mr. Martin’s implications (in the prequel 'Fire and Blood', among others), that the lost Valyrian civilization bred the dragons in the story, and may be held responsible for most of their attributes (breathing fire; eating cooked meat; hatching only in the presence of a blood-sacrifice; and staying loyal to the royal family, among others).
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for Game of Thrones Origins, Pt. II!