In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, George RR Martin takes elements from history and blows them up to ginormous size. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, George RR Martin mentioned that the Wall is inspired by Hadrian’s Wall — just like John Henry Clay argues in this article. Martin told the audience:
“I remember standing there on a cold October day… and I stood on that wall and stared off into Scotland, or what was Scotland, and tried to think what it was like to be a Roman legionnaire… at the end of the world,” Martin said. “It was a profound feeling. But fantasy is always bigger, so when I wrote the books, I made the Wall 100 times as high and a lot longer.”
In this spirit, I thought it would be fun to look at a few pieces of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that George RR Martin has made larger than life.
Hadrian’s Wall Becomes a 90 Foot Ice Wall
When George RR Martin reincarnated Hadrian’s Wall in his novels, he made the 20 foot Roman wall into a 90 foot tall ice barrier. As John Henry Clay writes, “[Martin’s] vision of ‘the Wall’ is more like how Hadrian’s Wall might have loomed as a symbol in the Roman psyche – much bigger than reality, more daunting…”
Still, the ice wall and Hadrian’s wall may not be as different as you’d think in practice. As Dr. Clay points out, the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall next to a sixty foot cliff, which increased its effective size to 80 feet. Dr. Clay notes how Bran the Builder capitalized on the landscape in a similar, yet unique way:
Before them, the ice rose sheer from the trees like some immense cliff, crowned by wind-carved battlements that loomed at least eight hundred feet high, perhaps nine hundred in spots. But that was deceptive, Jon realized as they drew closer. Brandon the Builder had laid his huge foundation blocks along the heights wherever feasible, and hereabouts the hills rose wild and rugged1 .
The Tudor Dragons Come to Life
Henry VII used the dragon as one of his symbols, but in A Song of Ice and Fire this symbol becomes flesh. Given that invader-from-across-the-sea Henry VII might have inspired Daenerys, it seems fitting that, in Martin’s fantasy version of the Wars of the Roses, real dragons, and not mere badges or devices, sit on Daenerys Stormborn’s shoulders.
Henry’s hereditary claim to the throne was weak, so he bolstered it by claiming he hailed from King Arthur. Adorning his images with dragons reinforced Henry’s “Arthurian heritage” in the common mind. Take, for example, this portrait of Henry VII with his family St. George and the dragon dominate the image.
The Colossus of Rhodes Becomes the Titan of Bravos
Built in 292 BC to commemorate the Greek island of Rhodes’ success at repelling its enemies, the Colossus of Rhodes – once one of the seven wonders of the World —is literally dwarfed by a product of George RR Martin’s imagination: the Titan of Braavos.
By my calculations, the Titan of Braavos may be as tall as 300 feet, which makes it a good 140 feet taller than the Colossus of Rhodes.2 Plus, unlike its real-world inspiration, the Titan is a weapon.
The Titan has murder holes in its skirts that let pale faces drop rocks and other lethal objects if enemies trying to enter the Braavos’ lagoon. Arrowslits decorate the Titan’s massive stone legs. The Titan of Braavos is the city-state’s first line of defense. As ships approach, the Titan bellows a warning so the Arsenal of Braavos can be on alert.
Although the Colossus was not a defensive city water gate like the Titan, the Colossus did commemorate a military victory and the Rhodesians intended the statue to remind prospective enemies of the island’s military prowess.
The Little Ice Age Becomes a Multi-Year Winter
When winter comes to Westeros, it can last years or even decades. The winter of the Long Night, eight thousand years before the series begins, lasted a generation – until the White Walkers were beaten back into the north3 .
Still, that doesn’t explain where George RR Martin came up with the idea for a long winter or why.
Given Martin’s frequent use of medieval history, he may have chosen to create a phantasmagoric, anthropomorphized version of the Little Ice Age, the Great Famine, and the Black Death. These three events massacred up to 60% of Europe’s population – and climatic change triggered them all.4
The Little Ice Age didn’t create a world wrapped in ice. Rather it is the name given to a climatic period in which Northern countries became cooler, winter storms harsher, and summers wetter. Like a herald ushering in the horseman of the apocalypse, the Little Ice Age quickly went from creating more sea pack ice (1250) to freezing out or starving Norse settlements on Greenland (~1300) to drowning the land and creating the disastrous Great Famine (1315).
It is possible to see the cooling climate in portraiture — click the images to enlarge.
As torrential rains waterlogged Northern Europe soil in the spring of 1315, the left seedbeds sodden, submerged pastures, destroyed fledgling crops and created historically low yields. The 1315 winter was so harsh that ships froze in place in the Baltic Sea and the miserable combination of cold winters and soggy summers hammered Northern Europe for the next three to seven years.
The effects of this famine can’t be overstated. When crops failed, reports emerged of people eating tree bark, corpses, and even each other.
Many of the average people who didn’t die became exceptionally malnourished. Twenty-four years later when the plague struck, people were still recovering from the malnourishment and chaos – subsistence farming made it hard to get enough calories to replenish their bodies.
During the Little Ice Age, crop failures and famines haunted Europe. Wars led to armies “eating off the land” and only exacerbated food shortages in villages. In fact, the lousy 1780s weather in France caused such severe crop failures that they may have led to the French Revolution. When crop failures turned into grain shortages, the long-abused French peasants came to believe the nobility were hoarding grain (in a conspiracy theory known as the Famine Pact), which led the peasants to revolt.
In 1816, at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, another event occurred whose name might have given GRRM some ideas: the Year Without a Summer.
In A Game of Thrones, Old Nan sums up the Long Night to Bran: “kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.”
The Little Ice Age wasn’t brought about by magic, but the effects were so devastating – and the climatic shift so severe and unexplainable — that people certainly blamed its effects on the otherworldly: everything from God’s displeasure to the supernatural.
Not unlike the famines that arose in the Little Ice Age, the ASOIAF long winters lead to starvation. In fact in 2001, when Russian fans asked Martin about the long winters back, he said that when winter lasts five or six years –and the maesters are forecasting an unusually long winter – “Famine happens. The north is cruel.”
Incidentally, the name of the Lands of the Long Summer – a region in southern Essos bordered on the edge of the Sea of Sighs – may have been inspired by the Medieval Warming Period.
The 1315 Great Famine was exacerbated by the population explosion that became, as of the Little Ice Age, more than the land could support. Before the Little Ice Age, Europe experienced the Medieval Warming Period. From about 950 to 1250, warm weather yielded crop surpluses and the population exploded.
In England alone, the population surged from roughly 1.5 million in the eleventh century to 5 million by 1300.5 When archaeologist Brian Fagan penned a book about Medieval Warming Period, he referred to it by a more colloquial name: The Long Summer. Sound familiar?
All of these factors may have gone into Martin’s cauldron when he brewed up the Westerosi climate. Even though Martin’s winter may have medieval origins, it is fully magical. Magic causes the strange seasons in ASOIAF, according to George R. R. Martin, who says the mysterious climate will be explained at the series end.
The Danse Macabre and the White Walkers
The most prevalent symbol of the plague is perhaps the danse macabre or “dance of death” – recurring depictions of skeletons meant to invoke the universality of death that developed in the post-plague period; the plague no doubt felt like an apocalypse to the survivors. Did George RR Martin bring this symbol to life in the White Walkers?
It seems as though Martin anthropomorphizes the encroaching Little Ice Age into Death on horseback, charging down on the people south of the Wall. It’s not a coincidence he compared the White Walkers to the mythological sidhe. The fairy-like sidhe live in burial mounds.
Perhaps, Death mounted on horseback in this image inspired Martin’s white walkers. It seems like Martin anthropomorphized the encroaching Little Ice Age into Death on horseback, charging down on the people south of the Wall. It’s not a coincidence he compared the White Walkers to the mythological sidhe. The fairy-like sidhe live in burial mounds.
The U.K. Becomes the Size of South America
To the best of my knowledge, George RR Martin has never stated that the geography of Westeros is based on the United Kingdom. Still, the similar shapes – and the narrow seas separating both islands from their larger neighboring continents — are pretty fishy.
Martin has, however, stated that he imagines Westeros as being the size of South America. This makes Westeros roughly 73 times the size of the United Kingdom!6 If Martin did base Westeros on the United Kingdom, he certainly supersized it.
- A Storm of Swords [↩]
- The statue of Baelor the Blessed in King’s Landing wouldn’t reach the Titan’s knee, and by my bad math I think it is twenty feet high. Maybe. However, there are at least ten yards between the crow’s nest and the Titan’s armored skirt. If the mast is anywhere from 90 to a 118 feet – and this may not be a good comparison for a galleas (or galleass) – then roughly half the Titan is 148 feet high. [↩]
- Martin, George R.R. (2003-01-01). A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One (p. 233). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Austin Alchon, Suzanne. A pest in the land: new world epidemics in a global perspective. University of New Mexico Press. p. 21. [↩]
- William Chester Jordan The Great Famine Location 99 in the Kindle edition. [↩]
- South America is 17,819,000 sq km and the United Kingdom is 243,610 sq km. [↩]