George RR Martin and the Futility of War: Famine, War, and The Little Ice Age

white-walker-game-of-thrones

© HBO via Wikia.

Game of Thrones is essentially the story of rival nobles fighting over the succession – who will be king. But, does it have a deeper meaning? I might argue that perhaps it does.

During the fourteenth century, while Europe was embroiled in succession wars and other forms of squabbling for territory, the climate changed and medieval peasants starved. But, the kings were too busy empire building, chasing their legacies, and feeding their own egos to care. Today, in America, people speak of the 1% – the elite 1% of the country who control 42% of the wealth. In medieval England, it was the 5% – the nobility. While the elite 5% sought glory on the battlefield, the real people – the 95% (many of whom were peasants) – starved.

In my last article, I wrote about how when you look at the Game of Thrones’ themes of winter, war, and famine through the lens of the Hundred Years War, Game of Thrones seems like a grand meditation on the futility of war. Tonight I read that George RR Martin is a more than likely a pacifist – he was a conscientious objector who did alternate service with VISTA from 1972-1974.1 Given that GRRM has admitted that he based Game of Thrones in part on the Hundred Years War, his inclusion of a long winter in Game of Thrones doesn’t seem like a coincidence–especially, since the advent of the Hundred Years War period is roughly when the climactic change that led to famine began.

While the plotlines in Game of Thrones may be borrowed from the Wars of the Roses, the overarching context may come from the Hundred Years War. The Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) was similar to the Wars of the Roses in that it was a struggle for the throne; however, instead of it being within England, this struggle was fought on an international stage. At an extremely basic level, Edward III of England had a claim to the French throne and attempted to claim the throne by force. Unfortunately, however, as the Hundred Years War was being fought, the climate changed due to the Little Ice Age, crops failed, and people starved. Likewise, during the Great Famine (1315-1322), the Anglo-Scottish wars would have exacerbated the situation.

As viewers and readers, we know the people in King’s Landing are hanging on by a thread. They only live because the Tyrell’s send daily wagons of food. But, what happens when the food stops? What if the Tyrell-Lannister alliance ends or the House Tyrell lands no longer yield enough food?

In Westeros, it has been summer for well over a decade. Given the strange Westerosi weather, Westeros is about due for another long winter. And, as Ned, has told us repeatedly “Winter is Coming,” so presumably it is coming metaphorically and literally. The threat from the land of ice and snow beyond the Wall is awakening. That threat, the White Walkers, may be a metaphorical manifestation of death –at a symbolic level they are more than just a tribe of snow zombies. The white wraith that leads them all looks like nothing other than one of the four horseman of the apocalypse. The first horseman of the apocalypse rides a white horse and is traditionally thought to represent Conquest. The fourth horseman, who rides a pale horse, represents Death and is skeletal or corpse-like.

The White Walkers might be a symbolic manifestation of winter/death threat. In the Dark Ages, the association of winter with death by starvation was so great that Pagan Germanic people hung evergreen branches over their windows and doors so the spirit inhabiting these trees would chase away winter evils. Children may have been sacrificed to help sowing seeds.

George RR Martin has stated that the White Walkers, known in the books as the Others, are not dead. He said, “’The Others are not dead. They are strange, beautiful… think, oh… the Sidhe made of ice, something like that… a different sort of life… inhuman, elegant, dangerous.’”2 The Sidhe or aos sí, a race similar to fairies that inhabits burial mounds in Irish mythology. Included in the Sidhe are banshees, who are believed to be an omen or death and a messenger from the Otherworld. These are not unlike the Barrow-wights in JRR Tolkein’s middle earth. (The Barrow-wights are “wraith-like creatures in J. R. R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth, based on the Old Norse Draugr. Barrow refers to the burial mounds they inhabited and wight is a Middle English word for “living being” or “creature”, especially “human being”.”3

The White Walkers, however, do feel like death or they might usher in death – especially given the reference to the Sidhe. According to Wikia, the “White Walkers possess the magical powers related to ice and cold. Their arrival is usually accompanied by blizzards and the dropping of temperatures. They can also freeze anything they touch, as one froze Sam’s sword to the point that it shattered.”

 

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  1. See http://georgerrmartin.com/life/ []
  2. See http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/The_Others  []
  3. See “Barrow-wight” in Wikipeida http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrow-wight []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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