Winter is Coming: The Long Winter in Westeros

©HBO via Wikia.

The dog days are over and before winter arrives here in the northern hemisphere, in one of the last summer weekends—when we might still be hot enough to appreciate stories of cold weather—I thought it might be fun to look at the origins of the legends of the long winter in Westeros and the threat “winter is coming.” (My apologies to everyone in the southern hemisphere who is currently in winter!) This is the first of a two-part post.

As we all know, the motto of House Stark is “Winter is Coming.” The motto reminds members of the house to prepare, be on-guard, and be vigilant. Winter hits Winterfell and the Stark lands the hard, since they are so far north. As lords of the north, the Starks must remember their responsibility to shepherd and protect their people in these winters: being alert and prepared is essential.

The motto “Winter is Coming” also has a deeper meaning according to George RR Martin. The motto expresses the idea that there are “always dark periods in each of our lives, and even if things are good now (“summer”), we must always be ready for a dark period when events turn against us (“winter”).” According to Wikia, winter parallels the opening lines in Shakespeare’s Richard III, “Now is the Winter of our Discontent / Made glorious Summer by this sun of York…” Wikia’s article continues on to note that the Stark motto is somewhat similar to “the Latin phrase sic transit gloria mundi (“thus passes the glory of the world”), which was whispered into the ear of victorious Roman generals during their parade of triumph, to remind them that all earthly success is fleeting.”1

Traditionally, winter symbolizes death and also purity. Historically winter is a time of scarcity and famine. Some Russian fans asked George RR Martin what Westerosi do when winter lasts that long, his reply was “starve.” Well, actually, he said a bit more than that, but eventually the food runs out and everyone dies.

There are many theories about not only the origin of the long winter in Game of Thrones but also the science behind it. George RR Martin may have found inspiration in mythology or the epic fantasy tradition. Ultimately, this article will look at possible historical inspirations for the winter in Westeros.

Possible Scientific Explanations for the Long Winter

This article explains the “messed up” seasons using theories like wobbling planet tilt and an extremely long orbit around the sun. For example, this article describes how Uranus takes 42 years to orbit the sun so that means, according to University of California planet hunter Geoff Marcy, that “If you lived anywhere in the northern hemisphere, summer would last 42 years and then winter would last 42 years.”

Mythology and Other Fantasy Influences

George RR Martin cites JRR Tolkein as a huge influence. In another Tolkein-inspired novel, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, there is also a long winter: a Hundred-Year Winter. The White Witch cast a spell on Narnia that makes winter last the entire year – without ever reaching Christmas. This Wikipedia article notes Narnia’s Hundred-Year Winter has strong parallels to the Norse mythological “Fimbulwinter.” From Wikipedia:

“Fimbulvetr is the harsh winter that precedes the end of the world and puts an end to all life on Earth. Fimbulwinter is three successive winters where snow comes in from all directions, without any intervening summer. During this time, there will be innumerable wars and ties of blood will no longer be respected: the next-of-kin will lie together and brothers will kill brothers.” 2

The Fimbulwinter legend may have originated from the climactic change in the Nordic Bronze Age. Around 850BC to 760BC, Scandinavia went from being a warm-ish climate with good crop yields to a colder wetter climate (perhaps an early Little Ice Age).

Historical Basis

Towards the beginning of Game of Thrones, when Bran lies in bed recovering from his fall, Old Nan reinforces what Bran really has to fear: the long winter. She chides him:

“What do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter when the snow falls a hundred feet deep? Fear is for the long nights when the sun hides for years, and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord; when the white walkers move through the woods.”

In Game of Thrones, the long winter is the hidden menace, waiting, creeping, and slowly building while the rival claimants to the throne waste valuable men and resources on war. Westerosi soldiers die who could fight the White Walkers. Food is squandered. Crops neglected as armies fight. Already, starving people have rioted for food in King’s Landing. With all the supplies used by the armies, how will the lords provide their subjects with food when winter finally does come?

Joffrey just after a starving rioter throws cow dung at his face, during the King’s Landing Riot. In response to the attack, Joffrey commands his soldiers to “Just kill them! Kill them all!” The riot began when Joffrey ignored the starving crowds pleas for bread. ©HBO via Wikia.

During Season 3, House Tyrell began sending food to King’s Landing as part of its alliance with the Lannisters. In “Valar Dohaeris,” Margaery Tyrell says that they send 100 wagons of apples, wheat, and barley each day. But, can this last until the war ends? Will the impending winter exhaust the Tyrell stores as well?

When I first began looking at this topic, I did so because as a Canadian, I have strong feelings of hate and sometimes fondness about snow. (I read Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age years ago and loved it.) The more research I did, however, the more Game of Thrones has begun to feel like a symbolic meditation on the futility of war. I found myself imagining George RR Martin wanting to scream at the fifteenth-century kings: “WTF?! Why are you fighting when your subjects are starving?” In Game of Thrones, as winter and starvation steal inexorably closer, kings neglect their subjects to battle over territory and succession – all ultimately devoted to further aggrandizing their own egos.

The prime case for this is the Hundred Years War, one of Martin’s self-confessed inspirations for the A Song of Ice and Fire series.3 All the problems of the fifteenth-century—the Great Famine, the low-crop yields, the populations who lived on the razor’s edge of starvation, whose weakened bodies were ripe pickings for the Black Death—were made worse by the war. But, it was the weather that caused many of these problems. Perhaps, appropriately, in Game of Thrones, the weather is the backdrop to everything.

Continued in George RR Martin and the Futility of War

By

  1. See “Winter is Coming” motto on Wikia http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Winter_is_Coming_(motto) []
  2. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fimbulwinter []
  3. See http://www.westeros.org/Citadel/SSM/Entry/Influence_of_the_Wars_of_the_Roses []

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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