Friday, October 24, 2014

Dark Wings, Dark Words: Old Norse Imagery in A Song Of Ice and Fire


The popular fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has become one of the most important staples in its genre, thanks in part to the television show that shares the title of the first book, Game of Thrones. With its popularity, as well as the author’s patient delivery on the next installment, have come many questions and theories from fans as to how the creator George R. R. Martin got his inspiration. Martin has publicly claimed that the story within the ASOIAF universe is derived from England’s War of the Roses (Webchat 2014). In fact, the names of the feuding families, Lannister and Stark, resemble England’s own Lancaster and York (Ingham 1996). Martin’s website also mentions a handful of sources that he utilized in his descriptions of Westeros, all of which deal with the Middle Ages (FAQ 2014). Missing from that list is any source that indicates that he purposefully drew inspiration from the Vikings. Yet there are many references, both overt and subtle, not only to Viking culture but also to the mythology that helped build the Viking world.

                Martin’s work is influenced by Viking culture in two major ways. A practical approach can be seen in the characteristics of the men of the Iron Islands and in the men of the North. The iron-born from Pyke are a marine-based culture that reflects the Viking dependence and dominance of the sea (Martin 1999). They sport long ships and have been known to terrorize the coast of the mainland in passages that sound as if they were pulled out of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Martin 2010). The men who serve the Starks in Winterfell share, among other characteristics, the affectionate name of ‘Northmen.’ More than anything else, the geography and climate give them the resemblance of Scandinavians who battle the brutal cold of the North Atlantic (Martin 1996).

                Although many things could be dissected using this first approach, it is Martin’s second use of Viking culture that I will be focusing on. His use of magic and his descriptions of magical beings, especially of those who live beyond the wall, can arguably be derived from sources like Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and the Viking Age sagas (Byock 2005). Without any commitment from Martin himself it is difficult to say whether or not this imagery is intentional. However, there can be no denying that the Vikings and in particular the Norse mythology, helped to shape Westeros.

                The Starks and their banner men had more in common with Vikings than just living in a cold climate. Their relationship with the weather, however, is aptly similar. “Winter is coming,” the Starks’ words of warning, would not be out of place in Scandinavia. Of course any setting that experiences harsh winters would appreciate that sentiment, but the sagas suggest the Vikings had more than a healthy respect for winter. In Grettir’s Saga, the apparition that haunted Thorhallstead lessened its attacks during the warm months while wreaking havoc on the farm during autumn and winter (Somerville and McDonald 2010). Is the author attempting to portray a fear of winter and the hardships it brings? The Starks also seem to fear the long winter, as seasons last for years in that universe. This too has its roots in the Viking mythos. In his Edda, Snorri mentions Fimbulvetr, or the Great Winter, that signals the onset of Ragnorok and the end of the world (Byock 2005).

                Along with their respect for the cold, the men of the north shared with their Norse counterparts an adherence to the “old gods” (Martin 1996). Neither the Starks’ gods in the weirwoods nor the Seven who reside in the sept satisfactorily portray the familiar traits of the Old Norse gods, yet both the men of the North and the Vikings saw their belief system diminished by a competing religion (Martin 1999). The Vikings were the last of the barbarians, the heathens at the edge of the world (Tschan 2002: 38-39). Sweden clung to the old religion well into the 12th century while the rest of Europe had been Christianized for centuries (Leiren 2012). Likewise, the adherence to the old gods of Westeros gradually gave way to the more popular and organized worship of the Seven, which spread from the south. The geography and the stubborn devotion to their traditional gods mirrors Scandinavia’s tumultuous conversion (Hollander 1964).

                In stride with the preservation of the old gods, Martin’s mythological approach becomes more tangible in the north, particularly beyond the wall. There are a handful of magical creatures that live in the northern territories, including giants, mammoths, the Children of the Forest, the Others, and the elusive grumkins (Martin 1996). The wall—itself a magical structure—serves as a barrier between the natural and supernatural. Beyond the wall is Martin’s version of Utgerdr, the land of the giants and the supernatural world beyond Midgard. The wall represents a more concrete version of the Midgard serpent or the Bifrost Bridge—a structure that not only divides cultures but also protects the inhabitants (Byock 2005).
 
This is what archaeologists believe the Midgard serpent may have looked like
(telegraph.co.uk)
                Giants play a substantial role in the Norse mythology and their influence in ASOIAF can clearly be seen (Lindow 2001). Other references are a little more difficult to unearth. Mance Rayder seems to have found the Horn of Joramun, a magical horn that supposedly wakes the giants and destroys the wall (Martin 2000). The name Joramun sounds very similar to Jörmungand, which is another name of the MIdgard serpent (Lindow 59). The horn also seems to be an inverted version of Heimdell’s horn, Gjallarhorn. Heimdell is stationed on the Bifrost Bridge as a lookout, and he blows his horn in warning at the approach of any giant who might threaten Midgard (Byock 2005).

                What about the wights, the Wildings, and the Children of the Forest? The walking dead were not unusual according to the sagas. Grettir battled the deceased Glam in Grettir’s Saga, and Gunnar is glimpsed having a wonderful time in his tomb in Njal’s Saga (78:129). The sagas can also shed light on the Wildings and the Children of the Forest, collectively represent the Sámi people. The Sámi were neighbors to the Vikings, residing in the extreme northern regions of Scandinavia (Schnurbein 2003). The Norse had mixed feelings about the Sámi, considering them second class while at the same time revering them for their magic (Zachrisson 2008:3). Even though they were a real culture, the Norse believed them to exist, or at least originate from Utgerdr (Zachrisson 2008:3). The simultaneous respect and disdain coincides with the view of both the Wildings and the Children of the Forest within Westeros (Martin 1996).

                The Sámi co-existed for years within the larger Norse community, even fighting alongside the Vikings against the influence of Christianity (Zachrisson 2008:3). Yet with the onset of the Christian Age in Scandinavia, the magic of the Sámi was frowned upon and they were driven, like the Wildings and the Children of the Forest, to the margins of society (Martin 1996). Martin seems to have split the characteristics, with the Wildings maintaining the familiar, if not suspect, appearance of the Sámi, while the Children of the Forest took on the infamous magical properties for which the Sámi were known (Schnurbein 2003). No connection can be made for the Others, and are therefore simply a terrifying creation from the mind of George R. R. Martin!

                Most mythological references concentrate on the north, but the legend of Valyria and the Targaryen conquest are gleaned from Muspell. There is some disagreement about whether Muspell is a place or a group of people (Lindow 2001). Snorri describes it as a southern region that is “bright and hot,” and that it “flames and burns and is impassible for foreigners” (Ch 13). The description sounds eerily like the ruin of Valyria where no one dares to venture (Martin 1996). Though Muspell is involved in the creation of the cosmos, Martin uses the sons of Muspell and their role in Ragnorok as inspiration for the Targaryen conquest. According to Snorri, “the sky splits apart and in ride the sons of Muspell. Surt comes first, riding with fires burning both before and behind him (Byock 2005). Surt, which means black, could easily be interpreted as one of Aegon’s dragons, or even Daenerys’s own Drogon. Some fans have suggested that Martin is actually copying the events of Ragnorok in his novels, but that is stretching the similarities to breaking point (Dorian 2013).

                The most startling representations of Norse mythology within Martin’s universe are the frequent references to Odin, including his appearance, his magical abilities, and his interactions with the the supernatural world. One of Odin’s most notorious symbols is the raven. The use of birds as messengers may have been borrowed from a different source, but the fact that ravens carry news in Westeros is a direct reference to Odin’s ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) (Lindow 2001). Hugin and Munin fly off each day to gather information for Odin, and in this way he increases his wisdom (Byock 2005). Odin is not known for being a particularly benevolent god and would assuredly approve of the Westerosi proverb, “Dark wings, dark words.”
 
Odin liked a healthy breeze, apparently
(nocturnalmodels.com)

                Martin splatters the pages of his novels with images of crows and ravens. From the Crows of the Nightswatch to Euron Crow’s Eye, the images and names of characters are Odin-inspired. By far the most intriguing of these characters is the Three-Eyed Crow, who reveals numerous traits that he shares with Odin. In the eddic poem Griminsmal, Odin says that after his birds leave him for the day, he is more concerned about Munin’s return than Hugin’s (Hollander 1962). The poem states that Odin cherishes memory over thought, which might explain the Three-Eyed Crow’s incessant demands for Bran Stark to remember his fall (Martin 1996). The power of memory was very important in passing on the poems and sagas in an illiterate society (Rowlands 1993).

                The Three-Eyed Crow, before his transformation, was Brendyn Rivers, an albino man whose red birthmark in the shape of a bird earned him the nickname, “The Bloodraven” (Martin 2010). During the Blackfyre Rebellion, he lost an eye, which is another traditional characteristic of Odin (Byock 1990). Around that time, Rivers was elevated to Hand of the King under Aerys (Martin 2010). How he ended up beyond the wall with the Children of the Forest is a mystery. The state in which Bran finds him, however, is another indication that The Bloodraven was modeled after Odin. Hanging from the roots of an enormous tree, Rivers, now dubbed the Three-Eyed Crow, is suspended somewhere between life and death. He is dramatically reenacting Odin’s hanging from the tree Yggdrasil in order to acquire wisdom (Crossley-Holland 1980). It is unclear how The Bloodraven became entangled in the roots of the great weirwood, but his enticements to Bran give a similar impression of acquiring a secret skill or magic (Martin 2011).
 
Lord Rivers has a history of "enticing" children

                The Three-Eyed Crow also performed a type of magic associated with Odin. Changing skin or shape-shifting is a common occurrence in ASOIAF and one that Odin was known to practice (Hollander 1964). His body would remain stationary as he transferred his consciousness to other creatures. This same behavior can be noted in Bran, Varamyr, and other wargs who share this ability (Martin 2011). The display of this magic is the closest Martin gets to seidr, something contemporary writer Robert Jordan greatly exploits (Jordan 1990). Seidr is roughly translated as ‘magic’ but represents more of a communication with the supernatural, in particular Odin’s gift of prophecy (Lindow 2001). Eldar Heide makes a strong case that seidr is a reference to spinning threads, which can be backed by the Valkaryies threading men’s intestines to determine their destinies in Njal’s Saga (2002). Heide’s thread or rope theory rings true for the shape-shifting magic of Westeros, both in Jojen’s fear for Bran getting lost inside his wolf and with the great weirwood weaving its roots in and out of the body of the Three-Eyed Crow.

                It is highly doubtful that Martin intended to produce such an Odin-heavy culture. The mythology is so embedded in the fantasy genre that many authors are unaware that their creative works are influenced by the Old Norse belief system. Judging by Martin’s practical approach, he was not oblivious to Viking culture and could realistically have meant to include that much imagery. Regardless, the fact that an author could produce such a huge work with numerous unintentional or even intentional references is a testament to the power and the legacy of Norse mythology.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Big Whiff: Contemplating What Never Happened

Playing the "what if" game as a historian is dangerous. It is all fun and games until someone starts dribbling out conspiracy theories (which, of course, we love here at History Books), or until someone begins reshaping historical viewpoints based on heresy. There is a thin line between infuriatingly inaccurate theories and game-changing revelations.

So what do we do with the term "non-event"? Can we look at a moment in history and say, "such and such didn't happen and it didn't change a god damn thing...which is important." Now we aren't playing a what-if game. We aren't asking, "What if Hitler had learned a lesson from Napoleon and hadn't stormed into Russia?" No, instead we are looking at a critical moment in which a history was on course for a certain destination and was interrupted by decision not to act.

A good flimsy example is America's involvement in the first Gulf War. The American forces got Hussein out of Kuwait, but instead of cutting off the head of the aggressor, the military wiped their hands, patted themselves on the back, and went back home. This decision not to pursue the Iraqi dictator weighed heavily on those involved. They felt cheated, especially Dick Cheney who spent eight, long Clinton years scheming and eating tubs of potato salad in his underground lair. As soon as the opportunity arose (9/11), Cheney and his band of orcs put all of their energies into their unfinished business in Iraq, leading to one of the most confusing wars and allocating of military resources the U.S. has ever seen....since Vietnam!

 
Dick Cheney chomping on a delicious plate of revenge

But this post isn't about Napoleon, or Hitler, or Cheney (but it's fun to think about those three hanging out and swapping stories, huh?). This post is about...you guessed it...VIKINGS!

One of my professors used the term "non event" to describe a decision not to act that (possibly) changed the course of Scottish history. My question here is this: do we honor a non-event as something worth noting in history?

The non-event that didn't take place happened in the late 9th century. In 853, Olaf, the son of a certain Gudrod, left Norway to wreak havoc in Ireland. According to the Irish Annals, Olaf and his brother Ivar were a nearly unstoppable force in the British Isles. In the 860s the annals record Olaf diving into Scotland and taking many hostages for either ransom or slaves. Then, in 870, we see a curious move at the fort of Dumbarton. Instead of the typical Viking hit and run, Olaf and his forces lay siege to the fortress. This speaks volumes to not only the size of Olaf's force and resources but also in the ability for the Viking forces to adapt.

At the peak of his power in Ireland and Scotland Olaf is summoned by his father Gudrod to assist him in Norway. The mighty Harald Finehair was making his moves for king of a consolidated Norway. Gudrod, a king in his own right, planned on fighting Harald and requested the sizable force of his son to lend a hand. Olaf agrees, leaving what could have been a vast Scottish/Irish empire to disappear in the legendary battle of Hefrsfjord (probably).

The idea is this: Olaf was on a roll and would have more than likely created something that reflecting the Danelaw within the Scottish interior. Instead, he let himself be dragged into Norway's drama, leaving Scotland to its own devices. Of course, in a few years, The Great Army arrived and began raids anew in and around Scotland. But what if upon arrival they found an already established Viking kingdom? Shit, that was a what-if, wasn't it?

The professor's argument is that Olaf's decision not to stay in the British Isles and continue riding his wave of success was one of the biggest non-events in Scotland's history. Can we validate this claim? Is Olaf's inaction something we can say changed history? Or do we simply remark that Olaf blew it, giving up what could have been a great dynasty for a most certain death in Norway?

I am not sure if there is a right or wrong answer. Historians are going to talk about whatever they damn well please, be it an actual event or non-event. Close calls are fun to discuss, but I am just not sure we can give any academic credit to something that never happened.