Thalia Sutton is an independent scholar and writer of fiction. She holds a Master’s in East Asian Studies from Columbia University in the City of New York, and is delighted every time a form has a box allocated in which to check “Master” as her legal title.
“Winter is coming” may very well be a nod to Viking lore’s Ragnarok, but that’s not the only myth reference in the Song of Ice and Fire series. In fact, the series incorporates fantasy tales from all over the world — if you know where to look. While some elements of the text are based on historic records — especially character deaths — these tend to be Easter eggs dotting the killing fields. The meat and potatoes of classical elements come from myth, especially Ancient Greek ones for King’s Landing characters. So here today I will draw back the curtain and reveal the Greek mythology influences that make Game of Thrones and its subsequent volumes so rich … through book three, anyway. Beware of spoilers. (This article contains spoilers only through book one).
Game of Thrones is a master work: it responds to its place in literary history with playfulness and insight. If my analysis does not prove that there are elements from historic works present in the text, what Martin said in his group interview at the Academy’s Game of Thrones night last week will:
“There are a number of things I’m trying to get into the books. There’s a certain metaphysical aspect to the books … You’re writing in the shadow of all the people who have gone before, and in some ways you’re having a dialogue with them. As someone who’s read … all the great fantasists before, in some ways this is my answer to them.”
And why Greek Myth in A Song of Ice and Fire? He continued at the Academy night:
“…Many of the fantasy epics, from the Lord of the Rings on, are about war. But many of them, in my opinion, don’t deal honestly about the consequences of war. What war does to us as a society; what war does to us as individuals … I grew up reading fantasy, but I wanted to put my own spin on it.”
Perhaps Martin was a myth-o-phile like many of us were as kids (and still are), and there was much to respond to, and improve upon, with them. But maybe it’s because those myths, legends, and histories were all once oral tales: songs.
Not only is the scope of such a project impressive and singular, but the dexterity and dark humor with which Martin handles his weaving of so many elements is masterful — well worth serious commendations and study. Not only does he create a stunning work that has shown itself relevant to readers across the globe, he has also brought value to modern literature by updating more than two dozen myths, fairy tales, and historic lives. He is able to deliver fantasy, myth, and history as a rare, tangible realism. After reading this series, I hope you will have a greater respect for the books of A Song of Ice and Fire by understanding some of their deep literary roots. Martin’s work is, in my opinion, a truly a great addition to the history of Western literature.
Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister as Zeus and Hera
What first clues us in that the characters may be inspired or influenced by Ancient and Classical Greek myth? My first vision of Greek influence exploded onto the page in Game of Thrones ‘ first few chapters, with King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei Lannister’s relationship as they came rolling up the Kingsroad. From the beginning, they do nothing but nag, bicker, and fight before the court, constantly posturing for dominance and recognition. Hera, one of the world’s most famous nagging and backstabbing Queenly wives, and Zeus, perhaps the world’s most legendary mythological party-king, are clearly implanted into Robert and Cersei — and they didn’t have to be.
Te king and queen fight like old hens. Fine, show me your muscle, Mr. Martin: show me you know a little myth via an amusing nod to this mythological couple. I might not throw your book across the room. But the thing that came to delight me so — and the reason I’m compelled to write these articles — is that Martin doesn’t stop there. Like never before, he modernizes the characters (simultaneously to the Middle Ages and the digital age) and makes them palpable. And then, he masters their stubborn personalities and crafts an entire epic around it.
Individually, Cersei and Robert follow the ancient divinities to even deeper levels. Cersei, like Hera, demands of the public that she be seen as More Divine Than Thou, and holds herself accordingly — but never quite to success. No one respects her authority because she’s an awful, self-interested nag, and they only put up with her because her husband is there. So, she attempts to get back at everyone from behind the scenes; but, unable to capitalize on the social power she holds on paper, her plots ultimately fail. Cersei’s plots fail in the end because, like Tyrion says in later books, she is spiteful to a fault, and “doesn’t know what to do with power once she has it” — just like Hera. Furthermore, other people on the Small Council — who are more loyal to themselves or her husband — thwart Cersei at every turn, just as Hera suffers from other Olympic Council members. (Note also here the convenient use of “the Council” in the King’s Landing arena). Cersei could be the badest bitch of them all, if she had the personality to openly bulldoze people, and a better relationship with her husband. But, like Hera, she doesn’t.
Likewise, Robert Baratheon is a dead match for Zeus by several facets. First, personality: Robert’s three most notable traits are his jolly nature (except with his wife); his ability to feast and fight; and his appetite for women (other than his wife), unmatched in the realm and wild to the point that it causes the most sprawling horde of bastards ever to roam the land. Cersei’s own words — “he always went where the smiles were” — is a key Jovian insight about Robert; it is both Martin hinting that Robert is Zeus, and a dead-on summation of his interpretation of the Greek god.
Another facet of Robert’s similarity to Zeus is the society that surrounds him. Despite all his flaws, King Robert keeps his subjects in line by a very few notable pressures: With the world fairly good as-is, there’s little reason to go against the rule of law. Plus, the aristocrats are all too busy fighting one another. But the most telling similarity to Zeus is Robert’s own myth: His respect is held together by the usurpation war he lead to found his empire, and a specific battle he accomplished in it. In Greek myth, there is what amounts to a “cultural memory” that rumbles in the background of every story: that of Zeus’s fight against the old guard, and his final victory against them through acquisition of the nuke of the day, the Lightning Bolt.
But the story has a tinge of muddied waters, even in the myths: it carries a sense of glory as much as great loss, much the way Robert’s rebellion and fight at the Trident does. The rumble of Zeus’s Bolt is ever-present, but never fully described; even the people who were there speak of the event only in stiff, scripted tones. The glory is easiest to tell themselves at night; the sadness, from a world turned upside down, too hard. These traits of Robert’s sting of Greek mythos, and, as a response to that canon, are a sweet juice to people like me, who grew up on Greek Myth the way some kids love dinosaurs or horses.
The details follow down even to Robert’s weapon. A hammer? Why? When I first read it, I laughed. Just a trope of Dungeons and Dragons for a laugh? After all, Tyrion has an axe, so clearly Martin knows about these and is tipping his hat. But how many real kings fought with a war hammer? The number is “Very Few, if Any.” But of legendary royalty, there is one that readily comes to mind, given that Greek and Norse mythology have many overlapping elements: Thor, God of Thunder (and lightning), man of legendary strength and drinking ability. Thor, strapping and adventurous and too strong for his own good, is more like a young Zeus, with Odin — far-sighted, old and bearded, and womanizing — as king Zeus. Just like the myths altering in ancient times between Greek and Norse cultures, Martin seems to have split these canons and twisted them, molding them into something new for a new generation: Thor was never a king, and Zeus never had a hammer, but he did have a very famous lightning bolt, made by Hephaestus’s hammer. Knowing his audience is working off of the modern fantasy legends of D & D, it’s not a far jump to envision Martin turning Zeus’s lightning bolt into a swift-striking hammer.
There are some beautiful responses to Greek mythos in Robert and Cersei, including the twisted tropes for which Martin is so celebrated. The highlight, of course, being that Hera finally offs her husband. Another — a stunningly feminist payback, or perhaps just an awareness of women’s sexuality being extant — is that Hera finally has her own affairs: all of Robert’s “real” heirs (Joffery and the like) are bastards born from his wife’s infidelity. Not to let infanticide be forgotten, it’s not Robert’s wife, but his son, that takes to pathologically assassinating the hapless, happy bastards. And, like Zeus’s demi-god offspring, all of Robert’s children have physical traits of their father as if imbued by the divine. But it’s a refreshing and valuable twist that Martin paints Robert’s bastards — the demi-god heroes — not as insufferable jocks like Theseus and Hercules, but happy, kind men, as with Edric Storm and Gendry Waters. (Anyone else see Gendry as “Young Hercules”?)
All in all, Martin’s work reflects, in a very metaphysical manner as he said, how we perceive the myths that make us. In Cersei and Robert, and many others, he adds uncanny realism like never before, and one that is accessible to a wide variety of readers. A Song of Ice and Fire achieves a new height in fantasy, one that has perhaps not been reached before. It is a masterpiece worth celebrating in literary circles on its own merits alone, but also valuable as a vehicle to understanding existing myths for the scholarly-inclined. And, along with its television adaptation, it can be seen as a work truly of our time, to be preserved and shown to future generations.
This Series comes in 8 parts:
1. Introduction; Robert and Cersei as Zeus and Hera (spoilers through book 1)
2. Cersei, Jaime, as Aphrodite, Ares; Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane as Uranus and a Titan (spoilers through book 3)
3. Joffery, Myrcella, and Tommen as Eros, Harmonia, and Anteros (spoilers through book 3)
4. Tyrion as Odysseus (Spoilers through book 3)
5. Sansa as Psyche; Lysa Arryn and son as Demeter and Persephone; Littlefinger as Hermes (Spoilers through book 3)
6. Loras and Renly as Achilles and Patroclus (Spoilers through book 1)
7. Brienne and Margaery as Briseis and Helen of Troy (Spoilers through book 2)
8. Stannis and Renly as Apollo and Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, and Cassandra (Spoilers through book 2)