The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Fantasy | History

Historical Worldbuilding in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

Photo by mauRÍCIO SANTOS on Unsplash

Anyone with even the slightest interest in history can tell that a whole lot of it inspired A Song of Ice and Fire. In our world history, magic and sorcery are mythological. It could have existed long ago, but we will never really know. At the beginning of George R.R. Martins’s A Game of Thrones, magic has almost died out. Dragons, shapeshifters, and sorcerers definitely existed, but they’re all believed to be extinct. The historical phenomenons of our world are like magical easter eggs in GRRM’s world. That’s why I enjoy the World of Ice and Fire so much. It tickles the belly of my inner history nerd.

For the most part, history, as we know it, is written from a western perspective. This is like how most of A Song of Ice and Fire’s POV characters are from Westeros (ie. Medieval Britain with a few bits of Western Europe thrown in), and their Westerosi perspectives shape the way we see the rest of their world. A little bit like how centuries of western scholars reporting on Asia and Africa have slightly warped the way the west sees the rest of the world.

The Ruins of Fallen Empires

At its apex Valyria was the greatest city in the known world, the center of civilization. Within its shining walls, twoscore rival houses vied for power and glory in court and council, rising and falling in an endless, subtle, oft savage struggle for dominance. — The World of Ice and Fire

The Ruins of Ancient Rome (left) and Old Valyria (right)

At one point in time, Ancient Rome controlled half of Europe, the coast of North Africa, and a large chunk of the Middle East. It was a terrifying and decadent society, whose culture still inspires awe. Its colossal ruins are all over modern Rome, and the overgrown remnants of ancient roads and amphitheatres are scattered all over Europe. Old Valyria has the same effect in The World of Ice and Fire, once controlling the entirety of Western Essos, Slaver’s Bay, and Islands in Sothroyos and Westeros.

One of the moments many know about ancient Rome is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which caused the deaths of around 30,000 people in Pompeii and its surrounding towns and settlements. Although this natural disaster didn’t bring about the fall of the Roman Empire, that happened a few centuries later.

The imperial and cultural might of Ancient Rome is sewed into the mythology of Old Valyria, a peninsula in the south of Essos. It was home to a society with strong ties to blood magic, shape-shifting, and dragon taming, which they used to conquer thousands of miles of land. The empire prospered for thousands of years until the Doom of Valyria, which mixes the eruption of Vesuvius with the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Rome.

The Fourteen Fires were a chain of Volcanoes on the Valyrian peninsula. When these volcanoes erupted, it is said that every hill for five hundred miles exploded, and turned the bustling peninsula into a barren, inhospitable archipelago. Most of its ancient secrets were destroyed, and after a century of bloodshed following the fall of the Valyrian freehold, all that remained of the Valyrians were the Targaryen family, living off the coast of Westeros.

Valyrian culture still infiltrates The World of Ice and Fire, just as much as Roman culture influenced medieval and renaissance Europe. The language of High Valyrian is given the same reverence as Latin. Its ancient ruins, though more hazardous than Chernobyl, are still thought of with awe. Many Westerosi and Essosi explorers have set out to see the ancient ruins of Valyria, never to return. Ancient Valyrian craftmanship like Valyrian steel and magical war-horns are valuable commodities. The ownership of a Valyrian steel sword gives power and prestige to noble houses across Westeros and Essos.

The Slave Trade and its Aftermath

This arrogant child has taken it upon herself to smash the slave trade, but that traffic was never confined to Slaver’s Bay. — A Dance With Dragons

Maps of The Middle Passage (left) and Slaver’s Bay (right)

The World of Ice and Fire is more forgiving of Europe’s history with the slave trade, and maybe that reflects how we (speaking as a Brit) used to think that we didn’t really have much to do with it.

Slaver’s Bay is a small triangle of land and sea in Essos where the slave trade is very prevalent. This type of trading triangle also features in our own history, known as The Middle Passage. It stretches across the Atlantic ocean and Britain had its fingers in the pie, whereas Westeros has outlawed slavery.

That’s not to say that some Westerosi haven’t made a bit of money in the trade. Jorah Mormont is the prime example of a Westerosi ex-slaver. There are also thralls (captured servants) and salt wives (captured concubines) on The Iron Islands. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is also a feudal society, so most common people have little say in where they live and work, and effectively belong to the lords of the land they live on. Feudalism isn’t the same as slavery, though, as smallfolk do have some autonomy, and have the right to make appeals to their lords.

Most enslaved people in The World of Ice and Fire are people of colour. In the books, there are some white slaves but in the TV show, there are next to none. Many of them come from villages around the Dothraki Sea that were captured during Dothraki raids. Some are also captured from the coast of northern Sothroyos (which I guess is the Ice and Fire version of Africa).

A lot of people viewed Daenerys conquering Slaver’s Bay and freeing the slaves as a triumphant “girl-boss” moment. But what happened after they were freed? These newly free people are shunned by tradespeople for supposedly taking their jobs, and civil unrest breaks out in the cities that Daenerys conquered and in the far-off Free Cities of western Essos that run on a slave economy. These newfound free voices are thought to be arrogant, and the freed people are hunted down by The Sons of the Harpy, who wish for slavery to be reinstated.

I don’t know about you but to me, that sounds eerily familiar to the ideas and actions of the confederate US and the Klu Klux Klan.

The Mysterious East

Yi Ti, Qarth, the Jade Sea, Asshai by the Shadow. We will see all the wonders yet unseen, and drink what wines the got see fit to serve us.’ — A Game of Thrones

An Orientalist painting by Eugène Delacroix (left) and a depiction of Qarth from the Game of Thrones TV show (right)

The idea of the mysterious orient still exists in our modern world. It’s become a bit of a cliché that young backpackers from Europe and North America like to go to countries like India and Bali to discover their secrets and “find themselves”.

It’s in our history, our literature, and our politics. Through the centuries, a strange and fictional version of the east has been conjured up. It has become a place of intrigue and mysticism, but also barbarism and otherworldly darkness. It also happens to be a cornucopia of precious materials like silk, porcelain, jewels, and spices, which the old European nobility often liked to flaunt.

The World of Ice and Fire has similar places. In the far east of Essos, there is The Golden empire Yi Ti, reminiscent of imperial China. It has a history dating long before records began, and has a thing for dynastic drama. The city of Quarth shares similarities to ancient Carthage, a bustling trading hub that was run by a powerful council of elders. Then there’s The Dothraki, a menacing nation of nomadic warriors that shares similarities with the Mongolian Empire that once dominated Asia.

Then there’s city of Asshai, which isn’t exactly based on a specific city, but is a culmination of the other-worldly mysteries of the far east, and the west’s xenophobia. The characters that are known to have lived in Asshai draw from the derogatory stereotypes of Asian women. Melisandre is a mysterious femme fatale, Quaithe is a superstitious oracle that lives in the shadows, and Mirri Maz Duur is a wise but vengeful crone. Those that are brave enough to enter Asshai do so purely on terminal intrigue.

Things like this are what interest me most about GRRM's writing. His worldbuilding is vast and complex, but it’s also a symbolic version of our own history; these three points are just some of the more obvious ones. Every culture, every piece of geographical information, every ancient wonder, is a fantastical reflection of our own history.



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