As HBO’s runaway hit series Game of Thrones enters its fifth season, it boasts a crossover appeal few fantasy sagas can match outside of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The show’s steadily growing fan base contains scores of casual viewers who previously had little to no interest in fantasy or political drama. What is it about this story that attracts casual viewers, and why?
The answer begins with novelist George R.R. Martin, writer of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that inspired Game of Thrones (which you can catch up on through DirectStarTV.com or HBO Go). Martin combines elements from various fantasy sources with real-world political and wartime history, and drops complex characters into difficult moral and ethical situations. Here’s a some of the author’s main influences.
It probably goes without saying that Tolkien and Martin share much more than a pair of middle initials. One of Tolkien’s strengths was his tendency to put the characters in the foreground and use the fantastical elements sparingly. Martin does likewise, opening the first chapter of A Game of Thrones with an ice creature attack, but leaving magic out for the rest of the book, up until the final chapter when Daenerys’ dragons are born. It leaves the reader thirsty for more.
Martin’s plotting also follows a template produced by Tolkien. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the characters all come together in Rivendell and set out as a united party to take the ring to Mordor. Over the course of the saga, conflicts in the fellowship lead to its splintering, and the characters are strewn across Middle Earth. Likewise, Martin begins from the point of view of the Stark family, detailing their lives and relationships as nobles at Winterfell. Once Ned Stark takes his daughters south, the remaining family members choose to or are forced to leave, and by the end of the second book they too are scattered throughout Westeros.
Martin gets a lot of credit for his reinvention of fantasy tropes and character types, but he was by no means the first to do it. The Once and Future King, T.H. White’s revisionist chronicle of legendary British hero King Arthur, brings deeper character shading and levels of complexity to the folk tale. For instance, the legendary handsome knight in shining armor Sir Lancelot is portrayed as an ugly, deeply flawed, sad and sometimes sadistic human being. Rooted in real world concepts of war and politics, and with a suitably tragic ending, White’s classic turns stereotypes on their ear.
Another reason Martin’s stories resonate is their ties to actual events and places. Hadrian’s Wall, a defensive structure built in Northern England during the time of the Roman Empire, was the inspiration for the ice wall built by men to keep White Walkers from invading. The Wars of the Roses, a series of power struggles in medieval England during the 1400s between the houses of York and Lancaster, served as inspiration for the conflict between the houses of Stark and Lannister. The notorious Red Wedding was modeled after the Black Dinner, at which a Scottish king murdered the leader of an enemy clan after inviting him to his castle.
Creative success has always involved the combination of varied parts to create something new. As the series progresses, Martin is sure to incorporate more material from his diverse array of influences, maintaining a high degree of authenticity and originality in a series that has reinvigorated the fantasy genre and is sure to influence young writers for years to come.