Through the Grave the Wind is Blowing: A Historical Theory of A Game of Thrones
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Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing: A Historical Theory of A Game of Thrones

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | June 13, 2013 | Comments ()


In the interests of not kindling another salvo in the eternal war between those who read the Game of Thrones books and those who unimaginable vulgarity removed by editor have decided not to, this is a spoiler warning. This article is intended for book readers.

George R.R. Martin has always drawn deeply from history in A Song of Ice and Fire. From thinly veiled Mongol hordes, to Hadrian’s Wall carved of a few hundred feet of ice, to Greek Fire and the mighty harbor chains of medieval Constantinople. And he has admitted that the War of Roses in particular provided the germ of the story, the conflagration of Lancaster and York mapping onto Lannister and Stark. As such, it’s entirely appropriate to look to history to consider the direction that the overall story is moving towards.

Martin returns repeatedly, but with an ever light touch, to the condition of the common people. Those poor bastards who are raped, scourged, burned out, and murdered for a lark while their betters gallivant about. Even in the attitudes of the nominal good characters, those indomitable Starks, the impression of the common folk reminds me of a scene from The Once and Future King, in which young King Arthur when asked to recite the number of dead in a battle, can only recall the number of knights killed and wounded. The thousands of peasants pressed into service as fodder, massacred en masse if unfortunate enough to be on the losing side, are totally invisible to his sight.

In Martin’s works, the masses are at worst annihilated, usually just forgotten, and at best pitied by the great and powerful. At no point do any of five kings in their planning, or any of the great lords puzzling out with whom to cast their lots, or even Dany across the sea, ever ponder what the best outcome of the war would be for the commoners. All that matters is who sits atop the heap, whether they are motivated by power, revenge, righteousness, or honor. The people are simply not part of the equation, being nothing more than part of the landscape over which they are fighting.

But this is not a criticism of Martin’s story, nor of an insistence on overlaying modern morality on a medieval tale. Instead, I think this is the very crux of the story that Martin is laying out for us.

He does not call that first novel Game of Thrones like the television series or the definite The Game of Thrones, but A Game of Thrones, and that single letter, that little indefinite article forgotten in the title of the television series bears an enormous weight. That letter warps the title from somber and powerful into a sneer. It’s an ironic title, a dismissive one that brings to mind the old English saying “bugger that for a game of soldiers”. The Game of Thrones in question is not significant enough for the definite article, being just the latest in an endless series of them, none of which distinguish themselves anymore than the last.

But all through the story, Martin seeds allusions to the People, that mythical entity with a capital letter that transforms the people into a force to be reckoned with. Viserys believes that the people sew dragon banners in secret, hoping for their true king to return. Arya sees first hand more than any that the people live in fear of all sides, that their lives are suffering regardless of who happens to ride through, who happens to win, who happens to lose. And the Brotherhood without Banners occupies a central place, staking that position of fighting for the common people.

Our old friend the Onion Knight, and of course it had to be Davos, raised from common stock, makes the argument that the true king should defend the kingdom and its people. And he goes to aid the Night’s Watch, who alone among any of the fighting forces in the world, is composed entirely of the detritus of the world. When Jon Snow brings the Wildlings across the wall, it’s with the idea of using them to both settle and be an army many times bigger than any that can be mustered by the Night’s Watch itself. They are a people who have chosen their own king, a people who fight because they want to.

In King’s Landing, the People rise in riots and in the later novels become the force behind the religious resurgence, of the church seizing unprecedented power in the face of the nobles. Dany becomes a true queen on the other side of the world not through blood or destiny, but by the simple and powerful expedient of winning the hearts of her soldiers. Ramsay’s marriage to the false Arya, and the warnings that her sobbing is the greatest threat to the Boltons in the North is another seed.

All of these bits and pieces seem almost beside the point of the overall story, they’re the little things happening on the side while we wait for the big battles and epic betrayals. But I think that all those things that we think of as the major events are the ones that are actually almost beside the point. Martin has deftly maneuvered us to love these Starks, and even these Lannisters, so that it cuts more when they fall, but fall they will.

I believe he has every intention of killing off the leaders of everyone who has ever sought power. Every would be king, every jumpstart lord. Every one of them will die before the end, whether they are the nominal good guys are not. Because Martin is writing not about a battle between good and evil but about the death of an era, about the destruction of the old order in the face of the new. Some few will doubtlessly survive, but it will be those who are humble, those who are willing to give up power. Those bastards and dwarves who turned aside from the temptations of power.

What Martin is building towards is the democratization of warfare. Towards a hundred thousand men marching because they believe instead of ten thousand marching for power. It’s one of the monumental turning points of history, and fits well into the way he has tapped the past for story. It came to its first realization with Napoleon. In an age when large armies might be fifty thousand men, he invaded Russia with a half million, lost every single one of them and then raised another army virtually overnight. Crushed once and sent to exile, he escaped and returned to France, gathering another army as he rode north.

It’s a historical process that requires identity, requires the people to believe that they are part of something more. Peasants are forged into nations and they fight not for Lannister or Stark, but for the one they see as their own. It’s not a panacea, not a solution to the ails of the world. With the mobilization of the masses comes more suffering than ever before, but it also holds the seed of everything great we’ve managed as well. And that’s where I believe Martin is taking his story.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Dragonchild

    "What Martin is building towards is the democratization of warfare.
    Towards a hundred thousand men marching because they believe instead of ten thousand marching for power."

    I'm really not sure where this comes from because all indications are that one of the biggest flaws in GRRM's world is that the people are WAY too passive in accepting their trampling, and GRRM has really only given lip service to the plight of the commoners. As observed by critics such as Abigail Nussbaum, they're scarcely mentioned at all in AGoT, which for an 800 page book is a helluva oversight no matter how much the plot is in its infancy (he can't exactly say there wasn't enough room to fit it in). In later books it's still not much of a plot point -- Brienne gives us a nice long tour of the ruined countryside in ADwD, but she wasn't there to be any sort of hero for the commoners (as much as she'd make a great one of she stopped wearing her honor like a goddamned yoke and used it as an asset for a change); she was looking for Sansa. So even the "honorable" can be literally IMMERSED in the misery of the people and still consider their plight too irrelevant to bring about a shift in priorities. They can sing requiems for their plight for all I care but until there's any sort of populist agenda I consider it lip service. Dany seems to get that the will of the people is an asset but she treats it more of a nice-to-have in her own Machiavellian quest for power. She'd probably enjoy the ride a lot less if people were terrified instead of grateful, but either way I doubt she'd give up her own ambitions if she was forced to choose between power and popularity.

    So the people are still waiting. . . for what, exactly? Winter is coming (and you don't need to be a farmer those days to know when), and this winter is a fantasy form that's much longer, so the people are rapidly running out of time to revolt. Revolts and revolutions were rare even in those days because it usually meant more famine and war when the people already have enough, but subsistence societies were acutely aware of their options, and will revolt when they know they have been doomed to starvation. I know this is fantasy but GRRM's fans staunchly defend the social realism so now is when I bring up historical figures like Hannibal of Carthage, who doubled his army by getting the Gauls in northern Italy to defect against Rome -- it wasn't a noble's betrayal; it was a POPULIST revolt. If only someone was so clever to try the same against the Freys or Boltons.

    In contrast, I really don't get that GRRM has any way of getting the commoners representation in this Game short of using one of his existing cast as a proxy (e.g. Dany) -- i.e., not much more than what's already there. To him the commoners are more a plot device like Nolan's Batman trilogy -- Batman SERVES the people but no one ever really understands or even tries to find out what they need; their disagreements stem from everyone just making assumptions about what's best. In other words, "the people" are whatever the hell Nolan needs them to be for a particular scene (passive and suffering in GRRM's case), which works for those scenes but as the story drags on, the lack of real representation knocks a lot of the underlying tension out from underneath for me because it's not like anyone has all the ingredients necessary to usher in a golden age of prosperity.

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  • Jenn TheYellowDart

    You used the word panacea.

    ...should you ever want to, I will have your word babies.

  • Cazadora

    Good article, but I think you missed the one key thing...winter is coming. And like the bubonic plague and it's impact on Europe in the Middle Ages, it will have a huge impact on Westeros killing commoner and noble, alike.

  • Guest


  • lowercase_ryan

    My only objection is your assertion that anyone will survive based on their decisions/actions/personality. I don't think it has anything to do with who remains humble. At the end it's always been a game and a game that involves a great deal of chance. And really, isn't that a reflection of life? Any number of things can happen, any number of people can die, and especially in the context of this story I don't see how anyone makes it through without luck .

    Although dragons help.

  • Scott Crawford

    It certainly has possibilities. Something that is creeping into the books is the economics. The families battling for control are having to mortgage everything to the money changers in the East. Eventually, they will run out of money and people will starve. The common folk can deal with a lot but starvation is something that tends to drive revolution.

  • MclBolton

    I certainly hope that GRRM is reading this site !!!

  • Mrs. Julien

    As a non-GoT person and a non-Community person, I would like to say that I far prefer the pre-ponderance of GoT articles to the endless commentary on Community; its status; its creator and his status; and something called the Darkest Timeline. The GoT pictures are so much more interesting than that Community photo shoot of the two female leads scantily clad that ran on a loop for about 8 months around here.

  • Jebus

    I think (read a blog late at night) that its more based on Norse myth. I'm not even going to attempt to recap or pass off as my own, so ill link to the site. The guy is extremely thorough. Extremely spoilery. http://gameofthronesandnorsemy...

  • Fabius_Maximus

    That is much too complex to be viable. I agree that motives from the Norse mythology are there, but that guy just spends too much time thinking about that stuff.

  • stutx

    man that stuff is incredible, thorough is an understatement.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    As a history dilettante, I tend to describe it as "It's like if the War of the Roses were combined with the Trojan War." I'm happy to have a better explanation available for my friends who actually know history. Lovely piece.

  • manting

    When I first read your post I agreed but the wall is different. The wall USED to be a place of honor, a place that men would go to "serve the realm." The fact that Benjen Stark went there as did a Mallister, a Royce, and a Mormont all show that there is a desire to protect the people, but only among a minority of the houses. Their are no Freys at the wall, no Boltons, no Lannisters. The Wall has become, during the series and for some time before, a French Foreign Legion. It is made of of scum,- rapers, murderers, poachers, and orphans, which leads to Mormonts death at the hands of his brothers. It used to be a place of honor - the kingdom has lost its way and the wall typifies that.

  • freetickles

    I agree about what the Night's Watch has become, but think it's all a part of the same theory. The major houses in this game of thrones are too focused on the politics and maneuvering for power and have forgotten about protecting the people and fighting the real enemy (the Others), and the lack of attention to the Night's Watch is just another example of that.

  • Wembley

    I figured the message was the same as that of classic zombie movies.

    When faced with an external threat, humans are incapable of banding together to deal with that threat, but will, instead, scheme, backstab, horde, panic and act selfishly instead of cooperate and doom us all.

    So, I figure most of the main characters die in the fight for the throne and then the 'winners' die when ice whatsits come.

    I'm also at a loss trying to identify your suggestion of a 'modern morality' of giving a shit about the common people. Political leaders certainly don't. Food companies act as if they hate their consumers with the stuff they add to their products to 'hook' people.

  • Rochelle

    I wonder if an Oliver Cromwell figure will arise.

  • Milly

    Some may argue that the growth of the sparrows and the High Sparrow (High Septon) are one possible way to present that historical avenue given the religious/puritanical fervour that Cromwell was renowned for.

    Rooting out excess and corruption seen within the established royalty/high born would be a clear(ish) parallel.

  • koko temur

    oh, you have no idea how this post made me happy. I am a proud history nerd too, and my own theory is somewhat complementing yours.

    All through the world history we see again and again the rise of empires the benifit from their location on the outskirts. What we now know as "china" was only one of similiar tiny kingdoms, all evenly matched. The ones in the middle exousted and eventually demolished each other while that first chineese dynasty bid her time and carefully nibbled at the edges till she unified them all under her. The rise of western europe after it was left relatively unbothered by the whole roman-mongolian-turkish empires shitstorms. (im simplifying, of course, dont shout at me, fellow nerds). Even the rise of the US on the outskirts of the old world, broken and starving after second world war, is regarded by historians as the same phenomen, but on larger scale.

    The further we go in the saga, the less what we percieved as "main" characters in the biginning, we have now. Starks, lannisters - all become slowly irrelevant as they exoust each other enough in the center, allowing the players from the sidelines to sweep in. Look at the long game martells are playing. Two ceperate ones, in fact. It will sadden me to no end if anyone from that boring as fuck family will be involved in ruling the seven kingdoms in any way, shape or form. But as a history nerd - i understand. the real story is beyond the wall and to the east. Our beloved starks and lannisters are part of the *A* game of thrones as you noted. End of an era. I love some of them deeply, but they are just one of those other ancient chineese kingdoms, the name of which no one remembers now.

  • stutx

    thanks, gave me plenty to think about.

  • freetickles

    Interesting theory, and one that makes a lot of sense as I'd say we all notice these themes but hand't necessarily put it together as things that would drive the final resolution. I wonder which characters you think would qualify per this sentence: "Some few will doubtlessly survive, but it will be those who are humble, those who are willing to give up power"

    My guesses are: Jon (assuming he's still alive to begin with or will be revived by Mel), Danaerys (assuming she can take what she's learned in the east and stop viewing herself as the "rightful heir"), Bran, Arya, Jaime, Tyrion. The one I wonder about is Stannis, but I think he ultimately won't be able to give up the power he sees as his.

  • indarchandra

    I'm telling you right now there will be a massive hissy fit on my part if Brienne ends up being dead.

  • KV

    Was Brienne not hanged by Lady Stoneheart (or whatever her name is) in AFfC?

  • freetickles

    I think GRRM clarified in an interview that she was not. She agreed to hunt down Jaime instead.

  • indarchandra

    It's unclear, in DwD Jaime apparently runs off with Brienne to kill The Mountain, but The Mountain's already way dead, and Brienne may or may not have been executed by Stoneheart (boy do I not like book version of Lady Stark!!) All I know is GRRM hates me and wants to kill off all my hopes and dreams, so she is probably dead, cause that's how he roll.

  • manting

    as of a DoD Jamie and Brienne head off to rescue Sansa from the hound but we, the readers, know this for a lie. Clearly Brienne made some deal with Lady Stoneheart and bringing in Jamie is part of the deal. I assume Pod and Hyle Hunt are being held hostage to force Brienne to bring Jamie to them alone.

  • indarchandra

    I'm on board with her being alive but such blatant deception a little out of character, no? brienne's moral compas seems to be the most north pointing of the lot as far as I can tell

  • manting

    she is doing it to save Hyle Hunt and Podrick, so she is still acting morally, also perhaps Jamie will be given a trial by battle. Also I would say she is more naive than moral. Davos strikes me as the most moral.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    I have a lot of hope for Danaerys in this regard. She seems to be the only one who gives a genuine fuck about the fate of her average citizens, and she's been raised away from the hierarchy of Westeros. She's also the only player who built a following based on deeds rather than a last name. If she can shake the "It's mine because blood" mindset it'd be great.

  • Fredo

    I agree. Martin has been strong to point out how Dany had nothing, learned to live under the yoke of Viserys and how she's slowly, but surely, gained power without ignoring the plight of the lowest classes.

    Likewise, Arya is someone who is learning to assess people, both highborn an low, and is gaining the skills to change the realpolitik of the world through assassinations.

    Finally, don't discount Tyrion who, while a member of the rich and powerful, has never been accepted by them. His course has brought him low, but he could have a large role to play in Dany's course of action. And, as Varys said in the last episode, he has the skills and the capacity to make life better for all in Westeros.

  • manting

    Aegon (who I believe is a fake) was raised to be a King who understands the plight of the common folk. He would be the ultimate expression of the article authors theory. He also closely parallels the Arthur story of being born the heir, his father being killed, and his being raised humbly and secretly.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    True, but right now Dany has experience ruling a city and Aegon doesn't. She's had to deal with the boring, day to day of ruling and making political alliances that are terrible to read about but probably prepare her better for the throne than battles or dragons.

    Whatever Aegon is, I don't see him making it on his own at this point. I think he's going to end up allied with one of the other major players to get a better stake in the game.

  • koko temur

    derailing the conversation a bit - but im curious, why do you think he is fake?

  • indarchandra

    I think the fake theory is based mostly on Dany's vision of a paper dragon in the house of the undying. Also, I think Tyrion is super skeptical too... maybe, I could be lying to you but I'm too lazy to verify

  • manting

    because how would the mountain know to smash his head in and make the him unrecognizable? That -and the mummers dragon vision of Dany's and the way he just appears five books in.

  • Ausencio

    It makes sense.

  • MauraFoley

    :Slow Clap:

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