[Note: There’s a spoiler for the novella “The Hedge Knight” below, but otherwise it’s quite safe!]
Although we’ve remarked in our earlier reviews that one thing Game of Thrones has had to elide is some significant parts of the history, this doesn’t mean that the show lacks it entirely. In fact, when they can, the producers have even inserted a bit of history here and there… and not just to the history within the novels, but to cinematic history as well. Below, we’ll go through some of our favorite nods to George R.R. Martin’s expansive world.
The first episode is very much focused on an incredible amount of foundation-setting, so that may be why historical references are few and far between — just enough to let you know that Robert won his crown in a rebellion, and that the Targaryens were the dynasty he brought down. There is, however, a lovely effigy of Lyanna Stark in the crypt, to which Robert pays his respects. Quite deliberately, her name is not actually given in that episode… or, indeed, any of the three episodes after it. However, episode 5 changes that, and the person who names her is probably not who you think it is!
The second episode provides one of our only mentions of Dorne in the series to date. This is important because when fans saw some of the initial maps for the show, the map cut off before you actually saw Dorne. Fortunately, that didn’t mean they were cutting it out, just de-emphasizing it. Tyrion’s the one who comments on how prostitutes in Dorne and elsewhere would mourn if he joined the Watch, so the context of it is always a bit ribald (appropriate, perhaps, for Dorne, given the hot spices which men in the Reach and the Marches claim make Dornishmen hot tempered and Dornishwomen lewd and waton); Tyrion also suggests that Dornish girls are the “strangest thing [he’s] eaten”… Episode 4 sees Bran giving us the words of House Martell — “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” — as well, so Dorne’s not entirely out of the picture.
The third episode really begins to drop the little details that make fans happy. It’s our first glimpse at Barristan the Bold, the legendary Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, even if he’s not named (strangely, some viewers familiar with the books somehow concluded that he was actually Tywin Lannister…), as he listens to Robert talk about “first kills”. When Ser Barristan says the first man he ever killed was a Tyroshi, it immediately made me think of the War of the Ninepenny Kings. This was the war launched by Maelys the Monstrous, the last of the Blackfyre Pretenders, and his allies from the continent of Essos to take control of the Iron Throne. Although Barristan had already made a name for himself as a tourney champion by this time (winning his spurs at the age of 16), it’s the War of the Ninepenny Kings where he really proved himself a great warrior.
The account of his deeds in the White Book of the Kingsguard reveals that he personally slew Maelys the Monstrous (named because of his massive upper body and strength, and the fact that a small, second head grew from his neck), but he must have fought and killed other men. A Tyroshi — probably a sellsword, probably identifiabel as a Tyroshi by their fashion of wearing forked beards dyed strange colors — is just as likely as anyone to have been the first man Barristan Selmy killed during that war.
The reminiscence goes on, of course, as Robert talks of Summerhall. Formerly a royal palace, Summerhall was a ruin by the time of Robert’s Rebellion. When Robert reached Storm’s End after helping Lord Arryn seize Gulltown from royalists, he soon learned that Aerys’s Hand had convinced three of his banner men to join forces to capture him. Rather than hiding out in Storm’s End and marshaling his own loyal forces, Robert went on the attack with what men he had. It was incredibly bold, and it proved successful.
All three together could perhaps overwhelm him… but his plan was to reach their designated meeting palce at Summerhall, and then defeat each of their individual troops in turn. And he succeeded. It was one of the greatest of Robert’s victories, until the Trident. Now, properly speaking, we know this is wrong — he killed men at Gulltown, to say the least — but it’s nice that they even thought of mentioning Summerhall in this context. And the first kill being a Tarly? While the Tarlys are vassals to Highgarden, it’s entirely probable that one of the lords rising up against him had a Tarly squire in his company. And it sets up the introduction of Samwell in the next episode, as well.
And that’s not all. Then Jaime comes in, and he describes his first kill — an outlaw of “the Brotherhood”. Barristan remembers it and says Jaime was a squire of sixteen (fifteen, in the novel), and Jaime responds that Barristan killed Simon Toyne there with the best counter-riposte he ever saw. It’s an example of soldierly camraderie, this exchange, and while I’d quibble with whether any such conversation could actually happen between the two in the novel (Barristan very clearly detests Jaime’s continued presence in the Kingsguard, after he dishonored himself and his cloak), it’s a great touch for the history buffs.
The brotherhood in question were there Kingswood Brotherhood, led by Simon Toyne. Toyne may have been a remnant of a family that was largely destroyed by King Aegon the Unworthy, after a Toyne in his Kingsguard bedded his mistress and was executed; when his brothers attempted to have their revenge, they would have killed Aegon if it weren’t for his famous brother the Dragonknight, who died in his stead. Aegon the Unworthy was the king who left a legacy of blood on his deathbed, when he legitimized all of his bastard sons, including Daemon Blackfyre, who would use that legitimacy to proclaim himself king and become the first of the Blackfyre Pretenders…
See how the history keeps going back and back with these references? They may never follow the chain of history backwards as far as fans would like, but that they even acknowledge a link or two is enough to allow the readers to conjure up recollections of the deeper history.
“Lord Snow” also provides us the introduction of Old Nan, the old, aged nanny at Winterfell who is a treasure trove of stories for the Stark children. When she offers to tell Bran stories about Ser Duncan the Tall, claiming they were his favorite, this was a lovely addition that made Linda and I grin. Ser Duncan is one of the two protagonists of Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” stories, the other being his young squire, Egg — short for Aegon. Who is the Aegon who’ll become Aegon V, the Unlikely, and who’ll be the one who’ll have to deal with the last of the Blackfyre Pretenders…
The history links up nicely, doesn’t it? It’s one of the beauties of the way Martin constructs history for the setting, building it up in layers which interweave in a way that feels natural.
To wrap up, here’s a nod that isn’t historical, but more of an easter egg for fans of fantasy films. When Viserys is re-enacting a fantasyesque version of A Fish Called Wanda with Doreah — it’s dragon names that arouse her, not foreign languages — he goes through a list. Many of the names are made up by the writers, though there’s a little history thrown in here (Ghiscar must refer, in an ironic way, to the Old Empire of Ghis that the Valyrians destroyed). But one name immediately leapt to our attention: Vermithrax. “Vermithrax?!,” I asked, and Linda confirmed that that’s what it sounded like. For those who don’t know, Vermithrax — Vermithrax Pejorative, to give him his full name — is the terrible dragon that threatens a realm in the early 80’s fantasy film, Dragonslayer. I’m told that dropping his name into the list was the idea of exectuive producer D.B. Weiss, who knows his 80’s fantasy films, we’re guessing.
Funnily enough, George R.R. Martin would later name the film among his ten best fantasy films for the Daily Beast.
There are probably a few more little nods and references embedded in the series — any favorites?