Historical Allusion in Popular Fiction: A Study of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

Bishwaksen Bandyopadhyay, Instructional Designer

The purpose of this article is not to declare with certainly that something is. Rather, it is all about pointing out that something may be. It’s about collating some information to show how art imitates life. Art, in this case, refers to the art of writing fiction. In this article I look at how history has influenced authors.

In this article I catalogue some historical events that have been immortalized in some form or the other in popular fiction. Of course, the scope of popular fiction being so massive, it will take a lifetime to catalogue each and every influence. So, I have kept this article limited to the modern day classic (very loose interpretation of a classic admittedly) and global phenomenon of the series of books called A Song of Ice and Fire, popularly known by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones (1996) by George RR Martin (b. 1949). The other books in the series are A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005) and A Dance with Dragons (2011), with two more books forthcoming – The Winds of Winter, and A Dream of Spring. I will be referring to characters and incidents that are common to and spread across the five books.

Of course, before we begin, I need to make it clear just what aspect of literary trope I am focusing on. You see, history can be used in fiction in at least three ways.

First, we have the historical fiction – stories set among historical periods. For example, we have:

  • Susanna Gregory’s (b. 1958) Mathew Bartholomew series (1996-2015) set during Cambridge in the 14th century
  • Lindsey Davies’s (b. 1949) Marcus Didius Falco series (1989-2010) set in Rome during the Flavian dynasty
  • Bernard Knight’s (b. 1931) Crowner John series (1998-2012) set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart
  • Ellis Peters’(1913-1995) Cadfael series (1977-1994) set during the 12th century
  • Conn Iggulden’s (b.1971) Emperor series (2003-2013) about Julius Caesar and Conqueror series (2007-2011) about Genghis and Kublai Khan
  • Bernard Cornwell’s (b. 1944) Sharpe series (1997-2007) set during Wellesley’s war against Napoleon
  • Elisabeth Peters’ (1927-2013) Amelia Peabody (1975-2010) series set in late 19th and early 20th centuries in Egypt

Then there are individual books too, some of which are considered classics.

  • Charles Dickens (1812-1870) – A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  • Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) – Ivanhoe (1820)
  • James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) – The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
  • Victor Hugo (1802-1885)– The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)
  • Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) – The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
  • Agatha Christie (1890-1976) – Death Comes as the End (1944)

Second, we have books that take direct references from history and build stories around those. Dan Brown’s (b. 1964) The Da Vinci Code (2003) is possibly the most famous example of this. Andy McDermott (b. 1974) has his protagonists search for Tomb of Hercules, El Dorado, Excalibur, Atlantis etc (Nina Wilde, Eddie Chase novels). Clive Cussler (b. 1931) has his protagonists as underwater salvage experts who go around excavating sunken ships from history (Dirk Pitt novels). James Rollins (b. 1961) and Matthew Reilly (b. 1974) are two others with work in this genre.

However, I am not looking at either of these two categories; I am looking at fictional events or characters or sets that are parallels of actual historical events or characters or settings. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55) has numerous historical allusions. For example, the fires of Isengard are a direct allusion to the Industrial revolution and the way it changed the whole landscape of hitherto pastoral Britain.

So what about A Game of Thrones/ A Song of Ice and Fire? What historical allusions are hidden in that series?

Ask anyone who has read the books by Martin and has a working knowledge of world history, and they will tell you about the parallels between

1. The war between the Starks and the Lannisters and the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster

2. The Wall and Hadrian’s Wall.

But, let’s dig a little deeper shall we?

The War: There really is not much clarity or parallel between the War of the Roses and the fictional War of Five Kings. The reason most people assume that one is based on the other is because of the similarity of the names – York/Stark, the Northerners and Lancaster/Lannister, the rich Southerners.

The Wall: The wall in the books is there to keep wildlings/free folk out of Westeros. As such, it is probably a mixture of three walls from history – Hadrian’s Wall, Antoninus’s Wall and the Great Wall.

Both Hadrian and his adopted son Antoninus Pius had built walls to keep the Scot (Romans called them Caledonians) out of the Roman Empire. Both walls were protected by a number of forts and milecastles. We can see an exact parallel in Castle Black and others garrisoned by the Night’s Watch.

So what about the Great Wall of China?

The Great Wall was built to stop invasions from the Mongols. However, the Mongols – united under Genghis Khan – under the general Jebe simply rode around the wall, found weak spots without any forts, entered and defeated the Chinese armies. In the 16th century Altan Khan adopted a similar tactic. He skirted the heavily defended Xuan Da region and instead entered through the sparsely defended Gubeiko region and raided Beijing.

In A Game of Thrones, we see a similar tactic by Mance Raider – who unites the free folk north of the wall – in his assault on Castle Black. Tormund, Ygritte and The Thens scaled the wall at an unguarded place, sacked Mole’s Town and attacked Castle Black from behind while Mance’s main force – complete with giants riding mammoths – attacked it from the front.

The Wildlings: The Wildlings in the series are people from the north who do not submit to the kings or emperors of the south. Thus, they are more or less the parallels of the Scottish tribes, who refused to submit the Roman Empire and remained fiercely independent. The wildlings can also be the Mongols, Tatars and other nomadic tribes from the Steppes and Central Asia who lived on the other side of the Wall and refused to pay obedience to the Chinese kings.

The Wedding: The reason the Red Wedding shocks us so deeply is not because of the barbaric murders – people have been killing each other since the beginning of time – but rather because of the violation of guest rites. ‘Guest rites’ is something which used to be considered sacrosanct in almost all civilizations. Even in India, “atithi deva bhava” has been in practice since time immemorial; even today it is practiced, albeit usually only in theory.

That is why killing your guests after welcoming them and guaranteeing their safety is considered one of the lowest and most horrendous crimes imaginable. So how could Mr. Martin even think of such a crime?

He just had to look at history.

In 1440, Sir William Crichton and Sir Alexander Livingston invited the 16-year old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas, his young brother David and an advisor to Edinburgh Castle. The Douglas clan was a powerful family. Furthermore, William Douglas was a favorite of the young Scottish king James II. The power of the clan coupled with the young king’s friendship with William alarmed Sir Crichton and Sir Livingston.

As per historical sources, initially, the Douglases were treated with utmost courtesy. Suddenly, bagpipers started playing and soldiers entered the dining hall. They captured the brothers, convicted them of treason in a hastily assembled kangaroo court and beheaded them. During contemporary times, bagpipes were played during battles.

A similar event wades its way into the Red Wedding in game of Thrones. The Starks and Tullys were welcomed and the feast was in full progress when suddenly the musicians started to play The Rains of Castamere and soldiers entered the hall; and attacked the guests.

But that wasn’t the only event of this kind. A sort of role reversal and violation of guest rites happened in the 17th century. Captain Robert Campbell and his troops lodged with the MacDonald and Maclain clans for two weeks. On February 13 1692, they massacred the families. They executed 38 men and torched the homes leading to the death of 40 women and children.

The Women: Two of the main characters in Mr. Martin’s series are Queen Cercei and the Khaleesi Daeneris Targaryen.

Parallels of Daeneris, a young orphan queen, can be seen in Queen Elizabeth I of England, Queen Hatsepshut of Egypt and Razia Sultana of Delhi

Queen Cercei is a much more complex character. She kills her husband Robert Baratheon – a drunk who bedded many women outside marriage – and becomes the regent Queen for her sons Joffrey and later Tommen. Similarly, Queen Isabella of France murdered her husband King Edward II – a homosexual/bisexual man who was under the thumb of his lovers Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser – and ruled as England’s regent for four years.

Queen Cercei, with her arrogance and lack of diplomatic skills, acts as a catalyst for the War in Westeros, just like Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, acted as a catalyst in the Wars of the Roses.

The Dothraki: The Dothraki horselords of Mr. Martin’s series are similar to the Huns and Mongols, both of whom were ferocious fighters and horsemen. The Dothrakis practice a shamanic religion, same as the Mongols and Huns. The Dothrakis are great archers, just like the Mongols and Huns.

Furthermore, Attila the Hun entered into a pact to marry the Roman princess Honoria. In the books too, Khal Drogo, the leader of the Dothraki entered into a pact to marry Daeneris, the Targaryen princess.

The Cities: King’s Landing to all intents and purposes is Constantinople. Both cities are built on hills and are protected my massive walls. The parallel is all the more striking when you consider the Battle of Blackwater Bay when Stannis Baratheon attacks the city from the sea. It is similar to the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717-18AD. The Byzantines successfully defeated the Arab navy through the use of “Greek fire”, an incendiary chemical weapon. In the books, Tyrion Lannister uses “wildfire”, an incendiary chemical weapon to destroy Stannis’ ships and men.

The fictional city of Bravos, with its canals and banks, is an echo of the Republic of Venice.

In the stories, Valyria is an ancient kingdom which came from the south. The Valyrians were famed for their industries and their architecture. During its glory days it was the greatest city on earth. Valyria can be taken as a parallel to Rome.

The slavers bay cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, with their oriental looks and grand pyramids along with their dresses and women’s practice of veiling their faces, are clearly Egyptian or Persian cities.

The Religions: The worship of the old Gods as practiced in the north on both sides of the wall closely resemble nature worship and Druidic cultures as practiced by the Celtic races.

The worship of the Seven has parallels in the medieval Catholic faith. The Seven take the space of the Holy Trinity of the Christian Church. There are monastic orders in both and both are governed by a man in high office – the Great Septon for the Seven and the Pope for the Christians. The Lord of Light fire cult is similar to Zoroastrianism.

There is another way of looking at it. If you look at the history of the British Isles, first there were the Celtic people with their Druidic religions and practices. Then came the Romans with their gods. The Roman gods were limited in numbers and there existed a clear pantheon and structure to their religion. And then came the Christians with their one true god.

In the books, first there were the nature gods – the old gods of the forests; then came the few gods – The Seven – and then the one true god.

The Incest: The Targaryens are notorious in Westeros for openly practicing incest.

There is a real world dynasty which did the same – The Ptolemies of Egypt. After Alexander’s death, his generals carved up his Empire. Ptolemy got Egypt and ruled it for three centuries. And throughout that time, they kept marrying their sisters. Each king took the titular name Ptolemy and married their sisters – who were named either Berenice or Arsinoe or Cleopatra. Julius Caesar’s Cleopatra was in fact Cleopatra VII, and she was married to her younger brother Ptolemy XIII.

All these similarities are purely on the surface. More research is bound to unearth more historical allusions and parallels.

History keeps repeating itself because human beings, in general, remain the same. The instruments change, the technologies change but the basic human nature does not. Thus, we keep doing the same thing, repeating the same mistake.

We are shocked and disturbed when we read of horrors and seemingly incredible incidents in fiction, but as always truth remains stranger than fiction.

A good artist or a good author does not need to imagine or create new human behavior; all they need to do is to look at human history.

We, as humans, have been there and done that.


Martin, George R.R. A Song of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Publishing, 2011. Print.

An Instructional Designer by profession, Bishwaksen Bandyopadhyay has been addicted to books for two millenia. He started his reading career by being suspicious of the letter C and he has reached a point where now he is suspicious of all critics – and mime artists – everywhere. Mortally afraid of women and low internet bandwidth, he spends his free time reading books, writing blogs, abusing Arsenal fans, feeding street dogs and talking to the voices in his head.