Like many millions, I watched the HBO series Game of Thrones regularly. Martin’s imagination captivated me from early on, and I wanted to write about the series for some time, but I decided to wait until the release of the series finale to write this. I grew to enjoy the series more as more seasons were released, and I continue to enjoy it even more as I explore its symbolism. While not exactly a super-fan of the series, I consider myself an admirer of it and the Ice and Fire world. In this blog entry, I’m going to take us into a few of the patterns and symbols of Game of Thrones and see if we might be able to suck some meaning out of them.
Here’s my obligatory blanket spoiler warning: this entry contains spoilers for all episodes of Game of Thrones and all content in the Song of Ice and Fire book series. I hope it’s not, but if your enjoyment of art is based upon knowing what happens, and you haven’t seen it – stop right here! And even if you don’t care for Game of Thrones, try reading this entry – if you like literature, hermeticism, or esotericism, I feel like you might find something of value in Game of Thrones after reading.
Hermetic references are less overt in Game of Thrones than they are in other works we’ve discussed on this blog, but there are many. There’s even some dialogue that sounds like it’s straight out of a dialogue from the Hermetica – I’m thinking of one scene in Season 8 Episode 4 in particular. I want to hold off on talking about the specific scene though. We’ll come back to it later.
When I sat down to write about Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones a couple months ago, I realized that the series has alchemical imagery and symbolism and that indeed the series is wholly alchemical. The alchemical imagery was let loose in the last season in particular. We’ll get into it more, but, as an example, sets of two and three dragons are classically alchemical figures, so Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion are alchemical. When I taught English at a high school for my mentor teaching semester, I showed my classroom a video of the King Arthur legend. It was the part where Merlin pulls apart two stones underneath a tower and two dragons emerge from them, one white and one red. They fight, the red one is victorious, and afterward the victorious red dragon flies out of sight, up into the clouds. I was surprised by the overt alchemical imagery of the dueling white and red dragons in the video I showed. More on these dragons later, though.
I once told someone what I do on this blog is like literary criticism. They said they don’t consider themselves knowledgeable enough to determine whether a story is good or bad. I laughed at this, because the word “critic” has a connotation that many interpret the way she did. However, in my view, a literary critic should add meaning or value to a story, not critique or evaluate it. Thinking about the way popular contemporary critics talk about art, though, some are more evaluative than interpretive. Many fans and commenters occupy themselves with criticizing Game of Thrones for its flaws rather than enjoying its qualities. I have no interest in doing that. Martin, Benioff, and Weiss are artists, and I’m going to respect their art as their art. As George says, Art is not a democracy. We don’t get to vote on how we want Ice and Fire to end.
I would rather talk about and help my listeners interpret stories. The series is meaningful, symbolic, and poetic even. I’d much rather discuss what we have to watch and read than what I wanted the last season to be like. In the manner of Dorian Gray, though, many people would rather a piece of art change itself to match their expectations and desires than change themselves through experiencing it.
City of Thieves
One of the directors of Game of Thrones, David Benioff, wrote a book called City of Thieves. The book is historical fiction, and its main character is Lev Beniov, whose last name makes us think the tale might be semi-autobiographical. The story takes place during World War II, though, and it’s framed as a written account of some recordings from the author’s grandfather, a Russian Jew. I’ll read the description from a library website:
When a dead German paratrooper lands in his street, Lev is caught looting the body and dragged to jail, fearing for his life. He shares his cell with the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested on desertion charges. Instead of the standard bullet in the back of the head, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible.
I was struck by the symbolism of this “outrageous directive.” I downloaded a sample of it to my eReader, and I began reading. Two epigraphs begin the novel, and the first is from Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet and member of the Polish resistance during World War II. The quote reads:
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City
It comes from a collection of poems meant to express poetically the realities of the war and the stark future we’d face if the war were lost. In it, Herbert imagines that through war we would lose our history, our culture, our art.
City of Thieves is historical fiction, but Benioff clearly has a poetic eye and hand: the main character’s name, Lev, means “heart,” and the book, as I said before, is about, in an environment where everyone is starving, a man’s search for twelve eggs for a wedding, making us think of the alchemical egg, the alchemical wedding, and the twelve signs of the zodiac, all symbols of spiritual development and the imagination.
Speaking of alchemy and the zodiac, David Benioff also wrote a new film coming in October 2019 called Gemini Man, starring Will Smith (who has himself spoken on the power of alchemy and positive thinking, citing Paulo Coelho’s book) and I suspect we’ll see more zodiacal imagery in this film.
Association and Symbol
If you’re a regular reader – I think I might have a few of those – you know that my style of interpretation is associative and symbolic, and I pay attention to intertextual references, classical symbolism, structural patterns, repetition of image and action, the meanings of the names of characters, and careful use of language. But I focus especially on patterns.
In a book called The Great Code: The Bible as Literature, the literary scholar Northrop Frye describes a concept in biblical studies called typology. He says that the Bible is patterned in such a way where events in the New Testament fulfill or reflect prophecies or events from the Old Testament. The authors of the New Testament saw the events in the Old Testament as anticipations of the events in the New Testament. This is why, in Luke chapter 24, Jesus tells his disciples that “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” That is, the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. For example, God’s demand for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is echoed in the actuality of the sacrifice of God’s only Son in the gospel.
In addition to his work on the Bible, Northrop Frye wrote extensively and at great depth on the works of the visionary poet William Blake, and he said that Blake had a profound influence on the way he read the Bible. Like Blake, Frye believed in the capacity for the human imagination to let us live in two worlds at once – the imagination lets us live in a physical world, where we can see and hear with our five senses, but at the same time inhabiting a spiritual, creative, imagined world, where, for example, Blake says the Sun is a company of angels crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” As one Frye scholar writes, “reality is what human beings through their imaginations create; it is the product of mental flight; it is not the world that their lazy minds passively perceive,” and the Bible – the story of God and man, and the human desire to kill God, but a failure to do so – is the Magna Carta of the human imagination.
The way Northrop Frye describes the vision of the poet reminds me of something Theseus, the Duke of Athens, says before his wedding to Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
I mentioned the deliberate use of the typological structure in Game of Thrones above – the first episode of the final season is deliberately patterned to mirror or reflect the first episode of the first season. This pattern or structure is also called chiastic structure and it’s used frequently in both detective fiction and fantasy fiction; J. K. Rowling applied the structure to her Harry Potter series, and she seems to be applying it to the Fantastic Beasts series and her Cormoran Strike series as well. That Martin and the directors use this structure consciously is not secret – the directors talk about the intentional mirroring in the first episode’s “Inside the Episode” segment. This isn’t the only occasion of this type of deliberate pattern-making, however – these types and their antitype counterparts run throughout the narrative of Ice and Fire.
For example, in the first season, Ser Loras Tyrell jousts against the Mountain in the Hand’s tournament. Loras wins, and Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, angrily decapitates his horse and attacks Loras. Ser Gregor’s brother, Sandor, intervenes.
This is reflected in Cleganebowl in season 8 episode 5, when Sandor, or the Hound, finally confronts the Mountain and tackles him into a fire. The central point over which these events are reflected is the poisoning of the Mountain in his fight with Oberyn, who is named after the king of fairies. After that pivotal point in the narrative, the Mountain becomes a zombie.
Another example is Tyrion’s imprisonments. In the first season, Catelyn imprisons Tyrion for allegedly attempting to murder Bran. Tyrion manages to get Bronn to fight for him and avoids the dreaded Moon Door and keeps his life. In the middle of the series, Cersei and Tywin imprison Tyrion for allegedly poisoning Joffrey, and Jaime and Varys free him. In the final season, Dany imprisons Tyrion a third and final time for freeing his brother Jaime from her imprisonment.
If Ice and Fire is structured like the Bible, then these sets of symbols are mutually informative counterparts.
There’s a symbolist named Frithjof Schuon who says that all religious scriptures and mythological texts are written symbolically. By this he means that there is an esoteric and exoteric aspect to their imagery. By esoteric, Schuon means a spiritual and mystical meaning that isn’t immediately apparent. To understand the esoteric side of a text, a student must be taught or be otherwise exposed to the teachings of the mystical side of a tradition. For example, on its surface, something may seem to communicate history or moral doctrine, but with the right background knowledge, the reader may instead perceive it as a meditative practice or as a mode of thinking about himself in relationship to other people or objects in the universe.
To describe the relationship between the esoteric and exoteric sides of a tradition, Frithjof and his pupils use a metaphor of a husk and its fruit. The exoteric side is its outer shell, protecting the fruit in the center from being exposed. One must learn how to break open the husk in order to access the fruit within, which is the esoteric side of a symbol. Because so few learn how to access the fruit, the artist must take the utmost care to make sure the husk is appealing to allow the text to be disseminated and read widely enough to spread and preserve the teachings. The more people like the husk, the more people will spread it, talk about it, and so on.
As I learn more and more about Martin and his world, the more I appreciate his breadth of reading. Martin is well-versed in classic literature, and his narrative betrays this fact. He incorporates allusions and structural concepts from the Bible (which I already mentioned), Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Frost, to name a few. Joffrey’s order to kill the many babies in King’s Landing alludes to Herod’s attempt to stamp out Jesus; the war between the Starks and the Lannisters is an echo of the War of the Roses, about which Shakespeare wrote a few alchemical plays; like Poe, Martin uses the ominous raven as a darker parrot figure; and the scene where Jon Snow gets stabbed repeatedly by his Night’s Watch brothers echoes the death of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
The title of GRRM’s series comes from “Fire and Ice,” a poem by Robert Frost. You might know that this is the basis for the title already, and even if you don’t you almost certainly heard it in high school. It goes like this:
“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
In the poem, fire is a symbol for desire, emotion, movement, and activity; and ice is a symbol for hate, inertia, stagnation, and inactivity. The poem says that both of these – fire and ice – threaten to destroy the world. In Game of Thrones, I think the symbols for destruction by fire are represented by two houses. First, Lannister, who is the only house whose members use the alchemist’s wildfire in King’s Landing, the heart of Westeros, in the series. The other is House Targaryen, whose Daenerys roasted King’s Landing with dragon fire in the 5th episode of the 8th season, becoming virtually the same as Queen Cersei, or worse.
The opposite of destruction by fire is that by ice, symbolizing the other threat – the white walker threat. The white walkers are associated with ice and death and the long night. The coming of winter is synonymous with the inevitability of death, with nightfall and with the darkening of the world. In the first book of the series, legends describe the previous Long Night the following way:
Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks. […] In that darkness, the Others came for the first time. […] They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain.Game of Thrones pp. 202-3
The motto of House Stark “Winter is Coming” refers to an inevitability but also to the necessity to prepare for its arrival – the arrival of both winter and death. The name Stark means a few things: first, it means “complete” – as in stark naked. Second, “grim and desolate,” as in a stark future. Third, “severe, unyielding, and hard” – as in stark iron or stark stone, and it emphasizes durability and toughness. The English word stark comes from a Germanic word that means “stiff” and it has the same root as the word stern which means similarly “cruel, grave, severe, or hard.”
The series focuses on the Stark family, especially the children and their deaths and transformations – Robb dies at the hand of Walder Frey at what should have been his own wedding ceremony; Sansa suffers torture and rape at the hand of Ramsay Snow, whom we will discuss later; Arya faces death and becomes a cold, cruel killer, but then turns away and goes to explore the boundaries of the realm; Bran loses his Stark personality almost entirely as he transforms into the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven; Rickon, alive in the books, dies near Winterfell by the hand of Ramsay Snow and his army. My analysis, however, is going to focus primarily on Bran, reasons for which I’ll go into now.
Last year, someone purchased for me the Game of Thrones tarot. I have a fondness for the Hermit card – I joked with someone the other day that I should have named my podcast Eremitic Garden rather than Hermetic Garden, in reference to the Hermit tarot card. The figure on the Hermit card in the Game of Thrones tarot is none other than the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran Stark.
In the first book of the series, Bran is seven years old. In his first chapter, standing with his brothers, he watches his father execute a man who abandoned the Night’s Watch. The man did so to tell the Northerners of the appearance of the White Walkers, and Bran thinks to himself that the tales the man tells remind him of the tales that Old Nan, a servant woman, told Bran as he grew up in Winterfell.
On their way back to Winterfell, the Stark men and Ned’s squire, Theon Greyjoy, come across direwolf pups, whom Theon offers to kill. Bran protests this, and Ned thinks aloud that it would be best. Jon Snow, who we find out later is a secret Targaryen, sees a symbolic correspondence between the Starks and the dire wolves: he says that the pups are a sign, and they should keep them and raise them. Ned, who knows Jon’s secret parentage, in a change of heart, agrees. On their way out of the area, Jon hears the cry of a sixth pup, an albino direwolf with all white fur, and Theon remarks it will die. Jon disagrees and adopts the albino wolf for himself, naming him Ghost.
Alchemically, the wolf is a symbol of antimony, a lustrous silver-gray metal. Antimony means “not found alone” – that is, in nature, it is found alloyed with other metals. It’s an especially great alloy for lead, the base metal of alchemical operations, as it increases its hardness and strength. Antimony has had many names throughout its history, one of which is platyophthalmos, which means literally “wide-eyed” and comes from its use as a silvery eye makeup in Egyptian society. This is why the Eye of Horus is sometimes used as a symbol for antimony. The traditional symbol of antimony, though, looks kind of like an upside-down symbol for Venus or copper.
Despite Bran’s mother’s warnings, in Bran’s second chapter, after most of the older men go on a boar hunt with King Robert, Bran climbs up and across buildings in Winterfell. He often climbs a broken tower because he likes to feed the crows at the top, and he does so. Tower climbing is an old archetypal symbol, especially popular in folk tales. Sometimes, like in Rapunzel, a maiden in a tower lets down her hair to help a knight in climbing the tower. Bran needs no hair, however; he climbs nimbly using only the notches in the stonework of the buildings and his dexterous hands and feet.
On his way up the tower in this chapter, Bran hears voices. Upon his arrival through the window, he catches Queen Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime in an act of coitus. The tower is somewhat of a miniature or microcosmic axis mundi, the climbing of which signifies the ascent to heaven. This one, however, is broken, signifying incompletion and failure, like a collapsed Tower of Babel. That we first witness two Lannisters – Cersei’s incestuous relationship with her brother – in this tower further characterizes the brokenness of it.
With a push, and the infamous line from the show, “The things I do for love,” Jaime sends Bran back to earth, knocking him unconscious. While unconscious, Bran has several dream visions, outlined in the book in much more detail than the show. Most of Bran’s dreams are of falling or visions of a three-eyed crow who tells him to open his eye and fly.
Crows and ravens are virtually synonymous symbolically. To the Romantics, the raven hovers over a battlefield to feast afterward on the slain bodies that lie dead. This is referenced in the sequence of Martin’s books – after A Storm of Swords, which is a bloodbath, comes A Feast for Crows, where the carrion birds feed on the dead flesh. Most famously, Edgar Allan Poe, whom we’ve discussed as an alchemical author, uses the image of a Raven as his central symbol in his poem “The Raven.” In an essay, Poe remarks that he desired a pretext for the continuous use of the one word, nevermore, but he struggled to find logical reasoning for its repetition. The difficulty, he says, lies in the ability for him to reconcile human reason with a desire to repeat the phrase. Here, he says, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and a parrot suggested itself, but was superseded by a raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the desired tone for the poem.
Poe uses a raven as a reasonless creature who repeats phrases with no meaning. However, the ominousness of the raven and its word comes from the fact that the speaker does get meaning from that repeated word. The raven doesn’t know the word it’s saying, but it doesn’t matter – the word’s effect still lingers in the poem’s speaker’s mind.
Because Bran is a greenseer, he has the prophetic visions that told him to head north and become the Three-Eyed Raven, and, like a raven, he feeds on stories thought dead for years: Ned’s story of Jon’s parentage, Littlefinger’s schemes, the legends of the long night and the inevitability of the arrival of the white walkers. As I mentioned, ravens and crows are carrion birds, meaning they feed on dead flesh. Poe’s raven has no care that to him the words it parrots are as dead as the flesh it eats: the raven learns them and repeats them anyway.
Dead Flesh & Food for the Hungry
The house most closely associated with flesh is House Bolton. Their sigil is a red flayed man – an upside-down man who has had his flesh peeled off – on a black field. One of Ramsay’s most infamous roles in the series is as Sansa’s captor and rapist. Theon, the Stark-raised Ironborn, helps Sansa escape. As is the case often in alchemical literature, Theon’s name is a key to his significance. In Greek, Theon is the term for an individual god, and it can also mean, simply, “divine.” Not coincidentally, the name Ramsay means “island of ravens,” and islands, alongside the name Bolton, which means a fenced-in house, have the connotation of utter isolation.
Toward the middle of the series, Ramsay tortures Theon, removes his manhood root and stem, and mails it back to Theon’s father. Ramsay turns Theon into a lifeless zombie – Reek – who can barely dare to speak. This, to me, expresses poetically what Nietzsche wrote philosophically and plainly at the end of the 19th century – “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Ramsay Snow is opposed by the other, main-character bastard of the North, Jon Snow. These two Snows oppose each other in the Battle of Winterfell, and they also oppose each other symbolically.
When a bastard is granted trueborn status by a king or queen, the sigil of the house inverts its colors. That means that, technically, Ramsay’s banner would be a black flayed man on a red field, and Jon’s sigil, rather than a gray dire wolf on an ice-white field, would be an ice-white dire wolf on a gray field. Ramsay’s father Roose – whose name is German for “Rose” – betrays and kills Robb Stark at the Twins because of his change of loyalty to the Lannisters.
Jon’s father Ned Stark, in contrast to the Boltons, obsesses over honor and right action during his life, and lives up to this allegiance to honor and titles; his values are reflected in his mission in King’s Landing and the path that eventually leads to his downfall. Ned’s desire for truth and honor eventually leads to his beheading, and the orphaned Jon Snow, though a Targaryen by blood, inherits his adoptive father’s taste for honor and truth. In a few episodes of season 8, Jon rides Rhaegal, named after his biological father, and Daenerys rides Drogon, named after her late husband.
In alchemical symbolism, Jon’s dragon Rhaegal is the white dragon, just as his dire wolf is white. Dany’s is the red dragon – just as her house sigil is a red dragon on a black field. It follows that Viserion, who becomes the undead ice dragon, is the black dragon, giving us the alchemical trio of black, white, and red. Though Euron’s fleet kills Rhaegal, the symbolism of Rhaegal lives on in Jon, and when Jon kills Daenerys and heads North again to be with Ghost and the Wildlings, this is a reversal of what happens in the fight with the two dragons in the King Arthur story I mentioned earlier: rather than the red being victorious and heading to the sky; Jon, the white, is victorious, and heads North beyond the wall, while Drogon heads East.
I mentioned earlier that one overtly hermetic dialogue struck me earlier this season. It’s the conversation between Tyrion and Varys in the fourth episode. It’s a discussion about whether Daenerys should be queen, or whether they should attempt to subvert Dany and install Jon as King. Varys holds that his loyalty is to the good of the realm and the lives of people unknown and unseen, and Tyrion – somewhat nihilistically – explains that it doesn’t matter who sits on the throne, because most people in the future won’t care. I’m also reminded a bit of the opening line from David Benioff’s book City of Thieves. The book opens with the phrase “You were never so hungry. You were never so cold.” The conversation between Varys and Tyrion touches on food for the hungry and, like a hermetic dialogue, it operates on multiple levels of meaning. In some ways it feels as if it’s taken right out of the Hermetica or a Shakespeare play.
Varys: You know where my loyalty stands. You know I will never betray the realm.
Tyrion: What is the realm? A vast continent home to millions of people, most of whom don’t care who sits on the Iron Throne.
Varys: Millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne. We don’t know their names but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live. They deserve food for their children. I will act in their interest no matter the personal cost.
Varys the Spider cares who sits on the Iron Throne because he says it will determine whether people in the future will live or die – whether, as the Hermetica puts it
this most holy land, seat of shrines and temples, will be filled with tombs and corpses
or whether, like Asclepius, we can save the future populations from death, whether we can provide food for other people’s children.
With all the concern in the series about parentage, lineage, and incest – even, as we come to find out, among the Stark family – it seems fitting that the one to sit on the Iron Throne is one who is, much like Arya sought to be, no one. Bran Stark is Bran Stark only by name – by becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, he is no longer Bran Stark, and therefore, though he may be Stark by title, it is by title only, and he can’t produce a Stark heir. Inwardly, in his psyche, in his personality, he has become the stories he learned from the previous Three-Eyed Raven and his time-travel clairvoyance. Part of Bran Stark might exist within his psyche, but he has come to know so much beyond himself – with every new story he experiences first-hand with his clairvoyant second sight, he transforms into someone beyond himself. This is why Tyrion, in one of the final scenes, suggests Bran be King of the Six Kingdoms – he has the best story.
I’m reminded of a passage from the Hermetica that is relevant to the meaning I’m getting at here, and with which I’m going to end this blog entry. It sounds like it could have been written for Bran, or even by Bran, like a mission statement for a warging Three-Eyed Raven:
Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal; then you will apprehend God. Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are immortal, and that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science; find your home in the haunts of every living creature; make yourself higher than all heights and lower than all depths; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are everywhere at once, on land, at sea, in heaven; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all of this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God.