The Influence of Viking Myth on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002

WARNING: SPOILERS! This discussion presume you're up to date with the books AND the TV series:

I'm currently reading Viking Britain: A History by Thomas, and came across the following section: (p. 262-4)

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First the snows will come, driving hard from all points of the compass; biting winds, shrill and screeching, bringing the cold that cuts. Thrice the winter comes, three times with no relenting; no spring will come, no summer to follow, winter upon winter, the land swallowed by ice unending. The green shoots will die under the frost, the skeleton trees creaking beneath the weight of snow – the world will fall dim and silent, shadowed in perpetual twilight. ‘Fimbulvetr’ they will call it, the ‘great winter’, and few will survive its corpse-grip. Those who do will wish that they had died.

Riding on the back of the ice-wind, sweeping down paths of famine and despair, war will sweep the ice-bound world, violence shattering families, severing oaths – ‘brothers will struggle and slaughter each other, and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds’. So the prophecy runs. And as the axes rise and fall and all the blood of the earth is emptied out on to virgin snows, a howling will be heard away in the east.

Gods and elves will lament and hold council as their doom unfolds. Yggdrasil, the world tree, will shake and an uproar rumble from Jötunheimr; the dwarves will mutter before their doors of stone. For the time now is short before all bonds are broken, and the wolves of Fenrir’s line, the troll-wives’ brood, will break free from the Iron Wood and run from the east. And they will swallow down the sun and swallow down the moon, and the heavens will be fouled with blood.

Then the Gjallarhorn will sound, the breath of Heimdallr, watchman of the gods, echoing across the worlds, its blast echoing from the mountains. It shall awaken the gods and the einherjar – the glorious dead – and they will assemble and make themselves ready for the final battle, Odin speaking with Mímir’s head for final words of counsel. For their foes shall have already arrived and will stand arrayed in dreadful splendour upon the battle plain, the field that runs for a hundred leagues in all directions – a bleak and boundless tundra.

There shall come Loki, father of lies, freed from an age of torments; and with him will stand his terrible children: Fenrir, the wolf, his mouth gaping wide enough to swallow the world, fire spewing from his eyes; and Jormungandr, the world serpent, shall haul his foul coils on to the land, writhing and thrashing, venom gushing. To this place, too, shall the giant Hrym come, he will steer the ship of dead men’s nails to this place of reckonings, leading the frost giants on to the battle plain. Last to arrive will be the sons of Muspell, the flaming hordes marshalled by Surt, demon of fire, his shining sword setting all ablaze beneath the riven sky.

And Odin will ride to meet them at the head of his host, gripping the spear, Gungnir, forged by the sons of Ivaldi; and he will wear a helmet of gold and a coat of mail. Thor will be with him and Frey and Tyr and Heimdall, and all those heroes who died in battle and were chosen.
And all will fall.

This was how the Vikings imagined the world would end, shattered in the madness of battle, poured out in the blood of the gods on Vigrid – the ‘battle plain’. It would die with the thrashing coils of the serpent, the sun devoured, the earth burned away – choked out in torrents of ice and fire, the way it had begun.

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I found it impossible to read some of the symbolism invoked without thinking of GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire series. This is not least because the wolf is the symbol of House Stark, "serpent" translates as "dragon", Bran as the Tree of Life - plus, of course, Thoros of Myr carries a burning sword. We also have a clear reference to a sounding horn, which is key in the books.

I know there has previously been discussion of the influence of Norse Mythology on this series, BUT when I read the above excerpt, I struggle to make the comparison work - Odin fights the wolf, the dragon, and the man with the flaming sword. Surely it should be the other way around?

Then I started thinking about it more carefully - and came to the conclusion that ASOIAF actually tells the story in reverse. In other words, Odin is not the hero of GRRM's story - he's the leader of the enemy.

After all, in the above excerpt, he leads an army of undead. Also, Odin is famous - among other things - for sacrificing himself on a tree to gain mystical knowledge. Which to me brings to mind the following image:


Odin isn't the hero, he's the Nightking.

Which makes the rest of the mythology as related above work much more easily with ASOIAF - the final battle isn't the Norse Gods as heroes, but as their enemies as the heroes! The Starks, Dany & her dragons, Azor Ahai, the Wildlings and Giants - all coming together in the final battle we've long expected, which will see them win.

Certainly as an overall framework it seems to make sense - except for one thing. Who would Loki be - if there is an analogous character?

Just initial thoughts to get a discussion going. :)
Religious discussion in the GRRM forum... Can a mod please close this thread?

Just kidding. Good topic, Bri.

I remember someone (Werthead or someone else more knowledgeable than me) posting a link or comment from GRRM about his inspirations. Martin remarked that he assiduously avoided copying another author's ideas, plots, names... He tries to never engage in plagiarism or even be accused of it. BUT... Martin claimed that all history is fair game. In fact, he openly admitted that his inspirations come readily from history and that he looks to history to provide him with characters, motivations, circumstances.... for his works. Which brings us to mythology.

Is borrowing from myth plagiarism? In my view, mythology is not only fair game for writers, it is unavoidable in fiction.

Loki... If Odin is the Nightking, then Loki is his enemy. Loki was noted for trickery.... for being not a true son of Odin... The prophesied champion to battle the Other is Azor Ahai Reborn. The candidates for AAR are...

Stannis. Flaming Sword. Legal heir of Robert Baratheon. The only claimant actively involved in securing the northern border.

Jon. Warg. Leader of the NW, the ancient order combating the Others. Probably the son of the Wolf and Dragon... Ice and Fire.

Dany. Stormborn. Daughter of Dragons. Mother of Dragons. Unburnt. The Prince(ss) that was Promised. May also be the Stallion that mounts the World.

Faegon. "Son" of Rhaegar.

Bran. Already the Three-eyed Crow. Not going anywhere any time soon.

Edric Storm. Son of Robert.

Gendry. True believer of R'hllor. Smith to the brotherhood. Could forge a new Lightbringer.

Tyrion. Might be the son of Dragons. Married to a Wolf. One of the five most devious tricksters in the series. (Tywin, Middlefinger, Varys, Illyrio.) When Jon first met Tyrion.... "When he [Tyrion] opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king." Maester Aemon said, "Oh, I think that Lord Tyrion is quite a large man. I think he is a giant come among us, here at the end of the world. When Tyrion gave Bran plans for a saddle, he said, "And I swear to you, boy, on horseback you will be as tall as any of them.".... which means that on dragonback, Tyrion would be taller than all of them.

I don't know that Tyrion will be AAR, but I think he's the most obvious to be Loki.
I did wonder at Tyrion being a candidate for Loki - the trouble is, if we were to keep strictly with Norse Mythology, then if Loki is Odin's brother, and if the Nightking is Odin, then Loki must be closely related to the Nightking.

That would mean an old undead Stark featuring in the books.

There is actually a potential candidate for that - Coldhands.

The trouble is, he's not been much of a feature in the books so far, and I struggle to imagine him as a trickster.

Then again, it might make sense that Coldhands becomes a figure for uniting Jon, Dany, and co. to lead them into battle against the undead - he might know the secrets and weaknesses of the Nightking, plus Coldhands might have seniority enough to overcome their individual presumptions of authority.

However, I'm just thinking aloud again. :)

It might make more sense if the brother is figurative rather than literal - such as Azor Ahai. So then the conflict would literally be between Ice and Fire (on top of the Jon and Dany association).
There are some parallels between ASOIAF and norse mythology. However, you have to be a bit careful because Odin is a late addition to Norse mythology and he doesn't appear in the early versions. The other important point is that in the Norse mythology of Ragnarok, Fire and Ice are not opposing forces - they are two races of giants who are on the same side and working together (along with Loki who is the mastermind of the plan) to destroy the gods and humanity. Oh, and Loki wins Ragnarok.

If you look at the early versions of Norse mythology then one interesting figure is Tyr. Tyr was the one-handed god of swordsmanship and war. He was responsible for binding the legs of the monstrous wolf (known as a "warg" in the anglicised translation of Norse mythology) Fenrir in chains. Fenrir was then kept in chains until Ragnarok when he was released to destroy. Fenrir is also the son of Loki. In the books the most obvious one-handed master-swordsman (in fact, the only one I think) is Jaime Lannister. In the first book, Jaime shoves Bran out of the tower window and causes Bran's legs to become paralysed (i.e. bound). That would suggest that Bran is Fenrir.

So, who is Loki? Well, in mythology Loki was Fenrir's father and he was also known as a trickster that worked against the gods. Indeed, the destruction of the gods and man at Ragnarok is his plan. In mythology he was banished from Asgard (for murdering someone) and bound in a cave as punishment for his tricks. He remains there until he breaks free at Ragnarök. The character in the books that seems to fit that description, is Bloodraven. Bloodraven is a trouble-maker who has left the Night's Watch for reasons unknown (which could easily involve the murder of someone) and is currently living in a cave beyond the Wall. Blood raven possesses the ability to "warg" and is mentoring (i.e. being a father-figure to) Bran.

In addition, Fenrir had three siblings. If Bran is Fenrir, then that would suggest that the other three Stark children represent the other three wolves. The fact that they all got direwolves as presents in the first book is somewhat suggestive of this.

So, depending on how literally Martin is going to go down the Norse mythology route, the final conflict looks like Bran (and the giants of fire and ice) v Jaime (who is the hero of humanity, and whatever human and other allies he can muster).

I'm reasonably sure the TV series won't do any of that, they'll go down a more straight-forward hero v villain conflict. However, in the books it's open for Martin to have a more devious and interesting ending in which the heroes turn out to be the victims, the victims turn out to be the villains, and the villains turn out to be the heroes (or some variation on that triangle).
Odin isn't the hero, he's the Nightking.

I think it's an interesting theory. The problem I have with it is that in the books the character of the Night's King doesn't exist (or at least he doesn't exist yet). In the books, the Night's King is a story about the 13th commander of the Night Watch who married one of the Others and came to a bad end - probably not a story to be taken literally but that's a different theory.

In the TV series, the Night's King is a White Walker who is a more classic villain. Admittedly, it's very possible that in the "Winds of Winter" one of the characters will proclaim themselves as the "Night's King" and go from there - but I'm not sure that that character will be one of the Others.

I do like the theory that Martin has reversed the roles from the Norse legends though. Given that you ask the obvious question:

Who would Loki be - if there is an analogous character?

Possibly one of the Maesters (or the Maesters as a whole). There's a strong under-current in the books that the Maesters are up-to-something. In Loki, you're looking for a character (or potentially a group of characters) who is a trickster or deceiver and who is working to destroy the gods. Potentially that fits the Maesters - who may be working to destroy magic in the name of science.

In the mythology, Loki has 3 main children - Fenrir (the monstrous wolf), Hel (the Queen of the Dead), and Jormungandr (the serpent who encircles the world). So, in ASOIAF the characters who represent Loki's children most strongly would seem to be: Bran, Melisandre and Daenerys. Therefore, if you're looking for Loki in your theory, then you're looking for a character (or faction) who unites (or will unite) those three and is deceptive.
Having the army of the dead on the side of the "heros" is an interesting one. Who is to say that the next couple of books do not reveal that the Night King is actually the hero. Or noble in some way. Perhaps there to cleanse the bad deeds that humanity has done in the Seven Kingdoms. Then the Seven Kingdoms, or at least their current rulers do get destroyed in the last book. Perhaps Bran even ends up supporting the Night King or at least being allowed to rebuild (Bran the Rebuilder") after the carnage. Oh on reading this thread further Bagpuss has similar idea above.

I don't think it would be accepted by people who watch the TV show and not the book. Perhaps not book readers either. I certainly don't expect it, but it would be quite the twist. I could imaging George laughing about it now. There has been a number of horror movies in the last 10 years where the expected hero dies/is possessed/fails at the end.

In the end you can compare the series to various classic stories, but they will always be an amalgamation and never quite match.
Having the army of the dead on the side of the "heros" is an interesting one

Actually, that wouldn't surprise me at all.

Some context. In an interview in 2011, GRRM said:

Much as I admire Tolkien, and I do admire Tolkien — he’s been a huge influence on me, and his Lord of the Rings is the mountain that leans over every other fantasy written since and shaped all of modern fantasy — there are things about it, the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, Good versus Evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon. We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.

I have always interpreted this interview quote as basically being GRRM saying that he intended to do a re-enactment of the US Civil War in which the North was essentially against the South, regardless of what the participants looked like. So that Jon, the Starks, the Others and the northern families of the First Men were essentially ranged against Daenerys,the Dothraki, the Dragons, and the southern families of the Andals. In this version of my thinking the notion of the "heroes" and "villains" is essentially superfluous. It becomes about which side you like better - possibly a reflection of a lot of modern politics and certainly a reflection of the sentiment in the quote that "we don't need any more Dark Lords".

However, the Norse-myth idea suggests that the actual conflict might be a little more complicated and could be: "the Gods" v "the Giants" - in a vague North-South sort-of setting but a setting that is not quite so literal. So the real question becomes: are you "Team Gods" or "Team Giants"?

On the one hand we have "Team Giants" of Jon Snow, Daenerys, Bran Stark, Melisandre, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister and a few others

On the other hand we have "Team Gods" of Jaime Lannister, Cersei, Brienne of Tarth, Sansa Stark, Walder Frey, Tommen Baratheon, Samwell Tarly and a few others.

In this football match the Dragons, the Others and the Children of the Forest become the football - kicked around by both teams, important to the outcome but forgotten at the end. So, the army of the dead may look significant and scary, but I'm not sure it actually is and I'm fairly certain that, in the novels at least, the Others are not intent on exterminating the humans - otherwise they wouldn't have turned back at the end of the Long Night.