Dec 8, 2013

Song of Ice and Fire: The Greek Connection

I may never have latched on to George RR Martin’s Greek connection, except that a child being dashed on walls paints a very vivid picture. And that picture has been made famous long before Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire. In Homer’s Illiad, after the city of Troy is routed by the Greek forces, Hector’s child Astyanax is dashed on the walls. In Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, Prince Rhaegar’s son Aegon is killed in the same way by Robert Baratheon’s angry host. Both the Greeks and the Baratheons are avenging the abduction of a woman: In Illiad, Menelaus wife Helen, and in A Song of Ice and Fire, Lyanna, the fiancée of Robert.

Martin’s work is full of such allegories and parallels to the ancient Greek myths, but he adds his own unique twists to them. For example, Helen’s abduction is debated, since many believe she fell in love with Paris, but Martin is clear that Lyanna’s abduction was forceful. Another twist is in the character of Helen’s husband. In Illiad, Menelaus, the husband of Helen, is a gentle man, not warlike at all. It is his brother Agamemnon who is the leader of the Greek host. But A Song of Ice and Fire, it is Robert Baratheon, fiancé of Lyanna himself, who resembles the aggressive Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s wife is Clytemnestra, who plots with her new lover to kill her husband. Well, Robert’s wife is Cersei, and Cersei’s lover has been with her for longer than her husband. But nonetheless, she does plot with him to kill Robert.

Another clear parallel to Greek myths lies in the story of Danaerys, the exiled Dragon princess. In Greek mythology, Danae was a princess who was persecuted by her brother. She was imprisoned, and into her imprisonment Zeus crept in the form of rain to impregnate her. When she gave birth to her child, her brother, afraid of the child’s power, set her afloat on the sea. Zeus’s jealous wife Hera sets many obstacles for Perseus, sending mercenaries to kills him, but Perseus and Danae overcome them all. Likewise, in A Song of Ice and Fire, Danaerys is first persecuted by her brother. She is not imprisoned, but since childhood her brother is her only family, which means that he controls and even abuses her until her teenage. Even her marriage is a forced one, and here she differs from Danae of Greece who loved Zeus. But again, Danaerys is persecuted by the Lannisters who are afraid that her child will rise to overthrow them, and send mercenaries to kill her and her child.

Like Zeus, Danaerys’ husband Khal Drogo disappears from her life once the child is born. Danaerys is left alone to raise her child. The Greek Danae caught the eye of a lecherous king who would have her against her wishes. Will Danaerys too be pursued by unwanted lovers? Will her children, the dragons, save her from that misery? Only time will tell (or maybe, a reading of the next four books in the series that are already out in the market, since I have read only the first part).

They key to understanding the character of Tyrion Lannister lies in his name. At first glance, it seems Tyrion is borrowed from Tyr, the Norse god of war. But once you know him better, you realize he shares more with a mythical Greek demigod. Tyrion is a joker who is not taken seriously by people around him. He is deformed, but has a great lust for women and wine. The noble values of loyalty and chivalry are nothing to him, he goes for whatever serves his interest. The mythical Greek creature Satyr was a half man-half goat renowned for his deformity, lecherousness, and baseness. I am awed by the thought that there may be many other stories and secrets hidden in the names Martin chooses, and that here I am just gnawing at the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe Martin did not mean to put these patterns in, and the old myths, in. Apart from Danaerys, which is too obvious a reference, others could have been accidents. For that is the power of myths, they tell basic stories of universal emotions that appear in each of our lives. Myths paint a character in broad strokes, which allow us to identify easily with them, and thus make it easy for us analyze and value characters, as well as the qualities of characters that we see in ourselves and the people around us. One reason (among many) that Martin’s work touches so many chords, despite being set in fantasy land, is that he works powerful recurring motifs into the story, and digs into the depths of our emotions. Again and again we hear the same stories, and again and again we derive meaning from them. Sometimes we derive a different meaning when there is a different conclusion, sometimes when the characters are viewed in new light. With two books in the series yet to go, it is yet to be seen what kind of endings Martin has in store for his characters, and what new shades of meaning he gives to them.


Anonymous said...

I like your comparison!!

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