The Real-Life Inspiration Behind 'Game of Thrones'

by Katherine Cusumano

It's a rare fantasy writer whose name is as famous as his work. Neil Gaiman; J.R.R. Tolkien; J.K. Rowling; Stephen King — these are the few elite whose books spawned a sufficiently cult, and then popular, following to catapult their creators into the spotlight. And with Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire series creator George R.R. Martin has become as much of a household name as the characters he invented: Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark. But even before the HBO series, Martin had cultivated something of a following on his own. As of 2011, just before Game of Thrones premiered, the New Yorker reported that Martin had sold more than 15 million books worldwide. But before A Game of Thrones — before A Song of Ice and Fire — where was George R.R. Martin?

Martin languished in television writing before he turned to novels, according to the same New Yorker story. He had a penchant for grandeur, and was repeatedly rebuffed with the same logic, as was once explained to him by a Twilight Zone producer: "You can have horses or you can have Stonehenge. But you can’t have horses and Stonehenge." Not in television, you can't, but you can have anything you want on a written page — so Martin turned to novels to translate his imaginings into art. But A Song of Ice and Fire didn't just come to him by immaculate conception; it was the sum of years of ruminations on history, politics, his own experiences, and just a little bit of magic. And since his rise to fame, those inspirations have begun to emerge as we learn more about the man behind the phenomenon.

A Game Of Turtles

In an interview with the Financial Times in 2012, Martin explained that his first inklings of the political scheming behind Game of Thrones came from a series of tiny pet turtles when he was a child. The so-called "dime-store turtles" were the only pets he was permitted, but he made the most of the reptiles. He housed them in a toy castle near his bed, he said, inventing backstories for them in which each turtle was a lord, a knight, a king. But the turtles kept dying — probably because a toy castle wasn't their ideal habitat. Still, Martin began invented causes of death for them. "They are killing each other in sinister plots," he reasoned. "I started writing this fantasy about who was killing who, and the wars for succession." It's also the reason for the turtle pin on his trademark fisherman's cap.

Northwestern, North Of The Wall

After the turtles, the story starts to take further shape when Martin arrived at college. He attended Northwestern University, and though he had once credited Hadrian's Wall (a 73-mile fortification constructed beginning in 127 AD in what is now the United Kingdom) as the inspiration for the Wall, he embellished on the story during a visit to his alma mater in November. He recalled the Chicago blizzard of 1967, according to the Hollywood Reporter: "There was so much snow that winter, you couldn't see, all snow, all ice, and it was so very cold." He compared icy streets to the trenches of World War One — or to the land beyond the infamous Wall, where Jon Snow is banished to join the Night's Watch at the outset of the series.

From Bobby Fischer To The Seven Kingdoms

Throughout high school and college, Martin was an avid chess player — the Independent reported that Martin was an "expert," one level below the grandmaster title in American rankings. After college, Martin worked organizing chess competitions. "The importance of chess to me was not as a player but as a tournament director," he told the Independent. Then Bobby Fischer won his legendary 1972 match against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, and the United States went wild for chess. Martin was able to make a stable living working with a chess organization that required his attention on weekends only, leaving five weekdays free for writing. By the time chess began to decline in popularity, Martin had sufficiently established himself as a writer that he could commit to writing and publishing full-time. And given the strategic and conceptual skills required to play chess at Martin's level, it's likely that his experience impacted how he plots out the various story lines in his novels.

Some Plot Pointers Courtesy Of TV Writing

Martin had published several prior novels and many short stories by the time his book Armageddon Rag debuted in 1983. Though he told the Financial Times he had expected the novel to be his big break, it flopped and "essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time." But the book was also, paradoxically, optioned as a feature film, and the writer who optioned the book recruited Martin to work on the Twilight Zone remake. From there, Martin worked on television pilots and scripts. When his grander concepts were rejected by Hollywood, Martin decided to turn to novels once more, where he had the freedom of thousands of pages to explore entire alternate realities, languages, and political systems. Thus A Game of Thrones was born, as the "unfilmable" novel.

The Knight Of Flowers And The War Of The Roses

Though Martin's biography helps explain how he brought A Song of Ice and Fire into being, the New Yorker credits some of his success to the more realistic foundations for his tale that set it apart from fantastical peers. Aside from characters like Melisandre, A Song of Ice and Fire contains comparatively little magic (consider, for example, the realm of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which contains its share of magic and supernatural beings, both good and evil) — and it doesn't shy away from bold moves like killing off its main characters. This is likely due in part to Martin's alleged inspiration in the medieval War of the Roses, a series of conflicts between factions vying for power in England that spanned more than three decades in the 15th century. And as for the Red Wedding — that was based on the execution of an earl by the Scottish king during a feud with the Black Douglas clan, according to Entertainment Weekly.

It might have been a circuitous route to get there — from journalism student to chess tournament organizer-cum-novelist, then to television writer and back to novelist, and now, loosely, to television once more — George R.R. Martin's story helps illuminate how he managed to invent such a vivid imagined world. For it's not all imagination: A Song of Ice and Fire likely wouldn't have made its way into the world without a serendipitous combination of fragile turtles, the frigid midwest, the Cold War (see: Bobby Fischer), and the economy of television. But with all those ingredients, the Lannisters, Baratheons, Starks, and Targaryens will live to feud another novel.

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