While many people weren't aware of the Game of Thrones books before the HBO series came out, plenty of others can attest that George R.R. Martin's fantasy series was hugely popular and widely read. The A Song of Ice And Fire series even got a few pop culture shoutouts before Game of Thrones became its own series. The first book, A Game of Thrones, was published all the way back in 1996, so the series had 15 years to build up steam before it was made into an HBO show. The books were bestsellers long before their HBO bump, and George R.R. Martin was the recipient of multiple fantasy awards for his work.
The series was so popular, in fact, that it was referenced on TV long before Ben Wyatt or Dwight Schrute were unashamed Game of Thrones fans. In a 2011 episode of the fourth season of NBC's Chuck, Chuck can be seen reading A Game of Thrones. "Eddard, you don't let your kids keep a dire wolf," Chuck exclaims. As EW reports, the episode of the show aired six days before the first episode of Game of Thrones premiered. Who knew?
There were plenty of other cultural homages to the books long before the TV series aired, though. For example, the band The Sword made many songs that referenced the series, including one called "Winter's Wolves." However, Chuck's shout-out is most memorable because it, too, was a show that was pretty immersed in nerd culture, and its reference to GoT was totally fitting.
And once Game of Thrones premiered, it's almost amazing how much it became a pop culture standard referenced over and over again in books and TV. The series first aired in April of 2011, and by August, College Humor was making viral videos about it. By 2012, network shows like The Big Bang Theory (which talked about the series in a sword-focused episode) and 30 Rock (which spoiled Ned Stark's death) were referencing swords and giving away plot points.
While it might seem normal now for a fantasy show to be one of the most popular and talked about series on television, Game of Thrones was actually a trailblazer in this realm. Previously, fantasy was often seen as a niche interest, only beloved by those already immersed in nerd culture, with outliers like Lord of the Rings hinting that there might be some universal appeal. HBO banked on Game of Thrones going much larger than niche by giving it a massive budget and lengthy development period, and clearly, it paid off. Now, it's hard to imagine a world without Jon Snow as a household name; back then, though,those names were kept secret by a large but unknown community of fantasy fans, and, as Chuck shows, a few much-loved TV shows.