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A Song of Ice and Fire Is a Horror Story That’s Been Lost in Translation

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A Song of Ice and Fire Is a Horror Story That’s Been Lost in Translation

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Published on November 2, 2022

Screenshot: HBO
Screenshot: HBO

With the first season of House of the Dragon having just wrapped up and the Halloween spirit lingering on in these first few days of November, I figured it would be a good time to discuss one of the key elements of Martin’s original Song of Ice and Fire texts that neither show has been able to adequately translate to the screen—namely, the series’ relationship with horror.

Typically, when talking about the sorts of horror to be found in Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, the easiest things to point to are the Grand Guignol violence of its set pieces or the uneasiness produced by characters in power with a limitless capacity for vengeance. The death of Oberyn Martell has a slasher-film gory viscerality, and Cersei Lannister explaining the exact method by which she will torture and murder Ellaria and Tyene Sand can leave one with a discomfiting sense of the grotesque. But the ASoIaF series also works well as a horror fantasy even without its political machinations and, so far, this is something that neither series has been interested in fully engaging with. (And yes, I recognize that the first show had ice zombies.)

[Some spoilers below for Game of Thrones and the Song of Ice and Fire books below…]

The very first scene we encounter, the beginning of the whole of ASoIaF as a series, opens with the following lines:

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildlings are dead.”

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.” (A Game of Thrones, 1)

This exchange sets the tone of a major through line in Martin’s books: the sort of insidiously creepy campfire story where death comes in inhuman forms and the impossibilities wrought by magic are uniformly terrifying. The dead should frighten us and—even though they are relegated to a background role through much of the novels—they never truly disappear.

The original show did offer us some classic horror staples in the form of a tide of zombies and the Ice Demons called “White Walkers” (the books call them “the Others,” and they are far more like wintry, beautiful fae creatures). But even then, much of what we see of them comes in the form of massive armies of the dead led by demon generals, rather than the books’ half-glimpsed nightmares in the forest. Where the show gives us a fight between a zombie bear and an elite team of some of the series’ best warriors, the books give us Samwell Tarly on a death march across the tundra, remembering fragmented glimpses of the undead ursine while being deliriously unable to stop singing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”

During the airing of the final season of Game of Thrones, I wrote a pair of articles for Tor.com on ASoIaF and the Gothic; the Gothic, of course, closely borders and often overlaps with horror, but where both the original series and House of the Dragon bring Gothic sensibilities to the forefront, out-and-out horror is often diminished or relegated to a few key plot points. In this essay, we’ll look at the various way in which horror is central to Martin’s books—through pervasive misinformation, a repeated focus on cursed and desolate spaces, the ways in which magic is used exclusively as a terrifying and destructive force, and even the repeated Lovecraftian references that Martin cannot help but inject into his books.

 

Horror and Misinformation

Martin’s faux-Medieval world is one of profound superstition, misinformation, and lack of scientific understanding. The slow flow of information between different groups of people (be they different cultures, different polities, or different eras of history) leads to miscommunications, mistranslations and a general sense that anything might be possible. Many horror elements are communicated through the folk-beliefs and fairy tales that may or may not bear any resemblance to reality.

Old Nan, the ancient Stark family wet nurse, tells Bran stories about the Others who rode on giant ice spiders that hunted down their prey. Later, Samwell Tarly, running from the very real Others and their human and animal wight servants, thinks back on his own childhood and nightmarish tales of the ice spiders. We have seen no evidence of said spiders existing. The Winds of Winter or A Dream of Spring (the proposed final two books in the series) might introduce them, or perhaps show that they are, in fact, something else entirely, but that fear of the unknown is powerful. And it is not simply that the reader lacks the information. Every character in the narrative is similarly uninformed and the close third person perspective of Martin’s prose means that we can never really rise above that quagmire of mystery of misinformation…and the fear it engenders.

Part of what makes the horror of Martin’s world work so well is this inability for a reader to tell what is an in-world fiction and what is true. In giving us civilizations that have very little knowledge of the world they inhabit, any rumor or fairy tale given by a character might be ludicrous or right on the mark. Martin’s skeptical characters regularly dismiss extant creatures like giants alongside fictional beasties like snarks and grumkins. Game of Thrones gave us a taste of this with Janos Slynt telling Jon Snow that there are no such thing as giants, but this was in the face of seeing them, a moment used to illustrate his cowardice and capacity for denial. Especially credulous characters believe things that sound impossible but leave us wondering if they could be true. Prince Tommen has intimated that the ornery black cat that wanders the Red Keep may be the warg form of the murdered Princess Rhaenys (this would be Rhaenys, the young daughter of Rhaegar and niece of Daenerys, not her namesake, the Queen who Never Was) a supposition that has very little evidence to support it and yet sits, uncomfortably, in the background, needling at the reader’s mind.

Misinformation also muddies the waters when it comes to categorizing what is supernatural and monstrous and what is merely unexplained. The city of Mantarys, along the Demon Road that skirts past the edge of the cursed Valyrian ruins, is said to be a city of monsters. When Daenerys Targaryen sends emissaries to forge an alliance with the people of Mantarys, all that returns is a caravan containing their pickled heads in jars. Given the dark reputation of the shattered Valyrian subcontinent, this city of monsters may very well be literal. But this is called into question by cultures that miscategorize signs of disease and disability as monstrous. The Yunkish lord Yezzan zo Qaggaz, keeps a grotesquerie for his viewing pleasure. It features a two-headed girl from Mantarys—seemingly confirming the matter—but it also includes Tyrion Lannister and an intersex dancer. The reader is left to wonder about the nature of Yezzan’s other “grotesques,” and if the supposed “city of monsters” is perhaps Martin’s version of Chernobyl: too close to Valyria’s irradiated ruins not to affect its populace.

The unknown is a powerful tool in any horror setting, but Martin has weaponized his whole world in employing it. Even his smartest and most thoughtful characters simply don’t have enough information to separate truth from rumor. It would be hard to achieve that same level of confusion and helpless ignorance on a television show where having your characters constantly spout misinformation runs the risk of having them look foolish. And the sheer volume of untrue things most characters believe would overload the relatively fleet and focused sensibilities of ten hours of TV, but something unique about Martin’s world is lost when knowledge is less of a rare commodity in the Westeros of GoT and viewers can trust that most things smart characters say are true.

 

A Monstrous World

Both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon have also demystified the world itself. The aforementioned Mantarys is far from the only cursed location in Martin’s books. In fact, a good portion of his worldbuilding is predicated on the presence of monstrous places that people are terrified of approaching. In some cases these places have actually appeared on the page, in others they are described only by fearful characters who claim to have visited or who have heard and are repeating sinister tales…

Valyria

Valyria is the ruined, cursed land that is probably most familiar to fans who have only watched the shows. In addition to being mentioned countless times as the fallen freehold known for its dragons, and the original homeland of the Houses Targaryen, Velaryon, and Celtigar, the eponymous capital city was featured in “Kill the Boy,” Season 5, Episode 5 of Game of Thrones. On the show, Valyria is said to be a greyscale colony for the stone men, afflicted with the late stages of the disease. This is a change from the novels that transposes the colony to Valyria from the ruined, ulcerous Festival City of Chroyane, which you can read all about in my explainer for episode 3 of House of the Dragon. The show’s version of Valyria is a bit of a letdown from its far more horrifying portrayal in the books.

Across Martin’s novels and concordances, Valyria is described as a place still under the malign influence of the Doom—the (possibly magically enhanced) volcanic disaster that not only destroyed the civilization but shattered the entire peninsula into an archipelago. Valyria now sits in the midst of the Smoking Sea and sailors avoid it at all costs. It is said that the sky is always red there, and that anyone who looks upon it will be cursed with ill fortune. Even Mantarys’ proximity to it seems to have made the former colony into a “city of monsters” and demons are said to stalk the old roads and ruins.

The closest we get to any confirmation of the horrors of Valyria comes in Fire & Blood during a discussion of the untimely death of Princess Aerea Targaryen. The daughter of the ill-fated Queen Rhaena (not Daemon Targaryen’s daughter, but her namesake, the elder sister of King Jaehaerys and widow of King Maegor the Cruel), Aerea and her mother quarreled often and with increasing vigor. This feuding leads, eventually, to Aerea departing on the back of Balerion the Black Dread, the largest dragon known to have existed. Both are missing for more than a year before returning. The dragon is covered in still-bleeding-and-smoking nine-foot-long gouges, and Aerea, malnourished, disoriented, and terrified, dies hours after returning. In the journal of her final caretaker, Septon Barth, we learn that she burned to death from the inside out as she was devoured by parasitic draconic worms, some of whom had human faces or malformed claws. They were said to be creatures of fire who died when Aerea was moved to an ice bath. Septon Barth goes on to discuss having his faith shaken by the events, saying:

It has been three days since the princess perished, and I have not slept. I do not know that I shall ever sleep again. The Mother is merciful, I have always believed, and the Father Above judges each man justly… but there was no mercy and no justice in what befell our poor princess. How could the gods be so blind or so uncaring as to permit such horror? Or is it possible that there are other deities in this universe, monstrous evil gods such as the priests of Red R’hllor preach against, against whose malice the kings of men and the gods of men are naught but flies? I do not know. I do not want to know. If this makes me a faithless septon, so be it. (Fire & Blood, 247)

Later, in trying to account for what happened, the conclusion that Barth and others come to is that Balerion, unbonded with Aerea and, therefore poorly controlled, must have flown back to Valyria, the place of its birth, out of some sort of centuries-out-of-date nesting instinct. Barth also recognizes that there is nothing known to man that could have made those deep gouges in dragonhide. Those descriptions leave the reader with a tiny glimpse into the horrors that remain in Valyria and make those who have sailed through it—like the ruthless Greyjoy pirate, Euron Crow’s Eye—seem all the more unsettling.

The Far Corners of the Globe

Many of the other cursed locales across Martin’s world are flavored with some form of colonial myth-making about barbaric, faraway lands. Martin has even stated in interviews that his concordance, The World of Ice & Fire, is meant to be taken as the limited perspective of its fictional author, Maester Yandel, who is subject to the misinformation and prejudices of his fellows at the Citadel.

Essentially, some of the farthest points on the map are presented as lightly sketched and dangerous places—Martin’s version of “here there be dragons” in a world where dragons are relatively better known. Among them are the jungle continent of Sothoryos, which is said to be full of monstrous creatures: basilisks, humongous vampire bats, tattooed lizards with scythe-like claws, gigantic apes that can fell an elephant with a single blow, and wyverns who many believe to be the vicious ancestors of dragons. It is also thought to be home to an untold number of parasites and pathogens. The only sentient inhabitants of Sothoryos are said to be “Brindled Men,” hairy and covered in brown and white stripes, with hog-like noses and thick, powerful builds. Sothoryos is never referenced in either television series despite its close proximity to Slaver’s Bay, where Daenerys spends the majority of seasons 3, 4, and 5.

Similarly, when Arya, in the finale of Game of Thrones, builds a ship to take her “West of Westeros,” she is engaging in a long-standing tradition of mariners who were strangely and often fatally fascinated by the unexplored Sunset Sea. Among them are Brandon Stark, called Brandon the Shipwright, who (much like his namesake from Irish mythology) sailed off into the West never to return; Alton Greyjoy, called the Holy Fool, who also disappeared on his longship; and the cultish House Farwynd, inhabitants of the farthest flung of the Iron Islands, Lonely Light, who believe that some sort of prophesied land of plenty lies beyond it.

The most developed of these doomed explorers, however, is Elissa Farman, the paramour of aforementioned Rhaena Targaryen and talented seafarer who sailed West into the Sunset Sea after stealing three dragon eggs (which some fans believe to be the three eggs later gifted to Daenerys Targaryen). Farman discovered a strange trio of islands several hundred miles Southwest of Oldtown but was never heard from again, as the other ships in her fleet turned back and the only surviving captain returned to Oldtown three full years after her departure. The only sign of Farman was her ship, sighted some thirty years later in Asshai, the Easternmost city known to the Westerosi, on the second of Corlys Velaryon’s nine voyages.

Asshai by the Shadow

Asshai, of course, is the most famous cursed land in Martin’s books and has been almost entirely excised from the show, save for passing mentions in early seasons and a single character, Quaithe of the Shadows. Quaithe appears in two scenes in season 2 with Ser Jorah Mormont, warning him about those who might covet Daenerys’ dragons. In the books, Quaithe is a powerful Asshai’i shadowbinder and mystic who appears to Dany in dreams and warns her of impending treachery. There is even a fan theory that Quaithe, who only ever appears wearing a red lacquer mask, is Elissa Farman, whose magical prowess has granted her unnaturally long life and is looking after the Targaryen who possesses the dragon eggs she stole from Rhaena.

Either way, Quaithe is indicative of the sorts of people who study in Asshai. It is said to lie “beneath the shadow,” which is both a metaphoric reference to its blighted and unsavory reputation and a literal one insofar as and the lands beyond it lie in a chasm so deep that the sun only appears for a few hours each day. Maester Yandel reports that:

the city is built entirely of black stone: halls, hovels, temples, streets, walls, bazaars, all. Some say as well that the stone of Asshai has a greasy, unpleasant feel to it, that it seems to drink the light, dimming tapers, torches, and hearthfires alike […] there are no children in Asshai. (The World of Ice and Fire, 308).

It is fed by a river that is poisoned such that food and freshwater all must be imported and, despite being larger than most of the great cities of the world combined, it has a miniscule population with only one building in ten being inhabited.

Asshai is known as the favored haunt of those seeking to learn the dark arts, with most of the books’ reputed sorcerers—Quaithe, Melisandre, Mirri Maz Duur, Maester Marwyn, and Euron Greyjoy—all having spent time there to learn dread and terrible magic. Thus, more than its childless, desolate streets, its poisoned air and water, and the demon-haunted corpse city of Stygai, which lies at the end of the only road out of Asshai, the true threat of Asshai is its contribution to the magic of Martin’s world.

 

The Perils of Magic

One place where the original Game of Thrones was willing to lean into the horror bona fides of Martin’s work was in the characterization of magic as monolithically terrifying. There are no practitioners of magic that are not well acquainted with monstrous sacrifice, and magic seems to be the rotten heart of Martin’s most dastardly schemes.

Never fully explained or given clear rules, one of the few characteristics of magic that Martin reiterates throughout the novels is that it requires sacrifice. Sometimes this sacrifice is literal. In both the first novel and the first season of the original show, Mirri Maz Duur, Daenerys’ treacherous midwife, says she can heal the mortally wounded Khal Drogo and claims that “only death can pay for life.” Dany takes this to mean the life of Khal Drogo’s warhorse whose blood is needed for the ritual, but she soon learns that her own unborn child is part of the cost. Melisandre believes she can wake the gargoyle carvings of Dragonstone by spilling king’s blood, and sets her sights both on Robert Baratheon’s bastard son, Edric Storrm (replaced by Gendry in the television show), and, later, Stannis Baratheon’s daughter Shireen. Even when Catelyn Stark is raised from the dead as the half-mad avatar of vengeance, Lady Stoneheart, Thoros of Myr explains that Beric Dondarrion had to sacrifice his own repeatedly resurrected life to bring her back and that each time either was revived, they returned with less of themselves intact.

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The Keeper's Six
The Keeper's Six

The Keeper’s Six

No matter who the practitioner or what the end goal, magic in Martin’s world is soaked in blood and darkness. The great power and long life that is granted to Brynden Rivers, better known as the Three-Eyed Raven, results in him being imprisoned in his frozen cave where Bran Stark notes that he has become “half-corpse, half-tree.” A fan theory even has gathered decent evidence to suggest that Bran is surreptitiously fed the blood of his companion, Jojen Reed, in order to awaken his psychic powers.

The original show used magic as a way of singling out the elements of the plot that related to the battle between Ice and Fire that gives the book series its name. The ancient and magically glamored enemy of the forces of Ice, Melisandre (in line with the novels) gives birth to a Stannis-faced shadowy assassin sent to kill his brother Renly. The White Walkers are the products of ritual sacrifice by the indigenous peoples of Westeros, the Children of the Forest (whether or not this is in line with the novels has yet to be revealed). Bran Stark uses his powers as the Three Eyed Ravens to—I guess—lure the White Walkers to Winterfell where his Faceless assassin sister, Arya can kill their leader? (That part definitely isn’t in the novels and is unlikely to show up in the unpublished installments.)

But the shows also elide the background horror that is the history of this world. Magic is thought, by characters in Westeros and beyond, to be part of most of the miraculous creations of past ages: Valyrian steel, the Wall, the dragons themselves. And while some of those things are considered wondrous rather than terrifying, the learned understand that they were all created by unleashing horrors into the world. Septon Barth says of the ancient civilization that birthed Westeros’ ruling family: “the Valyrians were more than Dragonlords. They practiced blood magic and other dark arts as well, delving into the earth for secrets best left buried and twisting the flesh of beasts and men to fashion monstrous and unnatural chimeras” (Fire & Blood 251). Some of those chimeras might have included the brindled men of Sothoryos, seeing as they live near the ruins of Gorgossos, the Valyrian penal colony where flesh-shapers interbred beasts and men to create half-human monsters. The dragons are also sometimes thought to be the result of Valyrian blood sorcerers who interbred wyverns and fireworms to create an unnatural race of creatures that allowed them to dominate half of the known world.

All magic in Martin’s series is dark magic, and even characters that seek to wield it with honor—Bran, Arya, Thoros of Myr, Marwyn the Mage—do so with unintended consequences and awful sacrifices along the way.

 

Lovecraftian Influences

Martin’s world is full of references to the influential and deeply problematic father of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft. In addition to largely unexplored places that share names with Lovecraftian locales like K’Dath, Carcosa, and the Plateau of Leng, Martin has slipped in a series-long reference to Lovecraft’s short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” wherein a race of fish-monsters that serve an eldritch, undersea God, interbreed with cultists in a remote New England port town.

Across his books and through his concordance, Martin suggests that some unknown, undersea race built structures and artifacts of a black greasy stone—the same stone that Asshai is built of. It forms the foundation of the isle in Oldtown Harbor that the Citadel is built on, strange toad-like statues in Sothoryosi ruins, and, most notably, the Seastone Chair, the Kraken-shaped throne that the Greyjoys use in their castle at Pyke. Martin also describes isolated seaside communities on the Iron Islands and in the Sisters, which lie between the Vale of Arryn and White Harbor in the North, where the smallfolk have webbed fingers and bulging eyes—similar to Lovecraft’s Innsmouth cultists. Add to this the insidious sacrificial rites that the Iron Islanders practice with their “Drowned God” and the fact that their priests’ mantra—“What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger”—dovetails with Lovecraft’s own couplet about the eldritch, undersea being, Cthulhu—”that is not dead which can eternal lie/ and with strange aeons, even death may die.”

It is unlikely that the fishmen of Martin’s fiction will play any major role in ASoIaF or that these elements speak to much more than a love of the cosmic horror fiction of Lovecraft, August Derleth, and Robert E. Howard, but these background elements further the idea that, although the novels are mainly a political drama in a world with a comparatively low amount of magic, what fantasy elements do exist are almost exclusively tinged with dread, menace, and various flavors of horror.

***

 

The books and shows are, of course, separate entities with their own lore, priorities, and tones. What made the original Game of Thrones a massive hit is only partially related to what made the novels the show was based on so enduring and popular. But for my money, the sheer volume of horror tropes and concepts that lurk in the margins of Martin’s books speaks to a world that is much darker and stranger than either series has been interested in embracing or exploring. HBO currently has a series about the nine voyages of Corlys Velaryon, as well as a series about Nymeria and her Rhoynar exiles in development. If either makes it to series, they have the opportunity to look at some of the more horrific places and concepts in Martin’s world. It will be interesting to see if they’ll restore one of the major elements of his novels, bringing the books’ distinct and potent blend of horror back to the television empire they’ve spawned.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is the author of “Distended Youth: Arrested Development in the Victorian Novel” and his article “Exhuming M. Paul: Carmen Maria Machado and Creating Space for Pedagogical Discomfort” appears in the most recent issue of Victorian Studies. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on iTunes or through your favorite podcatcher. His fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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