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The Poetic Edda, Game of Thrones, and Ragnarök

Season Six of Game of Thrones is about to air. One of the great pleasures of watching the show is the way in which George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the show-producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, build their imagined world from the real and imagined structures of medieval history and literature. I don’t know whether they have ever read the Poetic Edda, but it’s clear that the series’ conception of the North borrows many themes and motifs from Norse myth.

At the end of Season 4, Bran and his companions had finally located the Three-Eyed Raven, a frightening figure sitting in a dark cave far north of the Wall. His body is twined about with the roots of a tree; through his connection to this tangle he can see all that transpires through the sacred weirwoods of the North. The Raven is one-eyed; this, along with his connection with ravens and crows, and the tree system into which he is incorporated, link him suggestively with Odin.

Just as ravens, with their ‘dark wings’ bring ‘dark words’ throughout Westeros, so Odin gathers knowledge through his two ravens:

“Hugin and Munin fly every day
over the vast-stretching world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
yet I tremble more for Munin.” Grimnir’s Sayings, v. 20

Like the Three-Eyed Raven, Odin becomes one with the great world-tree Yggdrasill, on which he hangs himself as a sacrifice:

“I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows where its roots run.” Sayings of the High One, v. 138

Thus Odin wins knowledge of the past, the present and of the future too. Although he and the other gods will perish at ragnarök (the end of the world), he also knows that his dead son Baldr will return in the new world. ‘All evil will be healed; Baldr will come’, says the Seeress’s Prophecy (v. 59). Does Odin also know of the return of the treacherously slain Jon Snow? I think so.

Odin in an eighteenth-century 18th century Icelandic manuscript of the Prose Edda (NKS 1867 4to). Ólafur Brynjúlfsson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Odin in an eighteenth-century 18th century Icelandic manuscript of the Prose Edda (NKS 1867 4to). Ólafur Brynjúlfsson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Norse myth, wolves are dangerous beasts. So too are the direwolves of the world of Game of Thrones, except with the Stark children to whom they were given as pups; the direwolves become loyal pets. Nevertheless, when, as Theon notes, ‘there’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years’, their appearance is a portent of the many disasters to come.

In the Poetic Edda, two cosmic wolves pursue the sun and moon through the sky, the offspring of the enormous wolf Fenrir who lies chained up until ragnarök. The gods challenged him to see if he could break the slender-looking bonds they brought to him. Smelling deception, Fenrir demanded that someone should place his hand as a pledge in the wolf’s great jaws. The gods hesitated – until Tyr stepped up. As the magic fetter tightened around the wolf’s mighty paws, the gods laughed in triumph. All except Tyr, whose hand was snapped off. Loki, Fenrir’s father, later taunts Tyr with his lack of even-handedness:

“Be silent, Tyr, you could never
deal straight between two people;
your right hand, I must point out,
is the one which Fenrir tore from you.” Loki’s Quarrel, v. 38

It’s easier to function as a one-handed god than a one-handed warrior though, as Jaime Lannister knows to his cost.

At ragnarök, the pursuing wolves will finally catch up with the heavenly bodies; the sun and moon will vanish from the sky:

“In the east sat the old woman in Iron-wood
and gave birth there to Fenrir’s offspring;
one of them in trollish shape
shall be snatcher of the moon.” Seeress’s Prophecy, v. 39

So too, the world in which Game of Thrones is set is heading for apocalypse. The White Walkers are on the march: ‘Cold winds are rising and the dead rise with them’, the Commander of the Night’s Watch reports to the Small Council in King’s Landing. The White Walkers with their powers of regenerating the dead are strongly allied to the forces of winter; their icy touch shatters metal and their faces are rimed with hoar-frost. Norse frost-giants are equally chilly beings: ‘the icicles tinkled when he came in: the old man’s cheek-forest [beard] was frozen’, we’re told in Hymir’s Poem (v. 10).

Tyr_and_Fenrir-John_Bauer
Týr and Fenrir (1911) by John Bauer, from Our Fathers’ Godsaga by Viktor Rydberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At the final battle, Loki, in alliance with frost-giants and Surtr the fire-giant, will advance upon Asgard, the home of the gods, and the world will sink beneath into the sea. There are still two seasons – or maybe more – of Game of Thrones to come, so it’s unlikely that ragnarök, the expected showdown between the dragons and the White Walkers, the forces of fire and ice, will occur this year. But the Seeress’s Prophecy gives us a foretaste of what it might be like. And in the meantime there’s all the intriguing ways in which the Poetic Edda’s distinctive world is reimagined in the show. From the Valhalla-like hall of the Iron-Born’s Drowned God, to the warging (shape-shifting) of the Stark children, from Valyrian steel swords to the Free Folk’s spear-wives and shield-maidens, the legendary North is always present.

Featured Image: Game of Thrones Promo Poster. (c) HBO.

Recent Comments

  1. […] The Poetic Edda, Game of Thrones, and Ragnarök – A look at what the popular books and HBO series owe to Norse myths. […]

  2. Ian McDonald

    The three-eyed raven as Odin is further supported by the book that describes him as having only one eye.

  3. […] may be on the cards, a ragna rök like that described in the Old Norse poem Völuspá (The Seeress’s Prophecy), composed around 1000 CE. In this terrifying vision, flame leaps up and […]

  4. […] may be on the cards, a ragna rök like that described in the Old Norse poem Völuspá (The Seeress’s Prophecy), composed around 1000 CE. In this terrifying vision, flame leaps up and […]

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