A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) | Study Guide

George R.R. Martin

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 July 2017. Web. 11 Dec. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-Series/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, July 13). A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-Series/

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) Study Guide." July 13, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-Series/.


Course Hero, "A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) Study Guide," July 13, 2017, accessed December 11, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-Series/.

A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) | Context


Reimagining a Genre

From the first fairy tales to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, fantasy stories have followed similar conventions. The setting is an imaginary world that resembles the real world but is usually not part of it or connected to it in any way. Humans exist side by side with supernatural or fantastic creatures—elves, dragons, trolls, and wizards—who often play significant roles in the story. The main conflict is a common one between good and evil, with clearly delineated heroes and villains, and the expectation is that good will ultimately triumph. Perhaps the most important characteristic, however, and the one that sets this genre apart from others, is the element of magic. In most fantasy novels, a powerful system of magic is controlled by certain characters or embedded in key objects, and it dramatically affects events, actions, and outcomes.

A Song of Ice and Fire includes all these elements but shifts the emphasis. From the beginning, George R.R. Martin set out to write a story that was grounded in reality and felt more like historical fiction than fantasy. His world is a darker, harsher one than that usually found in fantasy novels. There is less emphasis on magic and more exploration of complex characters and political intrigue.

In the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, most characters are not clearly good or bad. Characters that readers view as heroes make questionable and sometimes brutal choices, while the ones written off as villains can display humanity and evoke sympathy. And most unsettling of all, good doesn't always triumph. The characters with the most honor and integrity may suffer horrific treatment, even death, while the most treacherous or amoral individuals flourish.

Influences and Inspirations

Inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire's rich story line and memorable figures came to Martin from several sources, many of them historical. Most obvious was England's 15th-century Wars of the Roses, which were fought between the Yorks and the Lancasters. (The name "Wars of the Roses" came from the badges of the two dynasties—the white rose of York and the red rose of the Lancasters.) In the conflict, as in Martin's saga, a single ruler was meant to unify the land, but in the absence of an obvious or competent leader, competing factions tore the country apart in an attempt to gain the throne. The bloodshed continued for decades.

Another famous war also impacted Martin's writing, although indirectly, through a series of seven historical novels called Les Rois maudits (The Accursed Kings). The books, written by Maurice Druon and published between 1955 and 1977, trace the battles between the rulers of England and France over the succession of the French throne. Later called the Hundred Years' War, the conflicts continued from 1337 to 1453 under five generations of kings. "The Accursed Kings has it all," wrote Martin in an introduction to a recent translation of the series. "The Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets."

A third source of inspiration was a Roman fortification called Hadrian's Wall. Located in what is now Scotland, it served as inspiration for one of the most powerful images in A Song of Ice and Fire: the great ice Wall separating civilized Westeros from the frozen wastes populated by the Others. Begun in 122 CE, Hadrian's Wall was built at the northern limit of the Roman Empire and stretched 73 miles, its width and height varying according to the location and available materials. There were milecastles (small forts) with two turrets in between them, and a fort every five miles or so. According to Hadrian's biographer, it may have been built to "separate the Romans from the barbarians." Martin explained that visiting Hadrian's Wall had a profound effect on him. He said, "For the Romans ... this was the end of civilization ... the end of the world." He added that the Romans would not have known that it was just Scots beyond the wall: "It could have been any kind of monster ... the sense of this barrier against dark forces."

The Feudal System

Like many fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a world resembling medieval Europe and the feudal system used to govern it. Under this system, large tracts of land (or fiefs) were granted by the ruling monarch to noblemen who had served him well during times of war. Called vassals, these noblemen would swear an oath of fealty to the king, promising to serve and protect him and provide soldiers if requested to do so. Less powerful military men (knights) might also be granted tracts of lands. They, too, would swear loyalty to the king and possibly to one of the higher-ranking noblemen. The land itself was worked by peasants (or serfs) who could not leave the land without permission and who had no hope of upward mobility.

A Song of Ice and Fire contains a ruling system very similar to this feudal structure. The King on the Iron Throne is at the pinnacle of the political pyramid and holds ultimate authority over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Just beneath him are his lords, or bannermen, who are similar to vassals. The High Lords of the Great Houses are the most powerful individuals in this political and social structure, each controlling one of the nine key regions of Westeros. They have their own vassals, less powerful lords that swear allegiance to them as well as to the king. At the very bottom of this society are the peasants, called smallfolk, who work the land and have no say in their own governing. Unlike the peasants of medieval Europe, however, they "own themselves" and have a right to fair and just treatment.

Gods and Religion

As in the real world, Martin's universe contains a host of "competing" religions that strongly influence the beliefs and behaviors of their followers. The religions are all invented, but most reflect actual religions or belief systems. Among the most prominent gods and religions in the novel are the following:

  • The Old Gods: These are the gods of the earth, tied to the natural world and the spirits of nature. Believers, most of whom live in the harsher lands of the north, keep a "godswood," at the center of which is a sacred heart tree—a weirwood tree with red leaves and red sap—into which a face has been carved. Faith in the old gods has been compared to traditional pagan, Celtic, and Norse belief systems that assert that every object in nature has a spirit and that the pursuit of the divine is a direct and very personal experience.
  • Faith of the Seven: The main religion of Westeros is based on the medieval Catholic Church and the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead of the three aspects of God, however, this religion has seven: the Father, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, the Smith, the Warrior, and the Stranger (who is the death figure). The number seven is also reflected in key elements of the religion: the clergy are called septons and septas, and places of worship are called septs. The Faith of the Seven is the dominant religion of Westeros.
  • The Drowned God: The ancient religion of the Iron Islands is one suited to its seafaring, piratical nature. Its god is a harsh and brutal one, and followers believe he intends them to raid, destroy, and pillage other realms to strengthen their own. The key elements of this religion and culture, drawn from Viking society, Norse mythology, and Catholicism, are drowning, baptism, and resurrection. When a sailor dies, he is said to become an oarsman for the Drowned God. Sacrificial drowning is used as a form of execution. And priests of the religion must be drowned and brought back to life before they can serve. The watchword of believers is, "What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger."
  • R'hllor: Also known as the Red God, R'hllor is the god of light, heat, and life. He struggles eternally against the Great Other, the god of darkness, ice, and death, regarding the fate of the world. The religion's red priests believe that R'hllor is the one true god and that he can speak to believers through fire and send visions of the future. Martin has said that this religion is roughly based on Zoroastrianism, which focuses on the ongoing struggle between good and evil and in which fire represents God's light or wisdom. Many of its rituals involve ceremonial fires.
  • The Many-Faced God: The core followers of this religion—a guild of paid assassins called the Faceless Men—worship Death, whom they believe is the only true god and who provides a merciful end to all suffering. For a price, they will give the "gift" of death to those who request it, either for themselves or for others. The guild believes their god is worshipped by all the religions of the world, though often unknowingly. For this reason, the god's "many faces" are really representations of the death aspect in all other cultures' religions.


Fantasy readers' expectations are upended early in A Song of Ice and Fire because so little of what occurs happens for ethical or moral reasons. Instead the decisions and actions of the characters follow a system of politics and principles known as "realpolitik." This political philosophy emphasizes a practical, self-serving approach to a situation rather than an honorable one. Those who act according to realpolitik do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals, regardless of the effect on others. In modern politics the term is used to describe unscrupulous political tactics used by those in power and the kind of scheming and plotting that goes on behind closed doors. That definition suits the politics of A Song of Ice and Fire equally well. Allegiances and alliances are established for the most self-serving of reasons and dissolve the moment the arrangement is no longer beneficial to either party.
Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about A Song of Ice and Fire (Series)? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!