"Winter is Here" - How George R. R. Martin Made a Season so Terrifying
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Forget Voldemort, the White Witch, Sauron and his army of Orcs or Captain Hook – George R. R. Martin’s grand villain is far more distinctive – the weather.
In the opening scene of A Song of Ice and Fire’s first book, a Game of Thrones, three rangers of the Night’s Watch venture out into the snowy wilderness of the North and discover the unbelievable horrors that await in the forests there. From the get-go we the readers are warned of the oncoming threat of winter: we learn that seasons in Westeros can last for countless years, we hear stories of ice spiders and freezing children, we see the fear of the Night’s Watch – a group of hardened military men – as they discuss the threat that lies beyond the wall. And of course there’s the motto of some of our protagonists, the Starks: “Winter is Coming.”
Martin personifies Winter into the Others (known as the White Walkers in the show Game of Thrones) – the mystical force that grows in the background while the political conflict for the iron throne unfolds. Initially hardly any of the characters believe in this threat, refuting all evidence or accounts of it until it’s too late. You could argue that this parallels the conversations surrounding climate change in the real world – but I’d argue it represents on a greater level the ignorance humanity has for common threats against us all when we’re blinded by our own greed and egos.
Medieval winter is synonymous with suffering and death, so it’s no surprise that one of the Others’ key abilities is to raise armies of the dead known as Wights to do their bidding. In fact death, like winter, is one of the main driving forces of the plot, with key characters from all sides suffering all sorts of brutal fates and the most unexpected times. Characters like Melisandre talk about the Great Other – the force behind winter – while Syrio Forell and Arya Stark discuss the many-faced God of Death. It is suggested through the plot that these beings are one in the same, highlighting that - whether or not there is actually higher power driving the events that take place - the inevitability of suffering and death, like the inevitability of the changing seasons, hangs over everyone. Nobody is safe from its clutches, regardless of what power or wealth they obtain. Perhaps the most positive message we can draw arguably bleak narrative is that said to Arya in her training: “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.” Amongst the protagonists there is a recurring idea of defiance in the face of the inevitable coming winter, akin to Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight,” or Christopher Nolan’s film “Interstellar.” When faced with oncoming destruction the characters do not give in – they prepare to stand up against their destruction, perhaps even win, if only for the short term.
But why did George RR Martin choose Winter for this great antagonistic force? Well one thing that makes this epic fantasy series distinctive is its emphasis on realism and subversion of expectations (Martin has often discussed his inspiration from Lord of the Rings, and mentions how its ending left him with so many logistical questions, such as how Aragorn dealt with the remaining orcs or how reparations were made to the kingdom). On top of this Martin leans often on English medieval history, using events like the War of the Roses as inspiration for key storylines in the book. Therefore it’s no surprise that winter would be such an existential threat for its characters. In the real world, winter was a time of starvation, illness, cold, mortality. People didn’t have the heating or holidays or medical understanding we’re lucky enough to experience today. And unlike enemy armies, criminals, political uprisings, this tragic time of year was beyond anybody’s control. Surely there couldn’t be anything more frightening than that.
So how will Westeros’s winter unfold? Well, we’ll have to wait quite a while to find out. The last Song of Ice and Fire book was released over a decade ago, just before the release of the hit HBO adaption of his works, “Game of Thrones,” and while Game of Thrones might have finished, the far more expansive book series has two books to go, and is heading in a rather different direction. Who’s to say when or if Martin will release his next book, “The Winds of Winter,” and whether we’ll actually ever see the series’ conclusion “A Dream of Spring.” But one thing’s for certain – Martin has shaped cold weather into one of the most suspenseful and terrifying threats in modern literature, and generations of readers will fear its consequences.
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