What to Make of the Most Cosmic Game of Thrones Theory After Season 5
In 2013, a noble blogger by the handle of Dorian the Historian lined up George R.R. Martin’s pieces for one of the best predictions for how A Song of Ice and Fire will end. Here’s our update.
June 17, 2015
Another season, another death toll. Now that the dust and ratings records that perpetually follow Game of Thrones finales have temporarily settled, we’d like to take a step back and check in on how the show fits into one of our personal favorite fan theories: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire tells the story of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse.
(Oh, and as if we had to say it: Hereafter, there be SPOILERS.)
“A Wind Age, a Wolf Age — Before the World Goes Headlong”
In an important scene in the season five finale — the last time we see Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly talk with each other before Sam leaves to become a maester and the young Lord Commander has his Ides of Watch moment — Jon laments the emergence of the White Walkers and their thousands-strong army of the dead, rising up to challenge the world of men. When Sam slyly admits to his friend that he had just gotten laid, Jon mutters, “I’m glad the end of the world’s working out well for someone.”
The phrasing is apt, as “the end of the world” seems to be exactly what we’ve been watching and reading. And while it may have been an uneven season (see: Dorne; Meereen; Brienne, or lack thereof), its finest moments have given us very literal teases at the forthcoming/ongoing apocalypse. The first episode, titled “The Wars to Come,” ended with the burning of aspiring Free Folk lord and savior Mance Rayder. The fifth featured an extended sequence in Valyria, formerly home to the greatest empire this world has ever known, now ravaged into a smoking waste by a centuries-old Doom. Two weeks ago, we got one of the best “come at me, bro” moments in the last five years of television, courtesy of the legendary Night’s King and his ever-expanding zombie horde.
And by the end of this episode Jon Snow, a fan favorite and the show’s dreamiest leading man, lay betrayed and murdered, his life bleeding out onto the snow. Despite his narrative prominence and the hundreds of Tumblrs dedicated to his pouting visage, he had to go — because G.R.R.M. willed it, because that’s the kind of story he’s telling, because of a little phrase: “All men must die.” Mayhaps you’ve heard it before?
Most fans of the series, whether they began with the books or the show, know by now that no character is safe. But since the latter has had the luxury (and, occasionally, burden) of adapting source material, the death of a major character like Jon Snow proves far less gimmicky than some writers would have you believe.
It’s why the series’ faithful are so rabid about the material and, consequently, their own theorizing. They trust that, as with LOST before it, there’s a lot to unpack in how both ASoIaF and Game of Thrones structure the cosmic story they aim to tell. Our favorite theories match this cosmic scope, managing to both expand and expound upon it. One of the grandest and best-sourced of these theories argues that Martin’s masterwork is essentially a retelling of the Norse apocalypse, dropped into a realpolitikal Medieval setting. In the waning light of last night’s episode, we began what at first felt like a quick and fun examination of a compelling theory. It soon turned into a seven-hour dive into Reddit threads, fandom forums, and Norse mythology.
For the uninitiated, the original iteration of the theory, “Game of Thrones & Norse Mythology,” was compiled by Dorian the Historian a couple of years ago on his blog of the same name, and has since become a controversial yet beloved addition to the multitude of ASoIaF fan theories. The theory is based on connections drawn between Ragnarok, the end of the world in ancient Norse mythology, and Martin’s text — which is, at minimum, undoubtedly in conversation with the legends upon which this Norse myths is based. Ragnarok is translated, roughly, as “the doom of the gods,” and that doom is brought by forces composed of fire and frost giants, monstrous wolves, dragons, and various other legendary beasties. Starting to sound familiar?
As with most theories, some of the puzzle pieces fit perfectly and some don’t. Redditor GyantSpyder eloquently put forth a productive reading of the similarities between the works: “I see this theory as best understood as a scaffolding of inspirations and storytelling traditions on which the story is built, and as a vocabulary to talk about it, not as a plan for how it is going to finish.”
The theory is worth reading in full, and from the beginning. But here, we’ll try to add more context and point toward what this could mean for the television series following the events of “Mother’s Mercy.”
The Theory, in Brief
A number of medieval Nordic texts, including the ancient Icelandic epics called the Poetic and Prose Eddas, tell the story of Ragnarok, a cataclysm brought about by a war between magical forces of nature and the gods and men. On its face, it’s not hard to swallow that such a text could provide hints for where the narrative of the show and the books will progress. We know GRRM borrowed heavily from several different sources while writing ASoIaF. Plus, some parallels between the players in the Norse myth and our, err, heroes traipsing across Westeros are pretty direct. Let’s have a look:
Bran Stark, having been paralyzed by Jaime Lannister in the beginning of the tale, represents Fenrir, the Bound Wolf, the monstrous son of the trickster god Loki. You may remember Loki from the Marvelverse — you know, Thor’s thorn-in-the-side brother with a very pretty face — but here, Loki is represented by the Three-Eyed Raven, the tree-bound mystery man who closed out Bran’s season four storyline. In the books, readers come to know him as Bloodraven, aka Brynden Rivers, a Targaryen bastard with a shady and possibly sorcerous past, connections to the Night’s Watch, and dubious Children of the Forest associations.
And in this reading, Jaime is ultimately not just a good guy (yeah, what a twist, right?), but the good guy. He represents the heroic god Tyr, a precursor to more familiar figures like the aforementioned Thor and his father, Odin. The literal savior of humankind, Tyr binds world-hungry Fenrir and loses a hand in the process — and Bran’s paralysis seems to fit the bill. It looks like Melisandre has been mistaken in thinking Stannis Baratheon (RIP?) to be her savior Azor Ahai reborn — or more likely, she was a pawn played by the god R’hllor (who Dorian claims is actually Bloodraven in disguise, playing a trickster game worthy of the Loki of Norse lore). Whatever the case, there can only be one Onehander, and Jaime’s our best candidate.
Some characters fit easily into this schema as well — e.g., the relatively minor Walder Frey fills the role of Freyr, the phallic male deity known for proliferating. Others, including some of the major characters, are more of a stretch, like connecting Cersei with Frigg, queen of the hallowed realm of Asgard with a power for prophecy, simply because she received a prophecy of her own from a woods witch named Maggy the Frog.
After Season 5, Where Does the Theory Stand?
First, a note on Bran Stark’s location.
- In the theory, Bloodraven, the Three-Eyed-Raven Bran meets with the Children of the Forest under the tree, is Loki, and he has less-than-noble intentions. See, Ragnarok is incited by Loki, commanding the jötnar, a race of fearsome, gruesome frost and fire giants (more bestial than Martin’s “giants,” however, whom we’ll lump in with humanity moving forward for the sake of clarity), and his three “children” — the monstrous wolf Fenrir (Bran), the World Serpent Jormungandr (Daenerys), and the queen of the dead Hel (Melisandre). Since Bloodraven is a Targaryen bastard with an axe to grind, it’s not a stretch to say he could very well be a “bad guy,” working with the nature-based Children of the Forest and the White Walkers to destroy the world of men, and using human “children” like Bran, Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Melisandre to do it. Remember: “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” (the title of season one, episode four) are the characters that ASoIaF hinges on. Bran is definitely being trained and molded to Bloodraven’s plans, but it’s possible he’s been molding the rest of them the whole time too, and that avatars like R’hllor and the “old gods” are just his methods of magical inception. The Children of the Forest have been carving faces into weirwood trees for millennia, and Bloodraven even appears in Melisandre’s fires in the books. He could be subtly manipulating much of the magicks in the known world, and he’s doing it from beneath a large tree, which could be a nod at Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, a massive tree in Norse mythology upon which the World grew. In the mythology, the only two survivors of Ragnarok, Líf and Lífþrasir, hide inside of the tree.
Daenerys Targaryen is lost?
- Dorian names her Jormungandr, the serpent that encircles the world and eats its tail during Ragnarok. In order to get to the Dothraki Sea, where she is now, surrounded by familiar strangers, she had to fly on Drogon east of Meereen, which follows the previous Daenerys prophecy, “To reach the west, you must go east.”The person who originally tells Daenerys to do this is Quaithe, a shadowbinder (like Melisandre) from Asshai. The Prose Edda states that during Ragnarok, Jormungandr will encircle the world from the sea to kill Thor with its venom, then die in the process. Given how Dany has been pushed to go east by prophecy and how stagnant her Meereen storylines have felt as she tried to learn how to rule, it makes some sense that she could, eventually 1. stick with the ruthless Dothraki culture that her political sensibility feels more in line with (“vengeance…I will break the wheel,” etc.), and 2. forgo the west that has turned on her and simply “burn it all” in a surprise assault from the Sunset Sea, a journey no one has made before.
Jon Snow is dead, but Melisandre’s not playing games.
- Which makes him freshly-slaughtered meat for Melisandre to resurrect him, which half the Internet thinks will happen anyway, and for this theory to take on undead life. Melisandre is at Castle Black, primed to resurrect him (like Thoros of Myr did with Beric Dondarrion in season three). Surtr, the hell demon with a flaming sword (whose name means “the Black,” hint, hint), still seems a perfect fit for Jon Snow . Both the books and the show link Jon’s fallen “kissed by fire” lover Ygritte to Melisandre (“You know nothing, Jon Snow”), and we know she thinks he has king’s blood (R+L=J), so she has reason to resurrect him. Moreover, in Norse myth, Surtr’s meant to kill Freyr, who could be Walder Frey or it could be Roose or Ramsay Bolton, who are associated with the Freys, as well as with the phallus and male virility. (Roose is an old man who just barely got his fat wife pregnant on the show; Ramsay showed a fixation with Theon’s poor lost member.) It all fits.
Cersei is ready for revenge.
- She is Frigg, the Norse goddess and Queen of Asgard, but she does not react well when her son Baldr (Joffrey) dies. But in an interesting twist, the show may have offered a better reason for the Dorne plotline — it fits neatly with Norse myth. In the Edda, Baldr gets killed with deadly mistletoe, and poison was used to kill both Joffrey and Myrcella in the show. The real kicker, though, is how Frigga responds to this. She looks around and asks who could “ride the road to Hel, and seek if he may find Baldr, and offer Hel a ransom if she will let Baldr come home to Ásgard.” By going to Dorne, this is effectively what Jaime does in the beginning of the season, attempting to win back Cersei’s love. It’s also in line with her actions this season, submitting her body, mind, and dignity to ridicule and torture so that her other son, Tommen, can remain king and remain safe. How mad will she go when it’s revealed to her that her daughter has just died, too? It will be war with Dorne, surely.
Samwell Tarly is going to school, but before that, he’s going home.
- The casting calls for season six told us as much, and all but confirmed it when he left the Wall with Gilly to get trained at the Citadel. Those hints, combined with mentions of his father in season five, tell me we’ll see Sam’s father, Randyll Tarly, in season six. Importantly, though, Lord Randyll all but disowned Sam, which feels in line with how Dorian the Historian has interpreted his Norse counterpart: He’s the god Heimdallr, the fatherless watcher who lives opposite his enemy, the fire giant Surtr (Jon), at the Bifrost Bridge that connects the worlds (the Wall, in ASoIaF). Dorian points that Heimdallr and Loki are foretold to kill each other Ragnarok, which makes a lot more sense now that Sam the Slayer is going off to educate himself in the maesters’ Citadel. He could prove an important general — as important as his father, perhaps — in the wars to come.
Tyrion Lannister is the big lion in Meereen, but as a dragon.
- And he can finally go back to doing what he’s good at. But just because the deck was stacked against him before doesn’t mean it isn’t now. And he knew Westeros, remember. Here, he barely speaks the language. This could take a dark turn. No matter how much we love Tyrion as a character, it’s clear that he grows bitter, angry, and near-suicidal as the series progresses. We saw that manifest in his drunkenness earlier this season, but it could get deeper if he goes on unchecked while ruling another city filled with enemies. Also worth noting: Tyrion was the one who sent Myrcella, Jaime’s daughter away to Dorne all those years ago. Into the pit of venomous vipers, in fact. What if Tyrion lives long enough to see himself become the villain? That would be even more in line with his representation as Fafnir, whom Dorian provides as an enemy to the Norse character Tyr, also known as…
Jaime Lannister, who comes out of this season with renewed motivation.
- His estranged daughter has just died in his arms and the love of his life has been publicly shamed in the streets of the city in which they rule. He has spent weeks at this point playing diplomat with a family out to get his own, and he started the season on a quest with a bantering almost-knightly sidekick. Jaime’s been on a redemptive quest since he lost his sword hand, but this could be what turns him into the champion he was born to be. The failure of upholding his oath to Catelyn Stark to return her girls to their homes, the death of the boy Joffrey whom he never had the chance to know as a son, the tragic loss of his just-acknowledged daughter, the public shaming of the woman he loves, and the estrangement of his brother Tyrion — all these things have to lead to something. They could easily lead to Azor Ahai reborn, as Dorian posits, through the lens of the one-handed god of single combat Tyr. Jaime can’t fight as well as he used to, but he is improving.
Could Sansa and Theon have survived that fall?
- Dorian compares Theon to two characters: Njördr, a sea god also associated with wolves (whom he resented); and the Danish hero Hadingus, who hangs himself: “Theon definitely seems a likely candidate for suicide.” Theon and Sansa’s leap wasn’t a guaranteed escape. At minimum in the show they had just seen a woman get thrown from the same height and watch her face splatter all over the ground. But Sansa Dorian connects Sansa to Idunn, a goddess of youth and beauty who escapes captivity by taking flight (!) and in one story is accused of marrying her brother’s killer (!!). Neither of these events occur in the books, but the show made them happen, in its way, by wedding Sansa to Ramsay, son of Roose, who slayed Robb at the Red Wedding.
Now Arya’s in the dark.
- If Arya is supposed to be Hati, the monstrous wolf associated with the moon and known for being filled with hatred, she’s still on the right track. Having just been blinded by the House of Black and White and undergoing newly Faceless horrors, it’s doubtful that she’ll suddenly go complacent. A blind wolf still has teeth (as well as dreams of her direwolf, Nymeria). Given that Hati’s mother came from the Ironwood, and “ironwood” is present in the wolfswood in the North, though, let’s hold out hope that she’ll get back to Westeros in time for Ragnarok.
Fuzzier connections in the wars to come.
Brienne of Tarth…won?
- She finally completed one of her missions, even if Stannis’s death happened off-screen (or not at all; Stannis may very be this season’s Hound), but it’s unclear as to how she fits into all of this. On the face, she can only be Brynhildr, shieldmaiden and warrior woman of Viking lore. But Brynhildr’s quests, though they do involve fratricide and impassioned, if not alway reciprocated, love, don’t fit as neatly.
Stannis Baratheon is dead…right?
- Well, maybe not. What if Brienne could use him somehow against the Boltons? Could the Mannis redeem himself of the profoundly stupid double-whammy of condemning his house to stagnation (pun intended) and murdering his only daughter? Or he could actually be dead. In Dorian’s reading, Stannis is merely a means of getting Jon Snow to Melisandre anyway.
- As you’ve probably deduced, this theory isn’t perfect. We still have no idea what parts characters like Missandei or Grey Worm (Wyrm?) play, if any at all. Again, a theory like this one acts more like an interesting framework than it does a line-by-line prediction of what’s to come in the show. Any careful viewer has known from the start that ASoIaF ends in planetary war, regardless of which myths it borrows from. And it borrows plenty from elsewhere in the world as well (Jorah Mormont as a classically tragic Greek hero, references to the Christian Book of Revelations, etc.). It’s part of what makes the series interesting, for some people. It could also present some problems.
The Implications of Believing a Theory Like This
Complex, sure. That’s A Song of Ice and Fire for you. But assuming the endgame of Thrones involves a cataclysm-tier war upon the world of men — and “Hardhome” and White Walker development in general up until this point signal to us that it definitely does, regardless of whether or not you buy this particular theory — there are a few takeaways every ASoIaF and Game of Thrones fan should consider.
For all intents and purposes, character death doesn’t matter.
Not Shireen’s, not Jon Snow’s, not Robb’s, and not Robb’s unborn child in Talisa’s womb. “All men must die” is the refrain for the series. It’s not a warning, it’s a cosmic truth, just as it is in our world. But in ASoIaF, it will be brought about by forces that are proportionately strengthened by the fall of humanity: Nature.
The dragons are forces of nature, too.
Norse myth makes references to the jotunn, those monstrous aforementioned giants commanded by Loki. But Dany’s children aren’t going up against the White Walkers, like everyone’s just casually assumed they would since season one and since learning the books were called A Song of Ice and Fire. They’ll be working together. The series makes a lot more sense if you start to think of the Children of the Forest and the White Walkers as on the same nature-centric team — if the White Walkers are the frost giants, the dragons are their fiery counterparts.
The “game” of thrones itself doesn’t matter, either.
Insofar as it doesn’t benefit or lead to Ragnarok. It’s one of the most engrossing elements of the books and show, of course — that this magical, insane, liberally violent, sexposition-driven franchise also happens to operate often as well at political drama as it does at high fantasy, but high fantasy it ever was, even in the background. Come Ragnarok, King’s Landing will be burned and frozen, if not atom-bomb obliterated and left to crumble into the sea, just as the Children of the Forest broke the Arm of Dorne long ago.
All well and good for fantasy fans, but it also could mean ASoIaF is a very different kind of work of art if all Martin has been leading up to this whole time is the inevitable destruction of the human race. It will further vindicate those who asked “what’s the point” during Sansa’s rape in the show if we learn that was a precursor to mass extinction with nary a lesson learned. Should the world truly end in fire and ice, that ending will dilute the brutal, medieval power of events like Cersei’s public shaming and Oberyn’s death at the hands of the Mountain.
If ASoIaF is Ragnarok, everything will be destroyed in the end. Including all the interesting lessons it taught us about how women, peasants, bastards, cripples, dwarfs, and people of different races were treated in medieval society. That said, Ragnarok is only a prophecy — which, like Martin says of sorcery, is “a sword without a hilt.”
You’ve given five years to a show, almost 20 to a book series, where your favorite characters might not matter that much in the end.
There’s a reason that opening sequence is so detailed and multiple books and a mobile app have been dedicated to telling the near-comprehensive history of this very different world — while the series’ narrative is so singularly focused on what is going on in the here and now. A larger discussion of that history is enough to fill dozens of blog posts, but I’ve been asking this question forever: Why did George R.R. Martin put so much detail into creating a world so deeply rich in its own history only to emerge from it after a handful of books and stories that, tops, have taken place over the span of the last 300 years?
The answer could be two-fold: 1. What we are watching is the climax, the earth-shaking end of all things; and/or 2. It’s not about the individual characters, and it’s never been about them, but they are necessary vehicles to tell the story of the apocalypse without making the apocalypse horrifically mundane. Without humans, you have no comprehension of right and wrong, or of good and evil, or any of the other peculiarities that make we the readers human. Who’s in the wrong here? The gods? The men? The monsters? There’s not exactly a right answer, because at the end of the world, unless it relates to the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” that bring it about, it doesn’t really matter. This is both in line with Martin’s categorically grey view of the world and also unendingly frustrating for viewers in 2015 driven to an ongoing series by social media. It’s humanity against nature, and nature’s monsters have proven they will most likely win and that Jon Snow’s going to be one of them as a member of the undead and maybe some of your other friends could show up as zombies too, but who cares? And that’s it.
In the words of Ramsay Snow, whose brutality now suddenly makes sense: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
There’s never been another show like Game of Thrones.
Speaking just for the television show now: No matter what the Emmys may or may not think, Game of Thrones is poised to be the most religiously ambitious story ever put on television, bar none. It has enlisted dozens of very expensive, very talented actors, directors, production designers, linguists, and every other professional who’s ever worked on it, paid off thousands of people to remain quiet about key plot points every year, defied television conventions, defied the will of nations, defied the desires of its character-obsessed fans, and put really-cool-looking dragons on screen with undoubtedly skyrocketing budgets…all for what? To conclude with everyone dying and the world reborn anew with two people in it, who aren’t likely to be your favorite characters? Yes, if the “ASoIaF as Ragnarok” theory even mostly holds up by the end of the series.
Even if it doesn’t, the richness in mythological imagery and the attention to historical reference after historical reference, some of which we simply had no room for in this article, puts this show in a completely different category from everything else on television. If the end of the world works out well for it, if it somehow holds our attention for another few years before we get there, if Martin somehow stays alive long enough to finish the books, if the series somehow pulls off a finale that feels conclusive but still artistic enough to equal the depth of its buildup (the end of LOST really disappointed Martin), perhaps we could see something that does not end in an over-complicated tailspin and horrifically break the Internet.
UPDATE: Editor’s Note
We’re thrilled at all of the conversations this piece and Dorian’s original theory have generated once again on Reddit and elsewhere and want to thank everyone who’s contributed their notes and opinions. There’s a lot we didn’t touch on here, of course, including some pieces Dorian himself missed: Ned Stark’s similarities to Baldr (Norse god of light and purity known mostly for his death, which signifies the beginning of Ragnarok); Bloodraven’s similarities to Odin (that eye, those ravens); and why the Children of the Forest would side with the White Walkers, just to name a few. Being theory nerds, we welcome more discussion and encourage you to comment below, on Reddit, and across the vast fields of the ASoIaF-infested Internet. Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Dorian for putting the original theory together two years ago. If you enjoyed this story, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more like it.
John Maher edited and contributed miscellaneous mythological tidbits to this story.