Saturday, March 26, 2016

Series: Lessons from the Citadel -- History of Westeros [Contributor: Melanie]

Game of Thrones takes place in a world so vast, detailed, and similar to our own that many people have suggested it’s actually modeled on an alternate view of our own history. And while we don’t have White Walkers or dragons in our world (that we know of... yet), a history lesson in the vein of our own seems to be in order. So here I am, your guide through the vast mythology of the world of Game of Thrones in these weeks leading up to the season six premiere. And in this first nifty installment we’ll discuss the broad world history that lead up to the first scenes we saw in season one.

While there may be other lands, the only four we know of are Westeros, Essos, Sothoryos, and Ulthos. The only important ones are the first two continents separated by the Narrow Sea (which is totally not the English Channel...). Their histories are fairly unique but do blend together on occasion. We’ll start with the more prominent of these two landmasses and where the majority of our story takes place: Westeros.

Children of the Forest and the First Men

Long before the events depicted on the show (12,000 years earlier, to be exact), Westeros was inhabited by its native race known as the Children of the Forest. These were a non-human species that were said to worship nature spirits and the Old Gods. They also practiced various types of nature magic, often gifting dragonglass to the Night’s Watch to help abate the White Walkers. And like all great stories starring white people, a foreign race came tromping in on their way of life.

The First Men was the title given to the first human inhabitants of Westeros, who crossed into the continent by way of a land bridge in the south. Their original relationship with the Children was friendly, even dependent. The First Men converted to the native religion, and the two races united during the War for the Dawn against the White Walkers, 8,000 years before the events of the show. Together, they built the Wall under the direction of Brandon Stark, known as Bran the Builder, who then ruled as the first King in the North. It is from the First Men that many houses in the North claim descent (most notably, the Starks), as well as the Wildlings, who are distant cousins to many houses in the North.

The Children of the Forest began to dwindle in numbers over the centuries, hastened by the arrival of the Andals.

Arrival of the Andals

The Andals were the second foreign race to touch down in Westeros. This group also came from Essos, but farther north, from a region known as Andalos. Their religion, the Faith of the Seven, is what sent them sailing west in the effort of obeying visions. They conquered the majority of the continent, driving the Children of the Forest to extinction, establishing their religion as the dominant one, and intermarrying on occasion with the First Men.

Their reach over the continent is so vast that many peoples in Essos refer to Westeros as “Land of the Andals” despite the North retaining strong ties to their heritage. It was, however, this second group that introduced the ideas of chivalry and more modern weapons to Westeros, which was quickly adopted by the already-present First Men. The majority of the noble houses of Westeros claim descent from this ethnic group and keep their culture from religion (Faith of the Seven), to language (Common Tongue), to the use of chivalry and knighthood that permeates through the continent into present day. However, the families of the North retain their ancestral religion of the Old Gods.

The Rhoynar

So, the Rhoynar haven’t actually been named in the TV show (except for one hot second in the season four finale) but you’ve seen plenty of them. This was the third race to enter Westeros, several thousands of years after the First Men and the Andals. They were driven there by the oppression of the Valyrian Freehold. The Valyrians and their dragons (who will make a reappearance in our history soon) turned much of Essos into an empire, and so the Rhoynish fled before they could be sold into slavery, landing in what would become Dorne on the southernmost tip of Westeros.

The houses in the South, specifically the Martells, are direct descendants of the Rhoynish refugees, though they’ve intermarried with the other ethnicities across Westeros since then.

Take all this, put it together and what do you get? The king’s official style: “King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men.” And hopefully that makes a little more sense.

Seven Kingdoms

So, we’ve got the ethnic groups down, but you’ve probably noticed that you’ve never actually seen these Seven Kingdoms you’ve heard so much about. Well, as things stand at the beginning of the series, those Seven Kingdoms don’t actually exist anymore; now, there are actually nine.

But originally, after the First Men, the Andals, and the Rhoynar all showed up and settled in the region, they began to claim chunks of land for their own:

  • The Kingdom of the North (ruled by House Stark) 
  • The Kingdom of the Rock (ruled by House Lannister)
  • The Kingdom of the Mountain and Vale (ruled by House Arryn)
  • The Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers (ruled by the defunct House Hoare, later split between House Greyjoy and House Tully)
  • The Kingdom of the Reach (ruled by House Tyrell)
  • The Kingdom of the Storm (ruled by the now defunct House Durrandon, later passed on to house Baratheon)
  • Dorne (ruled by House Martell)
So these Seven Kingdoms were fairly chill with each other and got along well in their White Walker-free zone (thanks to the efforts of the Children and the First Men thousands of years prior and the continued protection of the Night’s Watch). But there is still one last ethnic group that came to call Westeros home, people whose arrival changed the face of the continent forever.

“There will be one king...”

This is where the histories of Westeros and Essos truly start to blend. The Targaryens come from a land called Valyria, the details of which I will go into when I get to specific houses. But they made camp on a small island off the coast of Westeros they named Dragonstone. After spending a century building up their strength, Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters landed in the place that would eventually become the capital, called King’s Landing (get it?). Aegon then sent the same message to all seven kings: “There will be one king.”

Together with his sisters Visenya and Rhaenys, and their dragons Balerion, Vhagar, and Meraxes, Aegon collected oaths of loyalty from the Seven Kingdoms. Though some, like Dorne, were harder to bring to heel than others, they all ultimately renounced their own titles and swore fealty. These families became known as the Great Houses of Westeros, the lords of which served as direct enforcers of the king’s rule in their own land. The Iron Throne was forged out of the weapons of Aegon’s fallen enemies and the greatest dynasty in the world began its rule.

However, a little over a hundred years after Aegon’s crowning, the first of many in-fights broke out between disputed Targaryen heirs. Princess Rhaenyra and her half-brother Prince Aegon both claimed the Iron Throne and the ensuing civil war resulted in the deaths of nearly all the Targaryen dragons. The last one died during the rule of Rhaenyra’s son. This proved to be a deadly blow to the Targaryen hold over the Seven Kingdoms, as more civil wars broke out between various branches of the family, and the looming “madness” that plagued members of the house as a result of inbreeding.

Robert’s Rebellion

Roughly 300 years after Aegon’s Conquest, things weren’t looking great for the Targaryens. If things weren’t bad enough with King Aerys II (a.k.a. “the Mad King”) going execution-happy, his heir Prince Rhaegar took it upon himself to show excessive interest in Lyanna Stark (sister of Eddard Stark), who was already betrothed to Robert Baratheon. One day, Lyanna and Rhaegar go missing, prompting the Starks to march down to the capital and demand she be returned to them, believing her kidnapped. Lord Rickard Stark and his eldest son Brandon were executed by immolation and Lyanna’s whereabouts remained unknown. Stark’s second son, Eddard, and Robert Baratheon then called their banners, along with their foster father Jon Arryn, and began a yearlong conflict that ultimately ended in the deposal of the Targaryens.

Rhaegar reappeared toward the end of the war to engage with Robert directly, who had now decided he would claim the Iron Throne for himself (his grandmother was a Targaryen princess, giving him the best claim outside the house). Rhaegar ultimately died on the battlefield and Robert marched south. Aerys had his pregnant wife and remaining child ferried away to Dragonestone before the capital was sacked. Aerys, mad with paranoia, ordered his remaining men to burn the city to the ground but Jaime Lannister, a knight of the Kingsguard, broke his oath and murdered his liege to prevent further massacres. Rhaegar’s wife and children were then murdered and Robert claimed the throne for himself.

Ultimately, Lyanna died in her brother’s arms and Queen Rhaella died while giving birth to her daughter, Princess Daenerys Targaryen. Many loyalists were ready to offer up the remaining children to the waiting arms of Stannis Baratheon, but a loyal retainer managed to smuggle the children to safety across the sea. Cue a few years of heartbroken rule from Robert, in a loveless marriage with replacement bride Cersei Lannister, under the watchful eye of his Hand Jon Arryn.

And then, boom: pilot episode of the TV show!

Believe it or not, that’s actually a vague summary of events. Stay tuned for more as I go in-depth with specific house histories, all leading to the premiere of Game of Thrones on April 24th!


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