Some characters in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones have some serious similarities to characters in Der Ring des Nibelungen. But first:
If you haven’t read the books comprising George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and watched the show Game of Thrones, then you should stop right here, because I’m getting into spoilers right away. Some of them involve spoilers that are show only, which have – as of this writing – gone beyond the books’ plots. On Reddit, this would correspond to a SPOILERS EXTENDED post.
I recommend the books whole-heartedly. I also recommend the show (the moments of greatness more than cancel out the moments of not-so-greatness), but the books are the real love of my heart when it comes to this story. Part of the joy is not knowing what the books are actually about through most of their telling, which spoilers ruin.
I also think you should watch or listen to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen since it’s an incredibly grand fantasy with moments that stand as pinnacles of musical drama 1. If you’ve noticed the recurring musical motifs that accompany Star Wars or Game of Thrones, you have Richard Wagner’s influence to thank.
That said, I don’t think spoilers ruin the Ring in the way they might for A Song of Ice and Fire, so you can read on.
Ready? Ok, here we go.
In the show, Jon and Dany have fallen for each other and jumped straight to consummating the relationship. Unbeknownst to either of them is that they are aunt and nephew, thanks to the secret relationship and marriage of Lyanna Stark (originally believed to be Jon’s aunt but in fact his mother) and Rhaegar Targaryen (Dany’s brother). This makes Jon Snow heir to the Iron Throne and rightful king of Westeros.
Once I heard the cries of “eww OMG, but she’s his aunt“, I immediately began thinking of Jon Snow as Siegfried, the mythic German hero. Siegfried’s love of Brünnhilde had the same, er, complication (aunt/nephew love), though they don’t seem to mind.
And with that, I saw the parallels between the two works rather starkly, though as Martin always does, he undermines certain ideas or twists them in novel ways. I remember Alex Ross’ revelation that The Social Network was remarkably similar to Das Rheingold2, and once I had the thought, I saw that Robert’s Rebellion was much like Die Walküre, with Jon and Dany’s arcs borrowing elements of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more comparisons between the works 3. Perhaps it’s because the lovers of one work aren’t lovers of the other? I’m not sure.
I can’t say that Martin actually did draw from Wagner’s Ring. It may be that he drew from many of the same influences that Wagner did and ended up with similar ideas and imagery by accident. For example, Das Nibelungenlied and The Volsunga Saga may be primary sources for both works. But some things feel awfully close to Wagner’s version.
What arguments am I not making?
- I am not saying that Der Ring is the primary influence. Obviously there are others that are equal if not more important. For example, Jon Snow’s personality is much more noble than any version of Siegfried/Sigurd, and he clearly shares similarities with King Arthur and Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings. And unless Martin comes out and says that it was an influence, we can’t be sure if my associations are right or just coincidence.
- I’m also not saying that ASoIaF is a retelling of the Ring. As you’ll see, the similarities are often time shifted relative to their placement in the Ring. For example, Dany and Brünnhilde’s pyre walks happen in relatively different moments of their stories. Most of Song‘s characters have nothing to do with the Ring. There also appear to be hero’s arcs within larger arcs. For example, Jon’s first arc ends with his death at the end of A Storm of Swords.
- I’m also not saying that only one character may represent a Ring character. For example, although Jon Snow’s story-line is like that of Siegfried’s, Khal Drogo in relationship to Dany bears some similarity as well. But he’s not the hero of the story. Likewise, several characters fulfill the roles for Jon that Mime does for Siegfried (Ned, Tyrion, Jeor Mormont, Qhorin Halfhand), but they only do this in their relationship with Jon and not more broadly. Brienne has certain Brünnhilde similarities as well.
With that out of the way, here’s a running list of similarities and fever-dream associations (you can decide which is which):
Some base-level observations
- The title A Song of Ice and Fire parallels the Nibelungenlied (one of the sources of Wagner’s Ring), which translates Nibelungen Song or Song of the Nibelungen.
- The primary conflict in the Ring stems from the theft of the Rheingold from the Rhine Maidens 4, which requires the thief to renounce love. This act sets in motion a series of events that lead to the destruction of the gods. Although it’s still hazy, there seems to be a similarity of the Rhine Maidens to the Children of the Forest, whereby the Children perceive a threat to their natural paradise and set in motion a horror that they lose control of. But without more details it’s hard to make a fast argument in favor of this.
- Valhalla Valyria Valhalla Valyria Valhalla Valyria. Valhalla is the castle of the gods, paid for with the stolen ring and the Rheingold, setting in motion the series of tragedies of the operas. At the end, it’s engulfed in flame and the gods are destroyed. As of now, Valyria is shrouded in mystery, but it’s also been destroyed in the “Doom of Valyria” and is treacherous for any to enter after having served as the home for a race of dragon-riding slave masters. The final opera is called Götterdämmerung, which translates as Twilight of the Gods, but the basis for this is Ragnarök, which is sometimes translated as “The Doom of the Gods”.
- The mortals are being manipulated by the gods in the Ring. There do seem to be gods in A Song of Ice and Fire, but it’s unclear what their motivations are. In some sense, it’s almost as if we’re getting a similar story in Song but told exclusively from the point of view of the mortals, who have no idea what’s going on on a macro scale.
- The fire god is prominent in both stories (Loge in the Ring and R’hllor in Song).
- Bran taps into the Weirwood network to view past, present, and maybe future as the “green-seer”/“three-eyed raven” and harnesses his ability while living under a great Weirwood tree. This parallels Erda and the Norns, who have command of past, present and future, and who, according to Norse mythology, live under the tree Yggdrasil.
- The murder of Renly Baratheon by his brother Stannis Baratheon is a horrific event involving magic and a peach. This may parallel the murder of the giant Fasolt by his brother Fafner. Fasolt had fallen in love with Freia, who grows the apples of eternal life for the gods. He was murdered by his brother after Fafner fell under the curse of the magic ring. It’s the moment of Das Rheingold that communicates most clearly the horror unleashed on the world by the ring and the curse. I say “may” above, because it’s unclear what exactly book-Stannis’ fate is. As brutal as the story is, though, fratricide is still rare in Westeros, so Stannis’ action stands as a singular event.
- Incest is an issue in both works, and it’s judged as being unnatural within both works even though our heroes are incestuous.
Some Jon and Siegfried Similarities
I believe the “Jon as Siegfried” case is the strongest.
- Jon is associated with wolves (as a Stark) and dragons (as a Targaryen). Siegfried is the grandson of Wotan who was known as Wolf while accompanying Siegfried’s father Siegmund in his youth. Siegmund refers to himself as a wolf cub. Siegfried also slays a dragon and ingests some of its blood, which grants him powers.
- Jon Snow’s parents Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen have a love story that resembles that of Sieglinde and Siegmund. Admittedly, they are not — unlike Siegmund and Sieglinde — brother and sister (Martin saves that for Jaime and Cersei). Nor are they children of a god. Nor does Rhaegar pull a sword from a tree. And the Sieg siblings are almost like two wild animals: truly lost in the world until they find each other, while R+L are nobility.
- The “Knight of the Laughing Tree” incident, if in fact it was Lyanna, reminds me loosely of Siegmund’s protection of a young woman being forced into a marriage, the action that drives him to the home where Sieglinde lives. The “woman” in Song being Howland Reed.
- Rhaegar and Lyanna meet at the Tourney of Harrenhal, where he crowns her the “queen of love and beauty”. At that moment, Robert Baratheon is in love with and betrothed to Lyanna. When Siegmund and Sieglinde meet, she is wed to Hunding, though she doesn’t love him.
- Although this is still mysterious, Rhaegar may see in Lyanna the fulfillment of the prophecy of the song of ice and fire and the “prince that was promised.” This parallels Siegmund and Sieglinde’s dawning sense that fate brings them together, since Siegmund alone is able to pull the sword from the tree, and they are both children of Wälse (Wotan’s other earthly pseudonym).
- Their flight from Hunding’s home in “Die Walküre” parallels Rhaegar’s “abduction” of Lyanna after the tourney at Harrenhal.
- Robert Baratheon kills Rhaegar for this, just as Hunding does Siegmund.
- Lyanna gives birth at the Tower of Joy to Jon Snow and thereafter dies, giving the child to Ned Stark. This parallels Siegfried’s birth, Sieglinde’s death, and Mime’s adoption of Siegfried.
- Neither Jon nor Siegfried know their parents’ identities at the start of their stories.
Jon’s Coming of Age
Four characters take the role of the dwarf Mime, who takes in and raises Siegfried. All of them serve as a kind of father figure to Jon, and all of them are better surrogate fathers than Mime. Nevertheless, they hit certain plot points that are the same or similar to Mime:
- The first is Ned, who takes Jon in and raises him as his bastard son. Mime raises Siegfried after Sieglinde’s death.
- The second is Tyrion, who accompanies Jon to the Wall. Tyrion is also a dwarf, which aligns nicely. Mime accompanies Siegfried to the mountain to slay the dragon.
- The third is Jeor Mormont, who gives Jon the Valyrian steel sword Longclaw. Mime gives Siegfried the magical sword Nothung.
- The properties of Valyrian steel are slowly being revealed to us, but in the show it’s able to kill enemies which normal weapons cannot. It can also withstand the weapons of the Others/White Walkers. Siegfried uses Nothung to destroy Wotan’s spear, which Wotan believes to be unbreakable.
- The fourth is Qhorin Halfhand who leads Jon beyond the Wall. Jon kills Qhorin in order to gain the trust of the Wildlings. Qhorin forces this by pretending to attack Jon. Siegfried kills Mime for actually wanting to kill Siegfried.
- A bird provokes this violence in both stories. Siegfried is warned by a bird that Mime is dangerous. Jon and Qhorin are tracked by an eagle that forces their confrontation in front of the Wildlings.
Moving past Mime:
- Both characters have some form of ability to commune with animals. Siegfried receives the power to understand bird song as speech. Jon is a warg, which allows him to enter the minds and bodies of animals psychically.
- In this stage of the story, Ygritte functions as Jon’s Brünnhilde. They meet on a mountain, after Jon and the members of the Night’s Watch kill her companions and nearly kill her. By “stealing” her, she becomes his woman according to Wildling custom. This loosely parallels Siegfried finding Brünnhilde on the mountain.
- Both Jon and Siegfried have a certain naïveté with their respective loves at first. Siegfried has never seen a woman until that moment, and Jon’s head is full of mixed up ideas of honor and desire.
- Both Jon and Siegfried are reminded that they don’t understand something. Mime repeatedly tells Siegfried that he doesn’t know what fear is. Ygritte says “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” 5 repeatedly.
- Jon betrays Ygritte, much as Siegfried betrays Brünnhilde (Jon for duty, and Siegfried under the influence of a spell). In both cases, the scorned women wish to kill their former lovers.
- Jon is murdered by his Night’s Watch brothers in a surprise attack, much as Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen, whom Siegfried assumed was his ally.
- Jon in the show falls in love with his aunt without knowing she’s his aunt. Siegfried and Brünnhilde fall in love. Brünnhilde is Siegmund’s half sister (both being children of Wotan), thus making Siegfried her nephew.
Some Dany and Brünnhilde Similarities
Admittedly, there are fewer here than for Jon, but still:
- Both Dany and Brünnhilde are associated with packs of horse-riders. Brünnhilde with the Valkyries, and Dany with the Dothraki.
- Valkyries’ horses are also flying horses, which correspond to Dany’s dragons.
- Both are associated with fire. After Brünnhilde betrays Wotan, he sentences her to sleep on a mountain surrounded by a ring of fire.
- As Brünnhilde enters the funeral pyre of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, so does Dany in A Game of Thrones (though for Khal Drogo and not Jon). Brünnhilde’s act provokes the destruction of Valhalla, while Dany’s leads to the birth of her dragons and the red comet, signifying the return of magic to the world.
Speculation on the Future?
Ok, so let’s say I’m right, and there is some association between the stories. What does that say about the future of the story-line? Here’s some speculation:
- There are forces working behind the scenes that are divine or at least supernatural. Whether they be gods or something else is unknown. But the Old Gods and R’hollor, like Wotan and Loge, have their own motivations, and our heroes may not grasp the bigger picture. They might not ever grasp the bigger picture. Nevertheless, because our heroes are actually heroic, they may unconsciously undermine the selfish goals of the gods.
- If Jon and Dany do end up together, he may betray her.
- We might end the stories with both of them dead.
- A truly evil character, like Götterdämmerung’s Hagen, may enter Jon and Dany’s proximity. I don’t know if we’ve met this character yet in the show or books. He may kill Jon for good.
- Since Siegfried is a dragon slayer, Jon may also become a dragon slayer. I have no idea what form this might take. This might be literal or figurative. Since Viserion has died and been resurrected as an undead dragon in the show, Jon may have some literal dragon slaying to do. Does Stannis, who might represent Fafner, become some kind of dragon or something, and does Jon kill him? Unlikely…
- R’hllor may have destroyed Valyria, just as Loge destroys Valhalla.
Most of that will probably not happen, but I’ll look forward to finding out sometime in the next, oh, 20 years or so as we wait for The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.