How William Faulkner Influenced George R.R. Martin

(Please Note: Spoilers from A Song of Ice and Fire series are found within this essay.)

Remember those boring classics you had to read in your English classes in high school and in college? Well, have you ever considered that some of what you had to read might be hidden within the pages of what you choose to read? Then there is what you had to learn in your history class—both of your country and of other ones—do you recall anything beyond Abraham Lincoln and/or Archduke Ferdinand? Even the smallest details and events can grow into something more intense or…more entertaining.

Some influences of this series are more obvious than others. The A Song of Ice and Fire series is based on some of the following: Greek and Roman mythologies, the history of the United Kingdom, and some American literature, most notably the works of William Faulkner. Much of fantasy literature also is influenced by classical literature, other mythologies, languages, and superstitions. In addition, the belief system is based on the time period of the fictional world. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros and Essos reflects the social behaviors of the Medieval Period.

With regards to the myths, it is safe to say that some of the female characters are based on the stories we have heard over and over again. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are the most notable texts which we see where the characters Cersei Lannister and Lyanna Stark are based on. It is safe to assume that Lyanna Stark is based on Helen of Troy, the woman whose “face launched a thousand ships.” Helen of Sparta was married to King Menelaus when Prince Paris of Troy “abducted” her, causing the Trojan War. The war lasted seven years, many from both sides died including Paris and Achilles, Troy was burnt to the ground, and Helen returned to her husband. From what fans know—based on the books and the T.V. show—Lyanna Stark was “stolen” from her family and her betrothed, Robert Baratheon, by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. As we all know, the Starks and the Baratheons went to war against the Targaryens in order to return Lyanna to her family. She would never return there alive. Lyanna, like Helen of Troy, must have been very beautiful if she was able to catch the eye of a prince and start a civil war because of it.

Cersei sounds a lot like the name ‘Circe,’ the powerful sorceress mentioned in The Odyssey, and whom turned Odysseus’ companions into swine. Circe was also known to attract men with her charm and her beauty. Cersei Lannister, as we all know, has used her beauty and her (limited) charm to get whatever she wanted. She even seduced her twin brother, Jamie, into doing what she told him to do. The most infamous was telling Jamie to join the Kingsguard so they could be together in King’s Landing (and we all know what happens next). It should be mentioned that both Circe and Cersei are eventually seen for what they really are; however, Cersei Lannister’s exposure was more extreme than Circe’s.

We have seen numerous religions and common superstitions within Martin’s novels and we have seen how devote many of the characters are to them as well as other beliefs and practices of other cultures. Many of the religious beliefs and the superstitions found within this series mirrors what was taking place in England between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. Some of the behaviors surrounding the treatment of guests go back to the practices of Ancient Greece (i.e. no harm can come to your guest while they are under you hospitality) and were still practiced as well. We know that Christianity—particularly Catholicism—was the main religion of Europe. And yet, Judaism, Islam, and Paganism still existed and was practiced by other denizens in the same continent. Many of the superstitions we believe in today emerged during the Middle Ages: walking under a ladder was bad luck, a black (or in England a white) cat crossing your path was bad luck, etc. Also, many believed that the skies told what was to come. Even Queen Elizabeth I had diviners and astrologers visit her in court on a weekly basis. She was often curious as to what her future would be, and it is unclear to most of us if she liked what was foretold.

George R.R. Martin used history as a premise for A Song of Ice and Fire. His chosen event was England’s War of the Roses. For those of you who do not recall this war, noble families fought over control of the English Throne. Between 1455 and 1487, the nobility chose their allegiance between either House of York (The White Rose) or House of Lancaster (The Red Rose). Both Houses were able to trace their ancestry back to notable kings and these cousins believed they had a better claim to the throne over everyone else. This war started when Henry of Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II in 1399, thus establishing House Lancaster. In 1422, after the death of Henry V, Richard, Duke of York, challenged the right to the crown against Henry VI. Thus, House York was established. Throughout the war, several royal cousins were killed or assassinated. The war was resolved when Henry Tudor of House Lancaster defeated Richard III and then married Elizabeth of York. House Tudor was established through the reunion of both houses. I will not go into the details any further than that. If anyone else is curious about the War of the Roses and how some of those events found their way into Westeros, then either read Philippa Gregory’s novels (great historical fiction) or watch the Monarchy documentaries that aired on PBS.

Those are the familiar influences of A Song of Ice and Fire. There is also a more modern influence on the series and it is from the United States. William Faulkner was an early 20th century writer who wrote most of his novels about the Southern United States. He was grouped with other American Southern literary writers, and is placed in the subgenre of the Southern Renaissance. This subgenre focused on both the “Lost Cause” of the Confederate States of America and the imaginary “pleasant culture” that existed in the Southern states before the American Civil War (think about Scarlett O’Hara’s experiences in Gone with the Wind). The plots were also centered around the burden of where many people remembered life before a devastating war, a family name and where an individual came from were more highly valued than one’s personal and social life, and the South’s troubled history in regards to racial issues. Now, the third one is not seen much within Martin’s novels, but physical appearances do make a difference when it comes to certain characters (i.e. Tyrion Lannister).

William Faulkner was one of the writers who used the technique of “stream of consciousness” in his writing. This style allows the “depiction of the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind,” also known as “interior monologue.” You see this more in his novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929); however, in his novel As I Lay Dying (1930), he identifies which characters are providing their ‘interior monologue’ by simply putting the name of the character at the beginning of each chapter. For that chapter’s duration that character becomes the protagonist. We still see this style done in contemporary fiction and children’s literature (i.e. Jodi Picoult, Rick Riordan). It is an interesting way to gain the point of view of each character at the same time when one event is taking place.

Now, that was the obvious influence William Faulkner has had on George R.R. Martin. I will get into one of my theories surrounding one of the noble families in A Song of Ice and Fire and how that is related to one of Faulkner’s most notable novels. Thus, this will show both the correlation and my predictions for this family. Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), is an allusion to a wayward son who goes against his father’s wishes of upholding the family empire which the latter worked hard to build. The father wanted a son who would become part of society’s elite and make the family stronger. However, the son decides to forge his own destiny and while he commits some heinous acts, it turns out it was done for the better of both society and his family. Yes, I will be talking about the Lannisters.

          Absalom, Absalom! follows the history and the legacy of the Sutpen Family. The patriarch of the family is Thomas Sutpen who moves to Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi in the 1830s and builds a plantation on 100 square acres of land, which he names ‘Sutpen’s Hundred.’ He is attempting to create his own personal dynasty by becoming a member of elite society in the Southern States. Thomas Sutpen knows that besides owning a plantation and a number of slaves, he would need sons to continue the legacy he is building up. Plus, he wants his future sons and their sons to take the responsibility seriously because he does not want his family to become a laughing stock the way it was when he was growing up in West Virginia with his own father and other family members. In addition, since he is doing this in the South before the American Civil War, his “design” cannot include anyone who can physically tarnish the family legacy. In other words, no Negro blood. In A Song of Ice and Fire series, Tywin Lannister has spent his entire life as the Lord of the Westerlands rebuilding his family’s reputation as being a strong and a fearsome House. His father, Tytos, was a weak lord who allowed both his bannermen and his servants to take advantage of him constantly. By the time Tywin became the (High) Lord of Casterly Rock, he had to spend the first few years of his rule ‘fixing’ the mistakes his father had made. As he was re-establishing his family’s reputation, Tywin was working on his family’s legacy. His beautiful wife, Joanna, gave birth to beautiful twins—Cersei and Jamie—whom he already made plans for their future. Cersei would become the next Queen of Westeros and Jamie would follow in his footsteps as the Lord of Casterly Rock.

According to the novel, Thomas Sutpen originally went to Haiti to start his family empire (http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/gen-sutpen.html). He marries Eulalia Bon and they have a son they name Charles. However, Thomas Sutpen discovered that his wife was part black and he abandons his family and returns to the United States where he starts over again. He did this because he knew that he would never be part of a society that still had slavery and looked down at those who did not have a ” ‘pure’ white bloodline.” Thus, after he establishes himself in Mississippi, he marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a prominent plantation owner in the county. They have two children, Henry and Judith, who now stand to carry on the Sutpen family legacy. Plus, Thomas Sutpen has a fourth child, Clytemnestra (named after the ‘lesser’ sister of Helen of Troy), with one of his Negro slaves (this was very common in American Slavery) and her role is to keep an eye out on her siblings for the better of the family. As of right now, everything seems to be going well…until Henry goes to college and befriends a classmate by the name of Charles Bon. Charles meets Judith and the two of them get engaged. This is when Thomas Sutpen realizes that Charles Bon is the son he abandoned several years ago, and he tells Henry that the marriage cannot happen because Charles is really his and Judith’s older half-brother. Henry reacts angrily believing that Charles knew about his parentage the entire time and he renounces his birthright. He goes to New Orleans and then enlists with the Confederate Army when the Civil War begins. When the war ends and Charles returns to Sutpen’s Hundred to marry Judith, Henry kills him at the gates to the plantation. Therefore, Henry ends up protecting his family by killing his own brother.

Tywin Lannister becomes the Hand of the King during the reign of Mad King Aerys. While he was respected by the other lords and the peasants throughout the kingdom, the two men began to have tension between them. Aerys II was in love with Tywin’s wife, Joanna, and everyone at court knew about it. And, Tywin was still hoping for an engagement between his daughter and Prince Rhaegar. During all of this, Cersei and Jamie were already experimenting sexually with each other, and Joanna was about to give birth to her third child. After the birth of son Tyrion, and the death of Joanna, Tywin was grief stricken and debating with himself whether or not Tyrion was actually his son because Tyrion is a deformed dwarf (which is another theory for another time). Tywin believes that since both he and his late wife were good looking and their two elder children are good looking, then Tyrion should have been as pretty as his other family members, which leads him to ask who else could have fathered Tyrion. Meanwhile, Tywin goes on with his plan to offer a betrothal between Cersei and Prince Rhaegar, which King Aerys refuses harshly. At the same time, the Lannister twins schemed a way to stay together so they can continue their incestuous relationship. Cersei convinces Jamie to join the Kingsguard, which meant that he would renounce his position as the heir of Casterly Rock. Jamie does so, Tywin finds himself twice spurned by the King and returns to his Seat with his daughter, thus leaving Jamie behind.

Now, both patriarchs reacted to their sons leaving them and their inheritance very differently. Thomas Sutpen, who has lost one son to death and the other one to exile, becomes a broken man and starts drinking. He is so desperate for a male heir, that he seduces and impregnates Milly Jones, the fifteen-year old granddaughter of another prominent plantation owner. Even though Charles fathered a son, Charles Etienne de Saint Velery, with his octoroon mistress, Thomas’ grandson was not ideal for his ‘family design.’ Milly gives birth to a daughter, and before mother and child die from complications from the birth, Thomas Sutpen rejects the child because of the gender. Upon hearing this, Milly’s grandfather, Wash Jones, kills Thomas for what he did to his family. Tywin Lannister leaves the capital after being spurned twice by the King. Afterwards, he finds out that his other son married a common girl, Tysha, and forced Tyrion to ‘divorce’ her because he feared that the marriage might make the family a laughing stock within the kingdom again. This happened, after Tywin’s entire guard raped her in front of Tyrion. When Robert’s Rebellion started, Tywin kept himself neutral until the end so that he could put himself with the winning side. After Robert Baratheon kills Prince Rhaegar, and Jamie kills King Aerys, Tywin sends his army into the castle where he has “The Mountain” murder the remaining members of the Targaryen family: Elia Martell—Rhaegar’s wife—and their young children, Rhaenys and Aegon. Playing his role in disposing the royal family, Tywin has the newly crowned King Robert marry Cersei, thus making her a queen and his family legacy a part of the royal bloodline. However, it never occurred to him that his twin children had and continued their incestuous relationship. Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen are the children of Cersei and Jamie, and there is neither Baratheon nor Targaryen blood in them. When Joffrey is killed and Tyrion is accused of his murder, Tywin has no problem in convicting him in order to rid himself of his ‘son.’ As we know, Tyrion loses the ‘trial by combat’ and is later freed by Jamie. And then, Tyrion goes on to murder Tywin for his cruelty to him and to his first wife, and after learning that Tywin has been sleeping with Shae, his prostitute. These powerful men are killed due to their own actions and both indirectly and directly by their sons. Thomas Sutpen and Tywin Lannister put their legacy before their children and it cost them heavily.

That was one part of the ‘family legacy,’ but what about the children and the remaining family members? In Absalom, Absalom!, forty years has gone by and the Sutpen Hundred plantation has fallen into ruin. Both Charles Etienne and Judith Sutpen died twenty years before and Clytemnestra has been taking care of both Jim Bond—the son of Charles Etienne and a free black woman, and the great grandson of Thomas Sutpen—and the plantation. When the sister of Ellen Coldfield goes to the plantation with the grandson of a family friend, they find Henry Sutpen—long believed to have left the region after murdering his brother—hiding inside the house all this time. On the day they return with an ambulance for Henry, Clytemnestra sets the entire manor on fire, killing both herself and Henry. Jim Bond, the last of the Sutpen family survives, but he is disabled both physically (skin color) and mentally. Thus, this is the end of the Sutpen Family Legacy as we know it.

Based on what has been foreshadowed within the series, we know that Cersei will die at the hands of a ‘younger brother’ and that all three of her children will die before she does. Also, with the brothers Tywin and Kevan dead, and Tyrion in exile, this means that Cersei is in charge of both her House and the Kingdom. To those of us who have come to know Cersei’s character know that this is not a good thing (a lot like Clytemnestra). Jamie, has finally decided to distance himself from his sister, but it is unknown what will happen to him now that he decided to stay with the Kingsguard. All of Tywin’s work to rebuild his House and to leave a strong family legacy has been destroyed by his own children. Just like with Thomas Sutpen, Tywin’s ‘design’ did not work out the way he wanted to, and tried to work with what was given to him. Instead, both patriarchs are not remembered for their kindness and the last of their family line are male heirs who are neither accepted by their family nor the rest of society. However, does this mean that the Lannister line will end with Tyrion? Yes, I am aware that there are other Lannisters, but as Tywin’s sister Genna said, “Tyrion is Tywin’s son.” Is Tyrion really Tywin’s son, or is it as Tywin always feared and could be the son of the Mad King? If this is the case, then like Thomas Sutpen, Tywin Lannister’s family legacy is about to come to an end.

This is my argument to how George R.R. Martin looked to William Faulkner to map out one family within his fantasy series. Literary influences on contemporary literature is not only limited—and it should not be limited—to classical works we had to read in school and in college. If we pay enough attention to what we have to read, then we can easily see what goes into what we like to read. All that is left now is to wait and to see whether or not the Lannisters will end up like the Sutpens. And, what will happen to Tyrion.

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