This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.
The National Library of Wales is home to some of the key surviving manuscripts that contain some of the most influential texts in Welsh mythology.
These include the White Book of Rhydderch, within which we find the earliest version of the Mabinogi – the best-known tales in Welsh mythology.
Authors turning to Welsh history and mythology for their inspiration is nothing new. Just as Welsh coal powered the industrial revolution, our mythology has been mined by authors and has powered the boiler-rooms of some of the most popular fantasy series in the world.
The most high-profile of these is the Lord of the Rings, in which Wales has influenced everything from the Elven language, romantic unions between warriors and Otherworldly fair maidens, swords of destiny, and frequent journeys underground into Annwn-like subterranean regions.
The Harry Potter series, too, is full of parallels with Welsh mythology. I was particularly struck by the scene where the evil Lord Voldemort is resurrected from a cauldron in a plotline not too dissimilar to that of the Pair Dadeni, the Renaissance Cauldron, in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The influence of Welsh mythology has stretched beyond the western world too – the Korean massive multiplayer game Mabinogi, which is based on the legends of the same name, has around 500,000 players.
The most high profile and lucrative fantasy series at the moment is, of course, Game of Thrones. The eight and final TV series has just concluded with more than 38 million watching the first episode. Two more books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, are still forthcoming and a number of spin-off films and series are no doubt in the offing.
There are a number of parallels between the Game of Thrones series and Welsh mythology and history, but here are a few that struck me while watching and reading.
Perhaps one of the most striking theme in the series is that of being under siege from an invading ‘other’ – in the case of Game of Thrones, the white walkers from ‘beyond the Wall’.
The closest analogue to this tale might be the walls built by the Romans to separate them from the Picts. But it also has parallels with how the coming of the Anglo-Saxon to Britain, which was portrayed as a punishment by God in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
Most notably, the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale had left themselves open to attack by acting immorally and quarrelling amongst themselves.
This is mirrored in how the different Houses in George RR Martin’s series weaken themselves during the War of the Five Kings, raping and pillaging as they go, not realising that a greater threat is on the doorstep of Westeros.
There are also parallels to British history in the way the ‘First Men’ who speak the ‘Old Tongue’ and worship Old Gods populate the peripheral parts of Westeros.
Meanwhile, the Andals from Essos, who have brought their ‘Common Tongue’ with them, have taken over much of the more fruitful, sunny and prosperous parts of the landmass.
‘My Kingdom for a dragon!’
George RR Martin has also confirmed that there are strong parallels between the plot of Games of Thrones and the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, in which Wales played a large part.
As with Game of Thrones’ Joffrey Baratheon, the Wars of the Roses included younger heirs to the throne – the Princes in the Tower – who were probably murdered so that another – Richard III – could seize the throne.
The role of Pembroke-born Henry VII, banished across the sea but out to seize the throne for himself, is taken up by Daenerys Targaryen.
As well as being of Welsh descent Henry VII landed in Wales and recruited military reinforcements there before marching to victory at Bosworth Field.
How are yew?
Trees such as the oak and yew were sacred to the Celts, as they are to the First Men who still worship the Old Gods in Game of Thrones.
It’s no coincidence either than the Weirwoods in the Godswood in Game of Thrones are white with red leaves. These are the colour of the supernatural in Welsh mythology.
When Pwyll comes across a pack of hounds at the very beginning of the Mabinogi – the Dogs of Annwn – they’re white with red ears.
The animal and tree-worshipping Children of the Forest mentioned often in Game of Thrones also have clear parallels with the Tylwyth Teg of Welsh mythology.
Incestuous sexual relationships, rape, and people turning into animals – Game of Thrones has all three in spades.
George RR Martin has however had a hard time topping the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.
After Gilfaethwy rapes his uncle’s servant, the powerful sorcerer turns him and his brother Gwydion into a pair of mating animals, first a stag and hind deer, then a sow and board, and finally a wolf and she wolf.
The two brothers mate as all three animals and have three sons, Hyddwn, Hychddwn and Bleiddwn (Stag-man, Tall-piglet, and Wolf-man).
In Game of Thrones, Joffrey is born of an incestuous relationship between his mother and uncle. Several characters can also take over the bodies of nearby animals.
There are continuous references throughout the Game of Thrones books and TV series to a war that happened in the past that installed Robert Baratheon as king.
The spark that set the war off was Rhaegar Targaryen’s (Daenarys’ brother) kidnapping of Edward Stark’s sister and Robert’s significant other, Lyanna.
Robert and Ned go after her, and this causes a civil war than brings down the Targaryen’s.
Some have pointed to Helen of Troy as the obvious inspiration – the face that launched a thousand ships.
But there’s a very strong similarity to the story of Branwen ferch Llŷr in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
Her mistreatment by the Irish King Matholwch sets off a war with Britain. Her brothers, King of the Britons Bendigeidfran and Efinisen, set off to save her.
As with Game of Thrones, there’s a very high body count. All the main characters are dead by the end of this war between Britain and Ireland, including Matholwch, Bendigeidfran, Efnisien, and Branwen.
What’s in a name?
A number of the characters in Game of Thrones have Welsh names which give some clue to their character or fate.
One of the most obvious is ‘Tyrion’ – whose name isn’t far from the Welsh word ‘Tirion’ meaning ‘considerate’.
The dwarf, although he can be cruel, is also one of the more sympathetic characters in the series owing to his own mistreatment.
However, the character of Bran Stark is the most obvious example of George RR Martin drawing inspiration from Welsh legend.
There are obvious parallels with the mythological figure of Bran, or Bendigeidfran as he’s known in the Mabinogi.
Bran in Game of Thrones develops psychic powers after being thrown out of the upper window of a castle and losing the use of is legs.
Bendigeidfran’s weak spot is also his legs and his own powers only grow stronger after he’s ‘killed’ with a spear to the foot.
Like Bran is carried around Westeros by Hodor, the Bran of Welsh mythology is carried around Britain before being buried on the White Hill (now the site of the Tower of London).
Game of Thrones is probably best known for the sheer amounts of gore and that too owes something of a debt to Welsh mythology.
Ramsey Bolton (played by Welshman Iwan Rheon) has a penchant for dismemberment that is very similar to Bendigeidfran’s villainous half-brother Efnisien.
The psychotic Efnisien likes nothing more than cutting ears and lips, crushing people’s heads with his bare hands, and burning small children alive.
Welsh history has also seen its share of violence. Some have pointed out the parallels between the Red Wedding, in which the Starks and the Tullys are butchered during a wedding hosted by Lord Walder Frey, and the Christmas Day massacre at Abergavenny Castle in 1175.
Them, the Norman Baron named William de Braose invited the Welsh chieftain named Seisyll ap Dyfnwal to a feast at his castle, before locking the doors and massacring him and his men.
It’s notable of course that while many people in Wales are familiar with these tales second hand from Tolkien, Martin and Rowling, but don’t realise their origins are Welsh.
There’s a lot of work to be done in Wales to get to know our own history and mythology. That’s why I wrote my third novel, Dadeni, in order to introduce many people in Wales to our own mythology.
If you haven’t done so already, visit the National Library or pick up a book about Wales’ history and mythology.
Who knows, it may inspire you to write the next Game of Thrones!
Ifan Morgan Jones