In 1066 the Normans crossed the English Channel and at Hastings they changed the course of a nation. However, before William had even been born, that island had been subject to invasion, colonization, and eventual subjugation by Celts, Romans, and Norsemen. The result was a melting pot of cultures that persists to this day. Granted some parts dominate others, but the tapestry woven from the threads of each one color the English speaking world.
Westeros is in many ways similar. George R.R. Martin not only created the world of Westeros, but he created a backstory which builds the foundations of the struggles amongst its peoples. Once one understands how their civilization developed then they can understand how their conflicts developed.
The continent of Westeros was never unoccupied, at least according to narrative accounts. Before man even set foot on Westerosi soil, the continent was dominated by a race known as “The Children of the Forest”. It was the Children that planted the Weirwoods which would eventually become sacred to the worshipers of the Old Gods. They were much like the fae, or fairies, of Celtic myth and legend.
The First Men
Legend states that near 12,000 years before Aegon’s Landing, The Children came in contact with the First Men. They came to Westeros from Essos by crossing a landbridge called the Arm of Dorne. Unlike the peaceful Children, The First Men brought with them bronze weapons and the first horses. One of their first acts was burning the great Weirwoods probably in an act of dominance or possibly as tribute to their own gods.
The acts of savagery with the Weirwoods eventually led to a war amongst the Children and the First Men. Though legend states that the continent of Westeros was shattered and changed from the magics unleashed by the Children (including the breaking of the Arm of Dorne and the flooding of the Neck), the two eventually came to a truce at the Isle of Faces. Eventually, they became allies and began sharing the faith in Weirwoods.
This began the time of legends. After 4,000 years of peace, another race of beings known only as The Others invaded from the North. The First Men and The Children fought together and with the legendary hero Azor Ahai and his sword Lightbringer, The Others were driven back. Bran the Builder built The Wall to hold them back.
The First Men spoke a language now called the Old Tongue. Still spoken by some wildlings and giants, it has a harsh quality and is short and simple. It even had its own writing system made of runes.
Though much of their culture was lost after the Andal invasion, the North’s bloodlines derive from the First Men, and several customs remain in use there. This includes the laws of hospitality where hosts were expected to serve guests bread and salt upon arrival, and guests received protection once they had eaten. Disputes were often handled in the manner of “an eye for an eye”. If a punishment was to be execution, it is still common for the man delivering the sentence to be expected to wield the killing blade himself.
One can draw parallels between the First Men and the Celts which occupied the British Isles before the Roman occupation, including similar religious aspects, and weaponry.
The Andal Invasion
The Andals originated in the Hills of Andalos in Essos. Six thousand years before Aegon’s Landing, they sailed into Westeros, first landing in the Fingers and attacking the Vale. Rabid followers of a deity known as “The Seven”, The Andals were ruthless in their destruction of Weirwoods, and the slaughter of The Children of the Forest. They went to war with the First Men. The superior arms and armaments of the Andals allowed for a swift victory. Though the First Men were fierce fighters, their bronze weapons and Leather shields were no match for the Anadal’s Iron. After conquering the Southern half of the continent, the Andals were eventually repelled at Moat Cailin at the Neck. Thus the First men were free to develop their own nation in the north while the Andals had their own Kingdoms to rule and develop in the south. One of the most important consequences of the invasion is that The Children of the Forest decided to abandoned Westeros.
The Andals brought with them their own language, religion, and martial traditions. Their language became known as the Common Tongue, and was spoken even in the north supplanting The Old Tongue and runic system. It is even spoke by Wildlings north of The Wall. The Seven became the religion of the continent as well, though the Old Gods were still worshiped by the North. Interestingly enough, The Drowned God was adopted by the Andals who made it to the Iron Islands. The military traditions of knighthood bringing along all of its chivalry, oaths, and ceremonies became the military model of Westeros.
Five separate kingdoms were created in the Southern Continent. The Vale, The Riverlands, The Iron Islands, The Stormlands, and The Reach each had their own Kings and traditions. Absent from the traditional kingdoms was Dorne which was itself a combination of feuding states, and a mishmash of cultures.
The Andals in Westeros are an amalgamation of the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. The Romans drove the Celts north out of England, eventually confining them to what we now call Scotland (interestingly enough behind a wall.) When Rome pulled their troops in 410, the remaing Romans seeking help against the Celts asked for help from the Germanic tribes. The subsequent colonization of England by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc. helped develop the foundations of the England in much the same way as Westeros.
The Rhoynar Migration
The Andals were not the only people to migrate from Essos to Westeros. The Rhoynar were originally a collective of city-states along the river Rhoyne until 700 years before Aegon’s Landing. When the Valyrian Freehold threatened to overtake them, their Prince, Garin, led 250,000 Rhoynar in battle against them but was horrible massacred. Queen Nymeria of the Rhoynar united the city-states to flee across the narrow sea to Westeros. Eventually landing in Dorne, Nymeria married Mors Martell of Sunspear and helped him consolidate Dorne under his rulership. The Rhoynar have lived and intermingled with the Dornish since that time.
The Rhoynar were a slender people with smooth olive skin, black hair, and dark eyes in comparison to the Pale skinned Andals and First Men. The Rhoynar have different customs compared to Andal culture which make them an oddity in Westeros. They grant inheritances to the eldest child regardless of gender including title and rulership. The Rhoynar also call their leaders Prince and Princess as opposed to King or Queen. The Dornish also have different attitudes about sex and illegitimacy often having bastards maintain high positions.
Their military also developed separately, relying on smaller round metal shields, short throwing spears, or double-curved bows. Unlike the rest of Westeros , which relies on heavy cavalry, the Dornish rely on light cavalry and horse archers. They wear light armor made of metal disks, sometimes decorated with copper, sewn in the manner of scales on the leather due to the heat in Dorne. Because of their small population and rocky/sandy terrain, the Dornish avoid pitched battles. They favor hit and run tactics which favored them during Aegon’s Conquest.
The Valyrian Freehold was a great empire that once spanned much of the continent of Essos, but fell into ruin, due to an unknown cataclysm known only as “The Doom”. Though at one time a minor civilization, the Valyrians discovered dragons lairing in the Fourteen Fires, a ring of volcanoes on the Valyrian Peninsula. Once the Valyrians tamed the dragons with magic and mastered the technique of raising and training them, they began expanding their influence. However about 100 years before Aegon Targaryan invaded Westeros, a cataclysmic event took place shattering the capital city and destroying their civilization.
Aegon Targaryen and his two sister-wives Rhaenys and Visenya decided that, instead of unifying the remains of the Freehold, they would conquer Westeros. So landing with fewer than 1,600 men on the east coast at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush (King’s Landing), Aegon systematically conquered all the kingdoms (except Dorne) with brute force and of course Dragons.
Though not the greatest influence on Westerosi culture, the Targaryens did create a unified kingdom. With the kingdom under a unified government what was shared tradition became codified under the state. They helped define court life and establish judiciary law. Of course with being at the height of society, they established the lifestyle which other royal houses would follow. This includes fashion, music, dance, etc…
One could think of the Valyrians as the Normans invading England in 1066. Though they had great sway over the court, law, and other aspects of the upper class, the middle and lower classes were more akin to Andal/Anglo-Saxon culture.
Of course Westeros is not confined to the ethnicities described above. There are dark skinned Summer Islanders, Dothraki, Braavasi, and many others, but their contribution to what it is to be “Westerosi” is not as significant.
Previously on Game of Thrones
Read Joe’s other articles:
Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer II, Game of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, Religions of Westeros
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