While Game of Thrones is known and loved for its elaborate political machinations and warring families, hiding beyond the realms of men lays a terrifying world of dark sorcery and inevitable prophecy. George R.R. Martin has crafted one of the greatest dark fantasy series in the history of the genre, even if many people don’t consider it as such. That’s a testament to his relatively sparse use of the supernatural. Even with dragons and an undead army in play, the world still seems very grounded in reality most of the time. That slowly changed, though.
“With each book that I write, the level of magic rises a little,” Martin told the New York Times in 2011. “It’s a gradual introduction. I suppose it’s like the crab in the pot. You put a crab in hot water, he’ll jump right out. But you put him in cold water and you gradually heat it up — the hot water is fantasy and magic, and the crab is the audience.”
But don’t expect armies of wizards hurling fireballs to turn up any time soon. Martin’s take is definitely dark fantasy rather than Lord of the Rings high fantasy or Harry Potter contemporary fantasy. And one of his biggest influences for that darkness is H.P. Lovecraft, the pioneering horror writer who created the Cthulu Mythos, a shared fictional universe full of death cults, demon gods, and cosmic evils too vast for the human mind to even comprehend. Lovecraft’s many short stories and novellas set in this growing world of darkest horror was a stunning new take on the genre, especially considering that The Call of Cthulu came out in 1928.
Martin is no casual fan of Lovecraft. He regularly cites the writer as one of his earliest reading obsessions. He’s visited Lovecraft’s grave in Rhode Island, and even wrote some elaborate fan fiction back in 2011 pitting Jaime Lannister against Cthulu in a deathmatch. When George sat down to speak with Stephen King, their conversation kept leading back to Lovecraft’s influence on both of their writing.
So it should be no surprise that there’s all manner of Lovecraftian influence noticable in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, from simple name drops to parallel mythologies. Leng, Ib, K’Dath, and Sarnath are all locations in both Martin and Lovecraft’s worlds. The Black Goat is a cult god from Qorth whose name references Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young featured in multiple Cthulu Mythos stories. And Dagon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands is named after Dagon, one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. The further you examine the dark supernatural underbelly of the Iron Islands, the more you’ll find H.P. Lovecraft influencing Martin’s dark fantasy.
The Drowned God, Mythos: No mythology in Westeros carries as many nods to Lovecraft as the Drowned God of the Iron Islands. A clear reference to Lovecraft’s most famous Great Old One Cthulu, both gods live at the bottom of the ocean and wage elemental war against a competing air deity — Cthulu against Hastur and The Drowned God against The Storm God (although it’s worth noting this take on Cthulu Mythos was added by Lovecraft publisher August Derleth). Even the most common refrain from the religion of the Drowned God, “What is dead may never die but rises again harder and stronger,” is a play on a passage from Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu where the Necronomicon reads, “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange eons even death may die.”
Various tales of mermaids, merlings, and selkies are told on Iron Islands and beyond, and these stories may carry a dark truth that mirrors a tale told in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth. In that novella, Lovecraft slowly reveals a town under the control of a race of humanoid sea creatures known as the Deep Ones. They mate with the women of the town, and while their spawn maintains a human appearance through youth they slowly begin to develop rubbery complexions and bulging, unblinking eyes. Eventually they complete their transformation into Deep Ones and disappear into the sea, never to be seen again … until it is time to mate.
Across all the lands of Game of Thrones, there are legends of similar creatures with the same name: The Deep Ones. Described in The World of Ice and Fire as a “misshapen race of half men sired by creatures of the salt seas upon human women,” legends point to the Deep Ones as responsible for a series of oily black stones sculptures found on far reaching coasts. One such stone is the Seastone Chair of the Iron Islands, which led Ironborn maester Theron to suggest the Deep Ones are the spawn of some greater entity that may have provided the basis for the Drowned God religion.
But to what purpose? Perhaps it was so the Iron Islanders would wage war against the Storm King’s followers for them — the Children of the Forest. History shows they did, with the Grey King of the Iron Isles being famous for battling the Children and building “a longship from the hard pale wood of Ygg, a demon tree who fed on human flesh,” which is undoubtedly a weirwood tree. Tales of the initial war between the Children and the First Men tell of people being fed to weirwood trees to harness dark magical powers, and some speculate that Jojen Reed suffers this fate in George R.R. Martin’s books, with his remains ground into a paste and fed to Bran Stark as he transforms into the Three-Eyed Raven.
One last interesting connection regarding the Reeds. Their house words seem to spell out the major battles being waged in Westeros across history. “I swear it by earth and water. I swear it by bronze and iron. I swear it by ice and fire.” George R.R. Martin is in the middle of telling us A Song of Ice and Fire now. Bronze and Iron represents the First Men with their bronze weapons against the Andals with iron. Earth and water … the Children against the Drowned God?
The Doom: The Doom of Valyria nearly mirrors the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Doom That Came To Sarnath.” As if to confirm the nod, Martin also makes the original Valyrians shepherds just like the Sarnathians. But here the story begins to split as the Valyrians tap into ancient magics found in the ruins of their new home. One septon claimed, “They practiced blood magic and other dark arts as well, delving deep into the earth for secrets best left buried and twisting the flesh of beasts and men to fashion monstrous and unnatural chimeras.” Bloodmages harnessed the power of the Fourteen Flames, a chain of volcanoes surrounding Valyria. Deep underground they discovered wyverns, and one “chimera” that may have come out of their experiments are the dragons they controlled and conquered the world with.
But as we’ll discuss later, advanced civilizations wielding dark magic tend to self destruct sooner or later, and the Doom saw the Fourteen Flames erupt and wipe out the entire Valyrian freehold, obliterating most life and leaving nothing but a smoldering heap of rubble infested with dark horrors that rarely allow visitors to escape. It sounds better to die there. In Martin’s latest book, Fire And Blood, he tells the tale of fourteen year old Princess Aerea, who attempted to ride Aegon the Conqueror’s massive dragon Balerion the Black Dread. Balerion flew her back to Valyria and when they returned a year later Aerea was burning to the touch with smoke emitting from every orifice on her body. In the following days her skin darkened and cracked as if being cooked above a spit and her eyes melted from their sockets. When they put her in cold water, dozens of wormlike creatures burst from her skin, finally releasing her from her agony. So we’d say the horrors of the Doom are well feared for a reason.
Blood Magic: George R.R. Martin’s books certainly do more than just borrow names and themes cooked up by H.P. Lovecraft and other Cthulu Mythos authors. But it keeps the same feel as the supernatural elements of Lovecraft: magic tends to be unpredictable and soaked in blood. Magic involves meddling with ancient forces beyond any comprehension.
“I don’t want to go down the route of having magic schools and classes where, if you say these six words, something will reliably happen,” Martin told Russian outlet Meduza back in 2017. “Magic doesn’t work that way. Magic is playing with forces you don’t completely understand. And perhaps with beings or deities you don’t completely understand.”
It’s still unclear where magic comes from in the world of Game of Thrones, but some of the mechanisms are well known by those who wield it. Most powers are channeled through elements — fire, ice, air, earth, water. And if there is some pantheon of elemental deities behind this, they thirst for blood. The bigger the sacrifice, the better. HBO’s Game of Thrones series kept things relegated largely to the power of royal blood, but the books point to the wider power of elemental sacrifice practiced across the lands.
The Ironborn drown themselves and their enemies, the Arryns of the Vale throw people out the Moon Door and leave prisoners in Sky Cells exposed to the elements. The savage Burned Men clan sacrifice their own body parts to fire. Whether they understood what they were doing fully or not, power was manifested. Craster sacrificed his children to the cold, and the Others left him alone. The Valyrians, channeling ancient knowledge, fed entire conquered populations into the volcanoes that powered Old Valyria and became a near godlike race of dragonlords.
There are numerous tales hidden throughout George R.R. Martin’s history that show blood sacrifice powering magic on a terrible scale. When the First Men arrived in Westeros and began wiping out the Children of the Forest, the Children amassed on the Isle of Faces and cast a spell called the Hammer of the Waters, sacrificing an unknown number of lives to shatter the landbridge between Essos and Westeros and flood it, leaving behind nothing but a ruin of scattered and desolate islands known as the Stepstones. And during the last desperate moments of the Valyrian conquest of Rhoyne, the Rhoynish Prince Garin led an army of 250,000 to certain death against a 300 dragon force. They were utterly destroyed, but with their sacrifice Garin called down a curse that once similarly flooded the land, infected the Valyrian army with greyscale, and turned the once great city of Chroyane into a fog filled ruin now known as the Sorrows. More evidence mass death can be channeled into mass destruction.
Ancient Horrors: Martin’s dark fantasy magic only become more mysterious and cataclysmic the further back into history you delve. Ancient civilizations litter the far reaches of Essos, and many of them are dead and abandoned with ominous architecture if not outright curses found within. Valyria is only the most recent, but there are many, many more. Asshai is a massive city now inhabited only by a small cabal of warlocks, spellsingers, aeromancers, and shadowbinders. Further north lies Stygai, called “the corpse city” and shunned even by shadowbinders. Off the southern coast of Essos is the lesser known continent of Sothoryos with the abandoned city of Yeen, made of black stone and utterly devoid of animal or plant life. When Nymeria took her 10,000 ships to escape the Valyrian destruction of Rhoyne, she left a colony in Yeen only to find it disappeared without a trace upon return.
Before the rise of Yi Ti in the far east (based roughly on China’s Qin Dynasty), the Great Empire of the Dawn was usurped by the Bloodstone Emperor, a necromancer who ate human flesh and cast down the gods to worship an oily black stone that fell from the sky. He is said to be the first High Priest of the Church of Starry Wisdom, a cult that still has followers as far west as Braavos. Their name is a direct nod to the Church of Starry Wisdom in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, and Lovecraft’s cult also worshiped a mysterious “shining trapezohedron” that could summon entities from the deepest depths of space.
The Bloodstone Emperor’s actions are said to be what caused the Long Night, with the Maiden-Made-of-Light turning her back on the world and the Lion of Night coming to punish humanity for their sins. It is here that the legend of Azor Ahai originates, with the hero driving back the darkness with a blade forged through the heart of his beloved Nissa Nissa. Again, following the thread that great magic demands great sacrifice.
Possibly connected to the Bloodstone Emperor are other oily black rocks found throughout Westeros and Essos, thought to have been created by the Deep Ones we mentioned earlier. The Seastone Chair of the Iron Islands is one, a toad statue on the Basilisk Isles is another. There’s the ruins of Yeen, and another massive black stone labyrinth serves as the foundation to Hightower Castle in Oldtown. But the last two structures don’t match the chair or toad in size or nature, leading some to speculate they may be the work of another ancient race of giants known as the Mazemakers, whose sprawling labyrinths burrow deep into their homeland south of Lorath.
This connection to the black stones only becomes more curious when you learn that the Mazemakers were said to be wiped out by the Deep Ones. Although they were hardly the only group targeted by these watery creatures. The Isle of Toads on Basilisk Isle (home to the black stone toad statue) is populated by a people with fishlike features and webbed hands. Off the northern coast of Essos are the Thousand Islands, where hairless green-tinged people worship fish-headed gods whose idols only appear by the shore during low tide. Again the influence of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones from The Shadow over Innsmouth is clear, but made even darker by the remote isolation and barbarism of the people being changed by mysterious powers.
Lovecraft’s Necronomicon text could even be the inspiration for the battle between light and dark that seems to be tied to the seasons — often referred to as the Long Night. In The Dunwich Horror, the ancient text states, “Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.”
That sure sounds a lot like the back and forth we’re witnessing in a Game of Thrones. Even if it’s not where Martin got the idea, Lovecraft’s version reminds us how compelling his writing remains, even 90 years after being published. As supernatural powers only grow stronger across Westeros and beyond, H.P. Lovecraft will undoubtedly continue to shape and influence the final volumes of George R.R. Martin’s dark fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.