Who are the Others, what's up with R'hllor, who is the real Prince Who Was Promised, is Dany ever going to get her act together and invade Westeros, etc. etc.
Somewhere on some forum, I managed to pick up the interesting tidbit that the entire world of the series of A Song of Ice and Fire is based on the shorter, finished series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams. Martin himself has admitted as much in interviews. The person on the forum claimed that most of the characters have one-to-one analogues, and it is pretty easy to get a feel for where the series is heading by reading the original.
[There are definitely ASOIAF spoilers below, and some minor background details about MST below; there are no story specific spoilers from MST, and I love it too much to tell you anything about what happens to its characters]
So desperate for information on Westeros, I went and found a copy of the first book in the MST four-book trilogy, entitled The Dragonbone Chair. The chair of the title is the throne of the entire kingdom of Osten-Ard, unified under rule by Prester John, that has been formed from the bones of the red dragon he slayed to earn his crown.
And as I read, the similarities just started popping up. The main character, Simon, is more or less all of the Stark children (except Sansa) together, that Martin apparently broke up in to separate storylines; Simon is an orphan haunted by prophetic dreams who is particularly skilled at climbing around the castle walls, goes about spying on people, until in a midnight attack he is forced to flee the city and goes on a wild journey of near-starvation through the countryside. The scenes of Simon climbing especially, Martin might very well have lifted straight out of MST and put in Bran's early chapters.
Within the first two hundred pages, you will encounter Ned Stark, Jaime (post-hand era honorable Jaime, not pre), Stannis Baratheon with Melisandre in tow, and a few more that I cant quite remember at the moment. The Hound is in this (though much less ambiguous), as well as Ser Barristan the Bold, and the Children are much more prevalent.
For all that, though, the first two hundred pages are probably why this story isn't more popular; they are entirely expositional, about things the reader has no reason to care about, and are so, so boring. Immediately in the second section of the first book, the story picks up and is a constant run from one danger to the next. Seriously, when I started it I put it down four or five times and almost gave up; but keep with it, because the story that follows is definitely worth it. MST is a fantastic story in its own right, and it's a little sad that it doesn't get the place of honor that it deserves.
Moreso than seeing Martin's characters before they were Martin's, was the revelation I got about the Others, the Children of the Forest, and the Red Priests. I haven't seen anyone else approach Martin's books from this angle before, but it seemed like a worthy endeavor to me. So here I will lay out some details from William's fantastic series that served as inspiration for Martin that I think shed insight on key mysteries of the series. Hopefully, without revealing anything about the incredible ending of MST (you really should read it).
In the world of Osten-Ard, originally there were only the Sithi, fey folk based on ancient Irish folklore, and very similar to Tolkien's elves. They arrived from the endless dessert in the East. The Sithi are immortal, and are somehow one with the land, whose destiny is to fade and diminish with the diminishing earth, and gradually sail West into oblivion. This much is like LotR. However, the Sithi are described as being bird-like in terms of movements and grace, yet have slitted green and yellow eyes like a cat's and feline, muzzled faces. The Sithi ruled for an age, building an empire across the continent in tune with nature. Their castles and cities are described as almost like Gaudi's architecture; natural, rounded curves that look more like giant trees or toadstools.
However, then the First Men crossed in to Osten Ard on a and bridge (seriously). The First Men were mostly bronze age shepherds following flocks. I don't remember if there was initial struggle with the Sithi or not, but eventually they settled in to a truce and became very close friends. The Sithi taught the Hernystiri (the name of the group) their own ways and beliefs with nature, and looked on these humans as children in need of their protection. They shared the land and visited one another's cities, and there was peace.
Later, however, the Rimmersmen crossed over on ships, and they brought with them iron that was deadly to the Sithi (seriously), as well as their own religion. Turmoil followed, as the RImmersmen carved out their own empire from north to south, slaying the Sithi as demons and burning all of their cities. The fair folk were driven back entirely into the old forest of Aldheorte, and today are little but legend.
See any similarities?
There is so much more about the characters and the lands that I could go in to; Williams did an incredible job taking the folklore and legends from a multitude of cultures and traditions and spinning it into an inventive world of fantasy, all of it familiar and new. What I really want to focus on, though, are the Sithi and how they relate to Martin's Others.
When the Andal invaders -- err, Rimmersmen are attacking the Sithi lands, the prince of the Sithi, known as Ineluki, begins to go mad with hatred. He longs for nothing but vengeance on the mortal creatures who have destroyed all that he loves, and he turns to dark magic and sorceries. His hate culminates when, just as the Rimmersmen are destroying his capital city, Ineluki unleashes a horrible spell that incinerates everything: the Rimmersmen, the Sithi, the city, everything. All is destroyed.
Ineluki, however, lives on, kept alive by his hate. His closest allies, I think called either the Red Hand or the Hand of Fire or the Firey Hand, continue on in the afterlife with him as his closest companions, and they continue to wait and plot their revenge.
The Sithi have a sister race, the Norns, that split from them long ago in a dispute over how to deal with the Men who had arrived on their land. While the Sithi were content to share the land with Men, the Norns wanted to eradicate them. After the split, the Norns moved to the farthest North, in lands locked in ice and snow. The Norns have pale skin, blue eyes, beautiful, ethereal features, and are cold-blooded killers of men. In the northern parts, where the descendants of the Rimmersmen live, they are still seen walking through snow storms, and are called White Foxes.
If you consider how Martin describes the Others, I think it's pretty clear where their inspiration came from. Here's a quote by him:
"The Others are not dead. They are strange, beautiful… think, oh… the Sidhe made of ice, something like that… a different sort of life… inhuman, elegant, dangerous."The Sidhe are the fey folk of Irish folk legend that of course leant their name to the Sithi, who are related directly to the Norns.
The Norns of MST hate human beings and want to destroy them. Ineluki in MST also hates humans and wants to destroy them. The first are associated with cold and ice, while the latter is associated with burning fire. Ice, fire...
There are some slight spoilers for MST in the paragraphs that follows, stuff that isn't revealed until midway through the first book. It doesn't impact the story, just explains character allegiances.
Midway in to the first book, we learn that the restless spirit of Ineluki and the cruel Norns are in league to destroy mankind. They cover the land with a supernatural Winter and under its guise begin their attack on the kingdom of men. Also in league with them is Pryrates, known as the Red Priest, who is chief advisor to Elias, the reigning king since his father's death. Kept alive by hatred, Ineluki has become almost godlike, a dark shadow of fire that haunts people's dreams. Pryrates has turned to Ineluki seeking power, and is now a sort of accolade of his. Pryrates is also an absolute monster; while Melisandre at least believes in the goodness of R'hllor, Pryrates knows Ineluki is pure evil and malice, and follows him anyway in a quest for power. And he literally kicks a puppy.
The link between the Others and the Norns is pretty obvious. What is less clear is the link between R'hllor and Ineluki.
I said in a recent post that R'hllor is probably evil, but let me justify it some more. Melisandre, who follows R'hllor, is constantly begging Stannis to let her immolate a child as a sacrifice to R'hllor that will enable Stannis to take the crown. She also uses blood magic to put death curses on people. She gives birth to shadow monsters that murder for her. These are the sorts of things that R'hllor lets her do. Thoros, who also follows R'hllor, at first is using his powers for justice, freeing the smallfolk from the disgusting cruelty of Clegane. However, eventually R'hllor leaves Beric Dondarrion and revives instead Catelyn Stark, causing Lady Stoneheart to take over the BWB and lead them down a terrible path of vengeance that consumes them; Thoros himself is disgusted at what the BWB has become, compared to their previous idealism. The other followers of R'hllor in Volantis send out an enjoy to Daenerys named Moqorro, who is also terrible, leading Victarion in the ritual sacrifice of all kinds of slaves captured on their route to Slaver's Bay.
Seriously, besides the brief moment when he was leading the BWB in a noble cause, absolutely nothing good has come from R'hllor or any of the red priests in the entire series.
The links between Pryrates the Red Priest and Melisandre the Red Priestess are pretty undeniable. They both show up as advisors to the king, engage in dark magic, terrify everyone around them, defy and overthrow the established religion, are associated with fire, and dress only in loose red robes. Especially given the links between Elias and Stannis, both of whom turn to their respective advisors seeking to secure their reign, and gradually begin to sag in health and physical strength. I think Martin almost definitely based Melisandre and the rest of the red priest's religion on William's characterization of Pryrates.
So if Pryrates is a servant of the fire demon Ineluki, and Melisandre is the servant of the fire god R'hllor, then I think that has implications for the nature of R'hllor.
However, as I said above, Ineluki and the Norns are partnered together. The Norns almost worship Ineluki as a god. They both act together to attack the humans to the south, hand in hand. This doesn't quite make sense to me, as Melisandre certainly considers the Others north of the Wall to be the enemies of R'hllor; further, while Ineluki has no contempt with ice or coldness, R'hllor definitely does.
All the same, I think that much is said about some of the mysteries of ASOIAF.
The Children of the Forest are, in their own language, called "those who sing the song of earth", and often referred to in later chapters as Singers. Along with their feline eyes, this fits very well in with the descriptions of the Sithi. However, the Sithi are human height while the children are diminuitive, and so it is possible that Martin combined the three distinct species of Sithi, Dwarrow, and Troll from MST together to make the single species of the Singers.
Since the Singers are pretty clearly based on the Sithi, and since the Others are pretty clearly based on the Norns, this would imply a deeper connection between these two groups. Perhaps the Others and the Children were once one race, but split apart from one another. In the long years of their separation, the Children became diminutive and harmonized with nature, while the Others became tall and powerful and developed armor and swords. They no longer get along; the Children have developed wards to bar the entry of the Others in to their caves, as the Sithi have likewise done for the Norns.
You can still see some similarities. When we finally run in to the Children of the Forest, they live deep, deep underground in a dark labyrinth of caves. Their ostensible leader is "the Last Greenseer", aka Bloodraven, who is basically a 150-year-old corpse, almost rotting, only recognizable as being alive by his single burning red eye. Apart form this, he is almost entirely consumed by the roots of a weirtree, which tangle in and through his body. He lives in the darkness, and tells Bran to let the dark be to him a shield and like mother's milk. This stuff is pretty creepy, and it isn't entirely unreasonable for Melisrandre, seeing this ghastly visage in her fires, to assume that this is the face of the Great Other she opposes. If there is truly a connection between the Others and the red religion's evil lord of cold, death, and darkness, then the Children of the Forest don't seem too far off from that.
However, despite a similarity in creepiness, the Children are resolutely opposed to the Others. Remember, the chief weapons of the Children were made from dragonglass, obsidian, which is known to absolutely destroy the Others, melting them into puddles of ice. They had obviously fought the Others before.
This similarly and opposition matches fairly well the relationship between the Sithi and the Norns.
There are some doubts that I have, however.
Sure the Children are based on the Sithi, and sure the Others are based on the Norns, but does that mean that they translate 100%? The Children took on a lot of the Troll and Dwarrow characteristics as well, pointing to a clean break between their related concepts in either series. It might not be right to make the claim that, say, they share a common ancestry just because their analogues do in MST.
Also, are the Others evil? The Norns represent the principal enemies of MST, but do we actually know that the Others are evil? They apparently have a culture and a language, and even a sense of honor; despite surrounding Royce, they let him engage in one-on-one combat with one of their own, only all moving in to finish him off after his clear defeat. However, they raise human dead as wights to serve in their nefarious causes, which is pretty horrific; it's hard to think that anything practicing necromancy can ever be good. My main reason for doubting for even a moment that the Others are pure evil is largely because R'hllor allegedly hates them, and R'hllor ain't so sweet himself.
Further, are the Others actually aligned with R'hllor? Everything I've seen suggests just the opposite. The PWWP and Azor Ahai are expected to be Dany and Jon Snow (respectively) and are supposed to come and destroy the Others and save Westeros, but Azor Ahai is a messianic figure prophesied through R'hllor. The series and all fan speculation suggest that R'hllor and his servants are trying to put an end to the Others, not help them conquer and reclaim Westeros. This departs from MST a lot, where the Norns and Ineluki have joined forces to destroy the empires of Man.
Even the name of the series, Song of Ice and FIre, would suggest an enmity between the Others and R'hllor. So here, too, it may not be proper to make 100% associations between the different works. Even if it isn't a direct one-to-one translation, there is still a lot of light shed on the world of Westeros by understanding the world that inspired it.
There's more I can tell you, having read MST. For instance, I have some certainty the the ancestral Valryian blade of the Lannister house, believed lost at sea, may not be so lost after all. Also, the ice dragon that is hinted to live in Winterfell and under the Wall is likely more than one of old Nan's legends. But that's neither here nor there.
Williams' series is frankly fantastic, quite apart from Martin's later attempt to remake it. I've looked at it largely for its value in understanding ASOIAF, but that' being unfair to it. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction, especially those who aren't that big on reading about rape constantly.
That said, it definitely helps one understand what the heck is going on in Martin's world, besides all the feasting on onions and teats and rape we've been "treated" to for the past four books. If nothing else, I think the similarities in the two worlds and their characters and the admitted direct influence of one on the other calls for increased scrutiny of ASOIAF by appealing to events in MST. Hopefully this can help generate some interest in this.