Home » Iliad, Ice and Fire: The Influence of The Iliad on David Benioff, George R.R. Martin, Troy and Game of Thrones

Iliad, Ice and Fire: The Influence of The Iliad on David Benioff, George R.R. Martin, Troy and Game of Thrones

by Jonathan Meyers
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The Iliad is a well known ancient Greek story attributed to Homer that recounts personal conflicts and military battles involving Achilles, Prince Hector, the armies of the Trojans and Greeks, as well as other mortals and gods over several months towards the end of the Trojan War. The work covers only a relatively brief period (less than 8 weeks) in the 10-year Trojan War, so there are critical incidents that precede The Iliad, numerous characters and gods with elaborate identities and back stories that are not explained in The Iliad, and many legendary events that take place after the events of The Iliad. Some of the best known plot points in the broader legend are actually absent from The Iliad itself and take place afterward, including the deployment of the Trojan Horse which causes the fall of Troy, and the death of Achilles by an arrow to his now famously vulnerable heel. Rather than traverse the entire history of Troy, most of The Iliad focuses largely on the emotions and actions of Achilles and on the intense combat between the Greeks and the Trojans individually and on a broader military level. In reading this often graphically violent tale and exploring the key characters, events, and important themes, it becomes increasingly clear that The Iliad and its related lore have influenced the creators of Game of Thrones, their writing, and their stories.

Iliad-and-GRRM

George R.R. Martin has often cited his influences as mythology, history, and fictional tragedy like that which unfolds in Ancient Greek stories and Shakespeare. So it would be reasonable to assume he digested a quintessential story like The Iliad many years ago along with numerous other renowned classical works. But several references and events in Game of Thrones and the books on which the show is based evoke The Iliad so directly that Martin’s familiarity with The Iliad is a near certainty. For example, the very first line in The Iliad refers to Achilles’ rage (a key factor in the story) and the many deaths that resulted which it calls “a banquet for the birds.” Even a casual reader could reasonably infer that this phrase from the famous first line of The Iliad inspired the title of Martin’s fourth book A Feast for Crows. There are other hints of The Iliad’s influence on Martin. A probable thematic link between The Iliad and Martin’s writing is an important concept in The Iliad relating to the honor involved in capturing possessions from other vanquished warriors (more on this concept, called “timē” in Part 2). A clear example of this theme in The Iliad features a warrior saying to another: “Spears you’ll find inside arrayed against the bright wall of the entranceway… I win weapons from the dead.” Although this refers to spears rather than swords, the capture and prominent display of weapons from defeated foes, and the honor conveyed, is suggestive of the Iron Throne itself which, in addition to being the literal seat of power, is a symbolic statement as a collection of weapons won from dead enemies. Additional elements in the text of The Iliad that suggest an influence on George R.R. Martin are the names of the epic battles in both tales. In The Iliad, there’s an extended battle sequence known as the Longest Day while the epic conflict between the armies of the living and the dead in Episode 3 of Season 8 of Game of Thrones is titled The Long Night. (The Long Night also describes a period 5000-10,000 years prior to the events in Game of Thrones when the White Walkers first descended upon Westeros  (Note, it was the working title for a prequel series for which a pilot was shot before being shelved in late 2019.)

But perhaps the strongest evidence of the direct influence of The Iliad on the writing of George R.R. Martin is a foundational backstory to the setting of Game of Thrones which involves the abduction of a woman belonging to a powerful man that instigates a kingdom-changing war. Although the abduction itself takes place many years before the events in The Iliad, the taking of Helen by Prince of Troy Paris launches the war that is in its ninth year when The Iliad begins. In the Game of Thrones series, an abduction takes place about 16 years before the beginning of the main story and involves a prince of Westeros (Rhaegar Targaryen) absconding with Lyanna Stark, betrothed to Robert Baratheon, who also then begins a war (Robert’s Rebellion) to get her back which, as with Troy, results in the sacking of a city and the fall of a kingdom. Both Helen and Lyanna are often described as being forcefully abducted and even raped by the aforementioned princes, but in alternative tellings, they leave with the princes willingly out of love. In Game of Thrones, the viewer believes Lyanna to have been forcefully abducted and only in later seasons learns that this was “a lie” and she was actually in love with Prince Rhaegar. In The Iliad and related stories, the truth about Helen’s feelings is less clear but there are additional parallels. The jilted lover defeats the abductor in single combat: Robert slays Rhaegar and Helen’s husband Menelaus defeats Paris (though was prevented from killing him). Also, the cities in each story were subsequently sacked by trickery: King’s Landing was sacked when false assurances about opening the gates were given to the king and Troy was of course sacked after accepting the infamous Trojan Horse within the walls of Troy (again, this is described in works that take place after the events in The Iliad). In both the Trojan War and Robert’s Rebellion, the children of the conquered princes/heirs were promptly put to death. The Iliad’s tale of a woman’s abduction resulting in a world-changing war seems to have directly inspired this key storyline for George R.R. Martin as the historical setting for the beginning of Game of Thrones.

Iliad-and-Benioff

To whatever degree The Iliad appears to have influenced George R.R. Martin, it is undeniable that David Benioff, who brought Martin’s books to life in the Game of Thrones TV series, was intimately familiar with The Iliad. David Benioff, then a rising star in the Hollywood writing world, was inspired by The Iliad to write the screenplay for Troy, which became a successful epic movie in 2004. Troy indicates that the kind of project David Benioff, a lover of fantasy, aspired to develop from book to screen was not just a single tale, but an interwoven collection of tales set within a much larger world also containing nearly endless preceding stories. Troy included major plotlines and scenes from The Iliad, but it also relied on and referred to other published classical works and their expansive history, boundless lore, magical elements, and brutal violence, in the telling of the fates of two doomed heroes. Adapting The Iliad and its accompanying mythology into Troy not only demonstrated the scale of Benioff’s storytelling interests and ambitions, but also seems to have primed him to appreciate the depth and breadth of the ASOIAF book series, and recognize the challenge and potential of bringing it to life on screen. Benioff had stated that ASOIAF was “a world so rich that you’re coming into the story 95% of the way into it,” a description that almost perfectly applies to The Iliad, a work that takes place over just a few weeks within the ninth year of a ten year war that is set within a vast world of mortals and magic.

In addition to developing a deep knowledge of the themes and characters in The Iliad (which partly parallelled those he would later bring to life from Martin’s books, the making of Troy steeped David Benioff in the complex process of reading, taming, structuring, refining, and delivering The Iliad and related lore in movie form (something Benioff said could be an eight-hour series). Indeed, it was a perfect exercise in developing the similarly vast “un-filmable” story and world of A Song of Ice and Fire from books to HBO. Vanity Fair said it well in a 15th-anniversary article about Troy: “Looking back, the film also feels deeply like a proto-Game of Thrones—Benioff’s first go at adapting a fantastical narrative packed with high-stakes politics and shocking deaths.” Aside from the profound understanding of The Iliad required to write the screenplay for Troy, a careful viewing of the movie reveals that the scenes and themes Benioff crafted remain faithful to important elements of the original work while also capturing touchstones from lore outside The Iliad, and importantly, also reflect tough choices about what to consolidate or entirely omit. The experience of adapting The Iliad strengthened Benioff’s hand in shaping the Game of Thrones TV series in which he again had challengingly vast source material, but he succeeded in presenting the main events, telling the overarching story, and staying true to themes that are important to the original work.

In addition to Troy providing the opportunity to organize a vast world and near endless characters and stories into a compact tragic tale, it also featured great actors who would eventually be cast in Game of Thrones. So direct was the path from the movie Troy to the TV series Game of Thrones, that there was online speculation in 2009 that a number of actors from Troy would carry over to the greenlit HBO show including the actress who played Helen (Diane Kruger), and the actors who played Priam (Peter O’Toole) and Agamemnon (Brian Cox, who had worked with David Benioff in another movie before Troy). These actors were not cast in Game of Thrones but there were three notable actors who played prominent characters in Troy who were eventually cast in the series. They include:

Sean Bean who played Odysseus in Troy and Ned Stark in Season 1 of Game of Thrones,

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Julian Glover who plays Triopas in Troy and played Grand Maester Pycelle in Game of Thrones

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and Jason Cosmo who played Glaucus in Troy and Jeor Mormont in Game of Thrones.

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Interestingly, in 2022 Brian Cox revealed in a memoir that he actually was offered the part of King Robert Baratheon in Season 1 of Game of Thrones but he turned down the role.

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Clearly Troy and The Iliad on which it was based, paved the Kings Road to Game of Thrones for David Benioff.

But The Iliad provided more than inspiration and Troy provided more than actors for the making of Game of Thrones. Deeper themes in The Iliad were captured and expressed in a way that shaped characters and events in Game of Thrones, which will be described in Part 2– Iliad, Ice and Fire: Concepts & Characters in The Iliad, Troy & Game of Thrones.

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