Meme of Thrones

Game of Thrones owes much of its success to George R.R. Martin’s image macro-ready language.

There are a lot of good reasons why we internet-dwelling folk love HBO’s Game of Thrones. First, it’s hard to screw up a gritty fantasy epic with tons of sex, violence, and Dinklage. But I think there’s also a less obvious reason that the show plays so well online: its source material, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is brimming with language and imagery that fits perfectly with our meme-based internet culture.

The most obvious examples of this are the familial factions that drive the plot, the noble houses. Each comes with its own colors, sigil, and saying. In the story, these icons serve to develop the character of a house in one way or another. Sometimes they reinforce a house’s traits, like the brutal pirate Greyjoys, who sail under a menacing kraken and live by the words, “We Do Not Sow.” Or they serve as contrast, like house Arryn’s noble eagle and slogan “As High as Honor,” which seem an odd match for its deranged ruler Lysa and shockingly coddled heir Robert.

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But outside the show, these icons essentially function like sports team identities. They give diehards something to galvanize their allegiances around, and many fan sites allow users to tag themselves with a house’s sigil. HBO seems well aware of the sway these icons hold, as they sell a truly staggering amount of house-related swag (like that House Tully “Family, Duty, Honor” iPad skin you so desperately desire). They even created a website that allows users to make their own personal sigils and, of course, share them on Facebook.

However, it’s the heroic Starks that provide the series’ most iconic words, “Winter is Coming” — a brilliant chunk of language. Without knowing anything about the series, the phrase sounds eerie and intriguing. In the Game of Thrones universe, it references the irregular seasons on the continent of Westeros (any of which can last for years), reinforcing one of the setting’s cooler supernatural hooks. In the plot of the show specifically, it reminds the audience that winter will soon descend on the characters they’ve grown to know, casting a feeling of inevitable despair over the story to come. It’s no wonder this phrase has become the series’ breakout meme. You can just say “Noun is Coming,” and people will catch the Game of Thrones reference. That’s a powerful linguistic germ.

The show’s viral text, however, goes beyond the house sayings. After all, most viewers probably couldn’t tell you that Lannister’s words are “Hear Me Roar!” But I’ll bet just about all of them know that “a Lannister always pays his debts.” Anyone who watched season two can attest that the red priestess Melisandre wasn’t kidding all those times she said “the night is dark and full of terrors” (even if she cheated a bit by producing the terror herself). Martin doesn’t even need to use an Earth language to get words to stick in people’s minds. There’s a piece of graffiti in my neighborhood that reads “Valar Morghulis,” the cryptic Braavosi phrase told to Arya Stark by a curious shapeshifter.

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These are all key lines in the story that define characters, communicate ideologies, and drive plot lines. Through repetition, the show emphasizes how important these lines are. At the end of the first season, there’s a pivotal scene where the young lord Robb Stark breaks free from the kingdom at the behest of his banner men. His transformation from vassal to leader and boy into man is instigated by the repeated chant, “the king in the north.” As the voices swirl around him, you can tell the weight they carry. In that world, words really do matter.

This is one of the best aspects of the collaboration between Martin’s text and the show’s producers. Martin is a fine writer, but his particular rhetorical talent is coming up with distinctive phrases. The show then harvests the best ones and gives them fantastically memorable deliveries. This may seem like a minor aspect of a much larger production, but viewers have picked them up. You can’t read through a discussion of the series online without seeing users responding with lines such as “it is known,” “stick ‘em with the pointy end,” or “not today.” This is the essence of what a meme is: a small idea that stays in one’s head and then spreads to others. For as image-driven as the web has become, it’s still a text-based medium, and Martin has given it some wonderful words to play with.

Well, except for two.

Ned Stark never said, “brace yourself.”

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.