Game of Thrones is Not Sacred. It’s Grateful Dead Fan Fiction
The first episode of the seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones sparked a multitude of reactions, but perhaps none more virulent and hysterical than how certain GOT fans responded when Ed Sheeran appeared onscreen. The response was so rabid that some speculated Sheeran had deleted his Twitter account in response to the hatred (Sheeran has since denied it, stating “Why the hell would I worry what people thought about that. It’s clearly fuckin’ awesome.”)
I made my opinion very clear, via a tweet declaring:
Worth noting that this has been my most popular tweet, aside from one about Burger King one time.
Now, regardless of why Sheeran temporarily deleted his account, it does not change the fact that some Game of Thrones fans really, really hated seeing him on the screen. A top post in the /r/GameofThrones subreddit declared that his cameo had “ruined the Realism (sic).” Others mocked him with YouTube videos, angry tweets, and scornful recaps. Among the responses I received – in response to my “Ed Sheeran isn’t the problem” tweet were people telling me that they “hate him” and that cameos by Beyonce and John Legend would be next.
There are a few good points about why the Ed Sheeran cameo is nothing to be upset about, but I’ve already seen all but one of them already effectively made. These arguments include:
- Sheeran is recognizable, yes, but aren’t many of the other actors in the show also recognizable?
- Sheeran was cast as a singer with a beautiful voice. Doesn’t it make sense to have a singer with a beautiful voice play a singer with a beautiful voice?
- Why are all of you putting so much energy into hating a complete stranger?
But none of these are the articles I’ve come to write.
Instead, what I’d like you to consider is this: sure, Ed Sheeran is a pop musician playing a bit part in your favorite show. But doesn’t this make perfect sense, when one considers that the entirety of Game of Thrones – and the series of books upon which it is based, A Song of Ice and Fire – is an extended homage to a very popular band?
I repeat: Game of Thrones is Not Sacred. It’s Grateful Dead Fan Fiction
No, this isn’t a novel idea, and this isn’t my first time writing about it. Since the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, fans have noticed the influence of the Dead on the world of Westeros.
I’ve written about the influences of the Grateful Dead on George R. R. Martin twice before. First, prior to the sixth season, I argued that the song “Dire Wolf” served as the inspiration for Arya Stark’s storyline and that it may hold the secret to both her fate and that of Cersei Lannister. Second, I argued that “Uncle John’s Band” holds many ideas that inspired A Song of Ice and Fire, particularly Bran Stark’s narrative.
But I think at this point it’s important that we take a larger look at this and consider both how deep this goes and how important it is for understanding Game of Thrones in the context of popular culture. Specifically, the influences on Martin’s universe from the music of the Grateful Dead are so profound that I do not think it’s an exaggeration to say that every aspect of Game of Thrones pays tribute to the works of the Dead in one way or another. To call it Grateful Dead fan fiction is not meant as a slight or a jape. It should be considered an honor, especially as Martin himself can be spotted at Dead concerts from time to time, even today, sitting in the audience at Dead & Company shows (the remnants of the Dead, helmed by John Mayer and Bobby Weir.)
A Brief Overview of Westeros and the Dead
Rather than go in depth – although perhaps that is a future article – let’s consider a few main ideas that indicate the extent to which the Dead inspired the world we know in Game of Thrones:
The Dire Wolf of Westeros is Inspired Not by History or Fantasy, But the Dead
As discussed in the Arya Stark blog post, the dire wolf of history is not a giant beast, but a small scrappy wolf. The dire wolves in Westeros can only be seen as homages to the Grateful Dead. There is no other place, outside Game of Thrones and the Grateful Dead, where you see the dire wolf depicted in this way.
Arya Stark and the Faceless Men Steal Faces; “Steal Your Face” is a Pervasive Grateful Dead Theme
In addition to everything discussed about Arya Stark previously, it’s important to consider that her weapon of choice these days is the stolen face. In the song “He’s Gone,” the Dead reference stolen faces with the line:
Steal your face right off your head
But this is not the extent of that song. “Steal Your Face” is an album, a symbol, a mantra for the Grateful Dead. Is it to be considered a coincidence that this becomes a major theme in Game of Thrones as it proceeds?
Terrapin Station Tells a Story of a Girl Standing in Fire, Leading Men to Lions and Death
This one is perhaps the most striking, and one that I don’t think I’ve seen discussed at length enough. You can watch a slideshow that a fellow fan made of it here:
But let’s consider why I find this so striking – the entire thing is a confused, meta-fiction of a tale, about stories revealed in fire and a storyteller who does not know the answer. Here is the crux of it:
While the storyteller speaks
a door within the fire creaks
suddenly flies open
and a girl is standing there
Eyes alight with glowing hair
all that fancy paints as fair
she takes her fan and throws it
in the lion’s den
“Which of you to gain me, tell
will risk uncertain pains of Hell?
I will not forgive you
if you will not take the chance”
A woman standing in fire, throwing her fan into the lion’s den. A soldier and a sailor fighting for her love.
Beyond the obvious links between these lyrics and everyone’s favorite Dragon Queen, there is an element of it that may remind one of Varys and his riddles. We do not know how the narrative within the song of Terrapin Station ends. Likewise, Varys posed a striking riddle in the second season that we never quite got an answer to, with similar characters to those who appear in Terrapin Station. You can see it in this trailer:
“Who lives, who dies,” Varys asks. His answer is not literal, but this: “power lies where men believe it resides.”
Finally, the Terrapin Station narrative reveals itself in a fire. Not only is this something that Daenarys does, but consider the Hound and others who have seen gods reveal themselves in fire.
Lions All The Way Down
A soldier and a sailor, headed toward death in the lion’s den. It sounds familiar, but it’s not the only connection.
The album Terrapin Stations doesn’t just mention lions once. Consider “Samson and Delilah,” the tale of a strong man who strangles a lion to death to prove his might. Then there is “New Minglewood Blues,” about a narrator “born in the desert, raised in a lion’s den.”
Of course, this could be a reach… but it’s hard to say the lions in the Grateful Dead songs didn’t have some influence on the Lannisters, when we consider it in the context of the rest of this evidence.
“The Fire From The Ice”
And then there are the rest of lyrics, many of which have been spotted by others:
- Uncle John’s Band – about Bran, probably
- Mountains of the Moon – a song by the Dead, a place in Westeros
- Cassidy – another Bran-esque song, including the lyrics “I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream. I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream. “
- Eyes of the World – also, Bran. (See this article for a good look at that one).
- Darkstar – the name of a Grateful Dead song, the name of a dude in the books.
- The Wheel – a Grateful Dead song with some similarities to a monologue spoken by Daenarys.
- What could the Weirdwoods of Westeros possibly be named after, other than Robert Weir?
And Who Are You, the Proud Lord Said…
Let’s consider two other important connections between Game of Thrones and the Grateful Dead: the music they have influenced and created.
The Ed Sheeran cameo was far from the first moment including a popular musician. Consider a few others:
- The Coldplay drummer was playing drums at the Red Wedding
- Sigur Ros played music at the Purple Wedding
- The Hold Steady sang “Bear and the Maiden Fair” during the closing credits of the episode where Jaime lost his hand.
- The National also delivered a closing credits song, recording “Rains of Castamere” for the official soundtrack and a closing credits scene.
- For a comprehensive list, see this one by The Daily Dot.
Of these, perhaps The National is the most important in drawing another thread between Game of Thrones and The Grateful Dead. Not only do they provide music for the Game of Thrones soundtrack, but they also recorded a few songs for the recent Day of the Dead record. In fact, the Dessner brothers of The National are avowed Deadheads and were key organizers of the Day of the Dead album.
Not convinced? Take a moment to listen to The National’s versions of first “Peggy-O” and then “The Rains of Castamere.” Upon listening to their cover of “Peggy-O” alongside their “Rains of Castamere,” it’s easy to believe that these are two strands of the same thread. Two songs within the same universe. (For those interested, I’ve created a Game of Thrones & Grateful Dead playlist on Spotify that includes these songs, among others).
And there there is John Mayer. How does he fit in, you ask? Two ways. First, decades later, Mayer has stepped into the void created by Jerry Garcia’s death. Mayer now sings the songs discussed above, which have had such a strong influence on Game of Thrones.
Second, Mayer is a fan of Ed Sheeran, declaring:
You’re seeing this shift back to real fundamentals in songwriting. Ed Sheeran is a huge part of that. He’s really, really serious about songwriting. Ed’s not a guy who goes, “What do you think?” Ed’s in his own thing and he’s a star athlete. He’s also a phenomenal guitar player. His right hand is a monster.
Sure, you can brush off John Mayer’s opinion. If you “hate” Sheeran, you probably “hate” Mayer too.
Sure, you can ignore Maisie Williams’s taste in music and her desire for a Sheeran cameo. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that, just maybe, that show you hold sacred does not stand in some world separate from Sheeran and Mayer. It’s a universe, a wheel, a flat circle. The Grateful Dead took inspiration from Irish folk music when crafting their version of Peggy-O, and George R. R. Martin took inspiration from their “Peggy-O” when writing words that would later be sung by Ed Sheeran. Who are you to decide that Sheeran isn’t worthy of singing a song on a show you like?
Ripple in still water….
Finally, let us consider “Ripple,” once again, the song that Martin said often guides his writing. And let us consider Sheeran’s moment, his singing bringing Arya happiness for the first time in ages.
As Jerry Garcia sang, and George R. R. Martin repeated, and Ed Sheeran manifested:
Let there be songs to fill the air