HBO has said its Game of Thrones prequel, set thousands of years earlier during the mysterious Age of Heroes, is “not the story we think we know.” But we do know a few things about that important era, and, now that George R.R. Martin has revealed new details about the show, it’s likely we’re going to discover the Starks and the Lannisters weren’t all that different when they first amassed power, even if they each gained it in their own dishonorable ways.
Martin shared some new details in an interview with EW about the state of Westeros at the start of the prequel. Among these details were two facts that are far more connected than they might initially appear. The first is that the series takes place at a time when the Realm was made up of nearly a hundred minor kingdoms, a far cry from the seven it came to know. The other fact: Casterly Rock was still in the possession of its original owners, House Casterly, and the Lannisters didn’t even exist yet. When the series begins, neither the Starks nor the Lannisters will be great, powerful families of renown. Loyal bannermen in the North should prepare to discover that noble family wasn’t any more honorable than the Lannisters at the start.
After the First Men and the Children of the Forest signed the Pact, ending the long war between the races, mankind began to form stable communities. From these sprang up hundreds of petty kingdoms, including House Stark. Eventually, the Starks came to rule all of the North as the Kings of Winter for thousands of years, until Aegon the Conqueror arrived. And just like Aegon, the wolves of Winterfell came into power through war.
Many defeated Stark enemies swore fealty to them, and over centuries they came to revere the family. But the Starks also destroyed other houses forever, erasing their lines and memories from history. There are songs that tell of a victory over the skinchanger Gaven Greywolf in “the savage War of the Wolves,” and some old runes speak of a war with the Warg King “and his inhuman allies, the children of the forest.” If the myths prove to be true, the Starks fought some dangerous and dark enemies, and they defeated every other kingdom and house who stood in its way.
Still, for hundreds of years the Starks had to fight for Northern supremacy with two other major kingdoms in the North. One we know well, the Red Kings of House Bolton, who only bent the knee long after the rest of the North. The other was maybe even a greater threat: the Barrow Kings. Like the Starks, they claimed descent from the First King, who legend says led the First Men into Westeros. House Dustin, whose castle, Barrow Hall, sits where the Barrow Kings once ruled from south of Winterfell, claims the First King is buried there.
The Barrow Kings are likely to play a major role in the prequel, and not just as foils to the Starks. Some say the Starks were able to defeat their greatest threat because a curse was placed on the Barrow Kings that made it so any Barrow King who tried to equal the First King was weakened, turning them corpse-like. Who placed this malady on them? Was it the Starks, using dark magic to defeat an opponent who might have been even stronger than them? Whatever the truth, eventually the last Barrow King bent the knee to House Stark, and the King of Winter married the Barrow King’s daughter to unify the two kingdoms forever.
Like Hela revealing the truth to Thor about how Odin came into power with bloody conquest, the Starks didn’t build their kingdom without winning a lot wars. And during an era full of magic, when the Children of the Forest, the Giants, and the White Walkers were all known to mankind, it’s not hard to imagine the Starks using any methods, no matter how dark or sinister, to assure their position as supreme rulers of the North. Bran the Builder might be the legendary founder of the family, but it’s more likely he’s a myth designed to hide the terrible truth about how the Starks came into power the same way everyone does: by killing a lot of people.
Just like the Lannisters, whose own mythical founder, Lann the Clever, is said to have either fooled, tricked, or stolen Casterly Rock from House Casterly. The Casterlys were unimaginably rich, yet quickly disappeared entirely from the world when the Lannisters replaced them before becoming Kings of the Rock in the West. Soon after the entire region was rife with Lannister offspring and vassals. None of the legends give Lann credit for being a great hero, just a clever one. But what’s more honorable: building a kingdom through trickery, money, and reproduction, or through iron, blood, and possibly dark magic?
The Starks ultimately became known as noble and righteous, and they earned that reverence over thousands of years of just rule. Meanwhile the Lannisters and their gold became seen as more cunning and treacherous, though history shows that isn’t close to accurate. But what the prequel will show is something Bronn said to Tyrion and Jaime in Game of Thrones’ final season is almost certainly true of both the Starks and Lannisters:
“Who were your ancestors? The ones who made your family rich? Fancy lads in silk? They were fucking cutthroats. That’s how all the Great Houses started, isn’t it? With a hard bastard who was good at killing people. Kill a few hundred people they make you a Lord, Kill a few thousand they make you King.”
“Winter is coming” in the prequel, but a long time ago when the Starks were consolidating power, that meant something very different in the North.