Real-world science in A Game of Thrones

I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones to those watching it on HBO), and loving it (except for feeling some parts could’ve been cut to make it shorter). Among other things, I’ve slowly begun to suspect Martin did quite a bit of work to make certain parts of the book scientifically accurate, even though it’s a fantasy series.

For example, the character Hodor is a quite realistic depiction of Broca’s aphasia, given that he seems to understand language okay. (See also YouTube video of a less severe case.) Also… SPOILERS AHEAD! (First book/season only.)

I was reading TVTropes’ headscratchers page for the series, and one person raised the question of how Jon Arryn and Ned Stark figured out that all of Cersi’s children were fathered by Jamie.

You see (for those of you who haven’t read the first book but don’t mind spoilers), it turns out that King Robert had many illegitimate children, but that all his legal heirs were actually fathered by Queen Cersi’s twin brother, Jamie Lannister. Before the start of the story, the Hand of the King Jon Arryn discovered this, then was murdered, and one of the main plot threads of the first book is Arryn’s successor, Ned Stark, figuring out the same thing.

Both of them somehow did this by tracking down some of Robert’s bastards, reading an old genealogy, and noticing that while  the bastards had dark hair like their father, Robert’s supposedly legitimate children were blonde, like their mother.

How does that add up to figuring out what happened? Does genetics even work that way? It turns out that yes, genetics does in fact work that way. The folks at TVTropes explain:

  • First off: it’s not that “Lannister + [other party] = kids that automatically look like [other party]“; it’s that, in Westeros as on Earth, pale-hair genes are recessive to darker ones; black trumps brown trumps gold trumps red. (Where the Targaryen coloring would fall on this scale is unknown, but presumably they’reway down at the recessive end, which is why Aegon used Brother-Sister Incest to “keep the bloodline pure”.) Also, the Lannisters are an old family, and probably marry from within the Westerlands most of the time, where their influence (both political and genetic) has had 8,000 years to percolate. To keep the “Lannister look,” Report Siht Lannister needs a blonde wife… which are likely are likely a dime a dozen ’round Lannisport and Casterly Rock. And, if that’s not good enough, do what Tywin did andmarry your cousin.
  • Indeed. Early in the second book Tyrion ponders on the connection himself and notes that Cersei would have been able to keep this truth hidden if only she’d borne Robert one child (note that all Robert’s bastard children had his hair), before simply concluding that if she’d done that, she “wouldn’t be Cersei”. All the factors added up and the smarter characters came to the logical – and true – conclusion.
  • To explain further, in order for a child of Cersei (pure recessive blond) and Robert (dominant black) to come out blond, it would mean that Robert would have to carry the recessive trait, even though it was suppressed. That would mean that not only should at least some of his bastards be blond, but the odds of ALL THREE of his legal kids being blond was highly unlikely (with only a 25% of any given child being blond, the odds of all three being blond is around 1.6%, about 1-in-64). But with EVERY SINGLE BASTARD he produced coming out dark, it argued in favor of him actually having full dominant dark hair, meaning no true born child of his would EVER come out blond. Westerosi obviously don’t know the literal science behind figuring that sort of thing out, but they likely know enough from circumstantial experience to puzzle out that something’s up.

As far as I know, this is all correct, except that I think the odds of one child legitimate child being blonde should be 50% if Cersi is homozygous recessive and Robert is heterozygous, yielding a 1-in-8 chance of three blonde children. It’s the bastards that cinches the deal.

I learned basic genetics in high school, of course, but before reading the TVTropes page, I hadn’t been able to work out on my own if Martin had gotten the genetics right. Apparently he did. Cool!

Can anyone else definitely confirm other examples of real-world science showing up in the series? I suspect the physical descriptions of Tyrion, Gregor Clegane, and Brienne were based on a bit of medical research on Martin’s part, but I don’t know enough of the relevant science to say, “aha! Martin clearly intended that character to have condition X.”

Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
Why The Hobbit is better than Lord of the Rings
Abolitionism vs. reformism
No scientific evidence for that
  • Common Sense Humanism

    I just finished reading the fifth book (don’t worry, no spoilers here!), and as far as I know, the depiction of Dwarfism is very accurate. Rather than making Tyrion just another person in small, I very much like the fact that the author included stuff like the malformed legs, making the character “waddle” and frequently giving him problems with cramping legs.

    I can’t think of other things that struck me as particularly scientifically accurate, though mean tongues might add the fact that throughout all books, almost all religious characters are rather annoying and unpleasant fellows to that list.

    What I did notice is that RR Martin very often throughout the entire series seems to take a sometimes not-so-subtle stand for skepticism. It’s not just his portrayal of religious folk as being somewhat annoying and sometimes outright crazy – it’s that almost all of the main characters distinctly lack faith. When they think of gods they mention that they never answer anyhow, when they reflect on other character’s prayer they deem it “useless as nipples on a breastplate”, and similar things. Though in the fantasy world the plot resides in there most definitely IS magic, all of the main characters are pretty skeptical.

    • Another Dave

      I think Tyrion said it best: “The Lord of Light wants his enemies burned. The Drowned God wants them drowned. Why are all the gods such vicious c*nts? Where is the god of tits and wine?”

  • Jonathan

    (Spoiler warning)

    - Khal Drogo is wounded, and treated by rubbing mud on it. He dies. Seems pretty accurate to me. There’s a nudge toward other fantasy stories about this: wounds get infected, and infections can kill even the most powerful warrior, apart from the obvious jab at alternative medicine.

    - Could ravens be trained as messengers? If so, why is this hardly ever done?

    - I was wondering about the explosive substance used for the battle of King’s Landing in book 2. What could it be? Nitroglycerine? Greek Fire? How would the priests make it?

    • Foob

      Pretty sure it’s phosphorus. IIRC, book 2 mentions people collecting night pales during the siege preparations.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Though there’s supposedly a magical element. It’s hinted that the return of the dragons made wildfire work better in the battle against Stanis’ troops.

        • jamesskaar

          high concentration of phosphorous in dragon poop?

  • steve84

    Hunger and disease claim far more victims in war than combat. This is an emphasized a great deal in the last book.

  • Winterwind

    I think someone worked out an irregular planetary orbit that would result in the century-long seasons that Westeros has, but I’m not sure if I just imagined that.

    • Matthew Hodson

      Martin has said that the reason for the seasons is just magic.
      Other people have come up with ways to account for it via strange orbits but Martin did not intend that.
      I suspect the greater mysterious story arc of the ice and fire will shed light on the actual magical causes of the strange seasons. I imagine that the planets natural seasons are simply dwarfed by the magical influences.

    • Jonathan

      Perhaps it could be modelled by assuming a very fast axial precession cycle, or some other milankovitch-type movement?

  • roxchix

    If Martin needs characters to keep living, they’re constantly putting moldy bread into their battle wounds. More of a nod to real world science.

    And the whole doom of Valeryia could be compared to Campi Flegrei or Santorini.