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BlogMarch-April, 2011
Norse Mythology in Mann and George R. R. Martin

Long before sibling incest became a fashionable plot twist for Booker Prize authors, Thomas Mann wrote a masterpiece on the subject. “The Blood of the Walsungs” (1905) does for incest what Lolita does for pedophilia: It cushions the shock of the taboo through its nonjudgmental portrayal of the perpetrators.

Mann’s 19-year-old twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, know they are violating mores. But their behavior is habitual, rather than the crafted culmination to a brewing plot. By contrast, the climax of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1978) seems like a telegraphed attempt to throw the taboo in the face of the reader. So does the conclusion of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997).

Dramatists have mined incest for centuries. The prominent tale is Oedipus, but there are examples aplenty in other ancient fables. Mann’s twins are a direct reference to Signy and Sigmund Volsung of Germanic mythology. In the myth, the Volsungs are not twins; Sigmund is her youngest brother. Signy resorts to a disguise to sleep with Sigmund; they wind up having a child together.

In Mann’s story, there are no disguises and there is no offspring. The drama concludes with the twins sharing a night of happy-sad intimacy – first in a box at the opera, then in Siegmund’s room. All the while, Sieglinde’s engagement to the 35-year-old bureaucrat Beckerath looms in the offing.

In contemporary literature, the only match I’ve found for Mann’s delicacy is George R. R. Martin’s superb A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin’s twins, Jaime and Cersei Lannister, are marvels of character development. From their first encounter – witnessed from Bran Stark’s point of view in the HBO-bound A Game of Thrones – the reader understands Jaime is smitten. Cersei, by contrast, is leery of how the affair will imperil her power brokering.

But their dynamic changes by the end of A Feast for Crows, the fourth and most recent release in Martin’s epic. Jaime has grown aware of their mismatched affections. He throws Cersei’s letter for help – which ends with a pleading anaphora of “I love you” – in the fire.

Like Siegmund and Sieglinde, Jaime and Cersei have an in-depth relationship. The incest serves to impel and magnify the drama, rather than punctuate it (as it does for the aforementioned Booker winners). There’s constant tension over the discovery – and consequences – of the couplings. It’s like adultery on steroids. And when you have an incestuous pairing that is also adulterous – as Mann and Martin do – you’re truly playing with ice and fire.

There are faint traces of the Lannisters in Norse mythology, but the link isn’t nearly as direct as Mann’s Volsung modernization. The connection comes from the Germanic war god Tyr. In one myth, Tyr puts his hand in a wolf’s mouth as a sign of goodwill. The wolf bites off his hand. Tyr is in pain, but the other gods just laugh at him.

The root “Tyr” is prevalent in Martin’s series. Jaime and Cersei’s younger brother is the malformed Tyrion. Siblings Margaery and Loras Tyrell are key chess pieces in the Lannister-Stark-Baratheon family feuds. In addition to these associations through nomenclature, there is an interesting injury tie-in: A turning point for Jaime’s character comes when he loses his hand.

Wolves are rich symbols in Martin’s story. The wolf is the sigil of House Stark, mortal enemies to the Lannisters. Though Jaime loses his hand not to a Stark but to the sellsword Vargo Hoat, there remains a sense that Jaime’s injury is karmic revenge for his misdeeds to House Stark. His chief misdeed is the attempted murder of Bran Stark after Bran witnesses his affair with Cersei. In addition, Jaime is textually linked to the death of Robb Stark. The anonymous man who kills Robb at the infamous “Red Wedding” says: “Jaime Lannister sends his regards” (A Storm Of Swords, 704).

Moreover, it is no coincidence that the Red Wedding occurs not long after Robb’s army has reached “The Twins.” In writing about “The Twins,” Martin is literally describing the region but figuratively describing Jaime and Cersei: “Outside the rain still fell, but within the Twins the air was thick and hot” (ASOS, 693).

One final note on the Tyr myth: Despite his severe injury, the other gods laugh at Tyr. When Jaime loses his hand, he finally gains a sense of empathy with his malformed brother: “Now I know how Tyrion has felt, all those times they laughed at him,” (ASOS, 413). Jaime’s resistance to Cersei truly begins when she, too, ridicules his deformity. “Was it your hand they hacked off in Harrenhal, or your manhood?” she asks (ASOS, 1004). The comment is a death blow to their intimacy.

This chapter ends with Jaime amending his life story in the White Book, a history of the sworn-to-celibacy Kingsguard. "Defeated in the Whispering Wood by the Young Wolf Robb Stark during the War of the Five Kings," he writes. He holds the quill in his faltering left hand, sitting alone at a table while shadows creep across the room.

Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari