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SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses characters and events from the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, up to and including its most recent instalment, A Dance with Dragons (2011). In some instances, this may include major spoilers for the TV series Game of Thrones. Fans of the show who don’t want to know what might be coming up for characters on and around the Wall may therefore wish to avoid the following.

Introduction

The Wall looms large in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 -), and its TV adaptation, Game of Thrones (2011 -). Martin has cited a visit to Hadrian’s Wall as part of the series’ genesis. He describes how:

We walked along the top of the wall just as the sun was going down. It was the fall. I stood there and looked out over the hills of Scotland and wondered what it would be like to be a Roman centurion [...] covered in furs and not knowing what would be coming out of the north at you.

However, the author adds that:

Hadrian's Wall is impressive, but it's not really tall. A good ladder would be all you need to scramble right on over it. When you're doing fantasy, it has to be bigger than in real life.[1]

Thus, the Wall of A Song of Ice and Fire becomes a monumental piece of imaginative landscaping: not only an outsize feat of mortal engineering, but also laced through with protective magics. This Wall is the "largest structure ever built by the hands of men," a massive rampart of compacted ice almost "seven hundred feet high."[2] Our first glimpse of the structure emphasises its scale:

You could see it from miles off, a pale blue line across the northern horizon, stretching away to the east and west and vanishing, in the far distance, immense and unbroken. This is the end of the world, it seemed to say.[3]

Martin’s version re-builds and re-scales the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, transforming an evocative landscape of Roman ruins into an assertive and defiantly functional structure. In the interview already cited, he identifies the Wall’s purpose as being "To keep out bad things."[4]

This is all in line with traditional readings of the function of Hadrian’s Wall, which follow the Historia Augusta in assuming that the Wall was constructed to forcibly segregate northern barbarians from Roman-occupied southern Britain (an assumption that would later be echoed by the indigenous historians Gildas and Bede).[5] In the early twentieth century, however, new archaeological insights challenged these established narratives, with R.G. Collingwood casting doubt on the practicality of any attempt to battle marauding Caledonians while perched on a narrow walkway atop a fifteen-foot Wall.[6] More recent scholars have developed this perspective, stressing the Wall's limitation as a fighting platform and emphasizing the Wall's potential to fulfill a range of different roles within the physical and cultural landscape.[7] They have embraced new ideas emerging from the field of border studies, particularly its focus on "areas in proximity to the border which constitute a transition zone between two distinct categories, rather than a clear-cut line."[8] They have highlighted the development of hybrid identities among border communities. These perspectives have changed our traditional, defensive image of Hadrian’s Wall, considering it less as a ferocious, impenetrable line of armed defence, and more as "a porous and provisional" frontier.[9] However, while such views have opened up new arenas for research and debate within academic circles, Robert Witcher notes, "the public discourse of Hadrian’s Wall remains relatively narrow and traditional in focus."[10] 

This article explores Martin’s evolving depiction of the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire in the light of this mismatch between scholarly and popular perceptions of Hadrian’s Wall. Focusing on areas of thematic convergence, rather than direct parallels, it examines some of the ways in which Martin’s fictional Wall, and the experiences of characters living in its long shadow, overlap with current archaeological scholarship. Looking first at questions of the Wall’s permeability, then at its role in the transformation of personal and collective identities, and finally considering the Wall as a site of cultural encounter, the article proposes that the process of exploring an evolving borders landscape within A Song of Ice and Fire might encourage Martin’s readers to look beyond the popular clichés which surround the present-day Hadrian’s Wall, allowing us to engage more closely and more critically with the past (and future) of this contentious ancient monument.[11]

The Permeable Wall

Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, the question of the Wall’s permeability is central to its developing representation. From our first glimpse, we are simultaneously alerted to the Wall’s identity as the outermost limit of civilization, and tantalized by the question of what might lie beyond. Even as new recruit Jon Snow stares up at the great mass of compacted ice, his companion is already probing one of the major paradoxes of the Wall:

He could feel the great weight of all that ice pressing down on him, as if it were about to topple, and somehow Jon knew that if it fell, the world fell with it.

“Makes you wonder what lies beyond,” a familiar voice said.[12]

The reader is both being teased and being made a promise. The strange and dangerous territories "beyond" offer an obvious arena for adventure. Of course we’re going there.[13]

Tyrion Lannister, unburdened by conventional assumptions and pieties—he’s already announced his desire "to stand on top of the Wall and piss off the edge of the world"[14]—brings an irreverent, questioning eye to the contemplation of the Wall, and quickly intuits the importance of this unknown beyond:

Why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what’s on the other side? [...] You do want to know what’s on the other side, don’t you?[15]

His question foreshadows the way in which Jon’s narrative will increasingly come to subvert the monumental solidity of the Wall. As Jon undergoes his initiation into the Night’s Watch,[16] he travels through the Wall, traversing "a narrow tunnel cut through the ice." Emerging into the Haunted Forest beyond, Jon realizes that he has "ridden past the end of the world."[17] This Wall is not simply a barrier to travel between the uncivil north and the settled south. It is also a conduit which defines, and makes possible, such journeys.

The men of the Night’s Watch aren’t the only ones making such journeys, either. Even before Jon begins making his first forays northward, other unauthorized travelers have been making the same journey in the opposite direction. The ominous dead direwolf encountered in the novel’s early chapters is a telling symbol, since it is the first of its species "sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years."[18] Osha, despite her pride in her wildling descent—"I was born up there, child, like my mother and her mother before her and her mother before her, born of the Free Folk."[19]—has also fled south ahead of supernatural horrors emerging in the land beyond the Wall. Osha’s flight finds larger resonance within the analysis of the disintegrating situation offered by Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch:

The cold winds are rising, Snow. Beyond the Wall, the shadows lengthen. Cotter Pyke writes of vast herds of elk, streaming south and east towards the sea, and mammoths as well. He says one of his men discovered huge, misshapen footprints not three leagues from Eastwatch. Rangers from the Shadow Tower have found whole villages abandoned […] [20]

While many of these illicit journeys are furtive affairs, with refugees crossing the water at either end of the isthmus, others are bolder assaults upon the Wall’s integrity. Later, Jon will be shocked to witness wildling raiders climbing the ice-face itself, and to realize that "They have done this before, every man of them."[21] For these climbers, the sheer cliff-face of the Wall has become a raiding path, a familiar (if risky) route into the supposedly inaccessible south. If the Wall, seen in the distance, seems vast and impermeable, then growing familiarity reveals it to be riddled with potential routes round and through and over and even under its ice-stacks. The wildlings tell tales of half-forgotten underground trails: such a subterranean path provides Bran Stark with a secret route northwards. Far from being "the end of the world," the Wall provides a series of routes to and from the lands of the unmapped north.[22]

Current archaeological scholarship has also emphasized permeability to our developing understanding of Hadrian’s Wall. David J. Breeze has proposed that Hadrian’s Wall was initially envisaged as a site for the monitoring of controlled movement, comparable to those operating at other limits of the Empire, which permitted outsiders supervised access to Roman-controlled territories, often for the purpose of trade.[23] It was only, he argues, with a later decision to re-site a series of forts along this line "that the differences between the functions of frontier control and military defence become blurred, and have remained so."[24] Such proposals remain controversial, with advocates of more militaristic interpretations pointing to the unequalled scale of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the persistence of military resistance to the Roman presence on Britain’s northern frontier.[25] As the 2009 "Frontiers of Knowledge" Research Framework observed: "Consensus concerning the fundamental question of the function of the Wall remains as elusive as ever."[26] 

In a 2008 chapter entitled "Hadrian’s Wall in Theory: Pursuing New Agendas?", Richard Hingley proposed a series of research questions aimed at revitalizing Hadrian’s Wall scholarship. In particular, he highlighted the need for scholars to address the monument’s role in creating identities, and the ways in which its presence and meaning impacted upon, and interacted with, the various populations living on and around it.[27] Building on this, Richard Hingley and Rich Hartis went on to argue that Hadrian’s Wall was "interactive," suggesting that:

The Wall’s porous character, long a cause of concern for divisive interpretations, shows that an essential aspect of the structure was its intent to be used. With provision for crossing every Wall-mile, the structure systematically provides opportunities for traversal […][28]

In such readings, the aim is to control and supervise movement through a frontier region, rather than absolutely suppressing it.[29] As a consequence, recent archaeological scholarship has begun to turn its attention to the ways in which different populations may have moved through the landscape of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as addressing the likelihood that their experiences would have been social and cultural as much as military, giving rise to new relationships and identities.

Transforming Identities on the Wall

The Wall of A Song of Ice and Fire is a site for personal and collective transformation. For many of the characters associated with the Wall, their cold, uncomfortable, and usually perilous sojourns on the northern frontier offer crucial opportunities for character development and personal change. Like the contested territories surrounding Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape of Martin’s Wall can be conceptualised as a borderland (as opposed to a singular border-line), creating a hybrid space within which pre-existing identities can be re-negotiated and re-forged.[30] The following discussion will begin to develop a reading of the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire as a culturally complex frontier zone, within which adapting one's identity is not only possible, but often necessary to survival. This analysis will point us to debates concerning the military presence on Hadrian’s Wall and the degree to which they maintained a Roman identity.

The transformative function of Martin’s Wall is explicitly foregrounded before Jon even reaches Castle Black, albeit in unappealing terms, as Tyrion lists the categories of men who find themselves under pressure to "take the black":

The Night’s Watch is a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm. I’ve seen you looking at Yoren and his boys. Those are your new brothers, Jon Snow, how do you like them? Sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves, and bastards like you all wind up on the Wall.[31]

Lord Commander Mormont presents the Night Watch’s recruiting practices in a more positive light, stressing the possibility that the Wall might operate as a site for redemption:

“You came to us outlaws,” he began, “poachers, rapers, debtors, killers and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses. Others have only bastards’ names, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.”[32]

In taking the oath and putting on a black cloak, any man can begin a new life at the northernmost edge of the Seven Kingdoms. In the rough-and-ready meritocracy of the black brothers, promotion and advancement may even become available to those who could never hope to thrive in more polite locales.

Thus it is that Jon, with his bastard status and bastard name, seeks a place among the Night’s Watch as a way of stabilizing his own uncomfortably uncertain identity.[33] But, as he discovers, the political realities of service on the border calls for a range of transformations which go far beyond the model promoted by Lord Mormont. Among Mance Rayder’s armies, Jon encounters other inhabitants of the frontier for whom the flexible manipulation of multiple identities has become an essential tool of relationship-building and collaboration. Tormund Giantsbane is the possessor of many names which act as markers of his feats and friendships. He is (among others): "Tormund Thunderfist, Husband to Bears, the Mead-King of Ruddy Hall, Speaker to Gods, and Father to Hosts."[34] Mance is even more skilled in his exploitation of fluid, changeable identities, having once been a black brother before re-inventing himself as supreme leader of the wildlings’ forces—their King-beyond-the-Wall. He tells of having broken his vows because he couldn’t bear to part with the scarlet silk a wildling woman used to patch his black cloak, a poetic image of cultural hybridity well suited to this shape-shifting crosser of theoretically impassable boundaries,[35] and symbolic of his unprecedented achievement in uniting the various folk of the lands beyond the Wall. Ned Stark’s bastard may initially have hoped that putting on a black cloak would allow him to enjoy, for the first time, the security of a stable and honorable identity. But to survive within the hybrid space of the borderlands is to be capable of negotiating flexibly between a range of names, titles, allegiances, and relationships.

The historical Hadrian’s Wall was peopled by an array of recruits even more diverse than those of Martin’s Night’s Watch, testifying to the scale and complexity of the Roman Empire. Inscriptions record the presence of military units originating from Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.[36] As their stay on Hadrian’s Wall lengthened, the character of these units was also influenced by local recruitment, which brought northern Britons (including the sons of soldier fathers) into the ranks of auxiliary regiments. Military service provided an opportunity for these recruits to acquire new identities, their process of physical training facilitating their entry into "a distinctive warrior value system," while their adoption of military dress (like Martin’s now iconic black wool and boiled leather) was "active in constituting the embodiment of soldierliness."[37] Auxiliary troops also participated in Roman cultural practices, as evidenced by the presence of dedications, weapons, and foodstuffs along the line of the fortifications they manned. These were not the luxuries of the villa-dwelling provincial elite in southern Britain, but frontier garrisons would have benefited from higher status in relation to local peoples.[38] For the ethnically and culturally diverse troops manning the line of Hadrian’s Wall, military service could represent a route to enhanced status, and the opportunity to adopt new, Romanized identities.[39]

However, Simon James’s studies of Romanization caution us against making assumptions concerning the extent and efficacy of such transformations in the context of Hadrian’s Wall. He observes that, "By 100 AD, any time-expired Thracian, Iberian, or Batavian auxiliary became a Roman citizen, with minimal exposure to the original Italian cultural matrix of 'Roman-ness.'"[40] Other studies have suggested that transplanted auxiliary troops maintained communications with their homelands, and imported crafts from these regions,[41] adding a further layer of complexity to their cultural identities and allegiances. Although Roman by the standards of the unassimilated Britons inhabiting both sides of the formal border,[42] Britain’s frontier soldiers formed a kind of mongrel elite, promoting and defending Roman mores with which they were only partially able to identify. In this way, modern scholarship has located Hadrian’s Wall at the heart of a region within which an isolated military subculture attempted to promote the cultural and material benefits of a Rome which most of its members had never seen, among indigenous populations who appear to have resisted the relinquishment of their own traditional identities and cultural practices.[43] James describes how such military communities were at the center of "a complex network of often conflicting influences," as the ideologies of their military training collided with the influence of local communities encountered via recruitment, trade, and personal relationships.[44] In such a context, hybrid identities, and the mingling of peoples and cultures, become important features of the experience of inhabiting a contested borderland.[45]   

The Wall as a Site of Cultural Encounter

Issues of cultural encounter also play a crucial role in Jon’s emerging narrative. From the early volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, readers have witnessed Jon’s struggles to reconcile his own experiences of the inhabitants of the lands beyond the Wall with "Old Nan’s tales of the savage folk who drank blood from human skulls."[46] Poised to meet and fight ferocious, monstrous enemies, the young man’s unexamined belief that "we’re here to fight wildlings" is rapidly revealed to be inadequate for the world he finds beyond the Wall.[47] Dangerous forces are surely rising in the unmapped lands to the north of the Seven Kingdoms, but these are not the wildling populations who have lived alongside the Wall for generations. In more recent volumes, Martin has developed a dramatic portrait of the Wall’s changing role within an embattled frontier society, with the ostensibly divisive monument becoming a site for coexistence and cooperation. This is a depiction which helps us to consider some of the limits of our knowledge concerning the lives and relationships of different groups inhabiting the region dominated by Hadrian’s Wall during its centuries as a Roman outpost, and to engage with questions about the social interactions that took place there.

Following his election as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon struggles to find ways to man and defend the under-strength and partially derelict Wall against foes long considered to be the stuff of nursery nightmares. His strategy includes negotiating with former enemies—even bringing them through the Wall to share in its defense. In so doing, he is self-consciously straining the letter of his vows:

The words of his oath rang through his head. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. And for him a new refrain: I am the guard who opened the gates. He would have given much and more to know that he was doing the right thing.[48]

Jon’s actions may seem to run counter to his official role, but they are based upon a hard-won understanding of the spirit of his vows. One phrase in particular becomes key to his thinking: "The shield that guards the realms of men." Jon elects not to discriminate between the various squabbling categories of "men" his watch encompasses,[49] and recognizes the interdependence of the peoples uneasily inhabiting the same borderlands.[50]

Previous wildling attempts to approach the Wall in force have been repelled with arrows and steel, with frozen rocks and fire, climaxing in a battle fought from atop the Wall, and in Donal Noye’s heroic defence of Castle Black’s gate.[51] Now, these same traditional enemies are formally marshaled through the mighty structure whose authority they have defied for generations, in columns that weave with painful slowness through the Wall "from dawn till dusk."[52] The incongruity of the situation even provokes uneasy joking among its watchers, with Tormund informing Jon that "You need a bigger gate."[53] This rapprochement is inspired by a pragmatic understanding of a hostile environment. The wildlings Jon recruits to serve along the Wall cross to evade fear, starvation, and cold, not to defend a notional territorial boundary, and (despite the hopes of Stannis Baratheon) not to bolster any of the aristocratic claimants to the Iron Throne. Yet the pragmatism of this mass migration does not erase its symbolic significance. Jon’s resettlement of wildling populations reconfigures the Wall of A Song of Ice and Fire into a site for cultural encounter and possible integration, offering former enemies the (relative) security and comfort of the Wall’s defenses in exchange for their acceptance of an alien military and cultural authority. Jon’s understanding of the Wall has come a long way since his initial reading of its landscapes as straightforwardly defensive and divisive. His radically inclusive response to an encroaching supernatural threat builds on a wider and more profound sense of the Wall’s function and symbolism, depending as much on encounter, negotiation, and potential transformation (both personal and collective) as it does on force of arms. 

This fictional account of the ways in which an apparently divisive edifice might potentially facilitate the development of alternative relationships highlights some key questions about Hadrian’s Wall which archaeologists have, so far, struggled to address. As the 2009 "Frontiers of Knowledge" document states, "The nature of the interaction between the local population and the army and its followers, both initially and over time, is the great unanswered question pertaining to life in the frontier zone."[54] In a discipline predicated upon the interpretation of material remains, making judgments about human interactions and relationships is a significant challenge. Some evidence for the populations is available. An elaborate tombstone found near Arbeia (a fort just beyond the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall) commemorates Regina, a British freedwoman who married her former master Barates, originally a native of Syria. His lament for her loss is inscribed in Palmyrene, as well as Latin, while Regina's carved image, decked in all the accoutrements of a virtuous Roman matron, testifies to the complexity and success of their own cultural encounter.[55]

Indicative of cultural encounter on a wider scale, and reminding us that influence can run both directions, is Simon James’s description of how a style of dress once considered barbarian—long-sleeved tunics, breeches, and cloaks—infiltrated the Roman Empire by way of its army’s northern European recruits, becoming widely adopted by the fourth century CE.[56] James also draws on the absence of civilian dwellings near military sites to argue that many of the settlements we habitually imagine as being solely inhabited by soldiers were actually "a mixed community of soldiers, servants, families, and hangers on."[57] The glimpse of ancient lives offered by such evidence is fragmentary at best. But it points towards the emergence of a frontier society within which a variety of Roman and non-Roman populations encountered one another and, as a result, formed new identities.[58] The imaginative exercise of engaging with fictional parallels, like the borderlands depicted in A Song of Ice and Fire, can stimulate and enrich our ongoing explorations of such past societies.

Conclusion

The five extant volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire have witnessed some significant modifications of the impermeable, unscalable Wall that Jon initially imagined he was going to defend. This continually evolving sense of the Wall’s identity and purpose is mirrored in increasingly subtle descriptions of the Wall itself. In A Game of Thrones, the Wall is primarily characterized as a barrier—a defensive fortification, its icy mass dominating the landscape it occupies and defines. By A Dance with Dragons, Martin’s depictions of the Wall increasingly stress the mutability and multiplicity of his monumental creation:

The Wall has more moods than Mad King Aerys, they’d say, or sometimes, the Wall has more moods than a woman. On cloudy days it looked to be white rock. On moonless nights it was as black as coal. In snowstorms it seemed carved of snow. But on days like this, there was no mistaking it for anything but ice. On days like this the Wall shimmered bright as a septon’s crystal, every crack and crevasse limned by sunlight, as frozen rainbows danced and died behind translucent ripples. On days like this the Wall was beautiful.[59]

The Wall, like the men and women who inhabit and contest its surrounding landscapes, is sketched with a sharp authorial eye for the dramatic contrasts, contradictions, and paradoxes of a frontier.

The scale and complexity of the fantastical world being created in A Song of Ice and Fire (and its media spinoffs) means that this is an imaginative realm defined by its ability to surprise and wrong-foot its avid readership. As Lowder says:

On the level of narrative strategy, Martin employs historical and literary allusions and resonances, along with a deceptively open use of genre conventions, to help form reader expectations. Take them too much on face value, though, and you’re in for a shock.[60]

We might, then, read A Song of Ice and Fire’s shifting depictions of the Wall as a strategy to subvert generic convention and narrative expectation. What first appears to be an impermeable military defense turns out to be a highly-transversable site of personal discovery and cultural encounter. But this approach to worldbuilding also means that Martin’s fantasy landscape has come to develop an intriguing set of analogies for current debates on the archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall.

We’ve got to be careful here, of course. As Tom Holland observes, Martin’s attitude towards history is too darkly playful for us to read any element of A Song of Ice and Fire as referring solely and consistently to any single moment from the past: "Different events—and different periods—elide to consistently potent and surprising effect. In Game of Thrones, episodes from the history of our own world lie in wait for the characters like booby traps."[61] In Martin’s fiction, archaeology is being refigured as fantasy, in which process the historic Hadrian’s Wall is reimagined, in bigger and bolder colors than the mundane world permits, as an overscaled and unpredictable frontier zone, whose nature and function is subject to continual revision. And yet, as Richard Hingley notes, "Hadrian’s Wall specialists realize that the idea that our knowledge is secure is a fantasy."[62] The insights of archaeological scholarship are also unstable, contested, evolving, and unpredictable. In this respect, they’re not entirely unlike the shifting landscape of an as-yet-uncompleted fantasy series.

Part of the pleasure of reading A Song of Ice and Fire is the excitement of exploring its half-familiar territories, but perhaps the series might also make us more alert readers of the landscapes of this world. As this article has argued, Martin’s imaginative manipulations of the Seven Kingdoms’s northern frontier have the potential to promote a more flexible and creative range of interactions between a passionately engaged fantasy audience and the ongoing process of interpreting Hadrian’s Wall. The border between fantasy and archaeology may yet prove to be a more permeable and unpredictable frontier than we first thought.[63]



[2]  Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. London: Harper Voyager, 2011 [1996], 177-8. All references are to this edition.

[3]  A Game of Thrones, 177-8. It's likely that Martin is echoing Kipling's description of his own Roman Wall in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). On this, and other literary representations of Rome's northern frontier, see Gloyn, Liz. "By A Wall That Faced The South: Crossing the Border in Classically-Influenced Fantasy" (Strange Horizons, 27 January 2014) (accessed 3 May 2014).

[4]  Redman. "George R R Martin Talks Ice and Fire" (2006) (accessed 4 May 2014).

[5]  See further Hingley, Richard. Hadrian’s Wall: A Life. Oxford: OUP, 2012, 29.  See also Hingley, Richard and Hartis, Rich. "Contextualizing Hadrian’s Wall: The Wall as 'Debatable Lands,'" in Hekster, Oliver and Kaizer, Ted (eds) Frontiers in the Roman World: Proceedings of the Ninth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire. Leiden: Brill, 2011, (79-95) 80.

[6]  Collingwood, R.G. "The Roman Frontier in Britain," Antiquity 1 (1927), (15-30). On scholarly responses to Collingwood see Breeze, David J. The Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2011, 195-200. See also Hingley, Hadrian’s Wall, 246-7, 294-299.

[7]  My thinking on this subject has been particularly informed by the Tales of the Frontier (2007–9) and Life of the Frontier (2011–12) projects at the University of Durham.

[8] Newman, David. "Contemporary Research Agendas in Border Studies: An Overview," in Wastl-Walter, Doris (ed.) The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, (33-47) 37.

[9]  Higgins, Charlotte. Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. London: Jonathan Cape, 2013, 112.

[10]  Witcher, Robert. "The Fabulous Tales of the Common People, Part 2: Encountering Hadrian’s Wall." Public Archaeology 9.4 (2010), (211-238) 220.

[11]  On the links between portrayals of Hadrian's Wall in popular culture and contemporary debates surrounding Scottish independence see Malsonado, Adrián. "The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and the Matter of Britain" (Almost Archaeology, 19 July 2014) (accessed 1 August 2014). As Higgins has observed, Hadrian’s Wall "has become a place where we may play out our uncertainties and anxieties about the perils of empire; a place where we might, if we choose, consider a meaning for Britain that complicates, and long pre-dates, the national boundaries and identities that are now so strongly reasserting themselves." Higgins, Under Another Sky, 229.

[12]  A Game of Thrones, 178.

[13] On the importance of borders and border-crossings in fantasy see further Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009). Jon Snow initially seems to envisage the Wall as the starting point for the type of heroic adventure defined by Mendlesohn as belonging to the portal quest type, xix-xx, 1-58.  But, as Ekhart observes, "the border can also be used to upset, reverse, or complicate the very worldview it seems to advance." Ekman, Stefan. Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013, 98.

[14]  A Game of Thrones, 87.

[15]  A Game of Thrones, 178-9.

[16]  These dedicated watchers on the Wall are not the Roman centurions initially envisaged by Martin. In their culture, weaponry, and fighting style the Night’s Watch are more akin to medieval knights, and their name may have been inspired by the "night watch" which attempted (and often failed) to keep order along the unruly frontier between the independent kingdoms of Scotland and England during the sixteenth century. Hingley, Hadrian’s Wall, 57-60. Martin’s Wall may additionally owe something to the fortifications proposed in a late sixteenth-century document called The Epystle to the Queen’s Majestie, discussed in Hingley, Hadrian’s Wall, 60-2.

[17]  A Game of Thrones, 502-3. A similar scene forms the first sequence of the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones (1.1–"Winter Is Coming"). 

[18] A Game of Thrones, 15. The nature of the direwolf’s death, with "a foot of shattered antler, tines snapped off, all wet with blood" lodged in its throat, might be taken as an ominous sign for both Ned and Robert, whose sigils are (respectively) a direwolf and a crowned stag. A Game of Thrones, 16.         

[19]  A Game of Thrones, 560.

[20]  A Game of Thrones, 758.      

[21]  Martin, George R.R. A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow. London: Harper Voyager, 2000, 407-8. All references are to this edition.

[22]  Maps of "The Land Beyond the Wall" (signed R.G.) which preface recent editions of the novels include sketches illustrative of The Haunted Forest and The Frostfangs, and mark the location of the territory labeled "Thenn," although "The Land of Always Winter" which lies to the north of these is simply described as "unmapped." Compare the northern extremity of this interactive map, based on artwork by serMountainGoat (accessed 14 May 2014).

[23]  Breeze, David J. and Brian Dobson. Hadrian’s Wall (4th edition). London: Penguin: 2000, 40.  

[24] Breeze, David J. Roman Frontiers in Britain. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2007, 86. See also 39-42, 45-7. For a more detailed discussion of this process see Breeze and Dobson, Hadrian’s Wall, 25-87.

[25]  Hodgson, for instance, cites "the attested crossing of the Wall shortly after 180, which has been linked to destruction deposits at Corbridge, Rudchester and Halton Chesters," and in the course of which a Roman general was killed. Hodgson, N. (ed.). Hadrian’s Wall 1999-2009: A Summary of Excavation and Research prepared for The Thirteenth Pilgrimage to Hadrian’s Wall, 8-14 August 2009. Kendal: Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2009, 45.

[27]  Hingley, Richard. "Hadrian’s Wall in Theory: Pursuing New Agendas?" in Bidwell, Paul (ed.) Understanding Hadrian’s Wall. Kendal: The Arbeia Society, 2008, (25-28).

[28]  Hingley and Hartis, "Contextualizing Hadrian’s Wall," 89. See also Breeze and Dobson, Hadrian’s Wall, 40.

[29]  See further Breeze, Roman Frontiers in Britain, 42-5.

[30]  Newman, "Contemporary Research Agendas in Border Studies," 37.

[31]  A Game of Thrones, 119. After his return to King’s Landing, Tyrion himself will make regular use of the Wall as a dumping ground for political enemies. As Peter Baelish amusedly notes: "Drink with the dwarf, it’s said, and you wake up walking the Wall." Martin, George R.R. A Clash of Kings. London: Harper Voyager, 1998, 246. All references are to this edition.

[32]  A Game of Thrones, 498.

[33]  This is a matter about which sharp-eyed readers, picking up hints sown throughout the series, may be better informed than Jon himself. On this score, Ygritte’s "song o’ the winter rose" might be taken as pointing readers in some interesting directions. A Clash of Kings, 1998, 673-5.

[34]   A Storm of Swords 1, 99.

[35]  He even claims to have sat, audacious and unrecognised, in Eddard Stark’s hall the night he feasted King Robert. A Storm of Swords 1, 102-4.

[36]  On the evidence for, and significance of, the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum see Benjamin, Richard. "Roman Wall: Barrier or Bond?" (British Archaeology 77, July 2004) (accessed 1 August 2014). For a full list of regiments posted on Hadrian’s Wall see Breeze and Dobson, Hadrian’s Wall, 256-276. On the international character of the Roman Wall’s garrisons see Hingley, Richard. "Tales of the Frontier: Diasporas on Hadrian’s Wall," in Eckardt, Hella (ed.) Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire (Portsmouth: JRA Supplementary Series No.78, 2010), (227-243) 227-8. For a discussion of the modern reception of these mixed communities see also Hingley, Hadrian’s Wall, 164-9.

[37]  James, Simon. "The Community of the Soldiers: a major identity and centre of power in the Roman empire" in Baker, Patricia; Forcey, Colin; Jundi, Sophia and Witcher, Robert (eds) TRAC 98: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Leicester 1998. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1999, (14-25) 16-21.

[38]  Hingley and Hartis, "Contextualizing Hadrian’s Wall," 88-9.

[39] For a discussion of comparable processes beyond Britain see Woolf, Greg. Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

[40]  James, Simon. "’Romanization’ and the peoples of Britain" in Keay, Simon and Terrenato, Nicola (eds) Italy and the West: Comparative Issues in Romanization. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 2001, (187-209) 200. 

[41]  Discussed in Hodgson, Hadrian’s Wall 1999-2009, 34.

[42] "The Wall emphasized a form of Romaness in a marginal, contested landscape, amongst indigenous peoples who in the long term do not appear to have appreciated the values spread by the Roman cultural initiative." Hingley and Hartis, "Contextualizing Hadrian’s Wall," 88.

[43]  Narratives concerning the absence of Romanization among civilian communities on Britain’s northern frontier may be challenged by emerging evidence from recent excavations, potentially pointing to "a nascent provincial society" in the Durham area. Hodgson, Hadrian’s Wall 1999-2009, 49.

[44]  James, "The Community of the Soldiers," 23-4.

[45] For a critique of ways in which modern visitors to Hadrian’s Wall are positioned (and position themselves) as Roman see Witcher, "The Fabulous Tales of the Common People," 217-220.

[46]  A Clash of Kings, 326.

[47]  A Clash of Kings, 336.

[48]  Martin, George R.R. A Dance with Dragons 2: After the Feast. London: Harper Voyager, 2011, 192. All references are to this edition.

[49]  In Season 3 of Game of Thrones (3.10–"Mhysh") Sam is given a speech which prefigures this radical thinking: "I am the shield that guards the realms of men. The realms of men. That means her [Gilly] as well as us. We didn’t build an ice-wall five hundred miles long and seven hundred feet high to keep out men." Compare also A Storm of Swords 1, 451.

[50]  Jon’s policy can also be read as a continuation of Mance Rayder’s strategy: "Raymun Redbeard, Bael the Bard, Grendel and Gorne, the Horned Lord, they all came south to conquer, but I’ve come with my tail between my legs to hide behind your Wall." A Storm of Swords 2, 445. It also develops (perhaps subversively) Stannis’s plans to settle loyal and pious new wildling subjects in the lands of the Gift. A Storm of Swords 2, 486.

[51]  A Storm of Swords 2, 167-183, 295-308.

[52]  A Dance with Dragons 2, 283.

[53]  A Dance with Dragons 2, 281.

[54]  Symonds and Mason (eds). "Frontiers of Knowledge," 51.

[55]  Higgins, Under Another Sky, 170-1.

[56]  James, "‘Romanization’ and the peoples of Britain," 202. See also James, "The Community of the Soldiers," 21-3.

[57]  James, Simon. "Soldiers and civilians: identity and interaction in Roman Britain" in James, Simon and Millett, Martin (eds) Britons and Romans: Advancing an Archaeological Agenda. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2001,(77-89) 84. He also argues that such populations, including women and older children, "will have provided a considerable part, if not the bulk, of the labour/production capacity of the community," 80. Compare Martin, George R.R. A Dance with Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust. London: Harper Voyager, 2011, 317-8. All references are to this edition.

[58]  Hingley and Hartis, "Contextualizing Hadrian’s Wall," 82.

[59]  A Dance with Dragons 2, 194.

[60]  Lowder, James. "Introduction: In Praise of Living History," in Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Dallas: BenBella, 2012, (xiii-xviii) xvi.    

[61] Holland, Tom. "Game of Thrones is more brutally realistic than most historical novels" (The Guardian, 24 March 2013) (accessed 4 May 2014). It is beyond the scope of this short paper to consider other influences informing Martin’s depiction of the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire but, in particular, a debt to the Great Wall of China seems likely.  

[62]  Hingley, "Hadrian’s Wall in Theory," 26. Breeze concurs, pointing out that each new discovery "reminds us how little of the monument we have investigated and that there are likely to be other unexpected finds." Breeze, David J. "To Study the Monument: Hadrian’s Wall 1848-2006," in Bidwell, Paul (ed.) Understanding Hadrian’s Wall. Kendal: The Arbeia Society, 2008, (1-4) 3.

[63] Earlier versions of this material were presented at "Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World" (June 2013) and at an Institute of Classical Studies Early Career Seminar (December 2013). I am grateful to Liz Gloyn, Penny Goodman, Cara Sheldrake, and Tony Keen for much helpful discussion arising from these papers. 




Stephe Harrop is a theatre scholar and performance storyteller, whose work focuses on ancient Greek tragedy and epic, and the myths and ballads of the Borders. She spent much of her childhood in the back of a Ford Cortina, somewhere between Scotland and England. Her book, Theorising Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural History and Critical Practice, is available online.
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