Many of the places, people and things in the world of Westeros and beyond can be compared to plaes, people and things of the real world. For example, Westeros can be paralleled to England, the Lannisters and Starks to the Lancasters and the Yorks and so the sickness called greyscale should be no exception. However, as much as some of the comparisons appear to fit, there is always an exemption. George RR Martin either adds or takes away an aspect that makes no noun a perfect fit to the real world. Greyscale is no exception. Greyscale does not have a direct real world equivalent; however, the social reaction to greyscale are much like the Black Plague but the physical reactions to the disease can be mostly be paralleled to leprosy. Even then, there are little aspects that can be tied to smallpox. In A Song of Ice and Fire books and the Game of Thrones television series, George RR Martin once again cleverly plays and discredits medieval tropes involving illness and disease in the form of the greyscale.
The first mention of greyscale is in the book The World of Ice and Fire: A History of Westeros and Beyond. It tells the story of Prince Garin’s defeat at Volantis by the Valyrian dragonlords and his curse urging the Mother Rhoyne, the river goddess, to avenge her children[i].
The Rhoyne flooded out of season “and a thick fog full of evil humours fell, and the Valyrian conquerors began to die of greyscale. (There is, at least, this much truth to the tale: in later centuries, Lomas Longstrider wrote of the drowned ruins of Chroyane, its foul fogs and waters, and the fact that wayward travelers infected with greyscale now haunt the ruins – a hazard for those who travel the river beneath the broken span of the Bridge of Dreams)” [ii]
Though the origins of greyscale are as of yet unknown, it has mystical implications and a preconceived aura of curses and evil humours. The embellishments and myth surrounding the disease associates it with sicknesses of the medieval age, which were often seen as punishment or a curse.
Though not the first time the reader encounters greyscale, Tyrion’s experience with the stone men in A Dance with Dragons is certainly the most involved instance. After hearing greyscale called ‘Garin’s Curse’, Tyrion mutters to himself, “Garin’s Curse is only greyscale”[iii]. Trying to rationalize in an otherwise spooky and greyscale infested environment on the Rhoyne near the ruins of Chroyane, Tyrion explains the disease, though still uses the description of ‘curse’ which hints at greyscale’s mythic impact on the people of George RR Martin’s universe:
“The curse was oft seen in children, especially in damp, cold climes. The afflicted flesh stiffened, calcified, and cracked, though the dwarf had read that greyscale’s progress could be stayed by limes, mustard poultices, and scalding hot baths (the maesters said) or by prayer, sacrifice and fasting (the septons insisted). Then the disease passed, leaving its young victims disfigured but alive”[iv].
As the disease spreads, it delves under the skin and causes organs to shut down in a slow and painful death[v]. If a person has been exposed to the disease, they can prick the tips of their toes and fingers every day. As long as the pricks hurt, there is no cause for alarm as the mortal form of greyscale begins at the appendages with a tingling or a nail turning black and a loss of feeling[vi]. Once the numbness is complete it moves up the appendage and the skin takes on a greyish hue resembling stone[vii]. Tyrion “heard it said that there were three good cures for greyscale: axe and sword and clever”[viii]. Though others simply cut off the infected appendage, though this is not always affective and limes, mustard poultices or scalding hot baths are also said to halt the process[ix]. The greyscale wiki on Game of Thrones notes that “the free folk consider people who survive greyscale unclean”[x]. Though they will be immune from ever contracting it again, those who manage to survive the illness will be permanently scared because the damaged flesh will never heal[xi]. In George RR Martin’s universe, there have only been a handful of characters infected by greyscale, however Shireen Baratheon is the only mentioned character thus far to have overcome the illness. Others who were infected include, Princess Maegelle Targaryen and Harlon Greyjoy, both of whom died; and Jon Connington, who is infected after being attacked by Stone Men and saving Tyrion in Chroyane though his fate has yet to be determined[xii].
Citizens that have been affected by greyscale are banished to the ruins of Chroyane, north of Volantis in Essos.
It is like a colony for ‘Stone Men’- those who are those infected with greyscale[xiii]. Tyrion remarks on the strange and haunting aura of the place of the Stone Men, “This was a bad place, rank with despair and death… This fog is not natural. Something foul grew in the waters here, and festered in the air. Small wonder the stone men go mad”[xiv]. The disease, as the Game of Thrones wiki explains, “has caused [the Stone Men] to become witless and lumbering, generally passive if left undisturbed, though further onset of the disease leads to madness and increased risk of provocation”[xv]. Many tales and speculation surround these people and they are rumoured to have a ruler, the Shrouded Lord. The name is almost taboo, as Tyrion reacts to some fellow passengers on the ship Shy Maid taking about ‘His Grey Grace’, “Death had lost its terror for Tyrion Lannister, but greyscale was another matter. The Shrouded Lord is just a legend, he told himself”[xvi]. Apparently one version of the legend is that the Shrouded Lord is Prince Garin risen from his watery grave[xvii]. The more legends and fantasies the disease greyscale is associated with, the more it appears that George RR Martin is playing up the Medievalist trope that most diseases must have more behind them than mere sickness. Curses and legends therefore become involved as is ‘typical’ for medieval thinking.
Another notable character involved with greyscale is Princess Shireen Baratheon.
Shireen is the daughter of Stannis and Selyse Baratheon. Her father is the head of House Baratheon of Dragonstone and has declared himself King on the Iron Throne. Shireen is Stannis’s only living child and therefore his heir[xviii]. Shireen is described in A Clash of Kings as a sad and ugly child “…with a disfigurement all her own, the legacy of the bout of greyscale that had almost claimed her in the crib. Across one cheek and well down her neck, her flesh was stiff and dead, the skin cracked and flaking, mottled black and grey and stony to the touch…”[xix]. A difference between the books and the television series is that Stannis is shown to be much more affectionate in the television series to his daughter than in the books. This is probably for the benefit of character development, as is Selyse’s treatment of her daughter in the television series as well. Though it is noted that Selyse dislikes Shireen in the books because of her disfigurement and the curses and uncleanliness associated with survivors of greyscale, in the television show, Selyse’s dislike for her child borders on the edge of sanity. Like when she talks lovingly to her preserved stillborn sons after trying to prevent Stannis from seeing Shireen.
The show appears to pick up on Selyse’s dislike and caution around her daughter because of Shireen’s illness and amplifies it to further portray reactions surrounding greyscale.
The Black Plague and Greyscale
With horrified reactions like Selyse’s and Tyrion’s to greyscale and the legends and fear surrounding it, it appears that George RR Martin may be hinting at the Black Plague as it’s real life equivalent. Herbert C. Covey explains in his web article that the Black Death or Bubonic Plague was “one of the deadliest diseases in mankind’s history- so feared that it has become virtually a metaphor for epidemic illness”[xx].
If George RR Martin likes dealing with Medievalist tropes, the Black Plague is one of the most prominent in the front of disease and death in the Middle Ages. The fear and horror and the idea of a ‘curse’ surrounding the Black Plague is akin to the greyscale as Brian Lee Grigsby writes, “The connection between sin and disease became even more evident when the bubonic plague struck… since there was no biblical source for plague, medieval people interpreted the disease as a punishment…”[xxi]. The idea of punishment through disease can be compared to the reactions to greyscale, as it was, according to legend, used as a punishment through a curse by Prince Garin. In the essay “Crime and Punishment”, Dionysios Stathakopouls writes that, to the medieval citizen, “…plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, the result of human transgression, either individual or collective”[xxii]. The treatment of the plague is also similar to that of greyscale with the use of onion, garlic, arsenic, even the leaves of tobacco used to heal the disease[xxiii] similar to the mustard poultices and limes used by the maesters for greyscale.
Another similar treatment is the use of vinegar water as a cleaning implement as people with or near the Black Plague were encouraged to fumigate their rooms… and wash down with vinegar water[xxiv] and the people infected with greyscale were told that vinegar helps prevent the disease[xxv]. Also in likeness to greyscale, in Black Plague victims, “under their skin, blood starts to pool, causing blackness in the fingers and toes…” just like the blackening of toes and fingers in greyscale[xxvi].
However, this is where the similarities end. Though the Black Plague is similar to greyscale on a more social reaction level, the physical differences between the diseases puts a halt to that real world comparison besides the similar blackening of the infected appendages. Greyscale was said to be dry and scaly and grey and disfiguring to the skin. Though the Black Plague is deforming to the skin, it is mostly due to boils whereas the greyscale disease appears to add an all encompassing scaly layer on the skin. Due to the similar, though not equivalent attributes any further comparison now proves that George RR Martin uses greyscale to yet again defy conventional labeling by having multiple possibilities for real world parallels in his universe.
Let’s Talk Fan Theory (via Jon Connington)
“Winter is coming”. The infamous phrase has haunted the series, book and television show the entire span of the existing storyline. This apocalyptic undertone to the series leaves many guessing on how the world will fall apart with the threat of the long winter hanging over all. A popular fan theory is that greyscale will spread much like the Black Plague, wiping out many Westerosi citizens. This idea, though only guesswork, can be examined because of the tropes associated with such a proposal. The fear and threat of a deadly virus wiping out humanity is not only something medieval citizens feared because of the Black Plague, but also today many apocalyptic tropes involve the deadly spread of a disease. The vassal that would begin such an end in Westeros and beyond is Jon Connington.
Jon, going by the alias name Griff to protect Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar Targaryen and possible heir to the Iron Throne, was infected with greyscale during the journey to Volantis when rescuing Tyrion form the Stone Men but he keeps it a secret[xxvii].
If Jon intends to help Aegon win the Iron Throne, he will have to set foot on Westerosi soil to do so. Westeros is a country devoted to a complex trade network from around their known world. The Justinianic plague in 541 spread from Alexandria to much of the Roman Empire because of the trading ships in the Mediterranean (Rosen).
As William Rosen continues, “The disease always took its start from the coast, and then went up to the interior”[xxviii]. Though greyscale may not look much like the Black Plague, it has potential to affect Westeros as the Black Plague did Europe as one of the deadliest outbreaks the world has ever seen.
A Small Connection with Smallpox
Another small, real world comparison to greyscale would be smallpox. For Shireen, her family is not worried about catching the disease from interaction with her because she has fought off the infection as an infant and therefore can no longer be contagious. In this aspect, greyscale can be loosely similar to smallpox in that people who contract smallpox could recover and never become infected again though they may be left with severe scarring, much like Shireen Baratheon [xxix].
Leprosy and Greyscale
If the Black Plague and smallpox are only relatively similar, though far from an exact fit, I believe leprosy can be considered the closest comparison to greyscale. In the bible, in Leviticus, the word “tsara’ath” which may be considered as a ‘scaly skin’ disease, is translated into Greek as lepra which continues to leprosy[xxx]. In many of the origins of the word, leprosy can be traced back to a disease sounding a lot like greyscale: Leprosy, which translated from Greek means fish scales[xxxi], Hebrew word for skin diseases, Zara’at, was first the Greek term ‘… covered a wide range of skin disorders that turned the skin rough, scaly or flaky’[xxxii]. It appears as though greyscale is extremely similar to leprosy, or at least, it’s aspects of scales and skin disease sound very much like the greyscale. By using the Bible as a starting point, the moral system that doctors and theologians used to interpret the Black Plague was also apparently used to interpret leprosy[xxxiii].
The greyscale wiki page even remarks on this comparison, “it is somewhat similar to leprosy in that it tends to disfigure those infected with it, and in how society fears people with greyscale as “unclean”” much like Shireen Baratheon[xxxiv]. Leprosy’s symptoms include disfigured skin sores, degeneration of features, especially the nose and, much like greyscale, “destruction of the nerves at the extremities of the body, such as the fingers and toes, resulting in loss of sensation and thus damage to these areas”[xxxv]. Like greyscale, it was believed that a scalding bath would expel impurities as bathing relieved pain, and the process of scrubbing not only removed dead skin, but was held to restore sensation to lepers’ desensitized limbs[xxxvi]. Many of the apparent social reactions to leprosy in the Middle Ages are akin to how the Stone Men are treated. Once the officials understood that leprosy was present in the victim, the victim was removed from his or her house and banished from society. The leper was pronounced dead to the world[xxxvii]. The greyscale victims are sent to the ruins of Chroyane and by all attempts and purposes are dead to the world. It is noted by Herbert C. Covey, like the people of Westeros with greyscale, medieval citizens thought they could get leprosy through association (3). According to Covey, medieval communities saw people with leprosy as unclean and suspicious.
To the medieval citizen, leprosy meant a long, disfiguring, and inevitable death. Given the perceived horrors of the disease, medieval citizens avoided contact those with leprosy[xxxviii]. This fear of lepers is a typical view of medieval society, almost a trope. Since George RR Martin is known to play with medievalism tropes, it can almost be suspicious that greyscale is treated with the same kind of expected horror and distance. This destruction of the medievalism belief of the horrors of leprosy can be begin with the fact that it is now held that the disease is not heavily contagious. In fact, only a small minority of people exposed to the bacterium develop leprosy[xxxix]. Martin is again playing with tropes because a person cannot actually be infected with leprosy just from contact but they can be with greyscale, as can be seen with Jon Connington after he saves Tyrion form the Stone Men.
But Wait! There’s More to It:
Researcher Elma Brenner wrote an article “Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Europe” that completely challenges the original views of leprosy in that lepers were excluded and stigmatized, “suggesting instead that lepers were believed to have been chosen by God to be redeemed, and were thus the objects of sympathy and compassion”[xl]. According to Brenner, lepers stood out as being perceived as being chosen by God to be afflicted on earth and that through their suffering, they would attain salvation in the world [xli]. Covey also attests to the destruction of the leper trope as he explains that “according to Kealey (1981), in twelfth century England, people with leprosy were not ostracized or separated from society, and leper clappers and bells were not used”[xlii]. However, even if the lepers in medieval society were not very contagious or wore cow bells, Brenner argues that “lepers were most strongly associated with ‘moral corruption’ – their physical deterioration was understood to reflect the decay of their souls – and that this concept permeates medieval”[xliii].
It cannot be denied that medical and religious beliefs shaped the treatment of lepers[xliv]. Like most of the medieval ages, how lepers were treated is much more complicated than the simple statement that they were shunned and feared by society. Brenner continues to explain that “recent research on leprosy in the Middle Ages has shown how complex… responses [are] to the disease and its sufferers, ranging from fear of contagion to a concern to provide charity for the leprous”[xlv]. Even if lepers were removed from society and even that action can be seen as more complex than simple exclusion they were far from forgotten or ignored by medieval citizens[xlvi].
Like All and Like None
Once again, it is clear that, though greyscale is very much akin to leprosy, it is far from the real world equivalent as even the real world is still rethinking the way leprosy was viewed. Then, of course, there is the matter of the hardening of the infected areas and the stony appearance of the disease. These are George RR Martin’s additions that make greyscale its own disease and not directly parallel to any real world illness. Even if greyscale had only one single obvious parallel, the fantastical elements of the greyscale disease leaves it to its own unique category exclusive to George RR Martin’s world.
[i] Martin, George RR, Elio M Garcia Jr, and Linda Antonsson. “Ten Thousand Ships.” In The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2014. Pg 23.
[ii] Ibid. 23
[iii] Martin, George RR. A Dance With Dragons. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2011. 117-319. Pg 233.
[iv] Ibid. 233
[vii] Martin, George RR. A Dance With Dragons. Pg 237.
[viii] Ibid. 237
[x] Greyscale.” Game of Thrones Wiki.
[xi] “Greyscale.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.
[xii] Greyscale.” Game of Thrones Wiki.
[xiv] Martin, George RR. A Dance With Dragons. Pg 233
[xv] “Stone Men.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.
[xvi] Martin, George RR. A Dance With Dragons. Pg 116
[xix] Martin, George RR. “Prologue.” In A Clash of Kings, 2-21. Trade Paperback Tie-In ed. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2012. Pg 2-3.
[xx] Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Pg 185.
[xxi] Grigsby, Bryon Lee. “The Doctour Maketh This Descriptioun”: The Moral and Social Meanings of Leprosy and Bubonic Plague in Literary, Theological, and Medical Texts of the English Middle Ages and Renaissance.” 2000. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://search.proquest .com.Libpr oxy.wlu.ca/docview/304606614. Pg 103.
[xxii] Stathakopoulos, Dionysios. “Crime and Punishment, The Plague in the Byzantine Empire 541-749.” In The Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750, edited by Lester K. Little, 106. New York, New York: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2007. Pg 106.
[xxiii] Petruševski, Ana B. “History of Infectious Diseases Development in the Old and the Middle Ages with Emphasis on the Plague and Leprosy.” History of Medicine 70, no. 7 (2013): 704-08. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://www.doiserbia.nb.rs.libproxy.wlu.ca/img/doi/0042-8450/2013/ 0042-84501307704P.pdf. Pg 706.
[xxiv] Lee, Christopher. “Plague.” In 1603: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return Od the Black Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Borth of the Stuart Era, 184. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Pg 184.
[xxv] Greyscale.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.
[xxvi] Covey, Herbert C. “People with Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) during the Middle Ages.” The Social Science Journal 38 (2001): 315-21. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://journals2.scholars portal.info.libproxy.wlu.ca/pdf /03623319/v38i0002/315_pwlddtma.xml.
[xxviii] Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe.
[xxix] “Greyscale.” Game of Thrones Wiki.
[xxx] Grigsby, Bryon Lee.
[xxxi] Petruševski, Ana B. 707.
[xxxii] Brenner, Elma. “Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Western Europe.” History Compass 8, no. 5 (2010): 388-406. Accessed April 6, 2015. http://journals2.scholarsportal. info.libproxy.wlu.ca/pdf/14780542/v 08i0005/388_rpolimwe.xml. Pg 15.
[xxxiii] Grigsby, Bryon Lee.
[xxxiv] “Greyscale.” Game of Thrones Wiki.
[xxxv] Brenner, Elma. 2
[xxxvi] Ibid. 8
[xxxvii] Grigsby, Bryon Lee. 68
[xxxviii] Covey, Herbert C. 3
[xxxix] Brenner, Elma. 2
[xl] Ibid. 1
[xli] Ibid. 4
[xlii] Covey, Herbert C. 3
[xliii] Brenner, Elma. 4
[xliv] Ibid. 8
[xlv] Ibid. 12
[xlvi] Ibid. 7
Figure 2: http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Chroyane
Figure 11: http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-166726/The-reach-of-the-Black-Death-in-Europe-from-1347
Brenner, Elma. “Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Western Europe.” History Compass 8, no. 5 (2010): 388-406. Accessed April 6, 2015. http://journals2.scholarsportal. info.libproxy.wlu.ca/pdf/14780542/v 08i0005/388_rpolimwe.xml.
Covey, Herbert C. “People with Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) during the Middle Ages.” The Social Science Journal 38 (2001): 315-21. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://journals2.scholars portal.info.libproxy.wlu.ca/pdf /03623319/v38i0002/315_pwlddtma.xml.
“Greyscale.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. December 26, 2014. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Greyscale.
Greyscale.” Game of Thrones Wiki. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://gameofthrones.wikia.com /wiki/Greyscale.
Grigsby, Bryon Lee. “The Doctour Maketh This Descriptioun”: The Moral and Social Meanings of Leprosy and Bubonic Plague in Literary, Theological, and Medical Texts of the English Middle Ages and Renaissance.” 2000. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://search.proquest .com.Libpr oxy.wlu.ca/docview/304606614. Pg 103.
“Jon Connington.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. February 15, 2015. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Jon_ Connington.
Lee, Christopher. “Plague.” In 1603: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return Od the Black Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Borth of the Stuart Era, 184. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
Martin, George RR. A Dance With Dragons. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2011. 117-319.
Martin, George RR, Elio M Garcia Jr, and Linda Antonsson. “Ten Thousand Ships.” In The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
Martin, George RR. “Prologue.” In A Clash of Kings, 2-21. Trade Paperback Tie-In ed. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2012.
Petruševski, Ana B. “History of Infectious Diseases Development in the Old and the Middle Ages with Emphasis on the Plague and Leprosy.” History of Medicine 70, no. 7 (2013): 704-08. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://www.doiserbia.nb.rs.libproxy.wlu.ca/img/doi/0042-8450/2013/ 0042-84501307704P.pdf.
Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2007.
“Shireen Baratheon.” Game of Thrones Wiki. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://gameofthrones .wikia. com/wiki/Shireen_Baratheon.
Stathakopoulos, Dionysios. “Crime and Punishment, The Plague in the Byzantine Empire 541-749.” In The Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750, edited by Lester K. Little, 106. New York, New York: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2007.
“Stone Men.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. December 4, 2014. Accessed April 6, 2015. http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Stone_men.
“The Shrouded Lord.” A Wiki of Ice and Fire: A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. December 6, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Shrouded _Lord.