“Words are wind” is a common phrase in A Song of Ice and Fire, usually used to say “talk is cheap.” But that’s a view that underestimates both the power of words and wind themselves. In this “Words Are Wind” column, contributor Scott Andrews discusses some of the more important words in the world of Game of Thrones.
I never met my mother. My father wouldn’t even tell me her name. I don’t know if she’s living or dead. I don’t know if she’s a noblewoman or a fisherman’s wife… or a whore. So I sat there in the brothel as Ros took off her clothes. But I couldn’t do it. Because all I could think was what if I got her pregnant and she had a child, another bastard named Snow? –Jon Snow, Episode 1.4, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
Everything about Jon Snow’s life has reminded him that he is a bastard: Cat’s cold regard. Exiled from dinner with the king. No right to inherit Winterfell or its lands. And most of all, his name. He is no Stark. Ned takes pains to console him, during their last talk, that he may not have the Stark name, but he has Stark blood.
But if that’s true, why is he a Snow rather than a Stark? Why does Ramsay have the same last name as Jon? Why are Oberyn’s daughters called the Sand Snakes? Let’s explore the concept of bastardy in Westeros and the many words and names related to it.
The wrong side of the sheets
In Westeros, bastard is something of a legal definition that means a child born out of wedlock. Beyond that, there is an entire lexicon of slang for the concept of bastardy. “Natural child” is the polite way to say it. “Baseborn” is the word you use if your intention is to insult or provoke. A saucier way to put it is “born on the wrong side of the sheets.”
The social stigmas that Jon has to deal with, both inside and outside the Night’s Watch, are very real. There’s a reason why the noble and legitimate Ser Alliser Thorne calls Jon Snow a bastard every chance he can get. The one exception is Dorne, where bastards face no discrimination. In the Season 4 episode The Lion and the Rose, Prince Oberyn introduces his paramour Ellaria Sand to Cersei Lannister. “Can’t say I’ve ever met a Sand before,” Cersei says in her most passive-aggressive tone, pointing out Ellaria’s bastard name. “We are everywhere in Dorne,” Ellaria replies, “I have ten thousand brothers and sisters.” Oberyn defends his paramour: “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne.” “No?” Cersei says. “How tolerant of you.”
In Westeros, legitimate children are the key to maintaining power through generations via inheritance. Thus, keeping track of who’s legit and who’s not is critical. The system of naming bastards by their region arose from this necessity. It has the added benefit, for the sires of such children, that the names don’t reveal their actual parentage.
While lords are expected to father bastards, their noble wives have no obligation to embrace those children or indeed tolerate their lord’s infidelity. A Stark is a Stark, but a Snow could be anyone’s child. The name Snow provides deniability for the bastard’s father.
A bastard’s name matches the region of his or her birth: a Snow hails from the North, Flowers from the Reach, Hill from the Westerlands, Pyke from the Iron Islands, Rivers from the Riverlands, Sand from Dorne, Stone from the Vale, Storm from the Stormlands, and Waters from the Crownlands around King’s Landing.
Despite the social stigma, bastards still have opportunities. They can become maesters and knights, and even serve on the Kingsguard. They may not use their father’s coat of arms. However, they can use a similar version with reversed colors or with a “bend sinister” — a line of color running across the symbol.
And of course they can also volunteer for the Night’s Watch, but who would be crazy enough to do that?
Those European bastards
As he does for many concepts in Game of Thrones, Martin drew the concept of bastard names from medieval history. In England, royal bastards often took the surname “FitzRoy,” which means “son of a king.” Such bastards used a “bend sinister” coat of arms. Rumors abound that Henry VIII had several illegitimate children (despite his proliferation of wives), but he only acknowledged one: Henry FitzRoy. Charles II sired at least 20 bastards and acknowledged 14 of them, including several named FitzRoy and two dubbed FitzCharles.
Bastards carried a similar stigma in the real world as they do in Martin’s. France’s Louis XIV, despite fathering many bastards and even finding matches for them, once said, “No issue should come from such species.”
Many words considered uncouth have survived virtually intact across both ages and languages. Bastard is one such. It derives from the Latin bastardus, and it has been intact as bastard since as far back as Old French. A related phrase from Old French is fils de bast, meaning “packsaddle son.” Given that packsaddles were often used as beds while traveling, the term means a son conceived on the road.
The word today still carries a negative connotation, though now in modern English it is most often used to mean “an unpleasant or despicable person.”
“Baseborn” and “natural child” are real-world terms. The latter can mean any child born of his or her parents, rather than an adopted one, in addition to an illegitimate child.
Bastards of Westeros
Game of Thrones has given us a number of bastard characters. Jon and Ramsay Snow are bastards of Northern lords and are so named. Ramsay, however, is now a Bolton. A royal decree legitimized him in return for the Boltons’ service in destroying the rebellious Starks. Only a decree from the king can do so, and such decrees are extremely rare.
This reluctance stems from Westerosi history. Aegon IV Targaryen, styled “The Unworthy,” sired a number of bastards and legitimized them all on his deathbed. That unfortunate act led to the bloody Blackfyre Rebellions, in which Aegon’s bastards crowned themselves kings and attempted to conquer Westeros with armies of sellswords.
Gendry claims to have no last name, but as the bastard of Robert Baratheon, he is technically a Waters. While masquerading as Littlefinger’s bastard daughter, Sansa takes on the name Alayne Stone because her false persona would have been born in the Vale. In Season 4 we met Ellaria Sand, the bastard daughter of Lord Harmen Uller of Dorne. In Season 5, we will encounter the Sand Snakes of Dorne, so named because they are Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell’s bastard daughters.