The Extraordinary Persistence of Social Hierarchy in Westeros

In my third and final post on the political economy of Westeros, I want to address a question that has bothered me about A Song of Ice and Fire since I was first introduced to it. Many of the Lords Paramount have ruled their part of Westeros for thousands of years. The Starks, the Arryns and the Lannisters are the most obvious examples, but there are many others. In our world, however, there is far more turnover in who rules and who serves. This is not to say that families never stay in charge for long periods of time, but precious few families have kept their surnames and crowns for more than a few centuries. And to my knowledge, none have done so for more than 2000 years, like the Starks and the Lannisters. So it struck me that this was one of the least realistic things about social life in Westeros besides magic, of course.

But now I’d like to offer a theory as to how their power persists: Weirwood-modified genetics. Consider the following:

  • We know that some genetic effects in Westeros persist for very long periods of time. The Starks have long, brooding faces, and dark hair, the Baratheons have coal-black hair and the Lannisters have golden hair and green eyes, typically. The Targaryens, obviously, have silver-gold hair and purple eyes of various hues.
  • We know that genetics can be influenced by magic, from GRRM’s own mouth (I heard this by report from Aziz and Ashaya at History of Westeros, but I can’t find the source through Googling.
  • We have some reason to believe, following Greg Clark’s recent, extensive work in The Son Also Rises on the persistence of social advantages in many countries across history that there is probably some genetic basis for social dominance even in our world. In our world, the dominance of certain families lasts for generations longer than it should if some kind of social skill were not heavily heritable. In Westeros, this effect is far, far stronger for a few families.
  • We know that nearly all the great castles have Weirwoods, including Casterly Rock and Winterfell (though the Eyrie has no weirwood, as the ground is too stony). Storm’s End, White Harbor and Riverrun all have weirwoods.
  • We know that at least in White Harbor and Winterfell, the faces on the heart trees resemble the faces of the families. The heart tree in Winterfell has a “long and melancholy face” much like Jon Snow and Arya, Eddard Stark and Lyanna Stark. The face on the weirwood in White Harbor is carved on a “trunk so wide that the face carved into it looked fat and angry.” True, many different families have ruled from White Harbor, but the face seems to correspond to the incredible girth of the Manderly men.

So here’s my theory: weirwoods dramatically slow genetic drift for those who live in their presence on a day-to-day basis. The faces in the weirwoods even have an effect on the appearances of the families who rule there. Thus, the face on Winterfell’s heart tree shapes the faces of the Starks.

If social advantage is partly genetic, as appearance is, and weirwoods produce extreme genetic stasis, then so long as the Starks begin to live around the weirwoods at the right time, their social advantage will be retained far longer than those who do not live near weirwoods. We’ve never seen the weirwood at Casterly Rock, but if it doesn’t look clever, tricky and sly, I’d be very surprised.

The Arryns are a problem for my theory, as they have retained control for an extremely long time (at least 6000 years) and without a weirwood in recent memory. But there is no obvious common genetic appearance to the Arryns, as far as we know, so at least that’s consistent. But I still need to explain how they maintained their power for so long.

That said, I may have explained the dominance of many of the great noble houses.

Published on:
Author: Kevin Vallier
  • Theresa Klein

    Better theory. In Westeros, genetics works differently; humans have a chromosome that is always acquired from the father, which determines traits like hair and eye color. Thus hair and eye color always match up with family name.
    Kind of like maternal mitochondrial DNA or the Y-chromosome, only it affects both male and female offspring. Or maybe tat there is some sex-marker attached to the chromosome so the one derived from the male parent is always dominant.

  • TheBrett

    Interesting theory, and I have wondered if there’s some weird magical genetic factor going on for particular “house looks” to be perpetuating long enough for them to be known. Maybe it has to do with magical talent among the First Men way back.

    That said, I think it’s just bad history in-universe. The Great Houses in the South constructed lineages going back into mythical time to cover up more mundane origins, the dates are wrong, and there would be cases where a distant cousin came in and took the name after the main line died out without heirs. The last one is basically what’s happening with Harry the Heir and House Arryn – he’s a grand-nephew of Jon Arryn.

    The Starks seem to be longer-lived, but that might be due to the effects of the Winters (the harsher Winters making them even more conservative in the face of political change), and the name being linked to Winterfell.

  • jtlevy

    When faced with two anomalies about the pace of change– the technological Great Stagnation and the apparent durability of Houses– it’s worth at least inquiring as to whether they’re connected!

    The Hapsburg and Capetian dynasties (though the latter sometimes changing names as it jumped to cadet branches) each lasted pretty near a thousand years, and were ended not by replacement by rival houses (English War of the Roses style) but by social upheavals that were at least in part results of technological and economic revolutions. More generally, in our world we have a sense about the durability of dynasties that runs to centuries rather than millennia in part because social-governing systems don’t tend to last for millennia. There are only a handful of cases in which social-governing orders had enough formal continuity for much over 1000 years– imperial China, Japan, the Eastern Roman/ Byzantine Empire, a few others– that the question of whether one house had stayed in power throughout could even arise.

    In Westeros, there are potential discontinuities with the Andal invasion and the Targaryean conquest. But if we accept that the Starks could survive both and the other houses could survive the latter, there aren’t any other real reasons to expect them to fall, *given the stagnation described in your first post.* There are no waves of Gothic invaders or Mongol hordes, no religious wars between the establishment of the Faith and the era of the books, and no technological/ economic disruption of the basic hierarchical shape of society. (No gunpowder, for example.) So the powerful houses remain powerful. Almost certainly they engage in occasional creative genealogy to claim continuity (passing to a cadet line without changing the House name), but there’s no reason to look for the Houses as such to fall.

    (FWIW, I believe that the imperial house of Japan has remained officially continuous for more than 2000 years.)

    • Kevin Vallier

      Good thoughts, but you’d think with enough wars, betrayals, disease and social climbing that you’d get a higher replacement rate anyway.

      • jtlevy

        Well, there was some churn through wars– only three houses remained across the Targaryen Conquest. Others were replaced by social climbers: Tullys, Tyrells, etc.

        Disease isn’t a problem given creativity and cadet lines, unless you’ve got a genetic disease that really wipes out all the branches of a house due to *lots* of inbreeding. The Spanish Bourbons got wiped out, but there were still plenty of French Bourbons to choose from. And by the same token, betrayals and climbing can be exercised within the rubric of house continuity: two sons died under mysterious circumstances, the eldest nephew got sent to the Night’s Watch on some trumped-up charges, and lo and behold! the 4th in line inherits. If you’ve got some really ambitious bannerman, marry him to your eldest daughter and fiddle with things to declare their sons the heirs. As long as the existing House names are normatively attractive, the ambitious and conniving might as well aim for position *within* them. (But when the Dragons come and several of the existing House names become *unattractive,* ambition will be channeled into replacing them.)

    • adrianratnapala

      If the Capetian dynasty was continous through change of name and a jump to the cadet branch, then you can extend the same courtesy to others. The Yorks and Lancasters were just plantagents, and the Tudors were Lancasters. Arguably the dynasty did not end until Hanovers.

      But even then, the Capetians had pretty impressive longevity. And the Japanese imperial house is even more impressive.

    • Damien S.

      The Japanese claim over 2000, I think 1400 is more like documentable. Still impressive. Of course, they haven’t had real power for most of that time, being more of a hereditary high priest position.

      Japan’s been big on powers behind the throne. At one point the Hojo family being the regents for the Minamoto clan that held the shogunate wielding power instead of the emperor. Guy behind the guy behind the throne.

      Early France might have had a much shorter lived shogunate — the Mayors of the Palace.

      For longevity: apart from a couple generations around William the Conqueror, English kings descend from Alfred the Great. They’ve changed the names around, but for all the fighting over the throne — and until the Glorious Revolution, you had fighting every few generations, or at times continuously — they managed to keep it in the extended family.

  • Aaron Boyden

    Do we have to consider the historical accounts trustworthy? The real world has few cases of families ruling for thousands of years, but plenty of legends of dynasties that were supposed to be that enduring.

    • Theresa Klein

      Good idea. Maybe the Starks have rewritten history to claim descent from the original Starks, but somewhere along the line there’s like a third cousin of some Stark bastard claiming the throne and taking over the Stark name.

  • Wilson263

    The Arryns don’t need genetic stasis for success-traits, they have a nigh-impenetrable castle. Wiki says that Casterly Rock has a heart tree in its godswood (Dance of Dragons, Ch 48 – Jaime).

    Good observation. So the major houses without heart trees (that we know of) would be the Arryns, the Martels, and the Tyrells. Do they have long-standing traits that could serve as a hypothesis test?

  • TracyW

    Doesn’t this theory imply that the noble houses will be more subject to disease? I’m no biologist, but my understanding is that the main advantage of sex is thought to be the shuffling of genes to keep ahead of bacteria and virii.

    • Damien S.

      In the real world, yes. Species sometimes reinvent parthenogenesis but they’re all twigs on the Tree of Life, implying it’s not a long term bet. But I think GRRM has been explicit about Westeros being a fantasy world, like discouraging fans from trying to figure out wacky orbital dynamics to explain the seasons. So real biology need not apply.

      That said, “weirwoods mess with the genetics” may be pretty foreign to GRRM’s thoughts too.

  • adrianratnapala

    You are right that Martin seems to have screwed up in this field, even more than most fantasy novels, but not more than most ancient mythologies. If Westerossi history is like the book houses must raise and fall like flies. To save him you need some kind of heroic age in which the blood of kings had greater power than they do now. Your suggestion implies that this was the … Age of Heroes, when the wierwoods were not yet cut down.

    But even after the Andals came and cut down most of the wierwoods, the houses were persistent. I suggest that the heroic age ended with the Doom of Valyria. That was, in any any case the main point in history where that world became a lot less magical and much more like our own.

    Arguably the Starks are at an advantage, because their magic might be less Valyrian and more weirwoodish than those of the other houses.


    I’m waiting to see Rickon re-claim his brothers’ throne, riding a ravening wolf at the head of an army of cannibals wading through a sea of blood.

  • oldoddjobs

    “that there is probably some genetic basis for social dominance even in our world.”

    Ferocious, disgusting racism etc. 😉

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