Game of Thrones is one of the most popular TV shows in the world and has become a pop cultural icon since its debut back in 2011. While some enjoy it for its violent fantasy setting, others are drawn to Game of Thrones for the political intrigue it provides or to get lost in the dense world author George R.R. Martin has created. With the series returning for its seventh season this summer, now is as good a time as any to dig a little into some behind-the-scenes trivia and maybe learn something about the show you didn’t know previously.
Here are 21 Game of Thrones facts you may not have been aware of!
21. There’s An Unaired Pilot
Unlike a fair number of other television series, Game of Thrones was hot out of the gate, delivering a memorable pilot episode that did a great job introducing viewers to Westeros and its many deeply-flawed denizens. As it turns out, the pilot came together so well partly because the first one was such a trainwreck. Directed by Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy, the original pilot was reportedly so terrible that the whole thing was scrapped and reshot. “We got everything wrong on a very basic level with the writing of it,” co-creator David Benioff told Variety.
Changes were made not only to the plot and pacing — according to Benioff, the original pilot barely illustrated that Cersei and Jaime were brother and sister, which is a pretty significant detail — but to personnel as well. Both Catelyn Stark and Daenerys Targareyen were played by different actresses — Jennifer Ehle and Tamzin Merchant, respectively — in the pilot and were replaced by Michelle Fairley and Emilia Clarke for the reshoot.
Interesting bit of trivia: George R. R. Martin himself had a cameo in the original pilot as a nobleman attending Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding.
20. The Almost Stars
In addition to Ehle and Merchant, there were many other actors who almost landed prominent roles in the series and some of them are pretty big names. Both Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, The Fall) and Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair) turned down unspecified roles on the show, although it’s believed that West’s role — which involved shooting “in Reykjavik for six months” — was that of Mance Rayder, which eventually went to Ciarán Hinds.
A few other notable actors who came close to landing roles on the show include Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) who auditioned for both Jon Snow and Viserys Targaryen, and Outlander star Sam Heughan, who tried for a number of roles, including Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell. There are also a few cases where actors who landed a role on the show had originally auditioned for a different character, most notably Iwan Rheon, who tried out for Jon Snow before landing the part of his sadistic nemesis Ramsay Bolton.
19. The Tommen Switcheroo
Quite a few minor Game of Thrones characters have changed actors over the years and one of the most prominent ones is Tommen Baratheon, who was played by two different actors up until the character’s death in Season 6 … but with a unique twist. In Seasons 1 and 2, Tommen was played by Callum Wharry. In Season 3, a young actor by the name of Dean-Charles Chapman played Tommen’s cousin Martyn Lannister, who was only present for a few scenes before being stabbed to death by Lord Karstark at Riverrun. However, this would not be Chapman’s last appearance on the show, as he actually replaced Wharry as Tommen in Season 4 and played the character right up until the end of Season 6.
18, Sophie Turner Adopted Sansa’s Direwolf
The Stark children’s’ direwolves have been just as ill-fated as the family they belong to over the course of the show’s run, with Sansa’s pup, Lady, being killed off only two episodes into the first season. Fortunately, Sophie Turner, the actress who plays Sansa, got to spend a lot more time with Lady in real life, as she adopted Zunni, the Northern Inuit dog who played her. “We [my parents and I] kind of fell in love with my character’s direwolf, Lady, on set,” Turner told the Coventry Telegraph in 2013. “We knew Lady died and they wanted to re-home her. My mum persuaded them to let us adopt her.”
17. Direwolves Are Real
Dire wolf pups are one thing, but what if you want a full-grown Ghost or Nymeria? While actual dire wolves, Canis Dirus, died out about 10,000 years ago, you can get the next best thing with the American Alsatian breed. The Dire Wolf Project has successfully breed a number of these wolf-like, 130 pound dogs and you can have your very own … for $3000. Interestingly, these aren’t the same breed used to represent the Stark wolves on the show. If you want a dog that looks more like what you see on Game of Thrones, check out the Northern Inuit Dog, a crossbreed that closely resembles the modern Grey wolf.
16. The Monty Python Connections
Besides the medieval setting, Game of Thrones really has nothing in common with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but that didn’t stop the show’s writers from throwing in a few nods to the comedic classic. In the Season 4 episode “Breaker of Chains,” a random Meereenese warrior shouts a series of taunts at Daenerys in Low Valyrian. However, when translated the lines will be immediately familiar to Monty Python fans: “Your mother was a hamster,” “Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person,” and “I blow my nose at you,” are a few of the insults thrown Daenerys’ way and they aren’t the only Holy Grail Easter eggs, as part of the show’s pilot was shot in one of the castles used for the film.
15. Death-Free Zone
Death comes fast and often for characters on Game of Thrones; so much so that there have only been a handful of episodes over the years that didn’t feature any death. Specifically, there are only five episodes in which no character dies on screen and only two — “the Bear and the Maiden Fair” from Season 3 and “Blood of My Blood” from Season 6 — that contain no deaths at all. That’s pretty incredible when you consider that the former episode features Brienne of Tarth fighting a bear and the latter contains a White Walker attack and Jaime Lannister leading an army through the streets of King’s Landing.
14. That Was a Real Stag
Even though he was a despicable villain, Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister remains a fan-favorite thanks to his steely reserve and general disdain for everyone (especially his family). Fittingly, Tywin had arguably one of the best character introductions on the show, with viewers being introduced to the character skinning a stag whilst deep in conversation with his son Jaime. It turns out that not only was that a real (previously deceased) deer, but Dance actually skinned it!
Speaking with The Daily Beast, Dance said that the showrunners first asked him if he was a vegetarian and when he said “No” they “gave me a sharp knife, and showed me how to skin it and spill the guts into a bucket,” Dance recalled. “It was a bloody good time, but it took me two days to get the smell off my hands.”
13. Harry Potter Connection
With such a large ensemble cast — many of them British — it’s no surprise that quite a few actors who worked on the Harry Potter movies have also had roles on HBO’s show. To date, nine actors who have appeared in Harry Potter films have starred in Game of Thrones: Natalia Tena (Osha), who played Tonks, David Bradley (Lord Walder Frey), who played Hogwarts Caretaker Argus Filch, Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), who played Hermione’s mother, Julian Glover (Grand Maester Pycelle), who voiced Aragog the spider, Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder), who played Aberforth Dumbledore, Ralph Ineson (Dagmar Cleftjaw), who played Amycus Carrow, Ian Whyte (Gregor Clegane/Wun Wun), the uncredited stand-in for Madame Olympe Maxime, Edward Tudor-Pole (Lannister-hating speech guy from Season 2), who played Mr. Borgin in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Bronson Webb (Will, aka the guy who Ned Stark beheads in the pilot episode), who played an unnamed Slytherin boy in The Prisoner of Azkaban.
12. The Throne Awakens
Harry Potter isn’t the only big franchise to share actors with Game of Thrones, as almost as many actors from Star Wars: The Force Awakens have appeared in the show (which is pretty impressive when you consider it’s only one movie against Harry Potter’s eight installments). Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) is the most prominent of the bunch, playing Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens, but there’s also Max von Sydow (Three-Eyed Raven), who played Lor San Tekka, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed), who played a First Order Officer, Jessica Henwick (Nymeria Sand), who played Jess Testor, Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel), who played an extra in Maz Kanata’s bar, Emun Elliott (Marillion), who played Brance, and Hannah John-Kamen (Ornela), who played a First Order Officer.
11. So Much Hodor
You would think that saying the same line over and over would get pretty repetitive but actor Kristian Nairn, who plays Hodor, found a way to make his character’s many “Hodors” interesting by coming up with 70 different ways to say his character’s name. In an interview with Vulture, Nairn dove into the many different emotional complexities of Hodor: “There’s angry Hodor, happy Hodor, sad Hodor, fightened Hodor, curious Hodor, bashful Hodor, sheepish Hodor … and naked Hodor.” Yes, naked Hodor (he says it differently when he’s in the nude, apparently). If you’re looking to hear what these different Hodors all sound like, you can download a special keyboard on the Google Play Store!
10. The Iron Throne is Supposed to be Much, Much Bigger
The Iron Throne as it exists on the show is a pretty imposing structure, but it pales in comparison to the one George R. R. Martin originally envisioned. For his book The World of Ice & Fire, which chronicles the history of Westeros, Martin teamed up with artist Marc Simonetti for an illustration of the Iron Throne and it’s ridiculously big. “This Iron Throne is massive,” wrote Martin on his blog. “Ugly. Asymmetric. It’s a throne made by blacksmiths hammering together half-melted, broken, twisted swords, wrenched from the hands of dead men or yielded up by defeated foes. And there are thousands of swords in it, not just a few.”
Although it isn’t the monstrosity Martin envisioned, the show actually references the discrepancy between its version of the Iron Throne and Martin’s at one point ,when Littlefinger declares that the idea of the throne being made up of 1000 swords is a myth. It’s probably all for the best, as building the Iron Throne the way Martin intended likely would have been a logistical nightmare for the prop department!
9. The Purple and Red Weddings Are Based on a Historical Event
It’s hard to forget the Purple Wedding, the glorious event that saw infamous child tyrant Joffrey Baratheon die a painful death. As with many aspects of his story, George R.R. Martin looked to historical events for inspiration and based the Purple Wedding on a real ill-fated royal gathering. In 1153, Prince Eustace, the son of England’s King Stephen, died under mysterious circumstances at a feast. While some believe that Eustace simply choked to death, many others think it was poison that did him in.
The Red Wedding, which saw Robb and Catelyn Stark, as well as most of their allies, massacred at a wedding held at Walder Frey’s castle, is reportedly based on two Scottish events: the 1691 Massacre of Glencoe and the 1440 Black Dinner. The former occasion saw Captain Robert Campbell and his troops murder the MacDonald clan — who were hosting them — while they slept. The Black Dinner was so-called because while attending a feast hosted by the 10-year-old King James II, a black bull’s head was brought in and placed before the visiting 16-year-old Earl of Douglas and his 10-year-old brother. The head symbolized death and soon after, the pair were dragged outside, given a mock trial and brutally executed.
8. Cersei’s Walk of Shame is Based on a Historical Event
Continuing on the same theme, Cersei’s walk of shame featured at the end of Season 5 was also based on a famous historical event. During a 2011 interview, George R.R. Martin revealed that Cersei’s public shaming was inspired by a case from (where else?) Medieval Britain. “Jane Shore, mistress of King Edward IV, was punished that way after Edward died,” he explained. “It wasn’t a punishment ever inflicted on men. It was a punishment directed at women to break their pride. And Cersei is defined by her pride.”
Jane — or more accurately Elizabeth Shore was the mistress of several noblemen in addition to Edward and after he died and his brother Richard took over, he punished Shore by forcing her to carry out a walk of penance through the streets of London. Unlike Cersei, Shore was at least permitted to wear undergarments during her walk, but ended up in Ludgate prison afterward. She eventually caught the eye of the King’s Solicitor General, Thomas Lynom, who managed to convince the king to release her. They were later married and had one daughter together.
7. Valyrian Steel Has a Real-Life Equivalent
Everyone knows that the best blades in the Game of Thrones universe are made from Valyrian steel, a super-strong, but light metal that is unfortunately incredibly rare (it’s also one of the few substances that can kill a White Walker, which only exasperates the problem). Creating the metal is also a problem because there is no one left who knows how to do it and the only way to create new weapons is to melt down existing ones, which is what happened with Eddard Stark’s greatsword Ice. While Valyrian steel is a fictional material, George R. R. Martin based it on a real-life alloy known as Damascus steel.
Originally developed in India and the Middle East, Damascus steel was known for being highly durable and sharp, and for its distinctive rippled surface. Unfortunately, creating Damascus steel requires a specific temperature and technique, and the knowledge of how to do so was lost sometime in the 18th century. Attempts have been made over the years to replicate it, but the exact formula remains a mystery.
6. Greyscale is Based on a Real-Life Disease
Most deaths in Game of Thrones tend to be a result of beheading, maiming, or pretty much any other form of violence you can imagine, so we don’t often see what types of diseases the people of Westeros and beyond have to contend with. That being said, Greyscale is the one fictional disease we know you really, really don’t want to get. While the disease is curable in rare cases, most people who become afflicted with Greyscale are slowly destroyed by it inch-by-inch until their whole bodies become stone (at which point they keel over dead). While we fortunately don’t have to deal with Greyscale in our day-to-day lives, there are a few real-world diseases that are quite similar.
Leprosy was obviously a big inspiration for Martin when he came up with Greyscale, but there’s also a much rarer disease called Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive that is scarily similar. This incurable condition causes soft tissue to be regrown as bone, effectively turning people “to stone” over the long-term. Fortunately, it’s extremely rare, so you shouldn’t be too concerned that the next cut you get will turn to bone. And if you’re curious to see what it looks like, go to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia where the skeleton of Harry Eastlack is on display. Eastlack passed away in 1973 at the age of 39 from the disease and at the time of his death, he could only move his lips.
5. The Show Helped Save a Farmer’s Stock of Rare Pigs
Game of Thrones isn’t something you think of when the phrase “saved lives” comes up, but that’s exactly what the show did for an Irish farmer and his stock of rare pigs. Kenny Gracy, who breeds Iron Age pigs on his farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, credits Game of Thrones with helping his business survive. According to Gracy, traditional farming is becoming less and less viable, telling the Belfast Telegraph that the show’s production “has been a godsend for me. Rare breeds don’t fund themselves, they’re not profitable and there is an expense with keeping these animals. But this has helped save them.” So the next time you’re feeling shook up by another violent on-screen death, just remember that you helped save some pigs by tuning in!
4. The Mountain Probably Could Have Done That to Oberyn’s Head in Real Life
The memorable battle between The Mountain and The Viper had a ridiculously gruesome finish, with The Mountain popping his opponent’s head like a tomato. It made for a striking visual but it wasn’t very realistic … or was it? According to a Time Magazine article, a man that size really could crush a skull in such a way. Basing their findings on a Slate investigation into a similar scene from the film Star Trek Into Darkness, Time concluded that it would take 520 pounds of force to make a human skull implode. Considering Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson, the Icelandic strongman who plays the Mountain, ranks as the third strongest man in the world, he’d be more than capable of exerting enough force to ruin poor Oberyn’s beautiful head.
Fun fact: Björnsson eats a whopping 11,489 calories a day to help maintain his gargantuan 6’9″, 400 pound physique.
3. So Many Deaths …
There are only so many ways I can talk about how death happens a lot on Game of Thrones but if you were to guess how many on-screen deaths there have been over the course of the show’s run, where would you ballpark it? 1,000? 2,000 maybe? Close, but you’re way off. The real number, at least according to one YouTuber’s exhaustive, 21-minute-long video documenting it all, is 150,966. Yes, you read that right. That number includes not only every named character big and small, but every nameless extra and animal too. If you’re anything like me, you forget about all the animal deaths and i’m not just talking horses dying in combat, but the thousands of other mammals and insects that have perished. Like I said, the list is exhaustive.
2. Ramsay’s Death Was Originally Much Gorier
Game of Thrones doesn’t offer viewers many moments of catharsis but when it does, they hit hard. Such is the case with the cheer-worthy death of Ramsay Bolton in Season 6, who found himself strapped to a chair and fed to his own hounds by his abused wife Sansa. The scene itself isn’t actually all that gory, as the camera pans over to Sansa’s satisfied face and we hear Ramsay being ripped apart rather than see it, but apparently the scene was originally intended to be much more visceral. According to Mat Krentz, a visual effects animator from Image Engine who worked on the scene, artists had made an animated jaw for Ramsay that would revealed “the flesh ripping between Ramsay’s skin and gums.” However, it was deemed to gruesome to be used, which is surprising given that Game of Thrones tends not to shy away from gore very often.
1. Everyone Loves Arya
Game of Thrones features one notable incestuous sibling relationship between Jaime and Cersei Lannister but according to a 1993 letter to his publisher, George R.R. Martin almost included a romance between Jon Snow and Arya Stark. Martin had initially intended for the half siblings to fall in love and be “tormented” by their passion for each other, made all the more difficult by Jon’s vows of celibacy to the Night’s Watch. Eventually, Jon’s true parentage would have been revealed, allowing the pair to together without shame. However, Jon wasn’t the only male character with an eye for Arya, as Martin also intended for Tyrion to fall “helplessly in love with Arya Stark.” Arya, for her part, didn’t return the dwarf’s affections.