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Picture, if you can, “The Watchers on the Wall,” the spectacular season four episode of Game of Thrones featuring the Night’s Watch fending off Mance Rayder’s wildling army in the dead of night — the same battle that claimed the lives of poor Pyp and Jon Snow’s lover Ygritte, not to mention the fight where Sam “The Slayer” Tarly truly came alive.
Now picture George R.R. Martin in the middle of that battle, shrouded in the heavy black cloaks and armor worn by the members of Westeros‘ northernmost outpost, wind kissing snowflakes into his famously cheery beard.
Harder to imagine, perhaps, but an image that has ties to the Game of Thrones origin story all the same.
During Martin’s visit to his alma mater Northwestern University this week, where he is on hand to accept the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement alumni award, the writer opened up about his early inspiration for The Wall, one of the most spectacular landmarks in all of Thrones.
In the past, Martin has credited Hadrian’s Wall from the days of the Roman Empire as a historical touchstone for the iconic Game of Thrones location. In this recent conversation, however, he revealed an even more personal connection with Jon Snow’s home base: Martin’s own freshman year experience at Northwestern, during a Chicago blizzard in 1967.
“The coldest winter was in Chicago,” he said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “There was so much snow that winter, you couldn’t see, all snow, all ice, and it was so very cold.”
Martin likened the frozen streets of Chicago to the trenches of World War I, “but they were trenches of ice.”
“I remember walking through the trenches and the tunnels of ice, the wind blowing so you couldn’t even see,” he continued. “It’s an experience that never left me.”
These days, Martin wrestles with winter still, but only in the faraway frost of his imagination. He has released five of seven novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series that provides the basis for HBO’s Thrones. Only he knows the answers to the big questions fans keep asking, like whether or not Jon Snow is dead or alive.
“No comment on that,” he said on the subject of Snow. “I’m just saying, read the books.”
Right now, there’s no answer on Snow’s fate in the books; his life was left hanging in the balance at the end of 2011’s A Dance with Dragons, the most recent book in the series.
But rumors, like the Chicago snowfall of Martin’s memory, persist that his sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, could arrive before Thrones begins its new season.
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