Truth Stranger Than Fiction - Sigils in Fantasy Fiction

Truth Stranger Than Fiction - Why the house sigils of fantasy fiction will never be as quite as oddly amazing as those of real life!


I've been re-reading A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin and Warhost of Vastmark by Janny Wurts, and one of the things that struck me about both books was how awesome the house sigils are. But then I made the mistake of going online to learn a little bit more about heraldry, and I began to realise that there are so many amazing sigils from real families too. In fact, many of them are far stranger than anything we'll see in the pages of a fantasy novel.


In A Game of Thrones, we're introduced to the sigils of the main houses as the novel progresses as an integral part of the action. I love the early scene with Arya and Jon when Jon teases his half-sister that if she weds a Tully (presumably what Cat and Ned had in mind for their younger daughter in the marriage stakes) they'll have to devise a sigil for her that combines the sigil of the Tullys with that of the Starks. Arya jokes, "That would look silly. A wolf with a fish in its mouth".


Later, there's an embarrassment of riches at the tournament that Eddard Stark as Hand of the King arranges in King's Landing, and plenty of sigils are on display when his wife Cat stumbles into danger at an inn and has to call upon her father's bannermen for protection. So many rich symbols to choose from that it's hard to narrow down ones to mention here. There's the black bat of Lady Whent of Harrenhal, or the field of nightingales of Bryce Caron, or the night sky slashed with purple lightning of Beric Dondarrion. There's a veritable parade of sigils: 'brindled boar, red ox, burning tree, white ram, triple spiral, purple unicorn, dancing maiden, blackadder, twin towers, horned owl'.


Almost every noble house in Westeros has a sigil. However, in Warhost of Vastmark, only the houses of the High Kings are given one. Arithon, of the s'Ffalenn royal line, is represented by a leopard. He's sleek, smooth and dangerous so that makes sense. King Eldir, High King of Havish, has a gold hawk blazon. He hosts Arithon and his prisoner during the ransom exchange. Then there's the falcon on a crescent moon backed by purple and gold chevrons of Shand, and Tysan with a gold star on a blue field. Rathain has a black and silver leopard on a green field.


The sigils of fiction that I've encountered are all lovely, but as I did my research at websites such as mistholme.com, I found a weird, disturbing and amazing array of coats of arms from real families. Back in the sixteenth century, the cameleopard was thought of as a monster. Nonetheless, Sir Henry Crisp chose it for his family coat of arms. We know this mysterious beast as a giraffe! Then there's the Fleam. A what? a barber-surgeon's knife, used to bleed people in order to let the poison out of their system. I'm not sure why the Treves family thought they wanted one on their coat of arms, but their baronet head of the family chose a sigil design which had an opinicus (a strange winged creature with four legs) standing with its paw resting on this type of knife. I couldn't really make any sense of that one!


My personal favourite in terms of the name was the ass-camel (head of a donkey, body of a camel), which featured on the crest of the English Eastland (or North Sea) Company in 1579.


The list was almost endless. Teeth. Vultures. Weasels. Human and fish skeletons. Turnips. Jellyfish. Even finger cymbals. All these have appeared in real life, historical crests. Truly, truth stranger than fiction!


Thanks for reading my 'Fantasy Friday' post. I'll be back on Monday. In the meantime, why not share your thoughts on fantasy fiction in the comments section below.


Many thanks to photographers ilker, John Manley and Krysztof Szkurlatowski for providing the images for this blog via freeimages.com.

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