The Iron Island clan in ‘Game of Thrones’ are based on the Vikings from Nordic history—but they are both more ferocious and more useless. Theon Greyjoy’s dad berates those who use gold rather than iron to get what they want. Vikings both traded and plundered, depending on the situation. And yet, the Greyjoys are a minor nuisance compared with the original Vikings, who conquered parts of Britain and terrorised most of Europe. It’s only when they ferry the Dothraki across the sea to Westeros that the Greyjoys truly become a menace. Then again, Vikings teaming up with Mongols would have been the last thing medieval Europe needed. Luckily, their invasions came 300 years apart.
But the “ironborn” islanders are not the only evidence of Iceland in ‘Game of Thrones.’ The show’s inventor, George RR Martin, has cited the endless family feuds of the Icelandic Sagas as an inspiration, even if the core of his story is borrowed from the English Wars of the Roses. Still, his original book series uses in its title the two words most beloved by the Icelandic tourism industry: “fire” and “ice.”
Better still for the tourism industry is that many of the scenes from the show were actually shot here in Iceland. The touring company Grayline does Game of Thrones-themed day trips, which have proved so popular that they’re now daily. For the whole experience, you can even go up north to see Jon Snow and Ygritte’s “love cave.” But Grapevine is just enough of a fan to still want to be back in time for dinner.
Shrinking horses in the snow
As the bus gets going, the GOT theme song starts playing, which is atmospheric enough. The guide introduces herself as Dídí, and even does this along with the tune. She’s very enthusiastic, and has herself gone on GOT location tours in Northern Ireland and Spain. As a sometime tour guide, I am deeply jealous of the Viking-ish horn she blows to summon the guests back to the bus. The first stop is at the Laxnes horse farm, where the celebrated non-GOT author of the same name was born. It is also where they keep Arya’s horse, and other equine celebrities from the show.
Dídí then proceeds to talk about the impact of Icelandic horses on fantasy. Interestingly, ‘Lord of the Rings’ was set to be filmed in Iceland (and so it should have been—Tolkien was a bigger Saga enthusiast than Martin), but this idea didn’t come to fruition because the production team wasn’t allowed to import horses. It’s a fair point—Aragorn would probably look a little less heroic astride a tiny Icelandic horse. Probably this is why the Vikings didn’t fight on horseback.
The GOT crew was undeterred by the scale of the horses. Keen viewers of the show will note that the horses used by the Night’s Watch tend to shrink as they go north of the Wall, because the actors switched to Icelandic steeds. They were hoping you wouldn’t notice, but now we’ll never see them the same way again.
Walking in the Vale
As is to be expected in Iceland, the tour soon heads into deep fog. A mandatory White Walker joke follows as we arrive at the mountain Hengill, and the spot where the Hound fought Brienne of Tarth. We also stop by the waterfall Þórufoss, where Drogon the Dragon ate a goat.
By the time we reach the southern highlands, the weather has cleared once again. One of the more impressive stops is the Þingvellir gorge—but not the part you usually see. We’re now in the Vale, approaching the Bloody Gate in the footsteps of Sansa Stark and Littlefinger. Dídí shows us photos of the scene. Most of it is recognisable, but the gate itself has to be imagined, as do the mountains in the backdrop. In much the same way that Westeros is Britain turned on its head, with a bit of Ireland tagged on, the scenery from Iceland in the series is sometimes a mishmash—some things historical, others imagined via CG.
The furthest point of the trip is Þjórsárdalur, and by the time we arrive, the sun has shown itself. We’re here to see a reconstruction of a Viking farm, the remains of which were found in the area. But the reason for our visit isn’t archaeological—it’s rather because this very farm was once raided by Wildlings. This later sets up Ygritte’s death—and if that was a spoiler, you weren’t paying attention to begin with. The tour doesn’t include entry to the farm, but frankly, you aren’t missing much, unless you like to play with the wooden swords.
The last stop on the way back is in Hveragerði, where we visit the tiny stone museum to observe some Dragonglass. This is also a place to see the sunstones the Vikings used to navigate. But that belongs to a different show.