Oh, the Red Wedding. Who among us didn't stare open-mouthed at the page or screen as a quarter of the cast was wiped off the strategy board? The Red Wedding, which shook us to the core and produced so many amusing Youtube clips of tearful, shell-shocked viewers and their maniacally grinning, book reading friends. (To be fair, the book readers have already lived through the pain. We're now pleasantly numb. Or have to be to keep reading this series.)
It should be remembered that the Red Wedding comes in the middle of A Storm of Swords, not the end (the book was split for seasons 3 and 4), so it really does come completely out of left field, violating pretty much every rule of dramatic structure known to those who actually care about such things. It's shocking, you will never believe you didn't see it coming when you go back and think about it, and, strangely, thrillingly, it doesn't feel like fiction. Within a few pages, everything you envisioned for these characters and their arcs go up in smoke in the most brutal and unjust way imaginable. It feels like life. It feels like history.
Because, technically, it is history. Straight from the author's mouth, the Red Wedding was directly inspired by two grisly events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre.
(It's a novel approach. Want your series to feel like history? Follow history! Perhaps Game of Thrones' popularity is a backlash against the History Lite offered by The Tudors and Philippa Gregory novels. Or just proof that people love dragons).
The first source of inspiration cited by George R. R. Martin is the Black Dinner, which occurred in 1440 in Edinburgh Castle. 15th century Scotland was rife with feuding families, not unlike Westeros. One clan, in particular – the Black Douglases - found themselves at odds with the Royal court. The Douglases were invited to Edinburgh Castle by the very young king's advisors and promised safe passage and a safe reception.
(I wonder how it ends?)
The Douglases were enjoying dinner at the castle when things took an especially dark turn. The King's men presented the leader of the Douglas Clan, William, with a serving tray, lifting the lid to reveal a black bull's head – a traditional Scottish symbol of death.
*cue the Rains of Castamere*
The Douglases were then all beheaded for treason. According to history, the King's men did NOT then stitch the bull's head onto William Douglas' decapitated body a la Greywind, so you can thank GRRM for that extra bit of nightmare fuel.
(Note: Martin cites the head as belonging to a black boar, but most historical accounts of the incident cite a bull.)
The second incident was the Glencoe Massacre, which came not long after England's Glorious Revolution, which placed the Protestant monarchs William and Mary on the throne. Scottish Catholics, still loyal to the ousted Catholic James II, staged an uprising. The revolt ultimately failed in more ways than one, as the rebels made some pretty petty enemies along the way, including the Campbell Clan who were furious when the Maclains of Glencoe and Macdonald Clan stole some of their livestock and other property (totally the same thing as snubbing Campbell's daughters, right? No.)
In early 1692, a host of Campbell men billeted with the Maclains (the Campbells and Maclains were related by marriage, so their was nothing too unusual about this). Captain Campbell spent the evening playing cards with his hosts, who were killed by the Campbell host later that night. In all, 38 men were massacred, with a further 40 women and children dying of exposure after their homes were burned. The massacre was considered especially egregious because it was considered a "murder under trust". The Campbells had accepted the Maclains' hospitality, which should have ensured the safety of everyone sleeping in the hall that night.
The concepts of "guest right" and "murder under trust" are long-held traditions taken very seriously by Martin in his books. The Red Wedding, as with the Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre, were considered travesties not just because of the slaughter, but because the slaughter occurred under the safety net of hospitality. The Stark men and women at the Red Wedding were slaughtered under a banner of truce, which is why even enemies of the Starks won't be lauding Walder Frey as anything but the slimy, child-wedding, little Filch weasel he really is. Fans and allies of the Starks can only hope that eventually time will bring the Freys their just desserts.