In general, there is no idea too big for Game of Thrones. Giants riding woolly mammoths? You got it. Dragons breathing down fire on a flotilla of ships? Of course. An army of rampaging ice-zombies? Sure, and give them their own ice dragon while we’re at it.
Which is why it was so shocking that Sunday night’s season-eight premiere included a rare moment of restraint. To recap: As she outlined the last time we saw her, Cersei has hired the Golden Company, an army of mercenaries from Essos, and tasked Euron Greyjoy with ferrying them across the Narrow Sea. Once they’ve arrived, the company’s commander gives a rundown of all the troops they’ve brought over: infantry, cavalry, archers, you name it. But what of the elephants? Cersei was told there would be elephants. Sorry, the Golden Company guy says, they didn’t bring the elephants. A shame, says Cersei, who proceeds to bring up the lack of elephants in every single conversation she has the rest of the episode. It’s funny!
Game of Thrones’ creators certainly have the ability to give us a herd of war elephants rampaging across Westeros if they really wanted to, so if you’re wondering whether the multiple shout-outs to no elephants is instead some kind of weird in-joke, guess what, you’re correct. It’s a nod to the book version of this story line, which as you might expect this late in GoT, played out very differently. The Golden Company also invades Westeros at the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, but other than that, almost every element of the situation has been changed.
In the books, the Golden Company has a long and storied lineage. It was formed out of the losing side of the Blackfyre Rebellion, a failed uprising by a Targaryen bastard that took place around 100 years before the events of the books. After the rebellion’s leader died, the survivors fled to Essos and formed a sellsword company to keep the cause alive. There were multiple failed attempts to claim the Iron Throne for the Blackfyres in subsequent decades — Barristan Selmy got famous for killing the leader of the last one — but by around the time of the novels, the Golden Company has more or less become a standard Essosi mercenary company. With a few notable departures: (1) Though anyone can join, many of the soldiers are the descendants of the original exiles, so they’re culturally Westerosi even if most of them have never set foot on the continent. (You’ll notice their leader’s name is the normal-sounding “Strickland,” rather than the weird type of name that signifies Essos.) (2) They are renowned for their professionalism and for never breaking a contract. (3) They embrace the military doctrine of combined arms, which means the company has every kind of soldier a prospective employer might need. The full company is 10,000 strong, per A Dance With Dragons, which includes:
Five hundred knights, each with three horses. Five hundred squires, with one mount apiece. … one thousand bows, [with one-third using] crossbows, another third the double-curved horn-and-sinew bows of the east. Better than these were the big yew longbows borne by the archers of Westerosi blood, and best of all were the great bows of goldenheart treasured by Black Balaq.
But mostly what everyone remembers about the Golden Company is the pachyderms. “And elephants,” a soldier says after giving a rundown of their strength. “We must not forget the elephants.” There’s 24 of them, and they’re spectacular.
We first meet the Golden Company in a subplot from A Dance With Dragons that was cut from the show to keep things simple. That book introduces another claimant to the Iron Throne: a young man named Aegon, purportedly the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen, who was smuggled out of King’s Landing and raised in Essos under the auspices of Varys, who dreams of turning him into the perfect king. Aegon has the Golden Company on his side, and at the end of A Dance With Dragons, together they invade the Stormlands, setting their sights first on Storm’s End, and from there, the Iron Throne. Now, most readers assume that this Aegon is actually an impostor, and the fact that he was written out of the show should signify that he’s not likely to be a major player by the end of the series. (Fans have theorized he’s actually a descendant of the Blackfyres, which is why the Golden Company, which fought against the Targaryens for most of its history, is helping him out.)
You can understand why the show didn’t include any of this: At a time when Game of Thrones was trying to consolidate its story lines, the arrival of Aegon and the Golden Company presented a huge plot expansion on Martin’s part, and the show simply didn’t have the time! The Dornish and Iron Islands story lines in the last two books suffered a similar fate, but at least their broadest strokes made their way into the show in bowdlerized forms. Instead, young Aegon joins Lady Stoneheart on the list of book characters whose stories were just a little too similar to Jon Snow’s to be included in the show. But at least the show’s creators threw in the Golden Company and gave the elephants a mention. It gives me joy that, even in the show’s final episodes, with the series long having passed by the events of the books, its makers are still taking the time to include silly little Easter eggs for the readers out there. When it comes to the army of war elephants, I’m glad they didn’t forget.
Oh, and if you’re curious whether the elephants made it to Westeros in the books: While half the Golden Company’s fleet got blown off-course during its invasion, according to an excerpt from Martin’s yet-to-be-published sixth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter, “a few” of the elephants did indeed survive the trip to land on Westeros’s shores. Hooray! Let’s hope the Golden Company brought peanuts.