George R.R. Martin, the mastermind author of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire (upon which the TV series Game of Thrones is based) is known for more than a few things. He's known for there being long waits for his books to come out, and he's also been known to devote entire chapters (it seems) to the many colored threads of a character's cloak (The Tattered Prince, Book 5). Above all, however, Martin is known for mercilessly killing off his characters at the drop of a helmet.
Early on in the first book (and season of the show) it becomes very clear that no one is safe. It doesn't matter if most of the particular book you've been reading has been from a certain man's point of view— that head's coming off. For what it's worth, it doesn't matter if the actor playing him on TV comes first in the billing.
Just when you think certain characters might be okay in one of the ASOIAF books, he throws a Red Wedding your way, and for most readers, the book (A Storm of Swords, in this case) gets thrown across the room. How could he do this? How DARE he? Where does this inexhaustible bloodlust come from?
Martin talks about how his humble childhood prevented family vacations and the like, and because of this, books were the thing that could take him anywhere. Around junior high, he got around to Tolkien's epic, widely considered to be the greatest fantasy story of all time.
He wasn't thrilled at first, and to be fair to Martin, The Lord of the Rings definitely takes its time getting started. A long time, in fact. As he says, “It opens with, like, a dissertation on pipeweed, and then there’s a birthday party. I’m saying, ‘Where are the giant snakes? Where are the scantily clad women? There’s no sword fights here, what’s going on?’”
Then came the Black Riders, Rivendell, and finally the Mines of Moria (where, incidentally, Tolkien himself figured out where the rest of the book would go), and Martin was hooked. He realized “this was the greatest book I’d ever read." Tolkien's approach to writing the book as if he were writing history was an influence on Martin, who takes a similar, "entire stories in a footnote" approach with his books.
It was the sequence on the Bridge of Khazad-dum that really struck Martin to his soul, however. Gandalf the Grey, the wise and wonderful wizard of the group, falls... seemingly to his death.
"I can’t explain the impact that had on me at 13," Martin says. "You can’t kill Gandalf. I mean, Conan didn’t die in the Conan books, you know? Tolkien just broke that rule, and I’ll love him forever for it." He goes on to say, "The minute you kill Gandalf, the suspense of everything that follows is a thousand times greater, because now anybody could die. Of course, that’s had a profound impact on my own willingness to kill characters off at the drop of a hat."
Of course, Gandalf is not Ned Stark. He's a Maiar spirit placed in the body of an elderly man— he is not, you might say, mortal. Nevertheless, Martin wasn't a fan of the character coming back later on in the epic. In a 2011 interview with John Hodgman, he says, "I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead."
Not to get into semantics with the man who invented Valyrian steel, but Gandalf the Grey didn't come back—Gandalf the White was something else entirely. Martin himself is not above such treatment either, and look no further than a Frey-hating gray lady nicknamed Lady Stoneheart for proof of that.
Count us among the camp that are quite grateful that Gandalf came back in some form. As for Saruman, Denethor, Joffrey, and pretty much any dead Greyjoy? Yeah, they're fine where they are.