I am happy to announce that I give my seal of approval to the recent HBO offering of “A Game of Thrones,” book one of the Song of Ice and Fire series which is, and for anyone with a Tolkien chip on their shoulder- THE GREATEST FANTASY SERIES OF ALL TIME. I can accept the impulse to challenge me with some sort of Lord of the Rings argument, but let me just be clear- short of you actually being fluent in High Noldorin, Sindarin, AND the rune craft of Durin’s folk as rendered from Feanor, then your Tolkien Kung-Fu is inferior to mine. I grew up devouring every facet of those books in the way only an obsessive/compulsive geek with a fear of sports and sunlight can, and I say that LotR can’t touch ASOIAF. There you go, rendered in initials so you know I’m serious.
Now, watching the first episode of the series, I realized that my special lady friend probably wasn’t following many of the minutia of the story. At first she asked me questions to which I answered, “I can’t tell you I don’t want to give anything away.” Then she asked me, “Where the hell is this taking place??” and I realized that perhaps an overview of some basics was in order. So below is a (hopefully) spoiler free, super fast, utterly without depth introduction into a few of the basic aspects of George R.R. Martins world of Westeros that might help you sit back and just enjoy the show.
Geography: Westeros and the lands beyond the Narrow Sea
part 1, Westeros. Imagine a land a couple of thousand miles north to south and averaging about five hundred miles wide stretching from arctic permafrost in the north, to Sahara-like deserts in the equatorial south. Now imagine that within this continent are all the major cultural idioms of high middle ages Europe. The kingdom/continent is often referred to as The Seven Kingdoms because three hundred odd years before the show begins, a mighty conqueror arrived and toppled the six of the seven kingdoms he found, welding them together under his power and the power of his three dragons (yes, big, mean, fire breathing, flying dragons.) Only the southern most kingdom did not capitulate, but joined the kingdom anyway through dynastic marriage a century or two later.
The Capitol of Westeros is King’s Landing, named for it being the invasion point of the aforementioned king and his dragons (and armies). He set up his capitol there and took the swords of the submitting kings and lords and had them beaten into a throne- the iron throne.
Winterfell is the great seat of power in the far North of Westeros. It was formally the capitol and fortress of the Kings in the North before they submitted to the conqueror (hereafter identified by his name- Aegon the Conqueror)
North of Winterfell about ten days ride is the end of civilization and The Wall. The wall is a seven hundred foot tall ice barrier that was raised 8000 years prior to the series by a legendary figure known as Bran the Builder (who incidentally was the builder of Winterfell as well as various other ancient structures in the kingdoms). It was raised to keep “The Others” out, but no one remembers what this really means. The nights watch is a semi-monastic/warrior order that keeps watch on the wall, though even they don’t remember their original purpose as it lays eight millennia in the past.
Part 2. Across the Narrow Sea. To the east of Westeros lies the free cities. A group of wealthy independent city-states that have various dispositions and unique attributes. Pentos, a large merchant run city (it seams that most or all of the free cities are very 14th century Florentine or Venetian in their economic outlook.). The greatest of the free cities is the Bravvos, a city in the northern fogs of this unnamed eastern continent.
Politics: It goes
The Hand of the King
The Small Council- Masters of Coin, Law, Whisperers and Ships, The Archmaester (chief physician, astronomer and astrologer royal as well as a general advisor) and the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard
The Wardens (chief military commanders) of the North, South, East, and West
The Lords Paramount of the Regions (the reach, the riverlands et. al.)
Lesser Lords and Bannermen to the Lords Paramount
That is a really simplified version of how power flows in the Seven Kingdoms.
Knights: Knighthood is a holy consecration that can be bestowed by any knight on a worthy male recipient- they need not have been a squire. More typically however, a knight is a member of the landed gentry that is sent to foster with a lord or knight, working as a page then a squire as they learn the crafts of warfare and knightly conduct. Knighthood earns the appellation of the titular honorific “ser” in front of the name (Ser Andrew of Woodbury etc.) Knighthood derives from the religion of the Seven Gods, a catholic analogue, that holds sway everywhere in Westeros except the North. In the north, The Seven are less well known (though not unknown) and the inhabitants “keep the old gods” semi-divine nature spirits worshiped in the dawn ages by mythical spirit folk called “the children of the forest.” For this reason titles of Knighthood are rare in the North.
Notes on Maesters, Kingsguard, and Dragons: Maesters are the professor class in Westeros. They study at The Citadel and earn a chain of many metals that they wear around their neck. Each metal is representative of an attainment in a particular subject matter- similar to a diploma (gold for economics, silver for medicine, etc.) Each maester is sent to a castle or great house upon completion of his degrees so that he may advise the lord, order, or political body in service to the realm.
The Kingsguard are seven semi-monastic knights sworn to die in the protection of the king. Supposed to be the seven most renown knights in the Seven Kingdoms, the reality is often very different from the mythology.
Dragons, dragons, dragons. There are no dragons. They all died about a hundred and fifty years prior to the story. Even then, the dragons that remained to Aegon’s line were puny and sick. Dragons are a phantom desire that haunts the world, for the world is diminished without them. That’s all I’m saying.
That about sums it up. Like I said, these are just semi-organized notes an a huge body of work. I just picked things that answered questions that a TV watcher might have. Feel free to ask me other questions, I’ll post em here until George Martin tells me to get a life…which he won’t!
Next up on the science of fiction. A new book is now out with yours truly in the table of contents and Another one bites the dust- Analog Science Fiction now accepting E-subs! Only one snail mail pro left… is it getting lonely on the mountain Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Do you hear me Van Gelder!!?