Show and Tell: A Game of Thrones

An excerpt from a map of Westeros in the book.

By Evan Dahm.

I haven’t written one of these in a while! A Game of Thrones is the first book in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. I’m on the second book, but this post deals mostly with the first, and I’ve made an effort to avoid major spoilers, and YOU SHOULD TOO in the comments. I might have a few relevant things to say at a later date about the HBO adaptation, which just ended.

What it is. Most of A Game of Thrones takes place in a continent called Westeros, and jumps between a few places and interconnected storylines there and in another continent to the east. Westeros is based in large part on medieval Europe, and presents a varied landscape stretching from far South to “the Wall” in the extreme North. There’s a dense political backdrop involving the histories of several competing Houses, and the union of Seven Kingdoms, etc… The politics and history of the setting are central to the story.

There are knights, castles, and a hundred other tropes that seem now to belong as much to modern fantasy as to actual medieval Europe. The setting of Westeros isn’t unprecedented as far as fantasy goes, but that’s perfectly fine because the physical stuff of the setting isn’t the star here. But there are some striking and gorgeous places in the story: the Wall, the Eyrie, and the city of King’s Landing all struck me as unique… Building a setting around a single striking, dramatic physical feature is something Martin does well. In this way the places become visually iconic and memorable, which, even in prose, is important when there’s so many of them to keep track of.

The fundamental element of what makes this setting unique, of course, is how seasons work. Winter and Summer here can last for years or decades and are difficult to predict. This is a really basic, enormous idea, and it’s handled very intelligently, with all of its implications and repercussions dealt with. All of the setting stems from or relates to this core idea; it lends to a conceptual tightness that I just love.

How it is conveyed. This book and series is focused more singlemindedly on its characters and its story than is most fantasy literature. It’s about families competing for political power, and the people caught in the middle of those struggles. The world is present, consistent, and believable, but little time is spent showing it to us.

Descriptions of places are concise and essential. To me, this seems to lend a kind of reality to the places that is fundamentally different from the thorough, wordy descriptions of Tolkien et al: we see the settings of A Game of Thrones through the eyes of its characters, and no more time is spent dwelling on their specifics than the characters would themselves dwell on them. The story pushes the reader along so smoothly and consistently that the setting starts to feel real for the very reason that it isn’t focused upon. I hope that’s clear, anyway. This lack of overt explanation, and the brutality and unpredictability of the story, suggest an unusual reality… It’s presented like historical fiction, almost.

We glean an understanding of the peculiarities of the setting subtly around the edges of the narrative, through the familiarity with which the characters deal with them and know them. Also, the sheer size of this series allows for the reader’s understanding of these elements to come gradually, over the course of thousands of pages. There might be a tradeoff here, though: it would be difficult to work this way with a setting more fundamentally strange or unprecedented.