Last night, the fifth season of Game of Thrones (on HBO) opened with the familiar drums and mournful strings. By the end of the episode, an important character received a merciful death, and we were off on a new journey through the lands of Westeros and Essos. As Dornish prince Oberyn Martell said last season, not long before his head was squished by the Mountain: "It is a big and beautiful world. Most of us live and die in the same corner where we were born and never get to see any of it." So, before more heads roll, let's pause the clockwork map and appreciate the world in which our favorite characters live and frequently die.
When one of our characters arrives somewhere new, they aren't just encountering a made-up place in a fictional world, but a location laden with echoes of legends and histories from premodern Europe and Asia. That's part of what makes Game of Thrones so successful—the peoples, places, and even plot lines feel at once familiar and new. Author George R. R. Martin (now with the help of show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss) has built a world for which the clockwork map is a fine metaphor—many parts from many sources, in motion, all driving the machinery of intrigue, violence, and impending doom. The key to Westeros and the wider world beyond is that it belongs to no era, no particular mythology, no set of legends, and has no limits. It draws its power from consistent inconsistency. To the modern consumer of epic fantasy, accustomed to the Tolkien model of world-building in which everything fits together based on a detailed history and a tight cosmology, this is unusual.
Martin went another direction, laying out a path that the HBO show still follows. While he clearly has a master plot in mind—winter is, after all, coming; which is to say, don't lose sight of the high-fantasy plot always lurking beneath the hubbub of politics and murders—the world doesn't have to conform to any particular set of norms. Instead of the Tolkien model, Martin and the show creators take the most fascinating ideas from any period and place, whether historical, legendary, or literary, and bring it to their world. The result is a glorious hodgepodge and should be celebrated as such.
Game of Thrones is not the first wildly popular fantasy series or show to take this approach. Rob Barrett, who teaches medieval literature at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, referred me back to the Hyborian Age of Conan the Barbarian and writer G. K. Chesterton's loose mixture of history and fiction in The Ballad of the White Horse.
In the introduction to the The Ballad of the White Horse, the poet, theologian, and philosopher wrote, "It is the chief value of a legend to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment. That is the use of tradition: It telescopes history." Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, read Chesterton's White Horse and set his own stories in a world pulling from legends and history. Note that Chesterson speaks of value. This kind of storytelling has the power to spark the imagination in ways that faithful historical recreation or adopting a specific historical setting for fantasy might not. When history is telescoped, an author takes interesting things from wherever and whenever they want and puts them in service of a new story that still feels familiar. We recognize the archetypes, then follow the plot forward.
The power of telescoping history fuels Game of Thrones. In past seasons, the civil war of Westeros drew from the War of the Roses (from the 14th century) in late medieval England as Martin's vehicle to show the disaster of civil war for civilian populations. The Ironborn invoke the Viking raiders of the ninth and tenth centuries, hundreds of years before the War of the Roses. Like the Vikings, the Ironborn aren't really just raiders but would-be conquerors of the mainland. The Dothraki, now largely out of the story (but perhaps returning later), present a potential existential menace on the scale of the Mongols (13th century). Vaes Dothrak, their city, is not unlike Karakorum, a city that combined the values of nomadic life—tents, open spaces, herds—with the mercantile role of a capital city of a major political power. Vikings, Mongols, and War of the Roses: These elements come from thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart, here telescoped in mythic form to Westeros and Essos. And it works.
Braavos, our other major new setting, was filmed on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. That's fitting, as it clearly draws its nature from the history, myth, and anti-myth (by people who hated it) of premodern Venice. Venice dominated much of the Adriatic for centuries, both militarily and economically. We've previously seen the bank of Braavos, and while Venice was not, in fact, a great banking center (nor did it have a great colossus—that's Rhodes), that we have a financial center being located in a city of canals makes Braavos's Venetian elements unmistakable.
Now we get another often fictionalized aspect of premodern Venice: assassins. Arya Stark finally makes it to Braavos, and in the second episode begins the long journey towards (we assume) becoming a Faceless Man (or girl). In the new season, this telescoping continues. Jamie and Bronn set off to Dorne to rescue the princess (and Jamie's daughter) Myrcella, in what amounts to a particularly bloody take on the buddy movie trope. Dorne is a hybrid place based on Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain. The Water Gardens of Dorne were, in fact, filmed in the Alcázar of Seville, a great palace from the Islamic era. Dorne is both part of the "western" world of Westeros and yet culturally apart, with better food and wine, but also its relative autonomy for both women and bastards (and the Sand Snakes, who are both). It's a way station between the "eastern" cities of Essos, through which Danerys has traveled, and the purely European medieval territories of Westeros.
The world of Westeros and Essos feel at once familiar and alien, and that's why it's so compelling. Each site and culture reflects the ways that myths and histories echo through time, providing a richer world through which the main characters move and, too often, die.
It's a big and beautiful realm. Oberyn won't get to see it. But we will.
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