Monday, April 21, 2014

The Where and When of Game of Thrones

GOT cast on the lash at my old local Lavery's in Belfast
My piece from The Guardian of a couple of months back on the where and when of Game of Thrones - yes, I am this geeky...

In 2010 I got a call from a wannabe actor friend asking if I'd heard of a book called A Game of Thrones, as he was auditioning as an extra for the upcoming TV show and wanted advice "on the look". I told him that I had indeed read the novel, and that it was basically a reimagining of the Wars of the Roses in a Tolkienesque fantasy world.

"Olden times then?" James asked.
"Yes, olden times," I agreed.
James grew a beard, didn't wash his hair for a week and got the job.

But while it's true that George RR Martin was heavily influenced by the age of chivalry, the Wars of the Roses and JRR Tolkien (that's where the RR in his name comes from), the Song of Ice and Fire series also has a different, more interesting provenance, one that could suggest the Game of Thrones universe is located not in the past at all, but in the future.

Building on the work of George Macdonald, William Morris and Edward Plunkett, what became known as high fantasy was more or less invented by JRR Tolkien. Tolkien's Middle-earth is a reimagined prehistoric Europe with languages based on old Norse, old Welsh and old Irish, but that's about the only similarity to the real old Europe. Tolkien's version of Europe (or Eurasia) exists on a planet in a parallel universe where (according to The Silmarillion) the sun went around the Earth and the world was originally flat. This is not the history of our planet Earth, but an alternative mythological history of a planet with a passing resemblance to our own.

High fantasy as a genre exploded in the United States in the 1960s after the paperback publication of Lord of the Rings, but followers in Tolkien's tradition were not remotely consistent (thank goodness) as to where and when their books were actually taking place. Sometimes the fantasy writers set their novels in an ancient Earth; sometimes a parallel Earth; or quite often they offered no explanation at all as to the temporal and geographic location. A neat trick by Julian May in her Saga of the Pliocene Exiles was to use time travel, setting her series before humans (or even great apes) had evolved. The Conan books of Robert E Howard also took place in a rather less carefully reimagined prehistoric Europe. My favourite device of all is Stephen R Donaldson's in the Thomas Covenant series, where the reader (and protagonist) can't be sure whether the strange magical universe exists only inside the hero's own head.

The vast majority of these novels had swords, horses, kings, blacksmiths and inhabitants speaking "the common tongue", but where was it all happening? Apart from the extraordinary cartography in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, the early maps of these fantasy realms weren't exactly brilliant: West Land cropped up quite often, as did the Great South Forest, the Long Road, the Wide Sea …

But a different approach to fantasy writing had already been developed by the prolific science fiction author Jack Vance. Vance had no time for faux-medievalism and suggested instead that dragons, swords, magic, different races of men and so on would all actually be possible on an Earth millions of years hence, when the continents had changed shape, technology had failed and human and animal evolution had continued along its merry way.

The apocalyptic future has, of course, been a trope in Western literature since biblical times, but it was the vision of a far future in HG Wells's The Time Machine that inspired Vance. Vance set many stories on his forbidding Dying Earth, and a host of other science fiction and fantasy writers followed suit. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, set in an entropic, bleak, run-down, used-up future where the sun itself is about to sputter out, is probably the best exemplar of this genre. On Wolfe's wonderfully grim Earth, a professional torturer walks the land seeking what we're all seeking: meaning, redemption, somewhere to put our oversized broadsword and a bed for the night.

I am an admirer, too, of the almost entirely forgotten Road to Corlay series by Richard Cowper, set in a post-apocalyptic, drowned, pastoral England thousands of years from now. This gentle little series was slammed at the time as boring, but has influenced the likes of Isobelle Carmody and Colin Meloy.

The Dungeons and Dragons universe also largely takes place on a future Dying Earth (my favourite module, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, being the giveaway here). Of course, many of the fantasy novelists who began writing in the 1980s and 90s were childhood D&D players – George RR Martin among them. Martin was also a friend of Gene Wolfe, and such a fan of the late Jack Vance that he edited a tribute volume of stories explicitly set in Vance's world.

It seems to me, then, that it makes more sense to regard Game of Thrones as taking place not in some canned version of our medieval past but in the far future when the continents have shifted and some humans have evolved extraordinary physical and mental abilities which, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, are indistinguishable from magic.

All but the most basic technology has been forgotten (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jnr is the book to read here), so battles are fought between humans with swords and shields. Dragons have evolved or been genetically engineered from lizards and the more useful animals such as cows and horses are still around. As the sun expands, Earth's orbit becomes more eccentric and massive variations in climate are to be expected, resulting in stretched-out summers and long, deadly winters.

Michael Moorcock has famously criticised the Tolkien school of fantasy writing as depoliticised, war-glorifying, silly, illogical "Epic Pooh". While this accusation won't bother the casual reader, who can still happily regard A Song of Ice and Fire as a cod "olden times" fantasy, more thoughtful readers could argue that the books' provenance is a lot richer and deeper than that.


Alan said...

Adrian,The "Game Of Thrones"which I am now watching for the first time speaks to me about and with the cynicism of late Rome.Undone are the incremental advances of Judeo-Christian which led to the concepts of "War Crimes" and "Crimes Against Humanity."It is at least telling that although Assads exist today especially in "The Stans" and parts of SubSaharan Africa they are not the norm nor condoned by most of the "Vox Populi."The spasms of Hitler and Stalin seem to ended with an International Court At The Hague to some degree.We have no "Count Belasarius" but our genetic and dynastic history as show in "Thrones"seems be hopefully mostly jettisoned.Fine and thought provoking post.Best Alan

Alan said...

Adrian,Happy Holidays to all.Best Alan

John McFetridge said...

It's funny you mention, Rome, Alan, that was the series HBO cancelled after two season. Not exactly to make way for Gwm of Thrones, but if it had followed its original plan and run for five seasons likely Game of Thrones would not have been produced. Personally I prefer Rome, but I realize I'm in a very small minority.

I think I was a teenager at exactly the wrong time to appreciate fantasy - the early 70s when we were making fun of all things 60s. Tolkien is, for me, always part of the same culture as Uriah Heep and the worst of Led Zeppelin (Battle of Evermore) and hippies and phoney eastern mysticism.

Probably I just didn't read enough books....

seana graham said...

Julian May was a woman? Funny how I shelved her books for years and years and probably never even opened one.

I was very fond of fantasy when I was a grade schooler, but somehow lost interest in it in the high school years. I think John and I are probably close enough in age to have experienced the same t
Tolkien doldroms. I did read the Hobbit when slightly younger, but I read the first book and a half of Lord of the Rings with a feeling I was missing something.

My college roommate lured me back in with Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, both of whom I admire, but I never really caught the full fever. Worldbuilding, as I hear it referred to now, never really appealed to me, although I did like Left Hand of Darkness.

I didn't get into mystery reading till much later. And, like John, I don't really know that I did a lot of extracurricular reading during high school. I think my interest in reading unassigned reading surfaced again in college, probably to my downfall.

Alan said...

John and Seana .I think I must be Methuselah,as I remember as a kid reading Heinlein and later Phillip Jose Farmer. Later The Hobbit and a fair part of" Lord Of The Rings" as well as getting"Galaxy "magazine. Best Alan

seana graham said...

Or you could just have been a different kind of kid, Alan.

Mark English said...

Adrian, you make all that fantasy stuff sound much more interesting than I have always pictured it – (like John and Seana) never having caught the bug. I think I'm more open to science fiction than fantasy, however, because it's generally more about a future that is maybe possible and decidedly not like the past: that's what gives it its power and fascination (for me anyway – and I really only know it via (old) TV and film I must admit). Or maybe it's just the thought of beards and dirty hair that puts me off. I want a clean-shaven future.

Craig said...

Adrian, have you ever tried writing fantasy?

Cary Watson said...

So you're saying that at the end of GOT Tyrion Lannister will journey north of the wall, along a deserted shore, and suddenly drop to his knees and say, "Damn you! Damn you all to hell!" Whereupon the camera will pan over to reveal a half-buried Statue of Liberty. I'd like that.

Anne said...

Well, this just shows what a 'fantastic' reviewer you are, Adrian (sorry about the pun).
I am with John and Mark here, in that whilst I used to read all kinds of Sci Fi in my youth, I never could stand the twee-ness of Fantasy plots. Mark makes a good point that Fantasy seems to be a re-hash of past sagas and therefore not really as imaginative as a story set in the future. Then again, your idea that Fantasy plots should really be viewed as post-apocalyptic visions makes sense. In fact, I have
always considered the Old Testament to be prophetic, (or cyclical) rather than historic - in Planet of the Apes style, as Cary visualises.

adrian mckinty said...


There are a lot of parallels with the GOT world and medieval England so I think that works quite well. Some of the other fantasy realms not so much...

Happy holidays to you too!

adrian mckinty said...


One of the rumours about why Plant wont reunite with Zeppelin is that he cant bear to sing all those hokey Zepp lyrics anymore. Kashmir is actually pretty funny if you sit down and read the lyrics.

adrian mckinty said...


Julian May was indeed a woman and still is. I grew up reading May and Le Guin and TH White and books like that so I suppose I was pretty susceptible. Rosemary Sutcliffe too was a big influence on me, although very few people read her these days, alas.

Interesting factoid - at least interesting to me - Le Guin was in the same high school class as Philip K Dick.

adrian mckinty said...


Its like anything, there's a lot of really really shit stuff out there. Derivative, hokey, bad.

I'm reluctant to recommend any of these books to a non fan of the genre but I tentatively suggest China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, which is one of the best fantasy novels I've read in years.

adrian mckinty said...


I never thought about it until I read that China Mieville book (see above) and then I realised the possibilities of the genre again....

You never know but I'd have to learn a whole new vocabulary and way or writing, which in itself might be no bad thing.

adrian mckinty said...


Its possible. The number of Hollywood movies and TV shows that have been shot on that beach is shocking. It was just on Modern Family yesterday.

adrian mckinty said...


It doesnt have to a rehash or a pastiche. It mostly is - unfortunately - but it doesnt have to be.

The first GOT book was pretty original and like I say Stephen Donaldson, China Mieville, Ursula Le Guin and a few others have done really interesting things with the genre.

seana graham said...

Adrian has written fantasy books, by the way, and they are good. But they are more for the younger end of the young adult crowd. Look around for the Lighthouse Trilogy.

I used to work with some hard core fantasy readers, so I do know of Sutcliffe and of course Mieville. There's actually a fair amount of interesting stuff out there that has nothing to do with fairy realms or epic sagas. I liked the novels of William Marshall Smith for instance, which had a kind of near future vibe and a bit of humor to them. They didn't really seem to catch on over here, though.