How To Read Game Of Thrones
or how to read George R. R. Martin’s staggering, cumbersome epic without getting traumatized by the torture, rape, incest, and murder, thwarted by the medieval language, lost in his vast, invented world of strangely named cities and surrounding geography, muddled by the epic history and mythology, confused by the excessive cast of characters, or bored by the details of custom and culture.
CAUTION: There are some minor spoilers below, but they are worth it if I can get you to visit these books. Besides, you’ll forget about them as soon as you get into it.
HOW TO READ GAME OF THRONES
I have a confession to make: I never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I tried it a few times, and somewhere amidst The Two Towers I just couldn’t sit through another meeting where old songs and myths were discussed or ancient languages were dissected. I wanted to get back to the orcs and the goblins, the wizards and the elves — the adventuring! (To be fair, I was only twelve when I gave it my best effort. I might have the patience for it now, thirty years later.) What I really needed was an interactive guide (like the ambitious LotrProject) — detailed journey maps, cultural histories, character synopses, fleshed-out family trees, pictures! — to keep me grounded in the story instead of feeling distracted and overwhelmed. Or perhaps there just wasn’t enough raping and beheading in Middle Earth.
Which brings us to the epic A Song of Ice and Fire, something akin to fantasy but not altogether unreal. George R.R. Martin (GRRM) is equal parts mediaeval historian, amateur cartographer, cultural anthropologist, royal genealogist, relational psychoanalyst, and vengeful god. His work is at times brutal and violent — hence the raping and beheadings reference— but at other times rich and sublime. I recently completed books 4 and 5 of the series and felt an almost visceral sense of loss, of being extricated from a real place, like the feeling at the end of an unforgettable trip abroad: even before you leave, you want to go back.
George R. R. Martin is equal parts mediaeval historian, amateur cartographer, cultural anthropologist, royal genealogist, relational psychoanalyst, and vengeful god.
I want to convince you to join me there. If Westeros, the main continent in Martin’s books, were a destination on TripAdvisor I would give it 5 stars, but then continue with a few caveats. That’s my intention here: to sell you on Westeros despite its difficulties and short comings. With a world so rich and dense, it’s admittedly hard to get through at times, as the story literally (and literarily) explodes with content (at one wedding feast there are seventy-seven courses served!). The world-building, — the obsessive level of detail — is overwhelming to some readers. It’s a bit of work, but it’s totally worth the trip, worth the life-changing experience. You’ll feel like a native Westerosi by the time you return.
And what an extended stay it is! Out of a planned seven volumes, The Song of Ice and Fire is at 4273 manuscript pages after five books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons. Two more books are pending: The Winds of Winter is expected in 2015, followed by A Dream of Spring, promising to bring at least another 3000 pages combined.
There are side-trips and excursions too, with over 5 ‘prequel’ novellas (taking place before the main events of the series), a cookbook, an atlas, and a book of history and legend. And don’t forget to take in the award-winning HBO television series (4 seasons and counting), or the myriad of apps, games, books, and websites created by devoted fans.
You are best to visit A Song of Ice and Fire with a clear head and with the right equipment. Reading your way through Westoros when you are tired, distracted, or affected (pick your poison) is ill advised. If undivided concentration makes these books sound too intimidating, do not fear: modern book-reading technology combined with the tireless work of fantasy nerds and GRRM fanboys, has transformed the reading experience into something of a fantastic adventure in and of itself.
Before trekking into A Song of Ice and Fire, I require a lot of gear. I equip myself with the following excessive yet necessary items:
– Kindle Paperwhite
– iPhone 5
– iPad (4th ed.)
– Oxford Dictionary of English (Kindle default)
– The Unofficial Game of Thrones Kindle Dictionary
5 eBooks (Kindle edition)
– A Game of Thrones
– A Clash of Kings
– A Storm of Swords
– A Feast for Crows
– A Dance with Dragons
1 App (iOS version)
– A World of Ice and Fire
1 Website (optional, suggested for re-reading) – Westeros.org (CAUTION: contains spoilers)
With all of this technology, I then travel to A Song of Ice and Fire (aka The Game of Thrones books) on my Kindle Paperwhite. I use the Unofficial Game of Thrones Kindle Dictionary to help me remember people and places, and toggle to the default Oxford Dictionary of English for help with some of the Old English words. I occasionally supplement my reading with the iPad/iPhone app A World of Ice and Fire, where I can look up places on maps and keep track of where characters are situated.
We’ll get into all of this in greater detail, but the point is, whether you are reading the books for the first time, or re-reading them again for further enjoyment, I hope this article well get you through your Westerosi adventure without getting traumatized by the horrors, thwarted by the language, lost in the geography, muddled by the mythology, bored by the details, or confused by the cast.
WITHOUT GETTING TRAUMATIZED BY ALL THE TORTURE,
RAPE, INCEST, AND MURDER
Reading A Song of Ice and Fire is not for the squeamish. Without getting all spoilery, the amount of sex and violence is biblical in scale. But as Alyssa Rosenberg points out (in her essay, “Men and Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire”), the sexual attitudes (and actions) of the characters serve to deepen our understanding of the different regions and cultures throughout the story.
For readers who are sensitive to depictions of rape and domestic violence, the number of those assaults or discussions of assault may be an insurmountable barrier to enjoying the books… Everyone has an individual threshold for violence in art, but it would be a mistake to suggest that depictions of sexual and domestic violence in A Song of Ice and Fire are merely lurid exploitation.
She goes on to say:
Rape touches the lives, and shapes the world, of almost all the characters in the series, be they noble or common-born, perpetrators or victims. And while each of them feels pain, and terror, and anger individually, it’s given to us to see the collective impact of these assaults across continents. Even when rape isn’t being used as an excuse to start a war or a way to manipulate court politics, a tolerance for rape and the failure to provide justice to its victims deforms Westeros and its enemies alike. Rather than an exercise in exploitation, the pervasive nature of sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire serves as a powerful indication, and indictment, of corruption and inhumanity.
Beside the rape, incest, and other sexual power plays, there is plenty of additional violence. Characters are dismembered, beheaded, flayed, gored, stabbed, crushed, poisoned, starved, eaten, ruptured, cursed, drowned, burned alive, frozen solid, torn apart, and inflicted with hideous diseases. That’s a constant, not a spoiler. If you enter the series prepared for the worst, you might do a better job dealing with the trauma to come. Just know that it all serves a purpose to add tension, realism, and a true sense of danger and suspense.
Studio Incandescence attempted an infographic of every kill in A Song of Ice and Fire (so far). Don’t look too closely (MAJOR SPOILERS), just keep in mind that these books are not for the faint of heart.
WITHOUT GETTING THWARTED BY THE MEDIAEVAL LANGUAGE
What is a destrier? Why are soldiers carrying shields with sigils on them? And how is the snow piling against the crenelations?
Sam Pulford, who blogs for Oxford Dictionaries, has this to say about the language:
The series has been labelled by many as ‘medieval fantasy’ and indeed much of the language is evocative of this. As well as the knightly setting of the series, vocabulary is used to add to the medieval flavour. Some are invented words – such as turncloak, which is Martin’s archaic-sounding amendment of turncoat. But many are already-existing words with a long history. Ser for Sir, Southron for Southern, and craven meaning cowardly all date from 1451, 1488, and 1400 respectively, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
One thing I love about most eReaders is their ubiquitous accessibility to dictionaries. The Kindle Paperwhite, my current e-livre du jour, is no exception. The Oxford Dictionary of English is the default reference, and it more than adequately defines Old and Middle English words. I tap-and-hold words in question and instantly have access to their meaning. If I am connected to wifi I can expand my knowledge with a quick press into Wikipedia.
When Oxford isn’t enough, there is always The Elephant’s Unofficial Game of Thrones Kindle Dictionary. It is relatively simple to download and install, and can assist you with descriptions of Martin’s made-up words like turncloak, and maester by referencing A Wiki of Ice and Fire.
There is more than just Old English and a few made-up words to contend with. There are other languages as well. Luckily, GRRM spares readers from long passages in High Valyrian or Dothraki. Instead, “[t]he characteristics and flavour of each of the different languages in the seven kingdoms are portrayed through a number of colloquial phrases which the reader can then associate with that particular language.” blogs Sam Pulford of Oxford Dictionaries. He cites these examples: “Missendei…of Astapor, uses ‘this one’ rather than I or me,” and “the Dothraki use ‘it is known’ concerning a piece of common knowledge or folklore.”
Not as obsessed with linguistics as J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin chose instead to create just a few representative words, a ‘flavour’ of the languages represented. As Martin confesses, “Tolkien was a philologist, and an Oxford don, and could spend decades laboriously inventing Elvish in all its detail. I, alas, am only a hardworking science fiction and fantasy [novelist], and I don’t have his gift for languages. That is to say, I have not actually created a Valyrian language. The best I could do was try to sketch in each of the chief tongues of my imaginary world in broad strokes, and give them each their characteristic sounds and spellings.”
The HBO TV show Game of Thrones created a need to flesh out a more substantial depiction of these languages because characters had to speak them out loud. So HBO hired David Peterson of the Language Creation Society (how cool and nerdy is that?) to invent them from the scraps of Dothraki and snippets of Valyrian in the books.
If you want to take your reading preparation to the extreme, you can actually learn to speak the languages yourself at Tongues of Ice and Fire.
WITHOUT GETTING LOST IN THE VAST, INVENTED WORLD OF STRANGELY NAMED CITIES AND SURROUNDING GEOGRAPHY
With almost 550 distinct geographical locations, from inns and castles, to rivers and isles, to moors and desserts, mountains and kingdoms, cities and keeps, it’s not hard to get lost in A Song of Ice and Fire. Thank the gods for Jonathan Roberts, cartographer of fantastic worlds. He and GRRM have collaborated to create The Lands of Ice and Fire which contains 12 very detailed maps of Westeros and The Known World.
As many of the characters travel throughout GRRM’s world, they are often accompanied by a learned companion who educates them on the countryside and its landmarks. My trusty companion is the iOS app A World of Ice and Fire, which includes many of Jonathan Robert’s gorgeous and detailed maps, all searchable and zoomable. I use this app to look up the names of rivers, forests, planes, regions, keeps and cities to afford me a true sense of place as the characters move about their journeys.
Another dedicated website (at quartermaester.info) creates a Google Maps style experience of Westeros (and the Known World), letting you zoom in and out of detailed topography, and turn on layers showing the regions of influence and nobility. Major character paths can be toggled on or off, showing you their journeys throughout the lands. A friendly slider allows you to adjust the path based on how far along you are in the books and chapters to avoid any unwanted spoilers.
WITHOUT GETTING MUDDLED BY THE EPIC HISTORY AND MYTHOLOGY
A Song of Ice and Fire is steeped in mediaeval Europe’s past. GRRM admits that his fantasy borrows heavily from two main inspirations: The War of the Roses, and The Accursed Kings.
The War of the Roses was a dynastic battle for the throne of England fought between the rival houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1487. In the final Battle at Bosworth Field, Henry Tudor of Lancaster defeated Yorkish King Richard III. He promptly combined the two warring houses by marrying Elisabeth of York and created the new House of Tudor (and ushering in the Golden Age). Shakespeare, also inspired by the drama of this famous event, penned The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.
George R.R. Martin’s second inspiration is The Accursed Kings, a seven-book series written by Maurice Druon in 1955. This work of historical fiction is based on the dynastic backstabbing of 13th and 14th century France. Martin was asked to write the introduction to a newly published English translation, which he describes as “the original Game of Thrones.”
“The Accursed Kings has it all,” Martin writes. “Iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin, and swords, the doom of a great dynasty . . .and all of it (well, most of it) straight from the pages of history.”
Just as ‘one does not simply walk into Mordor’, one cannot take a casual stroll through Westeros. Understanding the myth and history of Westeros is much like it was getting through the Fellowship meetings in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings: at the worst times a slog, at the best times transcendent and wondrous.
George R. R. Martin demands your attention as his characters discuss ancient kings and royal lineages, famous battles, popular rumours, and old fairytales. On occasion, dozens of shields and sigils are described as armies comprised of different Houses walk by. Part of the challenge to the reader is not just the sheer volume and scale of the information, but how it breathes, how it expands and adapts, shaped by the various characters and perspectives within the story itself.
“Even as the story moves ahead, it also moves back, giving more depth and resonance to current events by showing how they were set up decades, centuries, or even millennia earlier. But we also learn that the accounts of time and history in the books are not to be trusted, with doubts raised over when events happened, or even if they ever happened at all.” — Adam Whitehead, “An Unreliable World: History and Timekeeping in Westeros” from Beyond the Wall
In A Dance with Dragons, Hoster Blackwood supports Mr. Whitehead’s claim. Referencing an old tome of ancient scholars, Hoster states, “The True History says four thousand years have passed since [the Andals crossed the narrow sea], but some maesters claim that it was only two. Past a certain point, all the dates grow hazy and confused, and the clarity of history becomes the fog of legend.”
The burden placed upon the reader is to place these shifting elements into one cohesive whole. “Wheels turn within wheels,” says Whitehead, “and the information we are offered within the books is fragmentary, requiring the reader to stand back and combine the scattered facts and perspectives into a larger picture.” This ambiguity, regarding the history of events and the malleable nature of characters’ memories and subjective experience, creates a rich environment for collaborative speculation.
A Forum of Ice and Fire (part of Westeros.org) is an aptly named collective of fans who love to discuss their own theories to account for inconsistencies and gaps. The founders of this site did such a great job of compiling the various histories and legends that George R. R. Martin leaned on them to create a companion book called The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones.
I eventually relaxed and accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to absorb everything the first time around. The various websites and forums around the web serve as a vast, external memory which you can tap into at will.
WITHOUT GETTING CONFUSED BY THE EXCESSIVE CAST OF CHARACTERS
There are close to two thousand characters mentioned in A Song of Ice and Fire. By the time the series comes to a close in book seven, it may end up rivalling the Bible (which has just over 3200 characters) in its epic cast. Over four-hundred distinct families are listed, each with their own sigils, or crests. Some of them are important, but most are window-dressing to GRRM’s world building. Most chapters are written from the POV (point-of-view) of one of the major characters, who acts as a witness to the complicated unfolding of events. In the first book, A Game of Thrones, there are eight separate POVs. By the time you finish the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, you have been exposed to 14 major POVs, 10 minor POVs, and 7 one-off POVs that have been written as Epilogues or Prologues. That is a lot of points-of-view to keep juggling.
Occasionally the POVs even overlap, covering the same situation and dialogue. If you read Chapter 7 of A Dance with Dragons immediately following Chapter 5 of A Feast for Crows, you will feel a strong sense of déja vu. When the characters of Sam and Jon meet, their actions are similar and their dialogue is identical. Luckily this does not happen often.
I have read (and loved) every book so far, but ran into some problems with the series toward the end. Book four left out some of my favourite characters, and when book five finally came out, I felt lost and disconnected after only a few chapters. In an interview with Rachael Brown for The Atlantic, George admitted that “A Dance with Dragons is not the fifth book, but is more like four B. The two books run in parallel, and both begin five minutes after the end of [book 3] A Storm of Swords.”
I spent a year searching online for a smart, methodical, spoiler-free mashup of the two books that allowed me to read them in parallel. I finally found what I was looking for on a tumblr blog called All Leather Must Be Boiled. Sean T. Collins, a Game of Thrones writer for Rolling Stone, published a convenient combined reading order. He pitches it like this:
Are you reading A Song of Ice and Fire for the first time? Have you heard that volumes four and five, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, cover the same time period but split up the characters, so that most of the people who appear in Feast don’t show up in Dance and vice versa? … Are you interested in recombining the two halves of the story in hopes that it’ll make for a more satisfying reading experience? Here’s how you do it!
The official companion app for mobile, A World of Ice and Fire, will let you look up character descriptions, but it can get tedious and interruptive to put down your Kindle and pick up your iPhone every time you start getting confused.
Remember the unofficial Game of Thrones Kindle Dictionary I mentioned a few chapters earlier? Well, its best use is for characters. Don’t know who someone is? Hold and release the name on your Kindle Paperwhite and a de-spoilerized description from the Wiki of Ice and Fire is superimposed over the page. No fuss, limited interruption.
Just don’t get too invested in your favourite characters. GRRM is not against killing off even the main ones. “We’ve all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble,” says George. “[H]e’s surrounded by twenty people, but you know he’s gonna get away ‘cause he’s the hero. You don’t really feel any fear for him. I want my readers…to be afraid when my characters are in danger. I want them to be afraid to turn the next page because the next character may not survive it.”
No one is safe, nothing is sacred, in the Game of Thrones. And that’s what makes it so exciting. You really don’t know what’s going to happen next. There are no guarantees. As they say in High Valyrian: Valar Morghulis (all men must die).
WITHOUT GETTING BORED BY THE DETAILS OF CUSTOM AND CULTURE
George R. R. Martin makes the following admission in the introduction to A Feast of Ice & Fire: The Official Companion Cookbook: “When I read, as when I travel, I want to see the sights, smell the flowers, and yes, taste the food. My goal as a writer has always been to create an immersive vicarious experience for my readers. When a reader puts down one of my novels, I want him to remember the events of the book as if he had lived them. And the way to do that is with sensory detail.”
George certainly makes sure that you live them. During one particularly important wedding, a seventy-seven course meal is served. Not quite every dish is described, but it comes close.
…I spend so much time and effort describing the food my characters eat: what it is, how it’s prepared, what it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like. It grounds the scenes, gives them texture, makes them vivid and visceral and memorable. Sense impressions reach us on much deeper and and more primal levels than intellectual discourse can ever hope to.
And the meals I describe do other things as well. World building is part of what gives epic fantasy its appeal, and food is part of that. You can learn a lot about a world and culture from what they eat (and what they won’t eat).” — GRRM, A Feast of Ice and Fire
This detail of The Seven Kingdoms (and well beyond) is not limited to food: dress, architecture, song, weapons, and social customs of many different cultures are expounded and expanded on.
The world, nay the universe GRRM created, continues to expand. It has inspired maps, cookbooks, costumes, a smash hit TV show, games (board games, card games, role-playing games, and video games), artwork, songs, forums, wikis, and websites. It has intertwined its unique culture with our own.
Some readers have criticized Martin for his excessive or gratuitous descriptions. One internet joke claims that all the characters die in book five, and that “the sixth book will be just a thousand-page description of snow blowing across the graves…”
George admits that he is often accused of “gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous descriptions of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry, because very little of this is necessary to advance the plot. But,” he confesses to Rachael Brown of The Atlantic, “My philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes.”
Like any trip to foreign lands, you can always sit back in the comfort and safety of your own home and watch travel videos instead. Game of Thrones is HBO’s biggest hit on television and contains most of the important plot lines from the books from which they were inspired.
I chose to read the books first before immersing myself in the TV show, to make the experience my own before succumbing to another (albeit fantastic) vision. If you haven’t seen the show or read the books, this amazing FAQ on A Reddit of Ice and Fire gives you every argument for and against every possible reading/watching combination.
Whatever you ultimately decide, I hope this essay helped assuage any lingering doubt. I mentioned six possible barriers:
- Trauma. The brutality is traumatic, but not gratuitous, and serves to shape our understanding of Westeros and its cultural morals and motivations.
- Language. The mediaeval language barrier can be thwarted by a free Kindle dictionary (and if you don’t use a Kindle, there’s always the web).
- Geography. The entire ‘Known World’ can be navigated by professionally drawn maps (available in paper, online, or smart phone varieties)
- History/Mythology. The vast, blurry history and mythology can be cleared up by forum-created timelines, or researched via the new book The World of Ice and Fire.
- Cast. If you are confused by the epic number of characters, there’s an app for that: A World of Ice and Fire, for both iOS and Android, allows you to look up the cast and get spoiler-free descriptions.
- Boredom. Boredom I cannot help you with, but know this: A Song of Ice and Fire is a vast and complex place filled with many riches. It is a world written for you to savour and disappear into. To visit Westeros is to soak in the details, to commune with the characters, and to lose yourself to the story.
Jason Theodor is a creative director, writer, speaker, geek who lives in Toronto, Canada.
His current project is called All-Day Breakfast, a daily exploration of creativity and the human condition.