History is written in the blood
Without question, Tolkien set the standard for worldbuilding. Readers of epic fantasy aren’t content with a few generations of kings mentioned in some measly footnotes; they want a world so vast and detailed that it could be real. With Tolkien’s template in mind, George R.R. Martin addresses fans’ demands for a truly epic history.
While fantasy readers have long immersed themselves in Martin’s mega-best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” introduced thousands more to his world full of dragons, magic and brutal murders of (spoiler alert!) everyone. At the risk of further delaying the author from writing the sixth book in the series, BookPage called Martin to talk about his new encyclopedic history of Westeros and beyond, The World of Ice and Fire.
“The [Song of Ice and Fire] world is full of stories, just as our world is,” Martin says. “Because I’ve been writing about this world for so many years now, the world has become very real to me, and I can see all these other stories, and part of me wants to tell them, too. . . . If I had all the time in the world, I could easily write novels about the reign of Aegon III or Aegon IV, the Dance of the Dragons or the romance between King Aerys I and his queen. There are a lot of stories there to be told.”
Talk about an understatement. Martin’s novels are brimming with references to untold history and legends, and if he pursued every tangent, we’d never get to the end of the story. Even The World of Ice and Fire, which is intended to be the definitive historical volume for the Seven Kingdoms, can only briefly touch on the wealth of tales here. The storytelling possibilities are limitless—which is the reason why Martin is still charmingly enthusiastic about this world, even after inhabiting it for the last 20 years.
The Eyrie, copyright © Ted Nasmith. Reprinted with permission of Random House.
In response to fans’ constant requests for extended genealogies and fleshed-out, panoramic histories, Martin announced in 2006 that he would begin writing this companion book. “There’s a great thirst on the part of some of the fans for more and more details about the world,” Martin says. “But I didn’t want to get too close to the so-called present day of Westeros, because I don’t want to give away any of the developments in the coming novels.”
The full history of the Seven Kingdoms exists in Martin’s brain—a magic trick if there ever was one—but even the author’s vast imagination needs some help keeping it straight. Elio M. García and Linda Antonsson, founders of the fan site Westeros.org, have been studying (and fact-checking) the details of Martin’s world for years. As co-writers, they pored over 10,000 pages of novels, pulling out all references to history, myths and legends. After they organized and formed the book’s structure, Martin stepped in to fill in the blanks.
This is far from a complete and infallible account, however. Where Tolkien was concerned with myth and languages, Martin is fascinated by history—and the challenges of retelling it.
The narrator of The World of Ice and Fire is Maester Yandel, who acknowledges the difficulties in composing this book, though he insists his multitude of sources has provided a mostly complete narrative: “[E]very building is constructed stone by stone, and the same may be said of knowledge, extracted and compiled by many learned men, each of whom builds upon the works of those who preceded him. What one of them does not know is known to another, and little remains truly unknown if one seeks far enough.”
As in our own world, history is written by the victors, who often skew truth toward more flattering legend. In an attempt to condense hundreds of years and to represent disparate cultures’ beliefs while coming to some sort of truthful conclusion, Maester Yandel has presented a history that is undeniably distorted. These far-off places and long-dead men refuse to give up all their secrets. For example, Valyrians insist they descended from dragons, and Ironborns believe they come from fish, but these elements of “history” are born out of religion. Where did these people actually come from? Often the answer is only speculation.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength—and Martin agrees—is the sumptuous illustrations that bring these stories to life. The author collaborated with Random House on choosing the fantasy artists featured in the book, and the artwork ranges from paintings to digital images, from portraits of kings to gory, blood-soaked battle scenes. Martin especially enjoyed working with Ted Nasmith to create the definitive representations of castles such as Winterfell and Casterly Rock. “We went back and forth to get the look of all those castles exactly as I imagine them,” Martin promises.
One question remains for fans who might hope to find clues in this ambitious companion book: Does history repeat itself? Martin’s cheeky answer: “A resounding yes and no. A bit of maybe.”
This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.