Mapping the World of Ice and Fire: The Geography of Game of Thrones

 

First year Human Geography PhD student Christoph Doppelhofer offers a fascinating insight into George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones . Through a discussion of the opening sequence of the TV series, Christoph considers the spatial relations and immersive experiences which create such a complex world . Using his background in Visual Arts and Culture, his work is able to focus on visual effects and narrative and their changing meaning, identities, and spatial relations.

This post is reblogged from his excellent personal blog: www.heritageofwesteros.com and you can find him on Twitter @c_doppelhofer

 

One of the main reasons why Game of Thrones is such an immersive experience, is the highly detailed and believable world that has been created by George R. R. Martin. The opening sequence is an example of how such a highly complex world can be established within just 90 seconds – and how it is impacting spatial relations of real-life geographies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHCxbwk_iKI

We start our journey hovering over an abstract three-dimensional map showing two landmasses which are separated by the so-called ‘Narrow Sea’. While we are zooming into the western part of the map, we can see rich, green lands with rivers and forests in the east, mountain ranges to the west and arid, rocky lands to the north east.

As we get drawn further to the ground, literally zooming in through lenses, we approach a location with the name ‘King’s Landing’. An emblem of a stag acts as our focal point. Lying next to a river and a bay, a townscape moved by cogwheels emerges slowly from the ground, surrounded by mighty city walls and a fortress with numerous slim towers made from red and yellow stone.

As soon as the castle is completed, we are swiftly taken North along a long road, flying past the previously seen green plains and mountains. Even though we are travelling at a high speed, we can get a glimpse of the Inn at the crossroad, that fateful place of many encounters.

Once we are finally slowing down, we have reached a vast, snowy landscape full of pine trees. At this point, we are closing in towards another named place, this time it carries the name ‘Winterfell’. Far smaller than the location we have just seen moments ago, it resembles more a castle than a proper city. It is densely built and surrounded by walls and mighty towers. Another, smaller encirclement is attached to its east, containing a tower and a large white tree with a carved face. The emblem we see here is that of a wolf.

From here we go even further north along the road. The forests thin out more and more, the plains are now fully covered in snow. Shortly, we arrive at what seems to be a snowy mountain range which spans from the west coast to the east coast of the landmass, cutting off the icy lands beyond it. The end of the road goes right to the centre of the place called just ‘The Wall’ and to a settlement built in its shadow.

A lift leads us to the very top from where we zoom out again and make our return to the south as the crow flies, back to ‘King’s Landing’. However, we won’t rest here as the camera is panning east across the ‘Narrow Sea’ to another city with the name ‘Pentos’. As we move through Pentos, we see King’s Landing and the lands of the west in the distance, getting further and further away.

Creating the Geography of Westeros and Beyond in 93 seconds

As you might have noticed, I just verbally described the opening sequence of the very first episode of Game of Thrones. What always struck me, is the ease in which it conveys highly complex geographical and narrative information. The amount of information about this fictional world given to us in just 1:33min is honestly quite remarkable: We have not only learnt about the important places that are crucial for the narrative of Game of Thrones, we have subconsciously taken in far more knowledge than we are actually aware of – and given that these one and a half minutes have been shown 67 times so far, this knowledge gets refined and added to with each and every subsequent viewing.

The first opening sequence we ever saw, kept it comparatively simple: It is lingering longer at King’s Landing, panning in a slower pace, following the course of the Kingsroad to experience their full extent of the vastly different landscapes and is limited to only four locations. Without any context whatsoever, you gain familiarity with the main locations, their structure and their relative distance to each other. Different architectural styles and layout of settlements visualise the different cultural traditions of each location. Furthermore, we saw the different environments with their unique climate zones and topography. Thus, we gain a holistic overview of the general cultural and natural geography of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond.

Geography as a story-telling device

Furthermore, the sigils of the stag and the wolf inform us about the rulership of each place. The importance of the sigils is reinforced by showing them as the literal gears that power, create and manipulate the places they are attributed to.

 

Additionally, as soon as new locations come into play over the course of the series, they will appear on the map, showing shifts of narrative, movement of characters as well as destruction and change of ownership like in the case of Winterfell. Thus, the opening is constantly evolving with the progression of the show and therefore an essential part of the narrative itself. It gives a much-needed geographical grounding, helping the viewers to understand this imaginary world full of places they did not know before. Through the short scenes that interrupt the journey, we even get parts of the backstory of Game of Thrones: the story of the Fall of the Targaryen Dynasty and the Rise of the House Baratheon, told through the embodiment of their sigils – the Dragon and the Stag.

 

The Doom of Valyria and the Rise of the Targaryan Dynasty (c) HBO
The gears that power Westeros (c) HBO
The inspiration for the design of the map came from Leonardo da Vinci’s machines

 

Imaginary Geographies and their impact on real-life spatial relations

Just through visuals, this opening sequence informs the audience of the scale of this world, creating an imaginary landscape that viewers can immerse themselves in. It gives a much-needed geographical grounding and a sense of space, helping the viewers to understand this imaginary world full of places they did not know before.

It is generally acknowledged that visualising locations through various forms of media – in our particular case maps and television – create familiarity, understanding, but also expectations of a place. Visualisations do not only make us aware of a location’s existence but is also essential in how we interpret it. And while we established that the world of Game of Thrones is an entirely fictional geography, each and every place shown on this map and subsequently in the series itself can be found somewhere in the real world due to the extensive on-location filming that has taken place.

In some other entries on my main blog (http://heritageofwesteros.com/visiting-westeros-a-new-trendy-destination/), I was already writing about how Game of Thrones imposes new identities on established cultural and natural heritage sites. However, by mapping those sites through the opening sequence, it also establishes new spatial relations between those sites in the real world. Once completely disconnected sites across various countries such as Castle Ward, Northern Ireland (Winterfell), Dubrovnik (King’s Landing) and many more have now all become part of one gigantic fictitious cultural landscape. Those sites are now simultaneously located on conventional maps but also on the newly established map of the world of ice and fire. Therefore, we are not only dealing with new identities of places but also entirely new imaginary geographies through which we are now have an altered perception of real-life spatial relations.