Every Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal Westeros.org present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index.
One of the things that people who are not fans of genre fantasy hold against it is its lack of “realism” in various aspects that they believe do not require a lack of realism. They can point to The Lord of the Rings, for example, and complain about the vast swaths of land that were left uninhabited or, at least, ungoverned. Or they could look at The Wheel of Time and wonder about a pre-modern continent the size of Europe having very distinct cultures rubbing shoulders... but only one language between them all.
A similar complaint can be made about A Song of Ice and Fire, with the inhabitants of a South America-sized continent all basically sharing a common language (we’ll leave the giants and certain wildlings, who only speak the Old Tongue of the First Men, out of this). There are other things that strain credulity, which are there to signal “fantasy” of a particular stripe rather than as pure examples of realism—the huge structures, the ravens as messengers, and so on.
One that seems to be a sticking point for some, however, is the depiction of history in the novels.
It’s not so much that A Song of Ice and Fire lacks history...just that there’s too much, to their thinking. After all, the Long Night is dated to some 8,000 years ago, the wars between Valyria and Old Ghis to 6,000 years ago, and there are other events noted down as happening many millenia before. In the second episode of the TV series, Ned Stark informs his bastard son Jon Snow that Starks have been manning the Wall for thousands of years. There’s two difficult ideas buried in that statement.
First, an organization that’s been doing something for thousands of years (the Roman Catholic Church has nothing on the Night’s Watch). Secondly, a family that’s existed for thousands of years (the Imperial Family of Japan is about 5,500 years younger than the Starks claim to be). This sort of thing simply doesn’t happen in our world. It’s literally incomprehensible in any realistic sense. These vast time scales are comprehensible to us in the real world only because of the development of modern archeology over the last couple of centuries. To people in the Seven Kingdoms and on Essos, there really should be no knowledge, much less understanding, of such time scales....
But there is. The history of Westeros seems to be more-or-less known (with gaps, of course, with a bit of fuzziness) going on 12,000 years or so, from the time that the First Men first appeared with bronze weapons and horses. They warred with the children of the forest, until the Pact was made that kept the peace between them for some 4,000 years. Then the Andals arrived some 6,000 years ago, bringing iron and their new religion, renewing the slaughter of the children, even sweeping over the Iron Islands some 4,000 years ago.
There’s a reference to the six southron kingdoms of the time falling to the Andals (the North, of course, was not overrun), which is an interesting detail, projecting the seven kingdoms of the Conquest back onto the past despite there being evidence that there were various petty kings at the time, in Duskendale, in Oldtown, and elsewhere. Perhaps the petty kings do not count...but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that Dorne was ever a proper kingdom, given its fractious history.
In any case, after the Andals, history begins to become somewhat more settled, more rigourously recorded. As Samwell Tarly tells Jon Snow:
“The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later.” (A Feast for Crows)
But as he also adds, this means that all of these details are based on hearsay, on legends and stories passed down among the First Men over millenia, apparently. How trustworthy can they be? Samwell’s remarks in A Feast for Crows are the among several in that book which were the very first to actually question the dating of some key events of the ancient past. The Prologue of the novel opens with students at the Citadel discussing the age of the world, and noting that there are very different answers among different archmaesters (40,000 years says one, more than 500,000 says another). Even post-Andal history is questioned: was the last kingsmoot on the Iron Islands 2,000 or 4,000 years ago? There are no clear answers.
One has to trust that by the time the Citadel was founded in Oldtown and spread its influence throughout the Seven Kingdoms—an event we have no real information about, curiously enough, not even a rough date as to when it happened—that the recording of history becomes more solid and dependable. There must be clear lines of kings going back a thousand years, two thousand years; none of these Age of Heroes kings who ruled for hundred of years. But there are still disputes, which is no real surprise.
Perhaps one of the most realistic aspects of history in the novels is the fact that this medieval-inspired society depends a great deal on popular history, delivered orally rather than in manuscripts. The singers are a great one for this, and the songs and tales they tell in the novels are a rich source of the past few hundred years. A rich source, but also an untrustworthy one. Did the singers take Aegon the Unworthy’s innuendos about his siblings the Dragonknight and Naerys and turn them into one of the great romances of the Seven Kingdoms? Are the singers to blame for causing doubts and confusion about the historical beginnings of the Dance of the Dragons? It’s all quite possible.
Why does A Feast for Crows start to introduce doubts about the commonly accepted history? Simply a decision by Martin to maybe adhere more to the reality of history’s uncertainties, especially the further back you go? Or will it play some role in the events to come in the novels, perhaps illuminating some facts that were unclear or even unknown?
I’ve no answers at all to those questions. But here’s a possible hint as to why the time scales are as they are, why everything ancient is ancient-beyond-ancient, why everything big is really big. In The Faces of Fantasy, a photograph collection, George R.R. Martin wrote the following (you can read the full piece on his official site):
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
Every adjective you can think of is just a bit more of itself in the fantasy world GRRM has created. And that includes old: everything that’s old is even older. It’s a signal, and it’s a way to evoke wonder, a sense of the great epochs. If it doesn’t make perfect, realistic sense, I’m not sure Martin cares, so long as many readers can be transported by such details.
Clearly, many are.
Valyrian dagger image copyright Heidi Sloan/HBO
Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. Westeros.org can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.