Apr 27 2011 6:37pm

The Uncommonly Stable Records of History in A Song of Ice and Fire

Every Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal 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. 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.

1. cheem
I'm not sure if the issue is so much the stability of historical records so much as the stability of history itself in Westeros. I mean, how long did the Age of Chivalry last? It seems to be lasting a whole lot longer in Westeros.

The languages seem remarkably stable as well...
2. AlecAustin
That stability of history (and society, and technology, and...) is one of the tropes of long-timeline fantasy, though. While Martin has Valyria and its Doom and whatnot floating about in the past, other than the rise and fall of magic and the empires it fueled, technological progress has essentially ground to a halt in Westeros.

It's entirely understandable why this is so - if you want to write a chivalric fantasy novel based on but not using the technology of the Wars of the Roses, you kind of have to handwave hackbutts and cannon and the like out of the picture - but among readers who are more familiar with the history of technology and the like, it does emphasize that Martin has essentially decided that certain technologies will not be developed for the sake of telling the story that he wants to tell.
3. Jeff R.
Except, of course, that knowledge of a reliable and safe means of birth control and early term abortion has been spreading like wildfire in the latest book (which, realistically, should probably wreak more changes in Westerosi society than anything else happening in the books other than a complete victory by the Ice Zombie Elves...)
JS Bangs
4. jaspax
I second what AlecAustin said--this historical stability over very long timelines is one of the hallmarks of epic fantasy, and it's often pushed to a highly unrealistic degreen. Interestingly, this is an area in which both Tolkein and Jordan seem to treat history more realistically than GRRM.

In Jordan's timeline, the history since Artur Hawkwing seems to be pretty well established and clearly documented, but events between the Breaking of the World and Hawkwing are much sketchier, with the time preceding the immediately following the Breaking barely understood at all. This is about what you'd expect of the aftermath of a world-shattering catastrophe.

Tolkein has an escape valve, in that his elves are immortal and so are able to create stable societies on huge timescales. But even with the elves, Tolkein's world is more dynamic that GRRM's. Just within the Third Age, Gondor has passed into senescence, Andor has fallen, Angmar has come and gone, Moriah was lost, the Necromancer of Dol Guldur came and went, the Rohirrim moved to their current home, the Hobbits migrated somehow from the shores of the Anduin to their current home, and all sorts of other kingdoms have come and gone along the edges of the map. This history is better documented than anything in our world on similar timescales, but most of this is due to the elves.
Joel Cunningham
5. jec81
i just mentally drop a zero off of all the ludicrously long timespans. makes it a lot easier to take -- i can buy that the starks have been protecting the wall for 800 years.
Marcus W
6. toryx
jaspax @ 4: Except that even Jordan has 3000 years since the fall of the Age of Legends to the present day with very little evolution in the society. 3,000 years is a pretty ridiculously big number. I think once you get to 1500 - 2000 + years, the suspension of disbelief is pretty great no matter how many extra thousands of years are tacked on top.

I personally don't care about how many thousands of years pass and the history or lack of recoreded history that exists in that kind of time. If I can let go of the existence of Dragons (not to mention the seasons) I can easily neglect to consider the logic of the history.
7. spacechampion
Consider the fact that there has been about 500 generations of humans since agricultural civilization was invented, then consider that there would about 7000 generations of humans as hunter-gatherer societies before that since the development of homo sapiens from the homo ancestor species. We are talking about 150,000 years.

The Pact between the Children of the Forest and the First Men could very well have been at the tail end of that hunter-gatherer period in Martin's world, and 500 generations since then would take us to the present days of the story. So they are only slightly behind us in technological development.
8. peachy
I guess I figure that the history is like most everything else in Martin's world - just because everyone believes that something is so doesn't mean that it is. That's the beauty of his narrative setup.

Long-term historical memory in fantasy does generally bother me, at least a bit, but the other issues mentioned here don't so much, because our conceptions of material progress and 'reasonable' population density are conditioned by circumstances that are in fact extremely rare in history. Jordan and Tolkien both load the dice on top of that by slagging everything down every so often... nothing like a continent- and generation-spanning war to knock you back to square one as a civilisation. (What really bothers me is lack of attention to basic economics, which is something that Martin and Jordan both deal with adequately - at worst, they acknowledge that people need to eat and trade and make money. Tolkien, to my eternal vexation, does not.)
Dan Monan
9. Monand
I don't think that Martin's take on historical records in necessarily unrealistic, at least not once the inherently unrealistic elements of the setting are accounted for and accepted.

As others have pointed out, technology is essentially stagnant. They have apparently been living in a Medieval world for thousands of years. If this can be accepted as true, then the preservation of knowledge is not completely impossible. Remember that all of our stories of christ went through 1500 years before the printing press, the old testament was around over a thousand years before that.

The (relatively) accurate recording of information over millenia through oral and hand-written means is possible. (It should be noted that I'm not claiming the bible is factual, only that the modern version is a resonable approximation of what someone 4,000 years ago might have used). Likewise, it is not absurd to believe that detailed legends might have survived to the present day of Martin's world.

For me, the most unrealistic elements of the story have always been the 300 foot wall and the fact that advanced socities survive winters that sometimes last decades. Any major population center would starve.
Elio García
10. Egarcia
700 foot wall, actually...

I had a very interesting twitter conversation about the piece, discussing what it is in our history that has made historical reporting more rigorous. The argument was that it's not really the develoment of archaeolgy but rather the scientific method being applied to historiography. Which seems fair enough, really.

We've had historians for many centuries, but if you look back in the pre-modern era, many of them used dubious techniques. Sourcing was poor, and sometimes non-existent. History was a web of hearsay, used to some purpose -- political, moral, polemical -- that wasn't really just trying to sort out facts from fiction.

History is much the same in Westeros. It seems like the maesters may be the first to genuinely be applying something like a scientific approach to their studies, but there's only so much they can do to sort out the fact from the fiction.

Let me add that I'm not sure we can take for granted that Westeros has been at a "medieval" level for eight thousands years. The First Men used bronze, and their ringforts certainly weren't inspired by medieval castles but rather by early Iron Age Celtic fortifications. Winterfell may be ancient... but it seems likely it's been rebuilt many times, a sort of organic sprawl of old buildings giving way to new. They call the oldest building in Winterfell the First Keep... but I'm rather dubious it was in fact the First Keep.

How long it's genuinely been "medieval" is hard to say -- a couple of thousand years seems pretty likely at a minimum. But beyond that, we may be projecting the culture of the present day novel on to the past in a way that isn't quite right.
Maiane Bakroeva
11. Isilel
Well, I actually never took the whole 8K years old seriously, because even before AFFC there were hints that it is just a myth based on oral history.

The society and technology aren't actually stagnant - they changed a lot in the 3 centuries since the Conquest, for instance.
Cities grew, trade and population greatly increased, metalurgy improved (all these enameled plate armors, etc.), Citadel came into prominence while more magic-reliant orders, such as alchemists, faded, the Faith was greatly weakened and subordinated to the Crown, etc.

IMHO the whole "they were in middle ages forever" thing is more along the lines of people in medieval icons wearing medieval clothing and weapons, etc. I.e. it is a reflection of the story-teller's society, rather than the actual circumstances at the time of the events told.

Yes, the military application of black powder wasn't invented - which is why they remained in the Age of Chivalry for longer. But then, that invention at that time was a fluke in our history too.
Let's not forget that in other parts of the globe there were still civilizations that didn't even know the use of metal or wheel. Or that others _did_ stagnate in feodalism for much longer, imported fire-arms and constant meddling from the West or not. IMHO, the role of chance in iRL history can't be over-estimated.

Jeff R @3:
Except, of course, that knowledge of a reliable and safe means of birth control and early term abortion has been spreading like wildfire in the latest book

There were societies iRL where that did have knoweldge in those matters, like ancient Egypt or Rome. Nor are those methods fool-proof _or_ completely safe in ASOIAF (cue Lysa Arryn).
Also, it would make sense for people to want to avoid pregnancies during the long Westerosi winters, to conserve food.
12. Ramenth
Isn't a large part of the duration of the Knightly Ages in Westeros likely due to its irregular orbit, or whatever causes it's Megaseasons? Long periods of incredibly cold winter and hot summer are both going to play havoc with expected development times.
Nathaniel Frithiof
13. natfri
Do we even know if their years are approxiamte in length to ours?
... Just realised what this would do to the Dany&Drogo scene. Ouch.
Never mind.
Jesús Couto Fandiño
14. Breogan
Yep, 8000 years is not going to fly. Given the incredible amount of turmoil the novels show, are we supposed to believe the Starks managed to avoid rebelions, usurpations, an heirless King, and hundreds of thousands of events that would end their watch in 8000 of the cuthroath enviroment depicted on the books? Thats the part that is not realistic - the Westeros the novels show may very well be an stagnant place in technology, but in politics?
Michael Grosberg
15. Michael_GR
Two thoughts. first, our current history may be patchy, but think of a medieval scholar: to him, a documented history of a single family dating back thousands of years is not at all inconceivable: It's right there in the Bible, From Adam to Noah to Abraham to David to Jesus. And the Bible WAS, after all, the Official History of the World at the time. The exact date of the creation of the world, 5000 years or more earlier, was "known", down to the hour.
So, just because THEY believe it to be thier history doesn't mean it IS the real history. Just becase the Starks believe they have a documented lineage going back for thousands of years doesn't mean it's anything more than a fiction written by a very imaginitive "historian" aseveral hundred years earlier.

My second thought is: In Westeros, what exactly is a "year" anyway? We count years by the transition of seasons. In westeros, seasons CURRENTLY take many years. That seems to indicate that in the past, seasons were shorter. Perhaps years were also shorter, as short as an earth year? Suppose, now, that earlier than that, they were shorter still? That would account to the "speeding up" of history in Westeros: old accounts used "years" that were much shorter than the current accepted length of a year.
Elio García
16. Egarcia

Same length of year. It's easier on George's book-keeping. Some have wanted to believe that a Westerosi year is half again our year or something, because they find it difficult to accept the kids... but I've never had that problem. Arya has a lot of little ways of reminding us that she's a child, despite her occasional precoucisness.

@Breogan: The argument I've generally put forward here is that Westeros is a place where the family name matters so much, that people who are quite far-flung from the direct line will claim it for themselves if it proves useful. We do see examples of this in the book: a nephew of Lord Hornwood is offered as a potential heir, and they mention that he might even take the Hornwood name.

So if you suppose that the Stark name matters so much in the culture, even if there's been many rebellions and murders and defeats, one supposes a successor may point out they have a drop of Stark blood and they're renaming themselves Stark, or they're marrying a Stark daughter and their children will be Starks, etc.

I don't think it's ever claimed that the Starks are descended by direct line of descent from Brandon the Builder, although doubtless the family history claims they are in fact directly descended from him.
James Whitehead
18. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Also, if these long winters are mini ice ages then the years quoted could work. If Westeros gets as covered in winter as is implied, then no one is doing much more than surviving during that time. I do agree, however, that the numbers Martin uses to border on the unbelievable.

Regarding unified languages in many fantasy novels/series: Hasn't ever really bothered me much honestly. Yes it is unrealistic but unless language barriers are a theme in the series most authors aren't going to focus on it too much.

In Martin's series the language barrier is an important part to the Dany storyline with the Dothraki, crucial at points even. That makes sense, adds tension, and is believable. If Martin had done that with the rest of Westeros it would've come off as repetitive as every group would need, and have by the way, a Ser Babel Fish.

Also regarding money in Tolkien's work: He mentions that there are rich hobbits & poors ones. The Gamgee's work for the Baggins. Bilbo uses his troll treasure to help the unfortunate over the years. I always took this to mean that people needed money in Tolkien's world and had to work to earn it. I never needed to know what the currency exchange was between the dwarven sheckle, hobbit farthing, or elven guilder.

@6toryx, I have to agree with you. Dragons in a story raise my level of suspended disbelief a great deal. ;-)

@12Ramenth, good point regarding the season fluctuations.

Jonathan Levy
19. JonathanLevy
15. Michael_GR

So, just because THEY believe it to be thier history doesn't mean it IS the real history.

This is the key point which should have been made in the second part of the article. Any discussion of Westeros' history has to address this distinction.

The Old Testament example you quoted is a perfect example of a Geneology going back 5000 years. If you compare the standard text to Josephus Flavius', you see that one of the lists of Patriarchs has 100 years added to the lifetime of each of them, before the birth of their firstborn. Therefore, one of them has a world 1000 years older than the other (don't remember which one is older). So it's not so difficult to get to a (quite ficticious) 12,000-year-old history if you try hard enough.

Virgil's Aeneid invents a fictitious past for Rome dating back to the Trojan War. Almost as realistic as Brandon the Builder.

Ok, I've belabored your point enough :)
Christopher Everett
20. MidwestMedic
I am not very well read in the history of Westeros or any other land of GRRM's creation, having just finished the first book. But, I personally find long span histories just to be part of what happens in fantasy novels, and even in histories relying on oral traditions. The level that things can be solidly verified lessens to a point that it really is a moot point.

But, as for technology in this specific world, I think there needs to be something said for their past relying more on magic & dragons, etc. I suspect their technological advancements really were at a pause or at least something completely different then when magic left the land people were left to trying to figure out how to do things that magic took care of for them in the past. So, I am willing to accept that they are at a swords & catapaults level of technology with such a long history.
21. Bernardette
Methinks that on this point of "historical" accuracy we (as fans) should be a bit more relaxed. I mean, we're judging things by our standards of historical time and our conception of how human cultures "should" evolve but the whole point of Fantasy is that we make humanity malleable through this suspension of disbelief. I mean if you're going to quibble about the fact that there hasn't been a significant change in society for 3k years, then why not quibble over the aerodynamics of dragonflight or something else equally obscure and irrelevant to the essence of the story. So what if they didn't change much - maybe they didn't NEED to, the Targaryens were there for a long time with the authority of the dragons in place to keep things as they wanted it, the land was fruitful and warm, so maybe there was just less pressure for the society to "evolve". If we even want to care about that in a whole FANTASY world. For me, part of the fun is that the author can say thus and such occurred and I can just take it in without worrying if it matches up to my mundane reality. Making people conform to our expectations of how things "should" be in mundane reality takes some of the magic out of the books.
22. ryamano
@6 toryx

In the case of Jordan, there's some kind of cataclysm every 1,000 years due to Ishmael's interevention. So society is finally getting back from the stone age it receded to during the Breaking after 1,000 years, the Compact of 10 Nations is created, but then millions of trollocs invade. Cue Dark Ages after the Trolloc Wars.

When society is getting back up from the Trolloc Wars, after 1,000 years, there is the War of the Second Dragon and then the wars of conquest by Arthur Hawkwing. Hawkwing's reign lasts only during his lifetime (like of Alexander the Great) and then there's the War of Hundred Years between his generals after that. A thousand years after Arthur Hawkwing is when the books start.

A 1,000 years for a society to recover after a cataclysm isn't that unrealistic. Think about the fall of the Roman Empire (dated to somewhere in the 400s in western europe). It took a 1,000 years for there to be a renaissance. Another example would be the Greek Dark Ages.

Also, WoT society is somewhere in the Modern Age (1453-1789), but without gunpowder and with less people due to "society failing" (Ingtar describes it in TGH, with crop failures, etc, probably a result of the Dark One's touch). In the books, there are more and more advancements that make it seem society is reaching the industrial age (like trains and steampower).
Sean McGuire
23. Exorian
One of the things pertaining to the history of ASoIF that I find most interesting is how homogenous the families of the realm have managed to be; apparently the Lannisters, Starks, Tullys, Martells, Tyrells, Baratheons, and Greyjoys never had only female heirs, as the common practice of men from lesser houses marrying into heirless major ones and combining their houses, including heraldry. The closest thing in the books is Joffery, who takes both the stag and the lion for his sigil; however, given that these families are suppossed to have been in power for at least 300 years, with most even pre dating the conquest, you would think they would have merged with other families by now. For a real world example that ties into the news, I'll use the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the lines from which the current British monarchs are descended, even if they have changed their names and heraldry. If you'll look the the SCG coat of arms;
you'll notice that it is incredibly busy, as within the arms are actually the arms of all the smallers houses and fiefdoms which married into the house through a male heir, similar to Joffery's heraldry, albeit far more complex. So, given the age of these families, the fact that cadet branches have not been established and other families absorbed within them by now is somewhat odd, and suprising, to say the least.
24. J.V.
"We've always been at war with Eastasia."

In Westeros names and lineages carry so much power that I can imagine families have rewritten their history as needed to justify current course of action. Only lately have the Maesters keps accurate records, and even then, those records may not agree with what the singers will tell you.
26. William the Conqueror
Guns, Germs, and Steel, anyone?

It seems to me that the constant recurrence of these prelonged winters would have driven the Westerosi- or the Northmen, at least- to develop technology that would help them adapt to the long periods of cold. Over a period of 12,000 years, you'd think that the First Men or the Andals would have had sufficient time to figure out ways to cope with these winters and adapt to them so they could better survive. I say, rather than making the progression of technology stagnate, the warped seasons would, if anything accelerate it- during the summer, they would do all they could to prepare for winter, and, in the process, learn new techniques for, say, storing food or staying warm that they would continuously improve upon. The coming winter would be quite an incentive to invent tools for survival, which would branch off into tools for other things as well. If anyone's interested in the subject, pick up Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It would, perhaps, give you some ideas on the growth of Westerosi civilization, as well at that on Essos and, if luck is with us and we finally get any information on the continent, Sothryos.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
27. tnh
When I was reading the books, I just assumed that inflated time scales were a storyteller's convention in Westeros. There aren't enough accumulated singularities for a record-keeping system that old. Where are the book-length detailed lists of meteor strikes, or strange plagues and epidemics? What is the Westerosi incidence of strange popular delusions and the madness of crowds?

Even a very stable society is going to generate outliers and aberrations, people who think up odd new things to do that change life for a generation or two if not longer. If the historical record is as long as they say, there should be huge accumulations of these episodes, and people should occasionally mention them. Since they didn't, I automatically corrected for shorter time spans.

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