From Winterfell to King’s Landing

How the cartography of Game of Thrones explains the world.


In the long and steamy affair between fantasy and cartography, certainly the most mesmerizing image of recent vintage is the dynamic beauty kissed alive by the title sequence of Game of Thrones. At the start of each episode, the viewer is strapped to a rollercoaster and swept across its alternate world. The camera dips and climbs vertiginously over a map of fictional lands and their unfamiliar shores, halting at crucial spots for cities, castles, and magical trees to shoot up from the earth, self-assembling like 22nd-century Ikea furniture.

Apart from enthralling map nuts, the opening sequence also sets the scene for the action to follow, using the map as an elaborate chessboard in mid-game and the castles its precariously positioned pieces. The zoomed-in views occasionally reveal more than location and situation: the charred husk of a fortress serves as a brief memento of its sacking. We’re not just reading a map, we’re playing spy satellite.           

Pinning down an imagined world with precise geography is nothing new: The map’s central position in fantasy literature stretches all the way back to Plato’s Atlantis. In his 360 B.C. Dialogues, he situates the vanished island at "a distant point in the [Atlantic] Ocean" and describes it as "larger than Libya and Asia together," housing "a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power." (Sounds a bit like Westeros). These and more detailed geographic descriptions are meant to lend credence to Plato’s story– a discussion of the perfect society — though it’s unknown whether he thought he was recounting a true story with a moral, or knew he was concocting pure allegory.

Fantasy islands as a literary device became popular early in the Age of Exploration, when reports were coming in from far and wide of newly discovered lands. In 1516, Thomas More placed his Utopia off the coast of Brazil, then recently visited by Amerigo Vespucci. As for its exact location, More said "someone coughed" when its exact longitude and latitude were related at court. But he specifies that the island is 200 miles across, and crescent-shaped; that it was a peninsula, until its king had a channel dug to separate it from the mainland; and that it contains 54 cities, each divided in four equal quarters. A map printed with Utopia’s first edition shows the island to be vaguely skull-shaped. (These tales of Atlantis and other fantastical empires have a pendant in Essos, the other continent in Game of Thrones; it too once housed a great civilization, its former seat of power said to be haunted by demons.)

Distant fictional lands as settings for social satire and morality tales would remain a literary trope throughout the centuries that followed — think of Gulliver’s travels to the fantastical island of Lilliput; or the Island of Despair, where the fictional Robinson Crusoë was marooned for 28 years (curiously, again located off the Brazilian coast). Most editions of that book included a map of the fictional island, showing the locations of some main events in the story. Unlike the islands described by Swift and Defoe, Martin’s alternate world is not designed to satirize or criticize society, but as the stage for a good, old-fashioned yarn. In this respect, it shares much with Robert Louis Stevenson’s most enduring contribution.

One rainy afternoon in the early 1880s, Scotland would change fantasy cartography forever, by propelling the map itself to center stage. While sojourning in the Highlands with his family, Stevenson glanced over his stepson Lloyd’s shoulder as he was coloring in an island of his own devising — and immediately started improving upon it, adding Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, and other features, naming it "Treasure Island." "Oh, but for a story about it!" exclaimed the stepson, as he later recollected (at the time, he probably was a very annoyed Lloyd).

Not only did the map of Treasure Island precede the story, it also generated an entire subset of entertainment literature — treasure hunts, novels with end papers covered in maps, and charts dotted with Xs that "mark the spot." Boys’ adventure stories would never be the same again: whenever kids want to fabricate a story using pen and paper in the post-Stevenson world, they’re more likely to map a fantasy world than tediously describe it in those throwbacks to a bygone age — full sentences.

George R.R. Martin’s world did not start with a map, however. The author of A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of books adapted for TV as Game of Thrones, envisaged the opening scene of the first book, and from there on, as Martin liked to say, borrowing from J.R.R. Tolkien, "the tale grew in the telling."

One of many similarities with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle is not just the reliance on maps as guides to the story, but even the look and feel of them. Like Tolkien, who created the maps that illustrated The Hobbit and the Ring trilogy, Martin himself assumed the role of First Cartographer, and his own maps appear in the books. Even though Martin is a Bayonne-born New Jersey boy, his anglophilia is evident in his reverence for Tolkien’s trailblazing tale — maps and all — and the inspiration by certain key moments in British history.

Most of the action takes place on the continent of Westeros, which looks a bit like Great Britain. Some fans protest this, and they’re right if you compare Westeros with the actual island; but place it next to a mirrored version of Britain, and it’s a good fit. The main man-made feature of the island-continent is the Wall in the North, at 700 feet high and 300 miles long clearly an extrapolation of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England (itself, a mere 73 miles long, and never higher than 20 feet).

The Wall is meant to keep out the Others, an infestation of revenants in no way comparable to most Scots. Size-wise, however, Westeros is in a different league altogether: it stretches for about 3,000 miles from the Wall to the south coast at Dorne, which if you overlay it on a map of Europe, covers a distance from northern Scandinavia all the way to the Mediterranean.

Some story elements refer to English history — the seven kingdoms seem borrowed from the early Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, and the conflict between the houses of Stark and Lannister will ring a bell to those familiar with the War of the Roses, fought between the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the scale, and the wider inspiration, is Medieval. Which explains — but hardly excuses
— why almost everyone in Game of Thrones is white.

Are the constraints the fantasy genre imposes on itself just another way for TV to remain whiter than the real world? Perhaps. But at least Martin’s fantasy, which is about as multicultural as an Amish prayer group, is less deplorable than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, where all the heroes are white, and are endowed with individuality, whereas most of the villains, part of warrior collectives that know only to mindlessly attack and destroy, are swarthy savages from the South and East.

Center stage, as with Tolkien, is an area concurrent with our concept of "the West." Heck, it’s even called Westeros. Unlike Tolkien’s West, Martin’s version is not the repository of all that’s good and right about the world. Morally, Westeros is a gigantic grey area: there are no squeaky-clean good guys, no cartoonishly evil bad guys. Each individual is driven by his or her sense of honor, conflicting as those often are with each other. Which is both refreshing, and problematic: Who are the viewers supposed to root for? Perhaps no one. Perhaps Game of Thrones chimes with these post-idealist, neo-isolationist times: Why support either side in the Syrian civil war — they’re both unpalatable, shame they can’t both lose.

As in many bloody, multipolar conflicts, certainties in Martin’s world are few, and loyalties easily shifted. A reversal of dynastic fortunes is typically swift and cruel. But the show could have benefited from a bit of Marx to balance out all that Machiavelli. In the real world, economic substructure informs the political agenda. In Game of Thrones, however, all politics is personal. War and peace are based on alliances, allegiances, debts, and vendettas between the high and mighty — never on something as mundane as the price of wool or access to exotic spices. The U.S. military-political complex is not above personalizing foreign conflicts as an understandable shorthand for more complex, or more obscure motives. Hence the focus on "bad guys" like Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, and others before them — thereby fostering the illusion that each conflict can be solved by their removal.

True to the dictum — however questionable — that democracies don’t go to war, the world of Game of Thrones has no use for them. This world is strictly pre-French Revolution. The Iron Throne may be contested, and kings high and low may be interchangeable, but the idea itself of the nobility’s right to produce kings and queens, and rule over everyone else, is unquestioned.

Geography at least helps wrest the conflicts away from individual actors, involving the lay of the land as a determinant of the outcome. In the first season, the alliance between the Targeryen, claimants to the Iron Throne, and the Dothraki, a cross between the Huns and the World Wrestling Federation, is considered less pressing because they are confined to a different continent. Again, one can look at the United Kingdom, saved by its splendid isolation from the wars on the Continent.

But the geography of Martin’s world, as emphasized by the dynamic map in the opening sequence, also works in perfidious ways. Geographic space is reduced to a chessboard, or the map of Risk: an arena for combat. By creating spatial difference, geography becomes an engine for conflict. If that sounds both simplistic and dire, it’s unfortunately not without example in our reality. Complex conflicts — from the U.S. Civil War to the Cold War — have at times been reduced to "North vs. South" or "East vs. West" (but never Northeast vs. Southwest — only the cardinal directions generate lethal animosity).

The four corners of the world don’t merely produce centrifugality, however. Geographic space can work centripetally as well: in the second season of Game of Thrones, it seems every army is drawn, like moths towards a flame, from every part of the Known World to the seat of power on Westeros. In the real world too, such strange attractors exist — Jerusalem, long ago the center of every symbolic world map, and the object of multiple (and mostly failed) Crusades, still is the focal point of three world religions. Both Serbs and Albanians are drawn to the history soaked Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo, while not quite everyone in Ulster agrees whether it should be in Ireland or the United Kingdom.

Game of Thrones is a fun way to indulge in the moral ambiguities, cynical power play, and sheer bloody combat of a fantasy world, and still go to bed without nightmares. For this world is all stage, without any complex, real-world consequences. No hospital wards filled with mutilated war veterans. No decades-long struggles with post-traumatic stress. It’s guilt-free war porn, and the ultimate parlor game for students of past, present, and future conflict.

Frank Jacobs is an author, journalist, and blogger. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders, and other cartographic curiosities.