The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived–not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.
-Adam Kirsch, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century
This article contains a few spoilers. To follow along, it’s helpful for the reader to be familiar with author George RR Martin’s series and the screen adaption Game of Thrones—this article is based off the novels, particularly Book 1.
Update: I first published this piece in April 2019, but in early 2022 I’m updating it and featuring it in the world eco-fiction series. Why now? Well, I never forgot about the book or television series, and, in fact, in several of my presentations of ecologically oriented fiction in the last few years—including at Ecocity Vancouver and in late 2021 at a Rice University DORKS chat—I started off with a quote by Tyrion Lannister:
What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. –Game of Thrones (S8, E6)
Another news item is that House of the Dragon, a prequel to the much loved Game of Thrones series, based on George RR Martin’s Fire & Blood, comes out sometime this year, though no date has been pinpointed yet. I’ll update this note later with more details. Of course, Martin is still hard at work on the next book in A Song of Ice and Fire, Winds of Winter, along with numerous other projects.
So what’s going on in Fire & Blood? It was published in 2018 and is book #0 in A Song of Fire and Ice, happening centuries before book #1, A Game of Thrones. The new series takes place on Westeros and is a history of the Targaryens, the dragonlords. The typical “game of thrones” was not new to book #1 but took place centuries before, as Aegon the Conquerer, who created the Iron Throne, also created a seat to fight for. Perhaps many people do not see such a fantasy novel as eco-fiction, but if it’s anything like the rest of the series, it will have a beautiful and dangerous world full of ecological importance.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a novel series that explodes with ecological diversity in the world, which, compared to our planet today, intones a wilder and younger version of our own beginnings–from the tall cedars, gardens, and birds of Riverrun to the sacred weirwoods and mighty oaks of Winterfell to the Haunted Forest and icy winterlands north of the Wall to the thirty six types of flowers Arya finds on her way to King’s Landing. From the wild grasses of the Summer Sea to the tall ghost grasses of the Shadow Lands to the placid rivers and rolling hills of Norvos to the manticores in the islands of the Jade Sea and basilisks in the jungles of the Yi Ti–it is easy to become mesmerized by the wilderness alone, which author George RR Martin paints brightly.
The world has three continents and many islands: the thinner and taller Westeros to the west, the much wider Essos to the east, and Sothoryos to the south of Essos. Click here for an interactive map.
The story starts in Westeros with men from the Night’s Watch following a trail of wildlings. The Night’s Watch is a band of oathed men residing in the northern part of Westeros at Castle Black, just one of the stations along the Wall. It is their eternal duty to watch for any “Others” who try to come over the Wall from the north. To the north of the Wall is the Haunted Forest, and northwest of that, the Land of Always Winter. The names of waterways nearby leave one feeling cold: Shivering Sea, Bay of Ice, Bay of Seals. Somewhat south of the Wall is Winterfell, home to the Stark family.
A member of the Night’s Watch, Gared, ponders the dark wilderness of the Haunted Forest beyond the Wall, where he, Will, and Ser Waymar Rocye are sent to track down the wildlings, a free folk. Immediately, the biodiversity, mystery, and climate of Thrones upends the reader. Moonlight sheds the breath of the icy cold; a fire would be nice. It would keep away the “other things.” We’re not sure what other things means just yet, but hints are there: the monsters presumed dead–the direwolves, gigantic snow bears, and giants–or whatever is rustling in the trees. The rangers find the wildlings dead, in the snow, with one of them up in an ironwood tree and a couple other propped up against rocks. Note that in the television show, the dead wildlings are arranged in a circular pattern. Will says, “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs.”
The area where the wildlings had died, however, becomes disturbed. The bodies disappear, and Others, described as white shadows, appear in the crevices of the dark night. They change colors when they move and their swords seem alive with moonlight, their blue eyes made of ice. They leave no footprints and speak a different language. During this time, Will is hiding in the trees and sees his scout leader, Ser Waymar, get killed by one of these shadowy Others. Royce then is transformed into a wight and kills Will. Gared escapes, only to be killed later for desertion. During this time, the Stark children also find some direwolf puppies. We find that things that men did not know existed anymore, such as direwolves, are, in fact, still in the world. And the Others are just as real.
We learn later that the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers, which now are an ancient race of ice creatures from the Far North. “Wight” is the general term for the brought-back-to-life corpses. The Children created the White Walkers to help them in the war against the first men, but it seems the White Watchers have broken free from the Children and are creating their own mayhem.
Lore has it that thousands of years prior, in the Dawn Age, before cities of men, castles, and even markets existed, the Children of the Forest lived in the lands now referred to as the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros. In the books, the Children are described as dark, short in stature, and beautiful. They lived within the bounds of nature and worshipped the old gods–the gods of forests, streams, and stones–whose names were secret. They lived in “caves and crannogs and secret tree towns.” This lore is passed down to the Stark children in Winterfell by “Old Nan” and Maester Luwin. One of the children, Bran, is particularly interested in these stories. The Children of the Forest had special wisemen called greenseers, who carved watcher faces on the weirwood trees, which had been abundant everywhere in Westeros once upon a time. These are also known as heart trees, and the woods they are in are known as godswoods. It is said in the books that one in a thousand Children are wargs, or skinchangers, and one in a thousand wargs is a greenseer. “No man can know” how long the Children of the Forest were here, or where they came from. In Book 1, it is assumed that the Children are all gone, but in the fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons, the last known greenseer, the three-eyed crow, which Bran has envisioned already, comes more into play as do the actual Children of the Forest. We learn later that Bran is both a seer and a warg.
Natural history is seeped in story and song and is part of the cosmology of the modern world that the Starks learn while growing up. That’s why it is particularly interesting when looking at the landscape of the world; as with any cosmology its origins are expressed in the wonder of the ecological, one might say pristine, world, which changes eventually, due to humans taking more than they actually need. And legends are born as the original beings encounter what the books call the “first men.” This history is important to talk about briefly, before exploring the world’s biological livelihood.
Twelve thousand years prior to modern times, the first men appeared from the east, crossing the Broken Arm of Dorne (before it was broken). They came on horseback and carried weapons and shields. Horses were new to the western continent, and they frightened the Children of the Forest; similarly, the newcomers were wary about all the weirwood faces watching them. The first men cut down weirwood trees for fire, thus destroying their faces, and they built farms and settlements. The Children of the Forest’s weapons were made of obsidian, also called dragon glass (good for some things but no match for the bronze swords brought by the first men). War followed, and the greenseers were said to have used dark magics to make the seas rise.
After much bloodshed, the chiefs of the first men and the greenseers of the Children of the Forest made a truce at a small island within the lake called Gods Eye, where they forged a pact that divided up the future homes of each race. The first men were given the coastlands, high plains, meadows, mountains, and bogs, while the Children of the Forest were given all the deep forests. Another part of the pact prohibited further cutting down of weirwood trees. All the weirwood trees on the island were given a face, and from then on the island was called the “Isle of Faces.” It would be watched over by sacred greenmen. This pact lasted for four thousand years and resulted in a steady friendship between the first men and Children. The men had brought over newer gods but eventually put them aside for the gods of the woods. This age was called the Age of Heroes. The pact went on to last also through the Long Night and the birth of the Seven Kingdoms.
The pact ended when the Andals landed on the shores of the Narrow Sea. The Andals had a seven-pointed star, representing their seven-faced god, painted on their chests, and warred for centuries–ignoring the pact previously made between the Children and the first men, even going so far as to burn down weirwood trees. Then the Children of the Forest fled north. Thus began the age of older lore and newer realities, such as the new religion of The Seven rather than that of the old gods.
The first characters popping up in the story are comprised of the Stark family, the Kings of the North. An old lineage of people, they still respect the weirwoods and the old gods. Many young men in their village, Winterfell, are recruited to the Night’s Watch and Castle Black, making them closer to the edge than most and more fearful of the others than city folks in the southern regions of Westeros.
Like Tolkien I do not write allegory, at least not intentionally. Obviously you live in the world and you’re affected by the world around you, so some things sink in on some level, but, if I really wanted to write about climate change in the 21st century I’d write a novel about climate change in the 21st century.
-George RR Martin in Nerdalicious
Later he explained in the New York Times:
There is—in a very broad sense—a certain parallel there. The people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of ‘winter is coming,’ which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world.”
It is this parallel between climate change and “Winter is Coming” that a lot of readers picked up on early. There is a major difference, though. The climate in Thrones is cyclic and not caused by human-caused global warming (as far as we know), like what we see in our world. Also, the world will cool, not warm. Third, the people in Westeros do finally take winter and the Night King threat seriously. However, the idea of people being so caught up in their own issues–fame, wealth, personal battles, competitions–separates them from the big looming climate disaster. It is true in Thrones (except in the Game of Thrones‘ screen adaption where nearly everyone finally comes together to fight), and it is true in our world. Other parallels include deforestation, the production of oil, and development of cities in both our world and the world of Thrones.
“Winter is Coming” is a phrase appearing often in the story, and it is spoken and thought of with dread, as the cyclic weather of the Thrones world has historically changed, bringing on long-term weather events. Lord Mormont tells Tyrion that a long summer foretells of a longer winter and that the current summer has lasted for nine years. Tyrion says that if men are “good,” the gods would give them a neverending summer. But, as Mormont reminds him, the days are already getting shorter. He has already seen big mammoths and snow bears, and darker shapes in his dreams. The mountain folks are moving south.
The younger Stark children are born into the current summer–thus the phrase “sweet summer child,” which refers not only to being young and born during these summer years but also of being naive and without true fear, not having lived in or known the long winter. Old Nan tells Bran that he is a sweet summer child and has not known the Long Night. She warns him of the White Walkers and wolves coming. She says that thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and endless. She says that’s when the Others came for the first time and killed adult and child alike. This was before the Andals came, before the women fled across the sea from the cities of Rhyone.
Although winter is coming, climate, like it is in our world, is diverse across the continents; for example, we are experiencing global warming, but that does not preclude some areas from having cold temperatures at certain times of the year. So, though the days are getting colder in Thrones, it’s still hot in places, like when the Commander of the City Watch complains of the summer heat and how it may affect the upcoming tournament.
Culture and Nature
Abundant in the world of Thrones are many resources from which humans pick to create their homes, castles, fortresses, roads, weapons, shields, armor, and clothing. Many items are infused with artwork depicting nature, such as Jaime’s lionhelm’s head, Jason Mallister’s helm with eagles, and Ser Loras’ plate adorned with enameled roses and other flowers. Ser Loras’ silver armor, on the second day of the tournament, is “filigreed with blue forget-me-nots and twining black vines. His cloak is woven with hundreds of real blue forget-me-nots.” Lady Lysa, in the Hall of the Arryns, wears black silk with a moon and falcon etched with pearls. She also wears sapphires and moonstones.
On the other continent, when Daenerys goes to market, she sees monkey-tail hats as well as lace, cotton, leather, wool and all kinds of gold, silver, and steel ornate things.
Clans and people take on nature names as well, such as my favorite, the Children of the Forest. The known clans that depict nature are the Milk Snakes, Moon Brothers, Painted Dogs, Sons of the Mist, Sons of the Tree, and Stone Crows. Some character names and nicknames are The High Sparrow, Grey Worm, Hugh of the Vale, The Mountain, The Spider, The Hound, The Sand Snakes, and Old Bear. Surnames deriving from natural surroundings, such as Snow, Sand, and Stone, are used if the offspring is considered a bastard.
Sigils also are ingrained with items from the natural world:
- House Stark: gray direwolf
- House Lannister: golden lion
- House Targaryen: three-headed dragon
- House Arryn: white falcon and a crescent moon
- House Greyjoy: golden kraken
- House Martell: sun with a golden arrow
- House Tyrell: golden rose
- House Baratheon: black stag
- House Tully: silver trout
Food and Drink
All sorts of food, similar to what we would eat today, exist in the world, but props to George RR Martin for being so detailed about what the folks eat. From Arya’s soup made of pumpkins to the ribs, garlic, and herbs to the suckling pig and pigeon pie that Hodor and Bran feast upon to the milk sweetened with honey and persimmons that the Grand Maester offers to Ned Stark to lamprey pie, the bountiful food found in stories is diverse and makes one’s mouth water. In Book 1, Ned Stark reflects upon walking near the gardens at night and he revels in the sweet smells of perfumes, moonblooms, and nightshades as well as the melons, peaches, and pomegranates.
Sam dreams of blueberry tarts and lemon cakes. Vendors in King’s Landing sell blood melons, onions, turnips, and roots. At the post-jousting feast, Prince Joffrey orders iced summerwine–and at the feast are sweetgrass, roasted aurochs, strawberries, venison and barley soup, spinach and plums with crusted nuts, snails roasted in garlic and honey, sweetbreads, pigeon pies, and apples baked with cinnamon. At the king’s pavilion are fat sausages, garlic, and peppers. When King Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark have breakfast together, they feast on black bread, boiled goose eggs, fish, and bacon. Robert eats an orange after having black beer that morning.
As Catelyn and Rodrik head to an inn north of the Trident, they notice hops, corn, and honey. At the inn, they eat bread, meat, mushrooms, fire peppers, and tiny onions. Tyrion, of course, asks for a flagon of the best wine, along with three kinds of fowl: duck, chicken, and pigeon. One night they feast on lamb with garlic and herbs, yellow turnips “swimming in butter,” and salads of spinach, chick peas, and turnip greens. For dessert are blueberries and sweet cream.
At Arryn, Lysa’s home, she offers thick cream, blackberries, and orange-scented sweet wine. Note the many types of wines mentioned in the books; another liquor is fermented mare’s milk. Milk of the poppy is also used for medicinal purposes.
In the eastern world, the food is also mentioned copiously, such as when Jhiqui roasts meat with sweetgrass, honey, melons, pomegranates, plums, and a “queer eastern fruit that Dany did not know.” She remembers the western markets but likes the eastern ones too, with tree eggs, locust pie, green noodles, garlic, honeyfinger cakes, horsemeat, hot peppers, and wine.
I’ve noted below particular scenes in Book 1, where flora and fauna is referenced, but A Wiki Song of Fire and Ice has done a great job at cataloging the specific plants and animals mentioned within the novels. Thirty one species of flowers; five types of grasses; fifty nine tree species; and seventy three types of grains, fruits, and herbs make their way into the novels. The books include twenty eight “special animals”–mythical or considered extinct–thirty four domesticated animals (which includes twelve horse species), seventy types of mammals, thirty nine bird species, sixty five types of fish and marine life, twenty two species of reptiles, twenty arthropod types, and three types of annelids. To me, this is pretty impressive, and why I felt these books were completely worthy of a study on a site that explores eco-fiction.
The Wall and Beyond
Tyrian Lannister describes the far northern region of Westeros as going on forever. “The map is one thing, the land quite the other. Three days ride from Winterfell, the farmlands turned to dense woods and snow-covered mountains.” The forest has oak, evergreen, and black brier–the older and darker wolfswood. When Tyrion and Jon talk about the other side of the Wall, they ponder the others, the Haunted Forest, and Mance Rayder, the king behind the Wall and leader of the free folk. When Jon says, “Rangers say it’s just woods and mountains and frozen lakes, with lots of snow and ice,” Tyrion quips, “and grumkins and snarks.”
To build the Wall, men harvested the forest to half mile north of the wall, cutting down ironwood, sentinel, and oak trees. In some places near the Wall, trees are already growing back, including the weirwood trees. The trees “seemed to brood” and “known not men.” Wolves howl in the distance to add to the mood of the Haunted Forest beyond. The Wall itself is 700 feet high and wide enough for “a dozen kings to ride abreast.” Nineteen strongholds grace the Wall, but only three are occupied: Eastwatch near the shore, Shadow Tower near the mountains at the end of the Wall, and Castle Black between them. The empty towers supposedly have “cold winds and spirits of the dead manning the parapets.”
The Lands of Always Winter had once been a fertile area inhabited by the Children of the Forest but now is deemed a subarctic wasteland. The Thenn–a free folk–reside in the Frostfang Mountains, a range of jagged peaks. The area is mostly unexplored.
The Haunted Forest, just north of the Wall, is where some tribes of wildlings live–it’s also the home of Craster’s Keep and the village of White Tree, with four communal cabins and a well. There’s also a sheephold. The name comes from a giant weirwood tree in its midst.
The home of the Stark family, Winterfell is the main town in the northern area of Westeros. It sits in a deep weirwood forest, with mighty oaks, sentinel trees, and ironwoods. The weirwood trees have white bark and deep blood red leaves. The sap is also red. Book 1 describes the trees as having faces carved in them, and the red of the sap makes it appear as though the eyes in the faces are bleeding. The faces seem “strangely watchful.” A sense of being watched occurs often in the world, even in crypts when “blind stone eyes seem to follow them as they passed,” such as when Ned and King Robert visit Lyanna’s grave. There’s even reference, when Ned and Robert are talking, about how after Jaime killed the mad king Arys Targaryan, he rode the halls and felt that the dragon skulls on the walls were watching him.
At the castle’s godswood is an acre of trees–alder, elm, and black cottonwood–overlooking the river. Also is a heart tree, a “great oak with ancient limb with smokeberry vines,” where Ned took Sansa and Arya to offer Thanksgiving. When Bran is with the horse Dancer, in the woods, the smells gathering around him are of “pine needles, wet rotting leaves, and animal musk.” He sees a black squirrel, an empress spider crawling in its glistening web, and an oak tree with snow-covered branches. He comes to a ford, where he has fished for trout in the past.
After the new recruits return from the Wall, they find out that the king is dead. It has been a time of dread and haunting premonition. Even Mormont’s raven screams “Corn!” at them several times. Bran seeks out peace, which he’d always found in the godwood, even the heart tree no longer being scary to him. Hodor carries Bran there through the dense oaks and ironwood and sentinels to the pool next to the heart tree. Across the wood is a guest house that has three small ponds, fed from underground hot springs. Hodor swims in the hot springs. With them is Osha, a wildling who serves Bran.
When Catelyn is riding with Ser Wylis Manderly and Ser Brynden Tully’s armies, they near the remains of Moat Cailin, where immense blocks of black basalt have rotted away in the boggy soil with the old wooden keep. Legend said that “the Children of the Forest had once called upon their nameless gods to send the hammer of the waters.” A tree is covered in ghost skin. These bogs have quicksands and suckholes and are teeming with snakes. The moat has waist-deep water and lizard-lines. It is rumored that at night ghosts and vengeful spirits come out.
Though there are many animals within the stories, most are used for food or carrying messages (pigeons, crows, ravens). The direwolves, which had reached a somewhat mythical status elsewhere in Westeros, are also imaged onto the sigil of House Stark, and near the beginning of the story, the north has had unconfirmed sightings. When Eddard, Robb, Bran, and Jon travel back from the sentencing of Will, they find a dead stag and a dead female direwolf. Nearby are her five puppies, which Eddard agrees to give to his children. A sixth albino pup is found, which he gives to Jon. Grown direwolves have not been seen for over two hundred years. They are as large as a small horse, and their color ranges from gray to black to white to reddish tan. Their eyes are generally gray or green, with hazel and amber hints. Albinos are rare and have red irises.
- Ghost: Jon Snow
- Nymeria: Arya Stark
- Summer: Bran Stark
- Shaggydog: Rickon Stark
- Grey Wind: Robb Stark
- Lady: Sansa Stark
“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”–a lesson learned by Arya about protecting the ones she loves.
The Riverlands and Riverrun
Catelyn Tully Stark comes from Riverrun, the capital of the Riverlands, nearly half the distance south of the continent of Westeros from Winterfell. It sits at the confluence of the Tumblestone and Red Fork rivers. Sometimes Catelyn misses her home and recalls the cedars, gardens, birds, flowers, and streams of the godswood there. A mite warmer in climate, there is more rain as well as lush greenwoods with pine and spruce, wheat fields, hamlets, and orchards.
The Eyrie/Vale of Arryn
In the Vale of Arryn, near the east coast of Westeros, is the House Arryn settlement known as the Eyrie. Atop the Mountains of the Moon, shadowing the valley far below, it is where one might remember Catelyn’s Lysa sister still residing there with her young son Lord Robin, who can’t wait to see someone fly out the the Moon Door to their death below. Lysa’s throne and the Moon Door are both made of weirwood. As Catelyn travels there in Book 1, she notes the wind whistling on a narrow path as they climb up to the Sky waycastle, and the frost and icicles at that elevation. Further down the mountains, Catelyn admires the snow-capped peaks above, the green fields, and the wide slow-moving rivers and sparkling lakes. Pumpkins, fruit, wheat, corn, and barley take nicely to the rich black soil. Three and a half miles above her and her entourage, with its peaks evading into the mist, is Giant’s Lance, and on its western shoulder “flowed the ghost torrent of Alyssa’s Tears”. Lysa’s apartments overlook a garden with blue flowers.
The Reach and King’s Landing
Perhaps the first glimpses of the biological entities surrounding King’s Landing come from Arya, who tells Sansa of her experiences on the road to the city. She counts thirty six flowers, none of which she has ever seen before, as well as a lizard-lion in a black bog. She passes dense thickets of trees, with water coming up halfway–their branches dripping with a pale fungus. She also sees quicksand, wild horses, snakes, and lizard-lines, which are similar to alligators. Along the way, Arya picks green and purple flowers, and finds that the purple ones, called poison kisses, have given her a rash. The point of Arya relaying all she sees to Sansa is that it’s better than sitting inside the wagon. Sansa finally gets outdoors more when she goes riding with Joffrey, whose horse is a blood bay courser. They ride near a river filled with trout and track a shadowcat.
Catelyn remembers a story about King’s Landing having once been covered with forests and hardly anyone residing there except for a handful of fishermen living on the north shore near Blackwater Rush–and here it is, a mere three hundred years later, and the forests have been cut down to make room for the city, which now prospers. The fertile land is perfect for growing crops and flowers. Its Mander River irrigates the land naturally with tributaries. On the Reach’s southwest shore is the large island Arbor, which has vineyards.
At the Red Keep, where Arya is learning new skills, there are cats and kittens wondering about. During her time there, she sees a sewer emptying into a river.
The Isle of Faces
Located at the center of Gods Eye (see the “Roots” section above), the island is on a large lake southeast of the Riverlands and northwest of Crownlands.
The Stormlands and Dorne
Located on the southeast coast of Westeros, the area called Stormlands has two peninsulas divided by Shipbreaker’s Bay. The Stormlands is heavily forested, with the kingswood in the north and the rainwood in the south. It is comprised predominantly of temperate rainforest, partially because of the wet climate from the Narrow Sea to the east.
Dorne is in the southernmost region of Westeros. It has a harsh desert climate. Its rolling sands have little plant life. Most Dornish people settle on the coasts or on a major river, such as the Greenblood, Torentine, Brimstone, Scourge, or Vaith. Western Dorne and the marches are nearly unreachable due to the Red Mountains, which has only a a few passageways.
Summer Sea/Dothraki Region
South of both continents is the Summer Sea. During their travels in southern Essos, Daenerys Targaryen and Jorah Mormont view the wild grasses below. It’s a place lacking civilization and with few topographical elements: no cities, forests, mountains, or roads. Jorah has been here before and tells Daenerys that when the flowers bloom, the autumn grasses are “the color of old bronze”–at least the hranna grass, which turns a deep brown in the dry season. It’s just one of hundreds of grasses in the Dothraki region. The flowers range from lemon colored to indigo, and Jorah tells Daenerys that in the Shadow Lands, past Asshai, are grasses taller than a “man on horseback,” including pale-stalked grasses called ghost grass. He says ghost grass will take over someday and “all life will end.”
As Daenerys gets used to riding, she is mesmerized by the beauty surrounding her–with the rolling hills of Norvos, three large slow rivers and a fourth faster one. Her family was from the west, though she had traveled through the free cities of the east after Dragonstone fell. She camps near a blue waterfall one night. As she rides through the Forest of Qohor, the leaves form a golden canopy above–and the trunks are “as wide as city gates.” In the woods are elk, spotted tigers, and lemurs with big purple eyes. She breathes it all in, feeling at one with the wilderness around her.
Despite all the wild, Vaes Dothrak has “windswept streets carpeted with mud, grass, and wildflowers.” No steel is allowed within the confines of Vaes Dothrak, beneath the Mother of Mountains. This is a sacred area within the Dothraki religion. The nearby lake is known as the Womb of the World, and it is said that from this lake emerged the first man on the first horse. Only men are allowed at the Mother of Mountains. When Daenerys and Khal Drogo are at the lake they hear a clamor of bronze-colored birds. Dany later listens to the signing of nightbirds. The water of the lake is calm. Soft mud carpets the floor of the lake, and nearby are tall reeds. Khal Drogo says that it is prophesied that the “stallion will ride to the ends of the earth” and “the earth ends at the Black Salt Sea.” At one point he goes out to search for the hrakkar, the great white lion of the plains.
At market, Daenerys notes the many animals, such as the manticores, large grey elephants, striped black and white horses of Jogos Nhai, and talking green and red parrots.
Essos is a large continent where much of Daenerys’ story takes place, but Book 1 concentrates mostly on the Dothroki regions. In later books, after the death of Khal Drogo and Rhaego (the son), Daenerys, Jorah, and their entourage travel eastward across the Red Waste, a hot desert, nearly dying from starvation and thirst. They finally make it to Qarth, located on the Jade Gates, which link the Summer and Jade seas. The colorful city has etchings of snakes (and real snakes) as well as gardens, pools, and spices. Trade goods include saffron, silk, elephants, ships, and dreamwine. Minerals used in city art are white marble, jade, obsidian, and lapis lazuli. Griffins, dragons, and manticores embellish fountains. The city is ruled by the Thirteen and has a warlock sect.
The Jade Sea is mentioned by merchants traveling to Westeros. The area seems exotic but not as traveled, and dreamers may envision it as a city of poets, alive with mystery and treasures. Drogo talks of traveling there in Book 1, and after he dies, Jorah begs Daenerys to come with him across the desert to places like Yi Ti, Asshai, and Qarth (they do get to Qarth). In A Storm of Swords, Varys tells the Council that sailors have spoken of a three-headed dragon hatching in Qarth.
Daenerys, the Princess of Dragonstone, has always hoped that dragons were real, but her handmaiden Irri tells her that they are no longer around. They’d been gone for at least a century and a half, according to Viserys. This is perhaps why Daenerys dreams of the east, a wilder place where dragons might be real. She has heard of manticores on the islands of the Jade Sea and basilisks in the Yi Ti jungles. She imagines the two moons, one of which came too close to the sun and cracked from the heat–from which a thousands of dragons came and drank from the sun, which is why they can breathe fire. Of course, dragons are real and come to life in the series.
Mostly unexplored, this continent south of Essos is jungle-like with ghouls and cannibals who spread many plagues, including green fever, Red Death, grayscale, and sailor’s bane. Its inland streams, such as the Zamoyos, are inundated with species like crocodiles and dangerous fish. The unsettled land has stinging flies, huge worms, poisonous snakes, apes, and reportedly vampire bats.
We don’t know a lot about Ulthos, but we do know that it’s east of Qarth and south of the Summer Sea. East of Sothoryos, south of Asshai and the Shadow Lands, it’s across the Saffron Straits and is rumored to be covered by a dense jungle.
It was a true pleasure re-reading George RR Martin’s novels, a series of tales so bold and honest and intricately woven that they come to life most significantly. The stories parallel our own history, and even modern times, with raw clarity. In our world is a similar looming challenge—climate change. Perhaps we could say “Summer is Coming,” but who is really listening? We have our own forgotten myths and blind disconnects to the wild ecosystems around us. Similar to the folks descendant from the Andals, much of modern society is far more concerned with fame, wealth, power, and personal battles, to the point that something like climate change is often laughed off or not paid attention to or not even believed. Reading Martin’s fascinating novels–which include a thorough composite of flora, fauna, geographical entities, and the ways humans connect with these things—provide entertainment but also deep reflection. And maybe we should start staring hard into that pool.
- I will forgive Martin for not being that realistic in the distribution of species–after all, this is fantasy fiction–but this article is pretty interesting: Wildlife Westeros: The Animal Kingdom in Game of Thrones, by “Naturlish”
- The Science Guide to Game of Thrones, by Becky Ferreira
- A Scientific Guide to the Fantastical Predators in Game of Thrones, by Maddie Stone
- Dire Wolves Are Real, by Brian Switek
- Winter is Coming: Climate Change and Biodiversity Beyond the Wall, by Jacquelyn Gill
- White Walkers: A Warning Letter from North of The Wall, by Michelle LaRue
- Biology Would Leave the Game of Thrones Dragons Grounded, by Dave Hone
- The Epidemiology of Greyscale, by Tara C. Smith
- A Storm of Chemistry, by Raycelle Burks
- The Heating Engineers of Winterfell, by Jesse Emspak
- Everything You Need to Know About the Children of the Forest on Game of Thrones, by Mehera Bonner
The featured image is of Ser Vaenar Maiarys, a Dragonlord and knight of Old Valryia. The image is in the public domain.
The series of books includes:
- A Game of Thrones, August 1996
- A Clash of Kings, February 1999
- A Storm of Swords, November 2000
- A Feast for Crows, November 2005
- The Winds of Winter, forthcoming
- A Dream of Spring, forthcoming