|Daenerys Targaryen and dragon. Illustration by Sébastien Thibault|
Encyclopaedia Westerosa: the biggest Game of Thrones mysteries, solved
How huge is Westeros? What is wildfire? And how rich are the Lannisters? Ten things you didn’t know about the most obsessed-about show in the world
Warning: this piece contains spoilers for seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones.
When George RR Martin’s stabby saga was adapted for TV in 2011, perhaps the biggest question surrounding it was: why would any self-respecting adult watch a fantasy series about dragons, zombies and magic? Well, six seasons in, the folly of that way of thinking has been exposed like a member of the Night’s Watch trapped north of the Wall. Game of Thrones is now a global obsession.
Much of that success is down to the detailed world created by Martin and brought to vivid and sometimes visceral life on the show. From the frozen north to the intrigue-filled chambers of King’s Landing, Westeros is a place steeped in mythos and mystery, familiar yet so alien. Even now, there’s still so much we don’t know about the place, so many questions that need answering. But while you’ve already read 713 blogs about whether or not Jon Snow has carked it, there are deeper mysteries about Game of Thrones that have never been properly addressed. Ahead of the show’s season six premiere, we get to grips with Westeros’s biggest hows, whys and whats. Answers are coming ...
Why is a White Walker able to walk?
The blue-eyed ghouls in dire need of a dermatologist definitely have the appearance of being dead – all exposed skeletons and rotted bits – but are they? And, if so, how is it that they can move around and stab things in the face? “It is possible to stimulate nerve and muscle electrically and cause it to contract even when isolated from the body,” says Dr Matthew James Mason, university physiologist at Cambridge. “If the brain dies that doesn’t mean that all the other tissue of the body immediately dies, too.” But, despite their appearance, White Walkers aren’t mindless zombies, so brain death can’t have occurred. “My guess is that they aren’t dead at all,” says Mason. “If they look like they are decaying, perhaps their immune system is compromised.” Are they just freezing, scurvy-ridden wretches in need of a hug? “They probably need medical help and sympathy,” argues Mason. Poor sods. The next time you see one, then, maybe chuck it an orange and a coat and don’t be so quick to judge, yeah? LH
How rich are the Lannisters?
They fund wars, boast one hell of a property portfolio and own actual gold mines. If a Lannister always pays their debts, it can be safely assumed they’ve got a few quid in the kitty. Dr Charles Insley, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Manchester, thinks drawing a parallel with a real-life example may be the key to finding out how many. “Richard Neville [1428-1471] was the richest peer in England on his death,” says Insley. “Neville’s sister Cicely was also married to Richard, Duke of York, and it was the collective wealth – and therefore capacity to buy support – that made the Neville/York alliance so dangerous. The Nevilles were probably worth more than the crown.” All sounds very Lannisterian, right? But come on – how rich would the Nevilles/Lannisters be in today’s money? Billions? “$2bn doesn’t seem too little, I think.” So, the most influential family in Westeros is only half as wealthy as Donald Trump? That’s not worrying at all. LH
Is it really possible for winter to last a generation?
House Stark’s ominous catchphrase “winter is coming” is partly a callback to an extended cold snap 8,000 years ago when White Walkers had the run of Westeros. How could one winter last 100 years? Scientific theories include the planet wobbling on its axis or having an eccentric orbit; author George RR Martin himself says it’s just down to magic. In our world, there is a (relatively) recent precedent – a 70-year “Little Ice Age” spanning the 17th and 18th centuries that refrigerated western Europe. “It went on for several decades, crops failed, the Thames froze over,” explains Professor Jim Wild, space physicist at Lancaster University. “Research shows it also coincided with a period of unusually low sunspot activity. Less solar energy can have a major effect on weather patterns.” If winter is coming – again – the poor serfs of the north should start saving up for a package holiday to Dorne. “If I found myself in that situation, I’d start heading south,” says Wild. “It should be a bit warmer nearer the equator.” GV
What is it with all the castrating?
Daenerys Targaryen’s army of Unsullied soldiers are elite warriors who were castrated in infancy in order to make them more focused, loyal and fearless. But is this really what happens when your tackle is chopped off? Dr Shaun Tougher, reader in ancient history at Cardiff University, is sceptical. “We do see the idea that eunuchs are chaste and loyal, but we also see the inverse: that they’re tormented and frustrated. Eunuch soldiers aren’t at all common in history, but the idea of eunuch generals is quite prevalent – there’s a very famous Byzantine eunuch general called Narses in the 6th century AD.” Because of their status as “luxury objects”, many eunuchs who originated in the slave trade ended up serving at court, like wily manipulator Varys. “Varys is in some ways the archetypal court eunuch. Although I was quite surprised when it was revealed that his castration was done by a sorcerer.” Seems like the notion of using a man’s lunchbox for magic purposes is a pure cock-and-balls story. SR
Could someone really become a dragon’s ‘mother’?
From the ashes of a Dothraki funeral pyre, Daenerys Targaryen emerged with three fiercely loyal baby dragons hanging off her. In the real world, newborn lizards are genetically hardwired to be much more independent. “We’ve hatched dragon eggs here,” explains Matt Cook, lead keeper at Chester Zoo, currently home to six Komodo dragons. “But if you were to try and approach them, they would attack you rather than nuzzle your hair. They’re intelligent but they have to be selfish because it’s really the only way to survive.” They may never truly love you but it is possible to train your dragon. Daenerys shouts “Dracarys!” when she wants some barbecuing done but Cook prefers a system that involves a traffic cone, a sound clicker and a tiny meaty reward to wrangle his charges. “They tolerate humans, really,” he says. “Once they get to a certain size, they know they’re the top of the food chain so they can be quite arrogant; they think they’re untouchable. But they can also be very chilled.” Khaleesi does it. GV
How long would it take to build the Wall?
482 kilometres long. 213 metres high. 91 metres thick. In reality, a wall of this size made entirely of ice would collapse under its own weight. But this is Westeros, a world where dragons roam and Little Finger’s accent is never questioned, so let’s crunch some numbers. It’s estimated that when building the Great Pyramid, a workforce of, on average, 14,567 people working 10-hour days laid around 180 blocks per hour. Now, if the ice bricks making up The Wall are a metre squared, it would contain in the region of 9,342,606,000 (that’s 213 x 91 x 482,000, maths fans). At a sensible-sounding 180 blocks laid per minute, it would take the same workforce 51,903,367 hours to build The Wall. That’s 5,921 years. So, we have to assume Brandon the Builder – who legend has it enlisted the help of giants – had a much larger workforce than this. Even with 100 times the pyramids’ workforce, 14,567,000 workers, it would take over 59 years to build. All sounds like a bit of a faff, really. LH
Why is the Seven Kingdoms in debt?
A costly five-way civil war has forced the Seven Kingdoms to go cap in hand to the Iron Bank Of Braavos. Dr James Davis, senior lecturer in medieval history at Queen’s University Belfast, sees a parallel with Edward III, “who borrowed heavily from Italian banks”. But he was a step ahead of the Lannister dynasty. “Edward III was quite canny: at the same as fighting a war he was developing parliament to extract more taxation without too much unrest. At the heart of every medieval king, whatever their ambitions, it was always about where you could get the money.” Davis suggests that the Seven Kingdoms needs to abandon its feudalist structures – and fast. “There isn’t much sign of development of trade and industry. It lacks stable laws that would allow entrepreneurism to emerge.” Otherwise a peasants’ revolt may be just around the corner: “In a real society, there’d be more riots.” SR
What’s my best chance of beating The Mountain in a duel?
George RR Martin has stated that Westeros is roughly the size of South America, which would make sense for a continent with climates that range from the frozen wastes north of the Wall to the balmy water gardens of Dorne in the south. Using measurements given in the series, the width of Westeros is calculated to be around 3,000 miles – the distance from the tip of Norway to the Red Sea – and with a population of 20-40 million. “The topography makes sense for the most part,” reckons Simon Willcocks of Ordnance Survey’s consultancy and technical services team. “All kinds of stuff from deserts to river deltas, marshy bog, mountain passes, but nothing outlandish.” But if Westeros is so big, how come the main characters manage to keep bumping into each other? “It’s a very long and narrow continent with few roads and river crossings,” reasons Willcocks. As for Essos, a continent that Varys seems to traverse at will but that has taken Daenerys at least five series to cross… well, that’s for another day. SR
What is wildfire?
Joffrey’s victory at the Battle of Blackwater Bay – during which the king-you’d-love-to-slap’s forces defended King’s Landing from Stannis Baratheon – owed largely to Tyrion Lannister’s procurement of an explosive known as wildfire. The resultant blue-green flames tore through Stannis’s fleet like a longsword through the back of Ned Stark’s neck. But what the blazes is it? Dr Richard Henchman, senior lecturer in theoretical chemistry at the University of Manchester, draws comparisons to “the historical episode of Archimedes’s fire to destroy Roman ships”, which used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays into deadly beams. It is also similar to Greek fire, a Byzantine weapon able to burn on water, reminiscent of a crude form of napalm. From a compositional standpoint, though, wildfire’s colouring suggest a copper compound. Perhaps what we have is a copper oxide/magnesium thermite? “It looks like magic to me,” says Henchman. Oh. Never mind then. LH
Game of Thrones Season 6 starts 2am, Sunday 24 April and repeats 9pm, Monday 25 April on Sky Atlantic
This article was amended on the 15th April to state the workforce necessary to build the wall in 59 years is 100 times that used to build The Great Pyramid, not 10