The essential guide to “Game of Thrones”

As HBO's entertaining new miniseries approaches, here's what you need to know about the books that inspired it

Topics: Game of Thrones, HBO, Television,

The essential guide to "Game of Thrones"Sean Bean in "Game of Thrones"

If ever there was a fantasy series ripe for HBO’s plucking, it would have to be George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” set to debut April 17 on the cable network as “Game of Thrones.”) The first four volumes of “A Song of Ice and Fire” — (“A Game of Thrones,” “A Clash of Kings,” “A Storm of Swords” and “A Feast for Crows”) overflow with gratuitous sex and violence — just the kind of fare we’ve come to expect from the small-screen boundary-pushers who gave us “Rome,” “Deadwood” and “True Blood.” Brothels, dragons and more decapitations than you can count: What more could a jaded television audience possibly want?

It’s certainly no shocker to note that the fantasy genre has come a long way since “The Lord of the Rings”; the quantity of graphic sex and violence in your typical adult-targeted sword-and-sorcery extravaganza has risen steadily for decades. But Martin’s fantasy saga demands a literary classification almost all its own — call it, for better or worse, realist fantasy.

“A Song of Ice And Fire” is to normal fantasy what “The Wire” was to typical cops-and-robbers drama, packed with grit, complexity and flawed human beings making their way through a corrupt and intimidating world. Heroes die, villains triumph, peasants and slaves suffer horribly and knights are as likely to be plate-metal-encased thugs and hoodlums as they are noble icons of chivalry. Loosely modeled on a medieval-era England ravaged by the Wars of the Roses, Martin’s world does not gloss over the starvation, rape and murder that follow in the wake of war. The class stratification and brute injustice of feudal society screams out of nearly every page. The HBO catchphrase for the series is “Game of Thrones: You Win or You Die,” but the truth is that the vast majority lose when the mighty roll the dice.

Unremitting bleakness would be a turnoff, however, and Martin delivers far more than just pain and porn. His characters — male and female — are among the most fully realized in all fantasy. Heroes may die — major protagonists, even! — but there’s still plenty of heroism. There are also moments of great drama and magic — as well as horror — that require entire volumes to set up, and unload upon the reader with all the power of two tournament mail-clad lancers crashing into each other.

Martin’s plotting is intricate, compelling and full of surprises — and, if you’re not keeping close track, at times it can be completely bewildering. The paperback edition of the fourth volume, “A Feast for Crows,” includes a list of characters that’s 70 pages long! Since, judging by an advance look at the first handful of episodes, HBO’s treatment of the text is scrupulously faithful – and terrifically entertaining in the best HBO high drama tradition — newcomers to the story are likely to have some trouble figuring out just what the heck is going on.

But have no fear, Salon can help! If you’re not afraid of massive spoilers, here’s a quick guide — in the vein of what we’ve done for “Inception,” “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica” — to the history, major characters and key plot points of “Game of Thrones.”

The story:

The vast majority of action in “A Song of Ice and Fire” takes place on the continent of Westeros, which can be imagined as a loose analogue to Britain, only larger.

For thousands of years, Westeros has been divided up into a handful of small feudal kingdoms constantly warring with each other, except when joining forces to combat a mysterious enemy in the far North known only by the scariest of postmodern constructions: “the Others.

But the Others have been absent from the scene for millennia. Three hundred years before the present day (that is, when the story line of “Game of Thrones” commences), Westeros is conquered from an entirely different direction. Swooping down from the sky on fire-breathing dragons, Aegon Targaryen the Conqueror and his two sisters, Rhaenys and Visenya, lead an invading army that crushes the indigenous resistance. The new Targaryen dynasty fits neatly on top of the exiting feudal order — think Plantagenets, except with dragons.

To keep “the blood of the dragon pure” the Targaryen royal family follow the Egyptian Pharaonic habit of requiring intermarriage between sister and brother. A couple of centuries later, the inbreeding delivers predictable outbreaks of physical deformity and mental illness. The last ruling Targaryen — “Mad King Aerys” — is so over the top in his Caligula-like insanity that he provokes a successful rebellion led by three of the most prominent families of the pre-Targaryen era — the Baratheons, Starks and Lannisters. (By this point, the family dragons have all died out, which greatly simplifies the uprising process.)

Our story begins about 15 years after the rebellion that overthrew the Targaryens. Robert Baratheon is king, married to Cersei Lannister. His close ally and friend, Ned Stark, resides in the castle of Winterfell in the harsh North, not far from a magnificent Wall carved out of ice many centuries earlier to protect the lower kingdoms from the depredations of the Others. The last surviving members of the Targaryen family, Aerys’ heirs, the none-too-stable Viserys and his blond teenage bombshell sister Daenerys, have been smuggled to another continent, where they seek allies who will help them regain their kingdom from the Baratheon usurper.

Three major plotlines ensue, and ultimately intersect, in multiple confusing ways.

  1. Robert Baratheon’s hold on the throne is hardly secure — in fact, his death, early in the first volume, plunges Westeros into a wide-ranging civil war that provides the dominant narrative thrust of the entire series — at least through the first four volumes. The feudal kingdoms suppressed by the Targaryens immediately reassert themselves — before long, no less than five separate kings are battling for supremacy.
  2. Across the sea, Daenerys laboriously raises an army — and three of her own newly hatched dragons! — in preparation for her return to Westeros. Her route is circuitous — first, she’s married off to a barbarian horselord, who is invincible and unstoppable until he suddenly dies, following which she finds herself liberating practically an entire continent of slaves, while fending off assassins and would-be suitors at every juncture. One of the fascinating subthemes of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is that while readers may initially find themselves predisposed to think that the overthrow of the Targaryens was a justifiable case of freedom fighting against incredibly oppressive tyranny, it doesn’t take all that long before you are rooting for Daenerys to return to Westeros and knock some rebellious vassal heads together.
  3. Finally, to the north of the great Wall, a danger to civilization far worse than dragons, barbarian horselords, or feudal squabbling reemerges from hoary legend. The Others — usually referred to in the HBO series as the “White Walkers” — are back, and Westeros is ill-prepared for the challenge. The Wall is defended by “The Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch” — a ragtag band of soldiers committed to celibacy and a policy of noninterference with the political affairs down south. In former times the “Night’s Watch” constituted an impressive army of their own, but at this point in the history of Westeros, they are a shadow of their former strength, barely able to guard a fraction of the northern frontier.

Got that? Evil to the north (along with giants and woolly mammoths), revenge-minded Targaryens (and dragons!) waiting in the wings across the sea, and total chaos in the old kingdom as an anarchically shifting assembly of factions battle each other in a frantic, endlessly destructive struggle to seize and hold power.

Major characters:


  • King Robert Baratheon: An obese, jolly drunk, Baratheon was once a great battle-hammer swinging warrior, but has turned into a terrible king. He’d rather hunt and drink and whore than govern. As a young man, he was betrothed to Eddard “Ned” Stark’s sister, but her murder by the Targaryens helped precipitate his rebellion. At the opening of “Game of Thrones” he is trapped in an obviously unhappy marriage to one of the great bitch characters of all fantasy literature, Cersei Lannister. Robert has two brothers, Renly and Stannis, both of whom are key players in the wars that follow his death.
  • Cersei Lannister: Beautiful, evil, immensely frustrated at the limitations placed upon her gender by a male-dominated feudal society, but fully willing to use her body to manipulate those around her, Cersei is justifiably disgusted by her husband’s oafishness, and takes refuge in the arms of the only true love in her life — her brother, Jaime Lannister. Fantasy literature is packed with evil queens — Cersei deserves a place at the head of the list.
  • Jaime Lannister: Almost as beautiful as his sister, Jaime has an interesting history. He was one of an elite order of bodyguards sworn to protect Aerys Targaryen, but, whoops, he ends up killing the king himself as the rebellion spreads. A case can be made that by murdering the man he was pledged to guard he prevented even more bloodshed and horror, but the result is that he is now universally referred to by the epithet Kingslayer, which tends to ruffle his feathers.
  • Tyrion Lannister: Jamie and Cersei’s youngest brother, born a dwarf. Tyrion is Martin’s most interesting and compelling creation. Crude, rude, lustful and deformed, he is also brilliant and boasts a moral core more honorable than that of his compatriots — and certainly by comparison to his own family. Despised by nearly everyone, he is nonetheless immensely capable, yet never gets credit for any of his achievements.

The Stark family

Hereditary rulers in the north out of their castle Winterfell, the Starks provide the moral and dramatic center of “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

  • Eddard “Ned” Stark, is the feudal lord every vassal always wished he had. Noble to a fault, he’s constantly teaching his children important lessons such as: If you’re going to  have a criminal beheaded, do the dirty job yourself. Stark and Robert Baratheon are bosom buddies, so when Robert requests that he move south to the capital to take the job of “Hand of the King” after the current occupant of that office dies, Stark cannot refuse, even though he correctly assumes that leaving Winterfell will be his doom.
  • His wife, Catelyn Stark, hails from lands further south, but has adapted well to the harsh north. The Stark family sigil is the dire wolf, and Catelyn is every bit the ferocious den mother, tenaciously defending the interests of her three sons and two daughters. Indeed, her tendency to rash action in defense of her progeny can be blamed for inciting the ruinous civil war.
  • Robb Stark, heir to Winterfell, is the obvious choice to be the Big Hero of “Game of Thrones.” After his father falls victim to foul treachery, young Robb rallies the Stark bannermen and rides off to war. He turns out to be a natural at the job, demonstrating great valor and sound strategic sense, winning a series of battles against older, more experienced foes. But he too is doomed. Robb’s narrative arc teaches a harsh lesson to readers: Don’t get overly invested in any major character.
  • Sansa Stark, a dazzling beauty, is betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon, the crown prince. At the outset, she comes off as an insufferable airhead, an example of privileged aristocracy at its pampered worst. But life has some surprises in store for her: Watching your father get beheaded in front of you, learning that your fiancé is a craven monster, and discovering that all around you festers a web of lies and treachery has a way of building character.
  • Arya Stark is the tomboy of the family, the girl who’d rather be fighting than working with her needlepoint. To say that she constantly gets into trouble would be a rather dramatic understatement. Knocked back and forth across the continent of Westeros like a pinball after her father’s death, she is witness to (and participant in) an unending panorama of horror and slaughter. But she survives.
  • Bran Stark provides “Game of Thrones” with the opening moment of tragedy informing viewers that they are not watching a normal fantasy. A child who delights in climbing the walls of Winterfell, he interrupts Jaime and Cersei Lannister in mid-incestuous tryst. Jaime promptly throws Bran out a tower window, sending him into a temporary coma and permanently crippling him. And thus is set in motion a sequence of disasters that enmeshes every inhabitant of Westeros in catastrophe.
  • Jon Snow: The bastard son of Ned Stark, Jon Snow has a tough hand to play. Catelyn Stark hates him with a white-hot fury, judging him living proof of her husband’s long-ago infidelity. Raised with the rest of the Stark children, he can never inherit. He heads to the Wall, to join the Night’s Watch, where he rises rapidly in the ranks. While civil war rages in the south, he grapples with the real threat to all of Westeros: the Others
  • Daenerys Targaryen: Daughter of Mad King Aerys, smuggled out of Westeros as an infant, Daenerys starts out as a pawn manipulated by multiple schemers. Her irredeemably unlikable brother, Viserys, arranges her marriage to Khal Drogo, the Dothraki horselord, in exchange for a promise from Drogo to invade Westeros and restore him to the throne. Things don’t work out as either man plans, but Daenerys emerges as one of true heroic figures in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Plus, she has dragons.

Other questions:

How popular is “A Song of Ice and Fire” really? And why?

Bantam, George R. R. Martin’s publisher, reports that 4.5 million copies of the first four volumes are currently in print. Martin noted on his blog last October that the paperback edition of the first volume, “A Game of Thrones,” was in its 34th printing and had surpassed the 1 million mark. Volume 4, “A Feast of Crows,” went directly to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list after publication in 2005. Presumably boosted by the publicity associated with the HBO series, “A Game of Thrones” appeared on the paperback fiction bestseller list two weeks ago, and is currently in the 12th position.

The success is all the more remarkable because when the series debuted in 1996, it did so without mass market publicity or any kind of buzz in the fantasy/SF scene. George R. R. Martin earned his following the hard way, by word of mouth, by hooking his characters into the psyche of his readers to an extent that most writers of fantasy only dream of.

Bad things happen in “A Song of Ice and Fire” — but maybe that offers a clue as to why readers seem to care so much. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, which makes us even more desperate to turn the page. As Laura Miller reports in the New Yorker, Martin has taken so long writing the fifth volume, “A Dance of Dragons” (due out this summer), that some of his fans have turned against him, angry at what they see as his breach of authorly duty to their obsessions. Could there be any greater affirmation about how deep a chord Martin has struck?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>