Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Song of Ice and Fire So Far: Part 1 - Ancient History

With A Dance of Dragons due for release on 12 July 2011, a lot of people seem to having difficulty recalling exactly what character was doing what where, especially since Dragons is picking up a lot of its storylines left dangling in A Storm of Swords eleven years ago. So my first thought was to simply do a round-up of what was going on with each character at the end of the last book, based on what we know (via spoiler chapters and convention readings) of what's going on in Dragons. Unfortunately - but appropriately - it got a bit out of control and turned into a big article spanning the whole known history of the fiction setting. The article has been split in multiple parts for easier reading. Part 2 is forthcoming, but probably won't take six years.

Needless to say, if you are watching the TV series there will be mega-humongous spoilers for the entire series in these posts (though this first one isn't so bad).


Ancient PrehistoryTwelve thousand years ago (according to tradition), in the dawn of days, the lands of Westeros were inhabited by a diminutive race known as the children of the forest. The children were strong in magic but few in number, living long lives under the eaves of the forests which covered much of the continent at this time. The children worshipped the old gods of the forest, gods of wind and rain and sunlight, gods with no names but whose faces were carved into the barks of great weirwood trees.

Then men came from the east, crossing the Arm of Dorne to invade Westeros with bronze and fire. The children fought back, shattering the Arm of Dorne to no avail, leaving behind the broken islands of the Stepstones. Over generations of warfare, the children were pushed back to the Neck, the narrowest part of the continent, and tried again to break the land. They failed, only succeeding in creating a vast swampland. Still, these displays of magic gave the First Men pause. Eventually the two sides signed the Pact of the Isle of Faces, with the First Men taking the open lands for their own and the children remaining in the forests. The First Men and the children lived in peace for four thousand years, the First Men forging hundreds of small kingdoms of their own from the northern icecap to the southern deserts and taking the old gods for their own.

The Others, aka white walkers. Please don't call them 'wight walkers', as it is incorrect.

The Long Night and the War for the Dawn
Eight thousand years ago (at least, according to legend), a winter came that lasted a generation, and with it a lengthy period of darkness, the Long Night. And with the night came things, creatures of ice and cold from the uttermost north. The Others, or, as some called them, white walkers swept southwards, slaughtering all before them, children and men alike, and raising the dead to fight for them. The conflict became known as the War for the Dawn, when all of life in Westeros was imperilled, but eventually the First Men and the children proved victorious. Using weapons of obsidian and led by a great hero wielding a sword of fire (known in the east as Azhor Azhai), they threw the Others back into the furthest north in defeat. Behind them, at the narrowest part of the continent in the north, Brandon the Builder, Brandon Stark, raised with ice, gravel and sorcery a great wall. Stretching for three hundred miles, the Wall was a physical obstruction and a magical one, with sorcery woven into the structure to prevent the Others and their servants from passing south. In those early days the Wall was much shorter than later, but millennia of icefall added to its height, eventually raising it to over seven hundred feet in height.

Brandon Stark was acclaimed the first King in the North and built the great castle at Winterfell as his seat. He also founded the Night's Watch to man and guard the Wall and prevent the return of the Others. It was a time of greatness and glory, but the children, whose modest numbers had been reduced further in the war, decided their time in the lands of men was done. They gradually faded and disappeared over the course of the next few centuries.

The Wall, as seen from the south side.

The Andal InvasionTwo thousand years later, in a land called Andalos on the eastern continent, the people there received a vision from a god with seven faces. They were told to leave their homeland and march west to make a new home in Westeros. The Andals were a fierce race of warriors, equipped with iron weapons and having tamed horses to carry them into battle. They crossed the Narrow Sea on a fleet of ships, making landfall on the Fingers and sweeping across Westeros. The First Men who agreed to serve them were made to swear to the new gods, the Seven, and those who refused were initially slaughtered, though later accommodations were reached with some who held out, such as the Blackwoods, the kings whose vassals, the Brackens, accepted the Faith and overthrew them, but later made peace (though this still begun a blood feud that has lasted - according to myth - more than five millennia). But the last few strongholds of the children in the south vanished, and the great godswoods reduced to pleasure gardens in the walls of grand castles.

The Andals colonised all the south of Westeros, from the Iron Islands to the Vale and from Dorne to the Neck, but their attempts to pass north of the Neck and invade the North failed. The Starks of Winterfell threw back every attempt to cross the Neck, using the fortress of Moat Cailin to rain death down on all those who attempted it. Eventually the southron kingdoms made peace with the Starks, and in time there were marriage pacts and alliances. However, on the Iron Islands the initially successful Andal invasion was eventually reversed, with both the followers of the old gods and the new sidelined by the rise in worship of the Drowned God, a deity of the sea.

The Rise of Valyria and the Flight of the Rhoynar
Around the same time, five thousand years ago and more, peaceful shepherds of a remote peninsula found dragons lairing in the Fourteen Fires, a great range of volcanoes stretching across the neck of their headland. The people of this land, Valyria, were easy prey for the harpy-worshipping slavers of the great Ghiscari Empire to the east, but using discipline and sorcery they were able to tame the dragons to their will. In five colossal wars they threw down the Ghiscari in ruin and defeat, eventually conquering all the lands of Slaver's Bay. The Valyrian Freehold grew in strength and power, with no king to rule them but a council of the Lord Freeholders who acted as equals.

Over the next four millennia (according to story and song), the Valyrian Freehold expanded in all directions, keeping the primitive tribesfolk of the great grass sea to the north in check and establishing great cities across the Valyrian hinterland, the Lands of the Long Summer. They conquered all the lands of Ghis, keeping the people under their rule, and began expanding along the western coastline, establishing colony-towns. In time they came to the mouth of a vast river, the Rhoyne, and there established the grand city of Volantis.

A thousand years ago (a date even supported by the maesters), the Valyrians invaded and seized the lands of the Rhoynar in force. Nymeria, warrior-queen of the Rhoynar, knew she could not prevail against dragons, so ordered a great exodus. Ten thousand ships of all sizes from all of the banks of the Rhoyne and its numerous tributaries evacuated tens of thousands of people and passed into the Summer Sea. Turning west, braving storms and pirates in the Stepstones, they made landfall on south-eastern coastline of Dorne.

At this time the numerous small Andal kingdoms of Westeros were just beginning a period of consolidation, as great kings and alliances began to absorb the smaller nations. But dry, arid Dorne remained a patchwork of shifting alliances and small, petty kingdoms. Prince Mors Martell of Sunspear saw in the Rhoynar - an organised, cohesive people - a great opportunity and made alliance with them, marrying Nymeria. With her forces, Martell overran and conquered all of Dorne. In the Rhoynar tradition he took the title 'Prince' rather than 'King'.

In the following centuries, the Valyrians expanded into the western coastal regions of the eastern continent. They conquered or established great cities on the islands of Lys, Tyrosh and Lorath, and on the mainland coasts founded Myr and Pentos. Inland, to the north-east of Pentos on tributaries of the Rhoyne, they established the grand cities of Norvos and Qohor. But as the Valyrians conquered, so they also displaced, and thousands of refugees found themselves without a home and struggling to survive. A secretive sect, the Moonsingers, organised them and led them to the far north-western tip of the continent, where the Narrow Sea met the Shivering Sea, and there, in a mist-shrouded lagoon defended by encircling mountains, they founded the Secret City, Braavos of the Hundred Isles. Over the following centuries, escaped slaves and refugees heard whispers and rumours of the Secret City and fled there in droves.

In Valyria, the maiden daughter of a nobleman named Aenar Targaryen experienced visions of doom and catastrophe. Moved by these visions, the Targaryen family removed themselves from the capital and moved to the far western territories with their dragons. They colonised a volcanic island in the Narrow Sea, west of Pentos, called Dragonstone, and took it as their own, as a base of operations and a trading post with mainland Westeros.

A century after the Targaryens colonised Dragonstone, the world changed in a single day of fire and destruction.

Dragonstone, the Targaryen island stronghold off the east coast of Westeros.

The Doom of Valyria
Later generations would call it the Doom of Valyria and claim it to be a judgement from the gods. The Fourteen Fires exploded with tremendous force, triggering a massive chain reaction of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Burning ash fell hundreds of miles away, smothering the city of Valyria to the south and laying waste to the Lands of the Long Summer to the north. The sea came flooding in, tearing Valyria away from the mainland and making it an island in demon-haunted waters. The Smoking Sea that formed around Valyria was frequently boiling hot to the touch, and the gases that rose from it killed those who breathed them in too much.

The work of five thousand years was undone in a single day. The Ghiscari broke away, establishing a new capital at New Ghis. The northern slave cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen became independent, though retained their slave-trading habits and Ghiscari traditions. But it was in the west that the most chaos erupted, as the cities there fought for domination or independence. Chief amongst the conquerors was Volantis, which tried to take Valyria's place. When the other cities tried to break away, Volantis launched a military campaign to hold onto them, resulting in the Bleeding Years, a century of chaos and warfare. Volantis by itself was unable to hold the cities together and begged the Targaryens, the last holders of dragons in the western world, for aid. But the Targaryens ignored them. Braavos declared itself and allied with the other cities to help them establish their independence and Volantis was forced to abandon its claim to be the true heir to Valyria. Instead, the Nine Free Cities came into being, raucous and quarrelsome but also rapidly growing rich from trade that was no longer taxed by the Valyrians.

A new threat arose from the east. The peoples of the interior steppes had long been cowed by the Valyrians, but with them gone they grew more bold, forming great hordes or khalasars of tens of thousands of warriors. This people, the Dothraki, overran much of the interior of the continent and began launching raids against the surrounding lands. The Free Cities learned it was better to buy them off with gold and slaves than it was to fight them, aside from the Qohoriks who used an army of warrior-eunuchs, the Unsullied, to defeat the Dothraki in open battle. But for the most part, appeasement and peace was favoured over war.

On Dragonstone, the Targaryens marshalled their strength and considered their options. East lay the old, fractious provinces of Valyria, now divided and weakened by a century of warfare and blood. West lay the rich and divided nations of Westeros, displayed in Dragonstone on the Painted Table. Aegon Targaryen, whom history would call Aegon the Conqueror, and his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys made their decision and prepared their dragons.

The castle of Harrenhal on the northern shore of Gods Eye.

The Seven Kingdoms
On Westeros, eight great kingdoms arose out of the hundreds of smaller nations: the Kingdom of the North, the Kingdom of the Iron Islands, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Riverlands, the Kingdom of the Vale, the Kingdom of the Reach, the Storm Kingdom and the Kingdom of Dorne. These nations alternated between warring with one another and trading peacefully. Eventually, the Storm King won a great victory when he slew the last heirs of the River Kings, House Mudd, and conquered the Riverlands. But the Riverlands were too vast and too distant from his castle at Storm's End to hold effectively and when the ironborn began to invade from the coast, the Storm King's forces were pushed back. The ironborn overran and conquered the Riverlands and, as a sign of might, began building a vast castle on the northern shore of Gods Eye.

Harrenhal was an immense fortress, larger than any other in Westeros and maybe the world. The ironborn House Hoare spent vast amounts of gold and many lives in building it. It walls were tall, thick and impregnable, its stores immense. It was hard to assault, difficult to besiege, and King Harren the Black boasted it could not be taken by any army. But the very day it was completed was the same day that Aegon Targaryen and his sister-wives landed at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush, and their dragons had no fear of man's fortifications.

31 comments:

dingo said...

Thank you so much for this

Justin said...

Good post and needed. I just started my 3rd reread and it's amazing how much I'd forgotten. In other news I'm also totally impressed with how much HBO was able to include.

HF said...

Adam, you are, hands down, the best speculative fiction blogger out there. What a great essay!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this superb primer. Having read the series I did not know the history in such detail. I would very much like to know your source material.

Marty S.

Adam Whitehead said...

The deeper parts of the background come from material GRRM prepared for the pen-and-paper RPG (which particularly emphasises the period between the Doom and the Targaryen invasion of Westeros), some of the short stories (that comes more into play with Part 2), notes GRRM gave to the artist Amoka for some of his portraits (particularly the Targaryen kings and the numerous bastards of Aegon IV) and, in some cases, ADWD itself (from both the sample chapters and other chapters GRRM read out at cons).

The latter is what led to this decision to do a detailed history of both the backstory and the books rather than a more focused catch-up guide: the subjects of the focused catch-up guide would in themselves be spoilers and risk giving away what areas ADWD will be focusing on.

Brett said...

Thanks. That's a fantastic summary of the ancient history of Westeros up to the point of the Conquest.

Some of it was new to me. I remember reading the reference to the daughter of Aenar Targaryen in A Feast for Crows, but I didn't know any of the details about the Bleeding Years.

It sort of makes you wonder what the actual dates would be. The dates given - like 12,000 years, 5,000 years, and so forth - seem seriously exaggerated.

Adam Whitehead said...

Yeah, the dates are screwed, probably because the irregular seasons mean that it's a lot harder to backtrack dates without modern archaeological techniques. I think the general idea is that the Rhoynish flight to Dorne markes the beginning of reliable dated history, and much before that it goes a bit fuzzy. In fact, if you half all the dates things seem to be a lot more acceptable.

Jeff said...

Wow! That was fantastic! Thank you. I have read the books numerous times, but I can't say I had a comprehensive picture of the back story until now.

Thanks,

Jeff

Wilfred Berkhof said...

This is why the Wertzone is the best fantasy blog around. Thanks you very very much. Just what was needed.

richiemobucks said...

Kudo to you sir though you may be a glutton for punishment.

Jonathan said...

This is a great essay. It has a lot of history that isn't present in the books themselves - I didn't know much of the story of Valyria's fall and the Free Cities that succeeded it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work! Looking forward to the next installments.

dredd i knight said...

Thanks for this; very informative.... You are the bet blogger out there mate, bar none!

Longasc said...

Kudos! Great summary and thanks for the reminder.

By the way, regarding the spoiler warning: You were wise to do so, some people take almost *everything* as a spoiler.

Personally I would say your history is full of spoilers at all. I must also agree with Anonymous, I did not remember all these details from the series either.

HBO put more spoilers in every preview of the next episode, really.

Andrew said...

Thanks for this. Great work -- I've been looking around the internet a while for a history that manages to be both concise and comprehensive.

Anonymous said...

Staggered by how awesomely great this is.

I've read the books many times, but this still fills in many holes I didn't know I had.

Sending this to many friends.

matan811 said...

How bad are the ADWD spoilers? i read the first Danny and Tyrion chapters, but i don't want read any further spoilers...

Drake said...

So, do these The Song of Ice and Fire So Far posts have spoilers for A Dance With Dragons at all? I mean INCLUDING the preview chapters posted online, which I have avoided.

Adam Whitehead said...

If you mean anything for the plot or what happens in ADWD, no, not at all.

There's one bit of backstory (and only scene-setting backstory, nothing to do with anything plot-related) that is expanded from something GRRM has said about Volantis in a chapter reading from ADWD, and that is something that he's also written about in the RPG. It will not spoil ADWD at all.

Drake said...

Ah, thanks. Just wanted to make sure before I read it.

Matthew Rodney said...

Thanks so much for this. I sometimes find myself frustrated that interesting bits of information are hidden away in places not all fans have access to. So this is greatly appreciated.

First sword of Bravos said...

where did you get all this info

Anonymous said...

In regards to the first pic: Somebody hasn't read their Bible.

Concerning the rest: Nice recap. Even though I've read the books, I still caught some things I had either missed or had forgotten.

Thanks!

ediFanoB said...

K U D O S !!!

Anonymous said...

this is exceptional! THANK YOU

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, really useful and very well written.

Anonymous said...

this is amazing and really helps understand why specific things happen. while reading this, i couldn't help but notice how it parellels things happening in the books, especially the last one.

i have a better grasp of what's going on and some idea of what might come.

thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Not to be one of those guys, But they were actually referred to as wights numerous times throughout the series as well.

Adam Whitehead said...

The Others are a sentient nonhuman species (or possibly a race of humans transformed into 'something else' by magic, fan theories abound) who thrive on ice and cold. They raise undead wights as their servants, but the two are separate.

So the hierarchy is:

Others/White Walkers = the masters
Wights = their undead zombie slaves

Anonymous said...

Will you write a synopsis for A Dance With Dragons too?

Adam Whitehead said...

When TWoW comes out, yes. So not for a while :)