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New to George R.R. Martin’s world of A Song of Ice and Fire, which now consists of five novels, three novellas, and, very shortly, two seasons of a breakout HBO series? Or are you a veteran that still finds the houses of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros confounding, with their various family trees, arranged marriages, and assassination attempts? Not to worry – Coming Attractions is here to help. Use this simplified, spoiler-free guide to help whet your appetite for the television odyssey that is to come or as a refresher course to help prepare for season two. Either way, it’s 3,000 years of backstory to parse through, and we’re all going to do it together. And while you’re at it, if you like Marc N. Kleinhenz’s ability to condense an ungodly amount of data into a single, cohesive unit – or if you just want more of his analysis of Martin’s satisfyingly deep fantasy world – be sure to check out his just-released ebook, It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I. It consists of a number of his essays as well as some in-depth roundtables with the likes of Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.
In the Beginning...
Westeros is the westernmost continent of the known world, the size of South America but a parallel of England: it is but a tiny island-nation across a very Narrow Sea from the giant landmass of Essos, which teems with untold countries, peoples, and empires. It is from Essos that the current inhabitants of Westeros originated; starting several thousand years ago, three major waves of immigration – at first across a naturally-occurring land bridge, and later through the technological advent of sail ships – swept across the land, displacing the indigenous population and creating literally hundreds of small kingdoms. Through endless millennia of constant warfare and growing alliances, these few hundred sovereign states eventually became just seven, each ruled by a great house.
Then, one day 300 years before Game of Thrones starts, they became just one. (Well, technically, they became two; it took approximately another two centuries for the seventh and final kingdom, Dorne, to finally be brought into the new transnational arrangement, through a non-violent marriage pact.) The great land of Valyria, located in Essos and the seat of the giant empire known as the Valyrian Freehold, had crumbled when some unknown Doom had befallen it (most likely a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that transformed the peninsula country into a series of islands). Now without a homeland, Aegon Targaryen and his two sisters decided to strike out for a new monarchy to call their own. They quickly settled on Westeros, which was just beyond the Valyrians’ westernmost outpost.
What made Aegon’s Conquest so successful – and so short – was the simple presence of dragons. The Valyrians were the only known people in the world who possessed the ability to bend the giant beasts to their will, and Aegon and his siblings did so to great effect. (At one battle, some 4,000 soldiers perished when they, their mounts, and the fields all around them were burnt to the ground.) The seven kingdoms of Westeros officially became known as the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, with one king to rule them all; the previous monarchs were rendered wardens, the lords of their respective geographical areas.
King Aegon I (there have been four of his name since) commanded that a new, unified state called for a new capital. King’s Landing was born, constructed on the site of the Targaryens’ landing. As his seat, Aegon had the Iron Throne fashioned, made from all the swords and blades of his conquered foes being melted down and fused together (it is literally a dangerous seat, that can prick and stab and draw blood, so that the current occupant would always remember the dangers of sitting the throne). He then married his sisters, partially to keep the bloodline of Old Valyria pure and partially due to the ancient custom of the Freehold, and produced a dynasty that would rule unbroken for most of the next three centuries.
His dragons, however, were not so fortunate. Over the course of the next 150 years, they became progressively smaller and weaker, until, finally, the last was a stunted and sickly thing, living only for a handful of years. Even worse, when the last of the dragons expired, so, too, did magic all across the world. All that is left now are a series of unhatched – and seemingly fossilized – dragon eggs and so-called sorcerers who are able to ply only a fraction of their ancient craft… and all of them outside of Westeros.
Robert Baratheon is heir to one of the most powerful houses in the Seven Kingdoms, destined to become a warden. As is the custom of many of the great houses, he is fostered at the castle of Lord Jon Arryn, the Warden of the East. Also there is Eddard Stark, the second son of one of the most ancient houses and whose older brother will one day become Warden of the North. Robert and Ned fast become like brothers, with the young Baratheon even having designs of marrying Lyanna Stark, Ned’s little sister.
It is all for naught, however, when Prince Rhaegar Targaryen happens to set eyes on her during a tournament. Under severely mysterious circumstances, Rhaegar absconds with – or is that abducts? – Lyanna, raping her, even though he is already married (to a Dornish woman, helping to keep the recently-assimilated southern kingdom under the purview of the Iron Throne) with two infants on their way to climbing the royal ladder of succession. House Stark recoils at the injustice done to them. For their troubles, King Aerys II Targaryen – called the Mad King due to an excessive case of incestuous birth – has Eddard’s father and older brother executed. Just for good measure, he also sends to Jon Arryn for the heads of both Robert and Ned, to stamp down any sparks of rebellion before they rage into a full fire.
But the fire, it turns out, has already been lit. Lord Arryn refuses Mad King Aerys’s orders, instead opting to add all the might of his house to the Baratheons, who are now in open revolt against the crown. Eddard Stark, of course, enters the fray alongside them, and soon many more swords from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms join the quickly-growing rebellion. By the end, both Prince Rhaegar and King Aerys are killed (the former by Robert Baratheon; the latter, by a member of his own Kingsguard). So are Rhaegar’s wife and children, to finish off the line of the Targaryens – but so also is Lyanna Stark, Robert’s betrothed.
Although there is no longer a love to marry, there is still a land to rule. Robert is named ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, the first non-Targaryen to ever hold the title. For a queen, he marries Cersei Lannister, the daughter of the Warden of the West, who just so happens to also be the richest lord of all of Westeros (it is Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s twin brother, who murdered King Aerys). Jon Arryn is made Hand of the King for the role he played in both the war and in Robert’s upbringing. Eddard goes back to Winterfell, the seat of House Stark up in the distant and snowy North, to become warden and to start his own family.
That just leaves one loose thread: Rhaegar’s younger brother, Viserys, and their baby sister, Daenerys (who is born during the very last days of Robert’s Rebellion, after her father and older brother are killed) – the last two remaining members of House Targaryen. Although they are also ordered dead by King Robert, to ensure no further unpleasant uprisings down the road, they are sneaked across the Narrow Sea to Essos, where they live in impoverished exile, clinging onto the hope that they may one day be able to reclaim the Iron Throne that is theirs by rights.
Lord Eddard Stark, the Warden of the North, is married to Catelyn Stark, the elder daughter of House Tully, the leading house of the Riverlands. They have five children together: Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran (named for Brandon, Ned’s dead older brother, who was supposed to be the lord of Winterfell and Catelyn’s husband both), and Rickon. There is also Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow (whose surname marks him as a highborn bastard of the North), born during the end of the war. Much to Lady Catelyn’s continued chagrin, Jon was brought back to Winterfell to be raised as a legitimate Stark, although his is a future devoid of any lands, titles, or glory.
Down south, King Robert Baratheon has a barely functioning marriage with Queen Cersei, a woman he never loved; there are countless bastards running around King’s Landing (and, even, in the Seven Kingdoms beyond), as any girl is better than his queen (but still nowhere near as good as the departed Lyanna). And their three trueborn children posses personalities that run the gamut from equally dysfunctional to outright naïve: foul-tempered Joffrey, upright Myrcella, and towheaded Tommen.
Lord Tywin Lannister, the Warden of the West and former Hand of the King (to none other than King Aerys II), has done much to ensure that his house continues to be the most prosperous and preeminent in Westeros: he has a son, Jaime, in the illustrious Kingsguard; a nephew, Lancel, as the king’s page; and, of course, his daughter, Cersei, as the queen. His grandson will go on to become king himself. The only embarrassment to his person and family both is his second son, Tyrion, a dwarf who is intellectually gifted but whose physical handicaps mark him as an inferior to nearly any Westerosi – and whose birth caused the death of his beloved wife, leaving him forevermore without a companion.
Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen have become something of a joke – the “Beggar King,” Viserys is called behind his back. Without any resources or loyal followers in a now-foreign land, they live only by the good graces of whoever may take a kindness to them or their cause. For the past few years (or so), this has been Illyrio Mopatis, an insanely wealthy merchant and a magister of the Free City of Pentos (which only became free, ironically, when the Valyrian Freehold crumbled). It is he who is starting to make arrangements for Viserys to finally foot an army and storm the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros…
The first episode of the second season of Game of Thrones airs April 1, 2012. Just as we did for every first season episode of Game of Thrones we'll be covering each episode in depth after it airs.
Marc N. Kleinhenz is a freelancer whose work has appeared on 18 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Nintendojo, where he co-hosts the Airship Travelogues podcast. His creative writing has been published through Alterna Comics, Death Head Grin, and Smashed Cat magazine, among others.
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