Game of Thrones: geology, astronomy and White Walkers
The title sequence to the series shows us a U-shaped world, accompanied by string music. Where a regular planet would have its core a sun is visible. Miniatures of important locations such as King’s Landing and Winterfell slowly build themselves up like cogs in a machine. An excellent example of opening credits accompanied by Ramin Djawadi’s perfect score.
The landmasses of Westeros don’t resemble our Earth at all. This leads some to speculate if the planet is actually round. The main reason for this is the planet’s horizon, as it bends the wrong way.
The answer: no. The decision to make the earth hollow was a side-effect of the concept for the intro credits, this being «The intro has the viewer flying above a map».
A question of camera movement
By trying to avoid the possibility of showing any land outside of Westeros, he and his creative team imagined how Westerosi people would display their world themselves. These maps would be forged by extremely detailed and specific labourers to map as most of the continent as they could. Monks would pretty much be the only people in Westeros to actually use these maps.
This concept combined with their original wish led to them displaying the map as if it were on the inside of a globe.
The Known World: everything the Westerosi know about their planet.
Author George R. R. Martin spent a lot of time and effort working out the continent of Westeros – where most of the action in the series takes place. According to the author and the fan page westeros.org, Westeros is about the size of South America and represents a sort of Union of the Seven Kingdoms. The ice wall in the North throws a wrench into this, however, as its 482.803 kilometres don’t match up with the scale presented to us in the books.
In 2013, the author approximated the size of the land north of the Wall to the size of Canada. Both fans and the author finally agreed on the Wall as the yardstick for any size comparisons or distances. Using this, we can see that Westeros is 4824.169 kilometres long.
What’s important to remember is that Game of Thrones doesn’t take place on planet Earth. George R. R. Martin has told fans that this round planet is «a little larger than ours». Students at Stanford University tried verifying this. Based on climate knowledge, they calculated the planet as having a radius of 6915.351 kilometres. This makes the circumference 43449.069 kilometres long, making the planet from the Song of Ice and Fire 8.0771 percent larger than Earth. The entire Known World – all locations known to Westerosi people – makes up about a quarter of the planet.
North of the Wall is where the Free Folk live. They refuse to kneel to the Seven Kingdoms, choosing instead to live in frozen tundra where it’s always winter. What a happy coincidence that the Wall is made of ice and that Westerosi people prefer squabbling amongst themselves.
East of Westeros, across the Narrow Sea, lies the continent of Essos. Not much is known about this continent by readers and viewers. The Free Cities and Slaver’s Bay are located in south-eastern Essos. Further east lies the Dothraki Sea, a steppe inhabited by the nomadic Dothraki people. The far East of Essos is either not mapped or irrelevant to the Song of Ice and Fire.
To the South of Essos lies Sothoryos. Nothing is known about the continent, except that it has deserts and jungles. Westerosi have only explored the northernmost shores of the continent, as they believe Sothoryos is home to sickness and disease.
Finally, there’s Ulthos in the South-East of Essos. It could be a continent, but no one knows of anything more than its existence.
Based on the geography and Westerosi knowledge about their world, it’s easy to place Westeros in about the planetary location between Sicily and the North Pole in our world. This would put the planet’s equator somewhere around Dorne or the Summer Isles. This would explain why Sothoryos is a continent covered by jungles.
Gaze at the heavens
A sun, moon and stars shine above Westeros. Seven large stars act as heavenly travellers and important reference points for navigation and exploration. They’re worshipped as the Seven Gods – Westeros’ largest religion. One of them is the red wanderer. It gets its name from its distinguished colour and resembles Mars in our solar system. Even though it’s never explicitly stated, we can assume these wanderers are planets. The ancient Greek word for «wanderer» or «wandering star», for example, is πλανῆται, planētai.
An old Westerosi legend tells tales of a second moon. It flew too close to the sun, burst open and hatched dragons. The Dothraki believe the moon to be a goddess and the wife of the sun. According to the Azor Ahai mythos, the moon received scars and boils when it heard Nissa Nissa’s screams. She was stabbed through the heart by Azor Ahai’s sword Lightbringer to temper it.
- A year in Westeros has twelve months, according to author George R. R. Martin.
- A month reflects a lunar cycle, from new moon through half-moon to full moon and back again.
- A day coincides with one planetary rotation, from sunrise to sunrise. It’s unknown how many hours this is.
- Days get shorter before winter arrives.
Westeros does have a system of days and years, but we can’t expect them to know very much about astronomy. The maesters, academics of Westeros, observe the sky with telescopes.
A Song of Seasons
On Earth, seasons are determined by the planet’s angle towards the sun. The further a place is from the equator, the larger the difference between summer and winter.
In Westeros, however, seasons are not tied to astronomical occurrences. At the start of the first «A Song of Ice and Fire» book, titled «A Game of Thrones», the summer had been ongoing for nine years. According to Westerosi folklore, winter will always be as long as the preceding summer. Cities harvest and store grain during the summer to survive the frigid winter. When winter comes, most farmers, peasants and any other people without a safe home funnel into these cities.
The longest recorded winter lasted «one generation». It’s called «The Long Night» and occurred about 8,000 years before the War of Conquest, the pivoting point for the Westerosi calendar. This was about 8,300 years before Joffrey Baratheon inherited the Iron Throne from his father Robert Baratheon. The Long Night also was the last time a White Walker was sighted. According to Old Nan in Season 1, Episode 3, kings froze to death and children starved. The White Walkers came from the North, seeking to cover the world with an eternal winter. Azor Ahai defeated and pushed them back.
The relationship between White Walkers and winter is strange. Their arrival always seems to coincide with a snowstorm, as if they had led it with them. But there are also winters without any sightings. It is therefore safe to presume that White Walkers have some meteorological control, but aren’t powerful enough to influence large-scale weather patterns. White Walkers live in the far North, probably close to the North Pole.
In any case, the climate in Westeros and Essos doesn’t make sense. One explanation could be that the planet’s angle towards the sun is unstable and volatile. This would certainly explain the drastic differences in lengths of seasons. It could also be magic, of course.
Azor Ahai, weather and magic
Another theory on the crazy climate conditions lays the blame squarely on magic. This could mean that someone – be this humans, White Walkers or Children of the Forest – interacted with the weather and severely damaged its cycle.
The most fitting time for this to happen was during the Long Night. This was the last time weather played a major role in the world’s fate. 8,300 years ago, the White Walkers wanted to cover the planet in an endless winter, as White Walkers can only survive in freezing temperatures. There are various examples to prove this:
- The snowstorm that perpetually surrounds them drastically chills the air around them.
- Wights, corpses raised by White Walkers, can’t be revived if they died by fire or where burned.
- Wights are extremely susceptible to fire.
- When summer reaches Westeros, White Walkers stay exclusively in the far North.
However: According to Westerosi folklore, White Walkers can only be killed by Valyrian Steel or dragonglass. This does not eliminate a weakness against heat. It could, however, also be the case that heat only effects White Walkers fully after several hours or days. In the context of a days-long battle, this timeframe is too long. This is probably the main reason for the snowstorm they bring with them.
Who really hexed the weather is unknown. It could have been humans, wanting to banish winter to the North after defeating the White Walkers with Azor Ahai. Children of the Forest are another likely candidate, their goals being the same as those of men. White Walkers can’t be excluded, of course. Covering the planet in a snowstorm would make surviving much easier for them. They are, until now, the only species group that has been proven to change the weather.
One thing’s for sure: Whoever put a spell on the climate changed the core fundamentals of their planet’s weather cycle. This led to the aforementioned seasons that change in length and timing.
George R. R. Martin confirmed the root cause of this change to be magic during a signing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA in 2005. The conversation is recorded by a guest to the signing, a user who calls herself Duchess of Malfi:
In simpler terms: we’ll know more when George R. R. Martin finally decides to release more books.
The search for answers
While writing this article, I came in contact with the production firm behind the intro. I originally just wanted some high-definition pictures of the map. But what I actually received far exceeded my expectations. The picture below comes directly from Elastic studios and is officially licensed by HBO, the producers behind the series.
The question of the hour was: what could those two new continents possibly be?