Westeros is Poorly Designed

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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40 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    La la la la la la la la la la la I don’t care I’m enjoying it too much don’t talk to me about realism Varys got from Meereen to Dorne and back again in two days but so what and all the armies seem to have lots of guys with lots of swords and stuff that Stone says they just wouldn’t have that much of or as many guys anyway but I don’t care because it’s fun and it looks great on TV damnit.Report

    • J_A in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Allegedly, a true Asimov anecdote:

      “Professor Asimov, what do you think about Superman supposedly flying faster than the speed of light? Isn’t that against Einstein’s Relativity Theory?”

      “Einstein’s Relativity is just a theory, but the speed of Superman is based on actual measurements”Report

  2. Mo says:

    This reminds me of this. Despite white HBO viewers’ beliefs, the Wire is not that accurate.Report

  3. North says:

    Yes, of course it’s poorly designed. I doubt Martin ever considered the full implictions when he laid it out. Hell, the entire dynamic of the irregular winter/summer cycle alone is brain melting. What kind of ecology would be needed to deal with a potentially decades long winter? Westeros shouldn’t be medieval, it should be flat out alien.

    But none of that really matters.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to North says:

      My theory on that is that “Winter” isn’t so much a season as the ramification of a periodic climate shifts. So “the winter” lasts years, and actually has summers within it (and maybe vice-versa), it’s just that the summers are cold. They’ve sort of incorporated this into their terminology.

      That was how I made sense of it.

      Most of the problems that Lyman describes can be handled by assuming that some of the measurements got lost in translation. Westeros is actually a size somewhere in between Great Britain and Baffin Island.Report

      • North in reply to Will Truman says:

        Yes, I agree. On reading the entire article I shrugged and was like “Okay so most of the nerd protests fizzle if you just assume it’s smaller”. Considering how the characters bounce around that makes more sense as well.Report

      • So “the winter” lasts years, and actually has summers within it (and maybe vice-versa), it’s just that the summers are cold.

        But then you’ve got periodic crop failures and resulting famines. We have instances within recorded history. 1816, popularly known as “The Year Without a Summer”. Widespread crop failures. We know that in parts of North America, grain prices increased five-fold relative to a year earlier. Or the portion of The Little Ice Age in the early 1300s, which produced the Great Famine of 1315-17. Historians put the urban death toll in Europe north of the Alps in the 10-25% range.Report

        • This is sort of why I wonder why everyone is so worried about the north. For stretches that last years or decades, it’s basically Nanuvut. Shouldn’t The Wall basically be at the Twins?Report

          • Burt Likko in reply to Will Truman says:

            But, if the North is really Scotland, then people to its south are justified in caring a great deal about it. Plenty of people, plenty of economic activity. And tolerating an autonomous king up there turns out to be risky, especially if that king gets support and alliances with other powers located to the south or just across a narrow sea.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Burt Likko says:

              The winters make it not-Scotland.Report

              • Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

                Bear in mind they have stores of food for these Winters, or at least they’re supposed to. They’re in IceboxVille, where they CAN store meat and not have it rot, alongside grain.Report

            • If you’re going to try to draw analogues out of European history and/or geography, a better model might be the Viking Age. Sustained warmer climate — the Medieval Warm Period — made grain farming much more productive, the population boomed, population pressure led to expansion (and conflict). If there were a long-term climate cycle a la Will, people to the south will have experienced a periodic expansionary North, which collapses when the climate cycle turns.Report

              • Right. So my thought is that if you’re the Lannisters, you basically focus almost all of your attention outside the North. The North isn’t going to be worth having for some time. Let the North suffer through the Winter, and then as the weather starts to let up, invade their starving, untrained arses. Then you get the North back and have a better chance on holding it. Who really wants it in the meantime? It’s basically the North of the Wall without the supernatural activity.

                Or, uhhh… with the supernatural activity depending on how other plotlines go. Can the undead traverse water?

                (As an aside, I’m a bit confused about something from the last episode. What was with Benjen not being able to go south? If he can’t go south, how can the White Walkers? Did that whole thing get resolved with a plot revelation? Haha, just kidding, no White Walkers.)Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Will Truman says:

                There’s the whole Horn of Winter sub-sub-plot. Was it found, was it burned, was it real, was if fake is it still out there? Probably now part of Bran’s plot.

                Personally I think Martin’s real objective was to create a subversive theology…but he’s so lost the plot on that he can’t wind his way back – at least not in a way that will rival the nuance of his political work. So, when the final answer comes regarding the White Walkers, the Lord of Light, the Old Gods, the Faceless One, and the Seven, it will either be terribly disappointing, or the biggest Deus Ex trope you’ve ever seen.Report

              • Kim in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Da. This was obvious if you’d read any of his other work.
                My friend finds it hilarious that of all the magazine writers he ever worked with, it’s GRRM who got to be this famous.

                GRRM lost the wheels after the first three books (which have a nice cool arc).Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Kim says:

                GRRM was a wonderful, multiple award-winning short-story writer. Not necessarily credentials for writing a multi-volume epic.Report

  4. Kim says:

    *shrugs* if you want high quality worldbuilding, go buy Kulthea.Report

  5. Kim says:

    1) We’re clearly dealing with early Renaissance, not actual medieval period. You’ve got your city states and way too much communication to really support anything else.

    2) Tolkien wrote medieval — if you had a forested region that was depopulated, that meant the Black Forest (with soils too heavy to plough).

    3) High urban and low density rural is easy — that’s Carthage. Plenty of game theory where water is scarce says urbanize urbanize urbanize.Report

    • Brent F in reply to Kim says:

      Westeros is clearly not similar to North Africa though. The climate, beyond the funky seasonsal issues, is clearly temperate zone and wet.

      The primary issue with Westeros is it is clearly meant to be Britan scaled up. The thing is many things about human geography are scale dependant. The forces change with size, so the morphology has to change to reflect that (much like an ant can’t scale up to the size of even a mouse, let alone an elephant)Report

      • Kim in reply to Brent F says:

        While that is true, I kind of object to the disuse of the Chinese (or Japanese) as a metaphor in the cited article.

        What made China (or Japan) so different from India or Europe? Hey, let’s play the muslim angle if we want to get the nice language — doesn’t nearly everyone who’s muslim learn arabic? (granted, then you have more of a “everyone knows english in india” paradigm).Report

        • North in reply to Kim says:

          China (and India) are basically geographically united. Europe is laced through with mountains and natural barriers. This led to a lot of politicall uniformity in China and diversity in Europe.Report

          • Kim in reply to North says:

            India was fragmented for most of its existence. China… really wasn’t. India has dozens of languages (at least), China has one with significant differences (linguist joke)Report

        • Mo in reply to Kim says:

          China isn’t different. There are a number of different dialects that are not mutually intelligible. As for Arabic, despite all of the dialects being called Arabic, the North African, Gulf, Levant, etc. are all very different from each other and all quite different from MSA. The difference between Algerian Arabic and Iraqi Arabic are as wide as Portuguese and Italian. And MSA largely only exists in a unitary form because it is a literary language (similar to Latin in medieval times) and modern communication and transportation makes it easier to keep largely unitary.Report

          • Kim in reply to Mo says:

            China is a hell of a lot different from Britain — yes, you do have mutually unintelligible dialects, but they cover a LOT of ground. Britain, from one village to the next might be difficult to understand (this is pretty much a Britain thing, it wasn’t true anywhere else — Britain had a hell of a lot of asocial people there, including the elves).

            So, I guess what we’re getting is “the more trade you’ve got, the more you develop good trading languages, ” with a side of “literary languages occupy their own world”Report

  6. veronica d says:

    Nerding out is fun.

    Anyway, it always seemed preposterously implausible and silly that Westeros should be that large, given that he was going for a War of the Roses analog. Great Britain is small. Why should Westeros not be small?

    Anyway, @burt-likko is correct. Who cares, so long as you are enjoying the drama.

    But nerds shall nerd nerdily. And nerding out is fun. And there is a texture to realism, that — when you “see the strings” it diminishes the thing. It’s like, watching a thing where everything is slightly the wrong color. You can see it is “off.”

    Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a thing for what it is.Report

    • North in reply to veronica d says:

      Have sympathy on R.R. Martin my dear. You must have had that game master or been that game master? A wall of ice stretching across a narrow part of a country the size of Britain? That’s cool sure but a wall stretching across North America? That’s super cool! Lord (Lady?) knows I have been that Game Master.

      Martin couldn’t have known how popular his world was going to become (for one thing I don’t think he had the ego to think as much). I mean Martin was just building himself a sandbox to write some medieval fantasy intrigue stories in.Report

      • veronica d in reply to North says:

        Honestly though, I wasn’t that game master, at least not anytime after middle school.

        I’m not slagging GRRM. I like his books fine. But still, I always shot for the subtle, the “small stories,” rather than the big globe-spanning things.

        I hit my sweet spot with early Ars Magica. It was “low key” in a certain way. We generally used the British Isles as our setting, just cuz I had a lot of good gaming material for that time-and-place. We’d pick a bit part of Devonshire (or whatever). Set up a “Covenant” (which was kinda of a wizards community), always located in an out-of-the-way place — cuz they had to fly beneath the radar of the church.

        Of course, maybe the local priest knew about them and was cool. It was complicated. You could have rich particulars instead of overbearing everthings.

        We seldom involved the affairs of kings. But the local baron, he would play a role.

        Plus there were other wizards in other covenants, but small number, and whatever fairy politics was going down, and whatever else I dreamed up. But always local.

        It was a fun way to do things. To us it felt real.

        After all, how do you now there weren’t small hidden communities of wizards in 12th century England? It ain’t like they would go out of their way to get noticed.

        Anyway, as they developed the setting in the published material, things got “big” — big organizations of wizards playing bigger roles in the politics of kingdoms and Christendom. I get it. Some people think in those terms.

        I preferred my “little stories.” We stayed away from grand designs.Report

        • North in reply to veronica d says:

          Well you were wise beyond your years then. I look back on some of the stuff I wrote and invented during my “Big is cool!” years and cringe. Thank God(ess?) the internet was too nascent for me to have put it up somewhere where people could see it.Report

          • veronica d in reply to North says:


            Well I mean, when I was a teen I tried to write a terribly long and sprawling Silmarillion ripoff with giant elf armies and demon hoards, so I’m not immune.

            It’s just — I dunno.

            Honestly — not to throw out a hand grenade — but I think it was a gender thing. (#notallmen, #notallwomen, #notallenbies, etc.) It’s like, all the “big stories” were dudely things, and it was — just that stuff felt unsatisfying. By that time I was discovering “girl books,” and they tended to be the “small stories” stuff —

            — which look, I don’t know if this is “baked into the brain” or “socialization” or “veronica making up bullshit theories.”

            Whatever. Something something blah blah. It’s just feels “gendery” to me. Two of my most loyal players were — unknown to any of us at the time — transgender. Like, a gaming group of five folks, and three of us are in-the-closet trans folks, who somehow accidentally end up friends.

            Gender gender gender.

            (One of them was a trans man — like we thought he was a girl but he wasn’t. This means whatever it means. He married the other trans gal, cuz of course. They both came out and transitioned after they married, cuz of course.)

            Gender is weird.Report

    • Kim in reply to veronica d says:

      Sorkin getting things wrong, badly wrong, is a lot more headache inducing than Grrm having scale issues.

      OTOH, when Bob’s Burgers gets something right — that’s actually satisfying.Report

  7. Kolohe says:

    Theon Greyjoy is what happens when you cut your interns too much slack.Report

  8. Richard Hershberger says:

    Being much more a Tolkien geek than a Martin geek, I will go after this:

    Everything between the Shire and Rohan is depopulated save for a few ruins here and there? Did the land just up and stop yielding harvests or something? Sure. Okay. That’s some plausible economic geography.

    Plausible economic geography is Missing The Point. This is mythic geography. Arnor is without a king. The fertility of the land is tied to this. No king, no fertility. QED. I don’t recall Tolkien explicitly making the connection, but this is bog standard stuff.Report