It could itself be a subplot from a fantasy novel. Far across a great ocean, in a distant land of ice and snow, live two learned maesters. Their keen eyes and minds trained, day and night, on the elaborate world of Game of Thrones…
But unlike many of the unbelievable things to do with HBO’s hit series – such as the Others and fire-breathing dragons – this tale happens to be true. George RR Martin, the creative force behind the returning Game of Thrones TV epic who was hailed by Time magazine as “America’s Tolkien”, has woven a fantasy medieval world so elaborate, so detailed, that even he can’t remember everything.
And that’s when he turns to Elio M Garcia Jr, who runs the GoT dedicated fansite, westeros.org, with his partner, Linda Antonsson. Uberfans.
The couple, who live on the outskirts of Gothenburg, more than 5,000 miles from Martin’s home in New Mexico, developed their bond online following the publication of the novel A Game of Thrones in 1996.
US-born Garcia was studying at the University of Miami when he was introduced to Martin’s epic series of books, titled A Song of Ice and Fire, by fellow fantasy enthusiast Antonsson. Such was their bond that he joined her in Sweden two years later. Together they created an online role-playing game based on Martin’s characters.
Garcia is now Martin’s go-to guy for fact-checking and, in a nod to the complexity of the novels’ structure, to refresh his mind about certain plotlines. “He has a photographic memory,” Martin said of Garcia recently. “It’s amazing. I think that he lives in that world more than I do.”
We’ve known George for a long time now. He was very excited by the work that we put in at the start
It all started during the writing of 2005’s A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series. As Garcia recalls, Martin rang him up and asked “What have I established about this and that?” and “Could you check to see if I mentioned something about this king or this date?”
Garcia, whose day job is a translator, says: “We’ve known George for a long time now. He was very excited by the work that we put in at the start, from creating the heraldry of the seven kingdoms to designing the house shields and all sorts of other content, and was very open and accessible with us.”
Westeros.org has 1.5 million unique visitors every month while the online forum has 60,000 members – up 40,000 since the TV adaptation debuted on HBO in 2011.
Since 2006 Garcia and Antonsson have also collaborated with Martin on a companion guide. “George was asked about this by the publishers but he is far too busy,” Garcia explains, “so he asked us to help out in compiling the existing information as a guide to the setting.”
With its mythical beasts, Shakespearean infighting, rival dynasties and almighty war brewing to the point of no return, the epic medieval fantasy of Game of Thrones is arguably the biggest and mostanticipated show on TV.
Martin’s as yet unfinished series of novels – which has achieved 20 million sales worldwide and been translated into 40 languages – may one day rival The Lord of the Rings for the fantasy crown. Certainly, ahead of the launch of the third TV series this week, there is a sense that it has still to reach its peak.
The initial trailer for the third series attracted 20 million internet views on its own, while the second series was illegally downloaded 25 million times in 2012 and is considered the most pirated television series ever.
HBO is now trying to curb downloads by ensuring that the third season will debut in more than 170 territories around the world just one day after it airs in the US.
“No one wants to wait,” Antonsson emphasises. “People want to be involved in the immediate discussion and reaction. They want to consume the media at the same time. The producers have realised that if they want people to watch it on their channels then they have to deliver it right away.”
The mainstream success of Game of Thrones is a source of pride for fans – tempered by a hint of caution. For all the critical acclaim lavished on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation, the New Zealand director has played fast and loose with some aspects of Tolkien’s much-loved yarn.
“Hopefully they can do right by the novels while producing a great TV series,” Garcia says. “There is always a concern that it could deviate, which is what happened to Lord of the Rings. With such huge success early on, does that give the creators licence to do their own thing, rather than what’s on the page? I hope not.”
No one wants to wait. People want to be involved in the immediate discussion and reaction
Antonsson adds: “I was apprehensive about season three because of how season two ended. They made some fairly significant changes to certain storylines and characters, which I felt were rather
Martin has clearly been influenced in some way by the ruthless political infighting of the Wars of the Roses, yet the narrative draws on inspiration from a wide range of significant historical periods stretching across centuries. From viking kingdoms to the cultural legacy of the Italian Renaissance – brought to life in stunning scenery filmed in locations including Northern Ireland, Morocco, Iceland and Malta – the concoction is perfectly balanced.
Most agree that GoT’s biggest strength is its accurate portrayal of human nature, with each character susceptible to temptation and possessing potentially damaging flaws. No one is safe, as was emphasised in the brutal killing of one the main players early on. The intricate storylines and plot twists are, unsurprisingly, expertly transformed by HBO, with the show drawing comparisons to the subtle brilliance of The Wire.
“The story, which is born out of a Vietnam era, is very grey,” Garcia says. “It doesn’t hark back to the old epic story of the good guys and the bad guys. It feels real.”
In one area in particular, however, Martin bests Tolkien – and that is in his portrayal of women. He has created a string of strong and fearless females, from the stoic Catelyn Stark (played by Michelle Fairley in the TV series), to the wicked Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey).
“I was always incredibly impressed with how George vividly portrays Catelyn, who is this medieval noblewoman in a tragic position,” Garcia reflects. “George writes with such sympathy and Catelyn is such a complicated character. On the TV show I think they lessen her. Michelle Fairley is a great actor but it’s not the same Caetlyn I knew from the books.”
For Antonsson, dragon mother and would-be queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is the highlight. But again, she feels the television portrayal isn’t quite right.
“They seemed to tone her down from the novels,” she says. “She is supposed to be young and uncertain, and maybe the creators are unsure of having that kind of individual as a lead character.”
How the television series will unfold over the next few weeks is also a mystery.
The producers are promising that even those who have read the books will be surprised. Whatever they serve up, one thing is certain: winter is coming. In fact, it’s here.