Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter's "Everything to Know" series. Starting with Game of Thrones, THR's Westeros guru Josh Wigler will offer an in-depth guide about, well, everything there is to know about one particular topic within the complex universe.
A blood red sun burns over the baking hot desert. Miles away, politicians and assassins alike stab each other's backs. Far north, proud and seasoned soldiers battle against bitter winter winds and the hardships they bring. Farther north still, far past a breathtaking border built with magic and ice, an ancient frost burns bright again, as monsters forged from snow march toward humanity's last breath.
And that's just one of the continents Game of Thrones calls home.
There are endless reasons why people are obsessed with HBO's Emmy-winning epic, so many ingredients that make it such an engaging experience. The show's stunning setting is high on the list. And really, it's settings, plural, considering the vast and vivid lands in which the series takes place. This week in "Everything to Know," we're stopping down for a closer look at one sprawling spot in particular: Westeros, the main continent where most of the action happens. (Watch the video below.)
First envisioned by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin before its depiction in the HBO series, Westeros is a harsh realm where winters can last a lifetime. Maybe a bit of an understatement, considering how short a lifespan tends to be in Westeros, for high nobles and smallfolk alike. Winter, on the other hand, can last forever, or close to it. It's why the show's most recognizable phrase and House Stark's sacred words, "Winter is coming," carry such grave connotations: Meteorology in Westeros is an inexact science at best, and once the snow starts to fall, it might be years, decades even, before it stops.
It's unclear why seasons are so drastic and last so long in Westeros, but deadly winters have long been par for the course. Thousands of years before the start of the series, Westeros was home to the Children of the Forest, an ancient people gifted with great power and reverence for the land. Eventually, humans conquered the continent, forcing the Children to flee to the far north. Their struggle paved the way for a deadly new species: the White Walkers, cold-blooded creatures with ice in their veins and annihilation in their hearts. The Children and mankind were forced to cast aside their differences and join forces to defeat their common enemy, which ultimately resulted in the construction of the magical Wall that separates Westeros into two distinct halves: an uncharted tundra populated by fierce and frostbitten individuals called Wildlings; and everything that stands below.
The modern Westeros is a complicated network of cities and cultures that once existed as separate entities. Centuries before Thrones, a dragon-riding man called Aegon and his two dragon-riding sister-wives conquered these feuding factions with fire and blood. House Targaryen became the new dynasty in charge of the unified Seven Kingdoms. Their reign lasted for hundreds of years, before it was brought down through the Mad King Aerys Targaryen's own murderous actions, and the combined efforts of the kingdom's greatest noble houses during a war called Robert's Rebellion. When HBO's Game of Thrones begins, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) is the first of his name and the big man in charge of holding Westeros together. It's no easy task, considering the fragile peace that keeps the various kingdoms in check, including:
• The North, the blisteringly cold home of the Wall. It's also home to House Stark of Winterfell, the de facto protagonists of the series.
• The Riverlands, a central and essential region for anyone who wishes to travel from the North to the South, and vice versa, especially in times of war.
• The Vale in the east, known for its mountainous terrain and its heavily fortified castle, the Eyrie.
• The Iron Islands, home of the rebellious House Greyjoy and the veritable vikings who live and die by paying "the iron price."
• The Westerlands, containing Casterly Rock, the golden seat of the ridiculously rich House Lannister and therefore the source of much of Westeros' wealth.
• The Stormlands, where Robert Baratheon calls home when he's not ruling over the Seven Kingdoms.
• Dorne, the southernmost region in Westeros, notable for its dangerous deserts, its flowing wine, and its proud adherence to old customs, including using titles like prince and princess.
All of these kingdoms answer to one king, who reigns supreme from King's Landing, a sprawling city that exemplifies Westeros in a nutshell. It's home to some of the smartest and most powerful individuals in the Seven Kingdoms. It's also where some of the realm's most destitute and disenfranchised denizens are left to dwell. At the heart of it all is the show's iconic Iron Throne, forged from the swords of those who bent the knee to House Targaryen so many years ago. Much of the show focuses on the power players seeking to sit upon the throne, hence the show's title. No spoilers on how those proverbial and literal wars play out, except to say that through six seasons, it's a shifting target at best.
It's also not a spoiler to suggest that the infighting seen throughout the various factions in Westeros pales in comparison to a greater threat: the return of the White Walkers, seemingly more powerful than ever after their thousands of years in exile, now marching fast toward the Wall with an army of the undead in tow. It speaks to the message at the heart of Game of Thrones: as humanity bickers, betrays and butchers itself for nothing more than fleeting power, a ticking time bomb is threatening to raze everyone and everything to the ground - and the clock is swiftly counting down to zero.
While Westeros is certainly the primary setting for Game of Thrones, there's another major continent in play: Essos, appropriately named as it's east of Westeros. It's the site of great trading cities like Braavos and Volantis, fallen civilizations like Old Valyria, home of the horse-riding barbarians known as the Dothraki, and so much more. Viewers primarily experience Essos through Emilia Clarke's Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, though even she always has at least one eye on Westeros, if not two boots on the ground. (That should change in season seven.) Much of Essos and beyond remains unexplored, both for the audience and even within the show's universe. This is where we start getting into the ancient and advanced lands of Yi Ti, the largely unexplored continent of Sothoryos, and even a potential fourth continent called Ulthos. These locations might not ever appear on Game of Thrones, or even in George R.R. Martin's novel on which the show is based, but they are absolutely fascinating nonetheless.
With that said, anyone who wishes to dive even deeper into Westeros and the lands beyond has some required reading in their future: it's called The World of Ice and Fire, an in-universe encyclopedia created by Martin and Westeros.org founders Elio M. García Jr and Linda Antonsson, presented from the perspective of a maester of the Citadel. It's a huge resource, both literally and figuratively, so big in size that it can double as a weapon, and grander in scope than any superfan could ever ask for - and even then, it still doesn't cover everything there is to know about the world of Thrones.
Check in with THR.com/GameOfThrones for everything else you need to know about the show, and keep the conversation going with me on Twitter @roundhoward. We'll return in two weeks with a closer look at another corner of the world of ice and fire. In the meantime, check out our previous "Everything to Know" Game of Thrones coverage: