A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, is a densely-woven tale of power struggles between the ruling families of Westeros, a pre-industrial, medieval land knit from seven formerly independent kingdoms. Though the books' scope is enormous, this article will try to condense the main facts behind the series that the uninitiated should know before getting knee deep into the HBO screen translation.
At the beginning of the series the land of Westeros is in relative peace. The extended summer is coming to an end, but the realm has enjoyed many years of calm and order after the last bloody wars for the Iron Throne, known as Robert's Rebellion.
Robert's Rebellion started 15 years earlier after Eddard Stark's only sister, Lyanna, was perceived to be kidnapped by the Mad King Aerys Targaryen II's eldest son, Prince Rhaegar. Lyanna was originally betrothed to Robert Baratheon, who at the time was a squire (along with Eddard Stark) to Jon Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale. Upon hearing of Lyanna's supposed abduction (it still isn't clear whether Lyanna stole away with Rhaegar willingly or not) Eddard's older brother Brandon Stark rode to King's Landing to rescue her, only to die at the hands of the Mad King. Aerys also demanded Jon Arryn to give him the heads of Eddard and Robert for the perceived slight against Rhaegar, but instead Jon Arryn raised his house in rebellion and quickly massed an army along with Houses Baratheon, Stark and Tully (Brandon Stark was originally betrothed to Catelyn Tully, thus the reason for their grievance against the throne).
After the Battle of the Trident, where Robert Baratheon slew Prince Rhaegar, the rebellious host began its march toward King's Landing and the seat of Targaryen power. At this point House Lannister, which had stayed on the sidelines of the rebellion, rode to King's Landing. Aerys II mistakenly thought the Lannisters were providing reinforcements and so opened the gates. Lord Tywin, the head of House Lannister, instead sacked the city and, with one of his ruthless bannermen Ser Gregor Clegane, murdered the remaining lineage of House Targaryen (excepting Viserys and Aerys II's pregnant sister-wife Rhaella, who stole away to their island fortress Dragonstone). Jaime Lannister, Tywin's eldest son and member of Aerys II's Kingsguard, turned on Aerys during the sack and murdered the Mad King, thus earning himself the name Kingslayer.
During the rebellion Lyanna died in her brother Eddard Stark's arms, and after the war settled it was decided that Robert Baratheon would instead marry Tywin Lannister's only daughter Cersei Lannister to provide stability for the realm and add weight to Robert's claim to the Iron Throne.
Geography and Weather:
The continent of Westeros is roughly divided into seven sub-kingdoms with capitals ruled by each of the Great Houses: Winterfell & Starks, The Eyrie & Arryns, Riverrun & Tullys, Casterly Rock & Lannisters, Highgarden & Tyrells, Storm's End & Baratheons and Sunspear & Martells. Other areas include the Iron Islands ruled by Greyjoys and the Westerosi capital King's Landing and nearby Dragonstone, the earlier seat of power of House Targaryen. To the north of Winterfell resides the Wall, an enormous, 700-foot-high by 300-mile-long fortification of ice and stone that separates the southern lands of Westeros from the frozen wastelands of the First Men. The Wall is manned by the Night's Watch, an order of men sworn to lifelong service not to any royal House, ruler, or religion, but to the realm alone. Beyond the Wall resides wild men and, more importantly, a long-dormant, supernatural threat known as the Others or White Walkers.
Across the Narrow Sea from Westeros lies another continent to the east, Essos, where the Free Cities reside. To the south from Westeros there is a third continent, Southoryos, which is largely unexplored. Essos is the home of the Dothraki and the land where the last remaining Targaryen line, Viserys and Daenerys, find themselves while in exile.
HBO has done a lot to expound upon Westerosi weather, namely that the seasons are similar to our own but lengthened to time spans of decades or even centuries. Before the Targaryen line unified the disparate kingdoms of Westeros the lands of Winterfell held considerable power, as they directly supported the Night's Watch and prevented the southern kingdoms from being overrun by the threats beyond the Wall. During this time the Stark line were known as the Kings of Winter. No matter the season the northern lands of Winterfell are usually covered in snow, while the southernmost lands of Dorne are arid and desert-like.
Maesters & Magic:
One distinct difference between A Song of Ice and Fire and traditional fantasy series is the subdued use of magic. While dragons existed in the past, they are now extinct at the start of A Game of Thrones. Magic is also displayed by some priests and priestesses, such as those of R'hllor, a prominent god in Essos. Some weapons bear mythical qualities like Ice, Eddard Stark's Valyrian greatsword. Valyria was an ancient seat of power in Essos and also the origin of dragons and the Targaryen line. Valyrian steel often carries different colored hues, rarely loses its edge and displays an intricate, folded pattern similar to that of real Damascus steel.
The Stark siblings seem to share a limited, telepathic bond with their direwolves, namely manifesting as "wolf dreams." In these wolf dreams they are able to see through the eyes of their direwolves and sense their brothers and sisters through their own respective wolves. Direwolves can grow to 5 feet in length and 250 pounds in weight.
By far the most magic-oriented aspect of the series resides in the Others beyond the Wall. The White Walkers are described as icy apparitions with burning blue eyes. They seem to have some control over the cold and can reanimate the dead.
In terms of technology the series is similar to most other fantasy in that it is pre-industrialized and takes place before the invention of gun powder. Academia and learning is institutionalized by Maesters, men who complete a range of education in every field from healing to scribing and economics. Maesters wear chains forged of a variety of metals, each one representing a different academic mastery.
Screen Cast (Incomplete):
Expanded Cast List:
Eddard Stark: Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, Hand of the King after Lord Jon Arryn's death. Informally called "Ned," he is known for his sense of honor and justice.
Catelyn Stark: Lady of Winterfell, wife of Lord Eddard. Born to the Lord and Lady of the Riverlands, she is the elder sister of Lysa Tully Arryn, Lady of the Vale and Mistress of the Eyrie.
Robb Stark: Eldest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark and the heir to Winterfell.
Jon Snow: Bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, mother unknown, raised as Eddard Stark's own son.
Sansa Stark: First daughter and second child of Eddard and Catelyn Stark. Prissy, proper and every inch the princess.
Arya Stark: Younger daughter and third child of Lord Eddard and Catelyn Stark of Winterfell. Mischevious and more interested in swords than sewing.
Bran Stark: Second son and fourth child of Eddard and Catelyn Stark. Kind, caring and loves to climb.
Rickon Stark: Eddard and Catelyn Stark's youngest child, naturally aggressive and strong-willed.
Theon Greyjoy: Youngest son of Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, hostage and ward of Lord Eddard Stark taken during Robert's Rebellion to ensure the loyalty of House Greyjoy.
Maester Luwin: Maester of Winterfell, chief advisor to Lord Stark.
Rodrik Cassel: Master-at-Arms at Winterfell.
Jory Cassel: Captain of the Guard at Winterfell, nephew of Ser Rodrik.
Septa Mordane: Priestess and governess to the young ladies of Winterfell.
Hodor: Huge, physically strong but mentally handicapped stablehand at Winterfell. "Hodor, hodor."
Old Nan: Elderly servant at Winterfell known for her stories.
Jon Umber: Called "the Greatjon," Lord Umber is the Lord of Last Hearth and a Bannerman of the North.
Syrio Forel: Former First Sword of Braavos, hired in King's Landing by Lord Eddard to train Arya Stark in swordplay.
Robert Baratheon: Former childhood friend of Eddard Stark, King of the Seven Kingdoms.
Stannis Baratheon: Younger brother of King Robert, a brooding, humorless man with a rigid sense of justice.
Renly Baratheon: Lord of Storm's End, youngest brother of King Robert and Master of Laws in the Small Council, the ruling body of advisors to the King of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
Joffrey Baratheon: Crown Prince of the Seven Kingdoms, heir to the Iron Throne, betrothed to Sansa Stark.
Myrcella Baratheon: Royal Princess, younger sister of Prince Joffrey and only daughter of Cersei Lannister.
Tommen Baratheon: Younger brother of Prince Joffrey and second in line for the throne.
Tywin Lannister: Lord of Casterly Rock, Shield of Lannisport and Warden of the West, Tywin is a calculating, ruthless and controlling man.
Cersei Lannister: Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, wife of King Robert Baratheon.
Jaime Lannister: Twin brother to Cersei, member of the Kingsguard, also known as Kingslayer for his betrayal of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen.
Tyrion Lannister: Younger brother of Cersei and Jaime Lannister, a dwarf.
Kevan Lannister: Lord Tywin's younger brother, Captain of his household guard, skilled warrior but considered to be little more than Tywin's lickspittle.
Lancel Lannister: Cousin of Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion Lannister who serves as King Robert's squire.
Sandor Clegane: Nicknamed the "Hound", younger brother of Ser Gregor Clegane and a retainer to House Lannister. Joffrey's personal servant.
Gregor Clegane: Huge knight who is the elder brother of Sandor Clegane, vicious and cruel, also known as "The Mountain that Rides."
Aerys Targaryen II: Known as "Aerys the Mad," former King of the Seven Kingdoms. Killed by Jaime Lannister.
Rhaella Targaryen: Former Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, wife of Aerys. Died while giving birth to Daenerys.
Rhaegar Targaryen: Prince of Dragonstone, eldest son of Aerys II, murdered by Robert Baratheon during Robert's Rebellion.
Viserys Targaryen: Youngest son of Aerys II, obsessed with reclaiming the Iron Throne, exiled prince and heir of the Targaryen dynasty.
Daenerys Targaryen: Last child of Aerys II and Rhaella Targaryen, also known as Dany. Born on Dragonstone, exiled princess of the Targaryen dynasty.
Jorah Mormont: Exiled knight who enters the service of the last Targaryens, Viserys and Daenerys.
Jon Arryn: Former Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale, recently departed Hand of the King and Warden of the East.
Lysa Arryn: Current Mistress of the Eyrie, wife of the late Lord Jon Arryn. Born to the Lord and Lady of the Riverlands, she is the younger sister of Catelyn Tully Stark, Lady of Winterfell.
Robin Arryn: Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale, only child of Jon and Lysa Arryn, sickly and doted on by his mother (known as Robert Arryn in the novels).
Hugh: Ser Hugh is a Knight and bannerman of the Vale, who was squire to Lord Arryn while he was alive.
Vardis Egen: Captain of the Guard at the Eyrie.
Petyr Baelish: Nicknamed "Littlefinger," Master of Coin in King Robert Baratheon's Small Council, infatuated with Catelyn Stark since childhood.
Grand Maester Pycelle: Grand Maester of the Seven Kingdoms, advisor and Small Council member.
Barristan Selmy: Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and a member of the Small Council.
Janos Slynt: Commander of the City Watch, in charge of protecting the streets of King's Landing.
Varys: Known as "The Spider", a eunuch and the Master of Whisperers, royal spymaster and a member of King Robert's Small Council.
Ilyn Payne: The creepy, mute royal headsman of King's Landing.
Jeor Mormont: The 997th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, estranged father of Ser Jorah who gave up his lands to serve the Night's Watch.
Maester Aemon: Old and blind Maester of the Night's Watch.
Benjen Stark: First Ranger of the Night's Watch, younger brother of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell.
Alliser Thorne: Bitter, hardened drill instructor at Castle Black, the Night's Watch's main fortress.
Yoren: Dirty, lice-ridden recruiter for the Night's Watch.
Bowen Marsh: First Steward for the Night's Watch.
Pypar: A brother of the Night's Watch. Informally called "Pyp," he is a jug-eared former mummer.
Grenn: A brave, but not very bright, brother of the Night's Watch who serves as a target for Pyp's insults.
Rast: A Night's Watch trainee with a particularly mean spirit.
Samwell Tarly: Fat, cowardly elder son and former heir of Lord Randyll Tarly, brother of the Night's Watch.
Dothraki / Free Cities
Illyrio Mopatis: Wealthy magister of the free city of Pentos, shelters Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen during their exile and trades the latter to the Dothraki khalasar leader Khal Drogos.
Khal Drogo: Warlord of one of the Dothraki people's largest khalasar, a nomadic collective of horse warriors. Betrothed to Daenerys Targaryen in exchange for their aid in retaking the Iron Throne of Westeros.
Doreah: Slave to Khal Drogo's khalasar, bought in order to school Daenerys in the art of love.
Irri: Dothraki slave, bought in order to school Daenerys in Dothraki horse riding.
Rakharo: Youngest Dothraki handmaiden of Daenerys, teaches Daenerys to speak the Dothraki language.
** I hope this helps at least some of you get a better handle on the series, since the books and show kind of drop you smack in the middle of things. If you end up liking the HBO translation you'll have to read the books, they're obviously bitchin'. Please feel free to comment on any inconsistencies, irregularities, or even to ask further questions. WINTER IS HERE!