Introduction to Westeros

Westeros is the setting for George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy saga. Westeros refers to the continent as a whole, and its residents are often called Westerosi by foreigners. It is a fantasy world where magic and great heroes were once common, but now it resembles 15th century Europe more than Middle-Earth.

1. Geography and Climate

Westeros is a continent usually represented on the western half of maps of the known world. Across the Narrow Sea to its east is Essos, an even larger continent, and to its southeast is Sothos across the Great Summer Sea, which is largely unknown. To Westeros’s direct south lies the Summer Isles, a chain of warm islands which are generally seen as exotic and foreign. Westeros is long and relatively narrow, and the potentially vast areas of unexplored lands in the far north could make it even larger. It is approximately 3,000 miles from the explored north to the south and 900 miles at its widest point. It is approximately the size of South America.

Westeros’s most unusual climate feature is its long seasons. Summers and winters can last for years, sometimes decades, with fall and spring being largely defined as times in between summer and winter. Summers are often agriculturally productive and generally seen as more peaceful and prosperous. Winters can be survivable enough if they stay short, but when winters are long famine is common, many starve or freeze and traditional superstitions come to the fore. Historically major supernatural threats came during winter, and many, especially northerners, are fatalistic and grim about winters. A common superstition is that long summers mean long winters, though many learned men doubt this.

Historically and geographically Westeros can be divided into seven principal regions, as well as one more for the lands north of the Wall. The Wall is a vast, three hundred mile-long construction of ice which blocks of the Kingdom of the North from the Lands of Always Winter above it. The Lands of Always Winter are inhabited by wildlings who live without laws as well as potent supernatural entities (or so they say). The lands north of the wall are unknown and could potentially be vast.

The North is the largest region, nearly as large as all other regions of Westeros combined. It is freezing cold and snows even in the summer. The area is dominated by pine wildernesses, hilly scrublands and rocky terrain, and it is scarcely populated. The North’s natural southern border is the Neck, a narrow isthmus known for boggy, swampy terrain. Bastards of the North are called Snow, and the current Great House are the Starks.

The Riverlands lie south of the North. They are bordered by the North, the Vale to the east, the Westerlands to the west and the Crownlands to the southeast. Off the Riverland’s short western coast are the Iron Islands. The region is fertile and run through with tivers, including one of the largest in Westeros, the Trident. Bastards of the Riverlands are given the surname Rivers, and the current Great House is House Tully.

The Vale is a mountainous kingdom surrounded by the vast Mountains of the Moon. Major settlements are nestled in valleys or built high on the mountains for defense. The region is cold, though not so cold as the North, and travel in the winters is often impossible. Fierce mountain clans dwell outside of settlements, making travel even more difficult. The current Great House is House Arryn, and bastards are called Stone.

The Westerlands are a small region, hilly and generally fertile, but with great wealth in gold and silver under its surface. The Westerlands are home to the third-largest city in Westeros, Lannisport. To its south is the Reach and off its western coast are the Iron Islands. Westerlands bastards are called Hill and the Lannisters currently rule the region.

The Iron Islands are craggy, harsh islands off the continent’s west coast. There are seven main islands, the largest of which is Pyke. They are almost totally infertile, though a few small and prosperous mines exist. Inhabitants are called Ironmen or Ironborn and are known to raid coastal regions. The current rulers are House Greyjoy, and bastards receive the name Pyke.

The Crownlands are centred on the capital of Westeros and its largest city, King’s Landing. The region also includes a few small islands off the eastern coast, the most prominent being Dragonstone. To its south are the Stormlands, and to the southeast is the Reach. Bastards are given the surname Waters, and the Crownlands are ruled directly by the reigning kings, currently King Robert Baratheon.

The Reach is the most fertile land in all of Westeros and is the most densely populated. It is the largest region but the North, and includes the second-largest city, Oldtown. Residents of the Reach often clash with Dornishmen at the southern end of Westeros. The current lords are House Tyrell, and bastards are called Flowers.

The Stormlands lie on Westeros’s lower eastern coast. They are notorious for savage, lashing storms, great forests and high mountains. The Baratheons rule the region and bastards are given the surname Storm.

The southernmost region of Westeros is Dorne. Ethnically and historically different from the rest of Westeros, the Dornish dwell in hot, sandy deserts unlike the forests, plains and mountains of other regions. The region’s unique history means the heads of House Martell refer to themselves as Princes and Princesses. Bastards are given the name Sand.

2. Peoples and History

It is generally accepted that the Children of the Forest were the first inhabitants of Westeros, though some now doubt they ever existed. The Children were small, almost childlike in stature, magically-gifted beings who worshiped the Old Gods of the Forest. It is unknown how long they lived in Westeros with other magical beings, but eventually an invasion of a human race called the First Men came. The First Men came across a land bridge called the Arm of Dorne extending from Westeros to Essos armed with bronze weapons and great numbers. Though the Children shattered the Arm of Dorne, creating the region now known as the Stepstones, the First Men continued to invade from across the Narrow Sea. After roughly 2,000 years of warfare the Pact was signed between the First Men and the Children, ending the warfare and giving the First Men dominion over all open lands and the Children control of the forests. Thus began the Age of Heroes, where many forebearers of the current Great Houses were born and the Children and First Men became closer, with the First Men eventually taking the Old Gods of the Forest as their own gods (excepting those few who lived upon the Iron Islands, who worship the mysterious Drowned God to this day).

Perhaps 8,000 years ago came the Long Night. Darkness seemed to last for a generation and the harshest winter ever known ruled the land. But the greatest threats came from the Others, or White Walkers, strange, icy beings from the farthest north who were unharmed by most weapons and could raise the dead to serve them in battle. The Children, by now dwindling in number, and First Men eventually united, driving the Others and their wight servants back. The great Bran the Builder, founder of Hosue Stark, built the Wall, separating the North from the untamed Lands of Always Winter, and established the Night’s Watch, a militant order that manned the Wall and defended against wild men beyone civilization and the Others. The Night’s Watch would become a grand, respected institution, but tragedy struck early. The Night’s King, the thirteenth Lord Commander, was seduced by a wight or Other and visited great atrocities upon the North and the Night’s Watch. he was put down by the King-Beyond-The-Wall Joramun and the head of House Stark.

About six thousand years ago the Faith of the Seven was founded in distant Essos. Legends say the Andals were commanded by their gods to invade Westeros, and they did, coming across the sea with steel weapons and a new faith. As the First Men had before the Andals spread across the continent, warring with the Children and the settled First Men. Eventually the Andals were victorious, conquering all kingdoms save the North, which, along with the Iron Islands, were the only regions not to convert en masse to the Faith of the Seven. The Children more or less dissapear into the far North and secret places.

About five thousand and three hundred years ago in Essos’s southern Valyrian Peninsula the herding Valyrians find dragons in the volcanic mountains of their homeland. After magically taming them they conquer several powerful neighbors and establish the Valyrian Freehold, a legendary empire ruled by silver-haired Valyrian dragonlords. The Rhoynish eventually came into conflict with the Valyrians and after a stunning defeat the Rhoynish queen Nymeria evacuated her people on ten thousand ships, landing in Dorne. She married Lord Mors Martell and they unified the feuding Dornish subcontinent. Rhoynish culture became more dominant in Dorne than that of the Andals, though it never spread beyond that region. Approximately 500 years ago the noble Valyrian Targaryen family sailed to Dragonstone on Westeros’s eastern coast and established themselves there, interacting little with the mainland. One hundred years after that the cataclysmic Doom struck Valyria, shattering the empire and leaving most of the Valyrians dead – except the Dragonstone-bound Targareyans. Conquered states declared independence as the Free Cities and cities of Slaver’s Bay.

Nearly three hunded years ago in what would become 1 AL (After Landing), Aegon the Conquerer and his two sister-wives and their dragons landed on Westeros, beginning the Targaryen invasion. Supported by the dragons the Targaryens subjugated the kings of all regions but Dorne, establishing themselves as the kings and queens of Westeros for almost three hundread years. In 129 AL the Dance of the Dragons breaks out between rival Targaryen claimants, the first major civil war of the Targaryen era. Shortly after the last dragon dies. The next civil war began in 195 AL when Daemon Blackfyre, a bastard of the last king, declares the new king illegitimate. Many lords declare for Daemon and a great war erupts, ending when Daemon’s bastard brother Bloodraven kills him and drives his sons across the sea with many allies. The Blackfyres would reemerge in 212 AL, but Bloodraven captured Daemon’s sons before they launch their campaign and the Second Blackfyre Rebellion is ended swiftly. In 255 the Band of Nine, including Maelys Blackfyre, attacks the Stepstones, beginning the War of the Ninepenny Kings, concluding in 260 AL.

270 AL was the beginning of the end for the Targaryen dynasty. The Lord of Darklyn kidnaps the Mad King Aerys before he is killed by Ser Barristan Selmy and the king is freed. The King, already paranoid and unpredictable, was driven even more mad by the incident. Robert’s Rebellion began in 282 AL as Aerys’s son Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna Stark, betrothed to Robert Baratheon. Robert, Ned Stark and Jon Arryn rose in rebellion, eventually attracting the Riverlords and the Lannisters to their cause. A brutal war followed, with Rhaegar and a Dornish host defeated at the Trident as Tywin Lannister marched on King’s Landing and sacked it. Tywin’s attack dogs Ser Gregor Clegane and Ser Amory Lorch killed Rhaegars children and wife. Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard killed King Aerys. Robert Baratheon married Cersei Lannister and became King in 283 AL. Though the Greyjoys rose in rebellion in 289 AL, the reign of King Robert has been generally peaceful.

3. Westerosi Culture

Westeros’s culture can be divided by ethnic group, Kingdom and class, but certain commonalities do exist. Obedience to one’s betters is very important across the continent, and a peasant who fails to address his or her betters as ‘my lord’ (or m’lord) is vulnerable to disciplinary beatings or fines. Speaking ill of one’s liege lord and king is a serious crime indeed, and being found guilty of treason almost always equals death. Honour is similarly universal, and preserving one’s word and reputation is seen as important indeed. Even amongst peasants family and descent are very important. Most Westerosi are religious, though there are no regular congregational meetings, and pray to the Seven (in a sept), the Old Gods (in a godswood or privately) or the Drowned God (through action), and some worship R’hllor.

Traditional forms of recreation include social drinking, mummers shows (fools), singing and dancing (often performed by travelling minstrels), festivals, religious celebrations and contests of skill. Noble houses or the Crown often host tourneys where men, from knights to simple sellswords and smallfolk, can participate in jousts, melees and wrestling, throwing and archery contests. Often these tourneys are several days long and offer serious prizes, and many play host to personal and political intrigues.

All regions and people have certain stereotypes associated with them, though how seriously these are taken depends upon the individuals. Northerners are seen as grim, dour and fatalistic and are known for an independent spirit. The Riverlands and Crownlands are somewhat neutral regions, though the smallfolk of both regions are seen as somewhat simple. The Westerlands are associated with materialism, greed canny merchants. The Reach is seen as the heart of chivalry and knights of the Reach are seen the epitome of gallantry and skill. Stormlands folk are seen as tough and boisterous, following the example of Robert Baratheon. The Dornish are perhaps the most stigmatized: as they are more Rhoynish than Andal or First Men and were not originally conquered by Aegon, they remain somewhat separated from much of Westeros. Dornishmen are seen as untrustworthy liars witth a penchant for poisons and unbearably spicy foods.

4. Law, Economy and Religion

Westeros is ruled by a hereditary feudal monarchy. The King has dominion over all lands, though he rules directly over only the Crownlands and appoints lords to rule all other regions. The Seven Kingdoms (though now one Kingdom) are each ruled by a Great House (Stark, Tully, Arryn, Greyjoy, Baratheon, Tyrell, Martell). These houses are given dominion over their regions and appoint major houses to rule over sections of their land (for example, House Bolton of the North). These major houses rule over minor houses (for example, House Cassell of the North) which further subdivide their lands. Noble houses are expected to keep the King’s peace, collect tithes and taxes and contribue forces to their liege lords in times of need. Heads of noble houses are called Lords (except for landed knights, whom are referred to as Master and cannot enforce the King’s justice) and their lands and holdings are transferred patrilineally (except in Dorne, where age alone determines descent). Knights are anointed in the sacred light of the Seven and are popularly revered by smallfolk and minstrels. As knighthood is assosciated with worship of the New Gods, few Northerners are knights and even fewer Iron Islanders.

Westerosi law is harsh and usually includes physical punishment. Imprisonment is rare and most often permanent for very serious crimes. Violent and particularly detestable crimes like rape, murder and slaving often carry the death penalty, though convicted criminals can choose to join the Night’s Watch for life instead of facing punishment. Desertion from the Night’s Watch itself guarantees death. Kinslaying and killing one’s betters are seen as particularly heinous crimes. Banditry is rampant in certain regions and occasionally supported by the smallfolk, and many famous folk heroes are bandits or thieves.

Westeros is a pre-industrial agrarian society. The majority of the population is made up of farmers and other workers of the land, with some people involved in village occupations like carpentry, blacksmithing, etc. Land ownership outside of the noble class is not common but some peasants do own taverns or other such buildings. Merchants do much of their trade by caravan or over the sea, from region to region (Dornigh spices for grain from the Reach, for example) or between villages. There are several types of coins, but the most common are copper pennies, silver stags (56 pennies to a stag) and gold dragons (56 stags to a dragon).

The Faith of the Seven is the official faith of Westeros. The Faith contains seven gods: the Warrior, the Father, the Smith, the Maiden, the Mother, the Crone and the Stranger (who is not popularly worshipped). Worshipping other gods is allowed, but the Faith holds considerable spiritual and material power. The Faith also historically had a military presence, the Faith Militant, but they were abolished during the reign of the Targaryens for fomenting rebellion. Priests are called Spetons and priestesses Septas. The Iron Islanders worship the Drowned God, whom resides under the sea and supports the Old Way of raiding and pillaging. The North generally holds to the Old Gods worshipped by the Children of the Forest. The Old Gods are said to live in the godswoods and weirwood trees of the North. Across the sea the fiery Red God, R’hlorr, is worshipped in his eternal struggle against the cold, dark Great Other, though some converts exist in Westeros.

5. Education and Learning

In terms of technology and level of general advancement Westeros generally resembles the mid to late 15th century. Steel and iron have been generally mastered, though some primitive peoples, such as those beyond the Wall and the tribes of the Mountains of the Moon, continue to use tools and weapons of bone, wood and bronze. Siege weapons are common. Castles are constructed of stone, but their age and location can vary the construction greatly. Ships capable of traversing the Narrow Sea are not uncommon sights, and seaborne travel is generally safe and predictable. Roads are generally not paved or standardized but they are not uncommon and main roads like the Kingsroad and well-kept. Sanitation technology is rare and water is often unclean. Literacy is almost unknown amongst the peasantry, but many nobles and all trained maesters can read and write.

There are a few uniquely Westerosi items, however. Valyrian steel weapons are rare and precious, for they are deadly sharp, light and nearly immune to dulling. The legends say they were crafted by mixing magic into the crafting of a normal weapon. All are artefacts from Old Valyria and are incalculably valuable: though a few master smiths can reforge Valyrian steel there are no living men capable of creating it. Wildfire is a strange chemical which creates an incredibly hot green flame which can burn for days if left alone. It is very difficult to craft and none has been made since the days of the dragons.

Medical knowledge is limited and depends largely on region and the presence of maesters. In the North the folk cures and simples of the Old Gods are far more common than complex medical procedures, whereas the southron lands tend to place more trust in learned men and scientific methods than mysticism. Milk of the poppy, derived from a plant and prepared by maesters, is a powerful and commonly used painkiller/anaesthetic used in the treatment of serious wounds and those in great pain. Sweetsleep is a common relaxant that is used to produce restful, dreamless sleep, though taking too much can be fatal. Poisons exist and are believed to be in common usage by Dornishmen and people from Essos.

The Citadel in Oldtown is the largest centre of learning of Westeros. It houses and trains the Maesters, an ancient order of men (and occasionally women) dedicated to science, medicine and greater learning. Maesters are sent to Houses to serve as wise council, masters of ravens (a typical method of long-distance communication) and to manage certain house affairs such as the education of a House’s children (though girls are often educated by Septas). Maesters are sworn to a particular castle and must serve any who reside in it, including conquerors and usurpers.

6. Map

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Introduction to Westeros

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