Storytelling and Worldbuilding in Westeros

The following essay was presented as a panel at Ice and Fire Con in April 2019

Worldbuilding is a concept familiar to many of us as the process of fleshing out an imaginary world for fictional characters to live in. It’s a term that’s actually been around for two hundred years and has been widely applied to criticism of sci-fi and fantasy for about the past fifty. The constructed world has geography (in the form of maps), ecology (the environment) and physics (how objects in the world behave alone and in relationship to each other), and often history, and character backstory. As far as process goes, building a world can happen either in a “top down” or “bottom up” fashion, or some combination of the two. Those are systems terms that are applied to the writing process to help untangle the complexities authors face when constructing a functional world.

GRRM uses the terms “architect” and “gardener” to describe the same processes, noting that he himself identifies *primarily* as a gardener. So, in his words “gardeners […] dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.” But at the same time he’s very careful to note that he does have broad outlines worked out, which makes perfect sense to everyone who’s ever planted a garden. You start with a plan, the architecture of your landscape and a blueprint for your plants, but perhaps the things you plant don’t behave as you thought they would. Maybe one variety gets outrageously large, while another fails to thrive. Some gardeners adjust, transplant, divide, try new varieties and generally nurture until getting an outcome they’re satisfied with. Others might feel the need to start over until they can wrangle their garden into its predestined shape. GRRM, in his own words, is the former type, to whom the growth of the characters (representing the plants in his garden) is of primary importance. As he’s said “my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.” But this inclination isn’t without its problems, since sometimes his characters can lead him into blind alleys (like Tyrion at the Bridge of Dream in Chroyane) or get him tangled up in knots (Oh, Daenerys…)

At the same time, the foundation of the garden remains extremely important. The underlying structure can provide everything from nourishment to support to visual enhancements. In the same way, worldbuilding supports the narrative. Whether it happens from the top down, following a careful blueprint, or takes a more organic, bottom up approach, the work put into building the world pays dividends in texture and realism. And as GRRM has said about his penchant for turning to real world history for inspiration “I [want] to get the feel right, the details right, and give it as much verisimilitude as possible.”

In 2018 when announcing his endowment of a Worldbuilders Scholarship at Clarion West Writers Workshop, GRRM noted that:

Every great story requires interesting characters, an engrossing plot, evocative prose, an important theme… but epic fantasy also requires a memorable setting […] a world both like and unlike our own, with its own rich history and geography and customs, its own beauties and terrors […] The best fantasy carries us far from the fields we know, to worlds beyond the hill, worlds that, once visited, live on in our imaginations for the rest of our lives. They assume their own reality, these imaginary worlds. Millions of people have never visited Rome or Paris, yet they know the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower by sight. Rivendell, the Shire, and the Mines of Moria are instantly recognizable in much the same way to countless readers around the world. The history of fantasy is rich with such imagined landscapes.

And A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a particularly rich and well imagined world. Even before the release of The Lands of Ice and Fire map book, the historical novellas, The World of Ice and Fire, and Fire & Blood, the world of Westeros had achieved a level of realism few series rise to. While the organic style of the author can lead to issues with things like timeline and tying together the far flung Seven Kingdoms and even farther flung communities of Essos, the very existence of a detailed history and backstory in Westeros makes the world feel more real, lived in. This sort of thing works even when it’s only hinted at, or referred to in an offhand way, perhaps especially well in those cases. Consider that when I refer to George Washington, I don’t need to explain who he is, because his existence is common knowledge in our culture. In the same way, a similar reference to common knowledge shared by characters in the story gives us a sense that they’re real people, living a reality that makes sense to them. And one of the most effective tools in the author’s toolbox in creating that feeling is the story within a story technique that Martin deploys to great effect when relating the historical legends of Westeros.

So, now I’m going to take a look at a few of those stories to get a sense of how storytelling by secondary characters adds to the tapestry of detail the author uses to construct a fully realized world for his story to unfold in, at the same time as providing a valuable vehicle for advancing the narrative. The first of these secondary characters is Old Nan, who as a caregiver for generations of Starks, spent many hours off page schooling them in the legendary history of their lands and family so as to give several of the primary characters knowledge of significant stories. The fact that this knowledge is shown in many cases to be shared amongst the Stark siblings multiplies the sense of realism these legends add to the story. As a first example of storytelling as worldbuilding, here’s Old Nan’s story of the Last Hero.

Old Nan’s Tale

“Oh, my sweet summer child, what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little lord, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods.”

“Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.”

“In that darkness, the Others came for the first time. They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.”

“Now these were the days before the Andals came, and long before the women fled across the narrow sea from the cities of the Rhoyne, and the hundred kingdoms of those times were the kingdoms of the First Men, who had taken these lands from the children of the forest. Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds-”

So this story forms part of the background knowledge of the Stark siblings, thanks to Old Nan they seem to know as much about the Last Hero and other legends of the north as they do about the written history of Westeros. GRRM does a marvelous job in achieving verisimilitude by creating tension between written history, left in the hands of the maesters, and oral history or legend, relayed by a class of characters that we might call the storytellers. Anyone familiar with the story of A Song of Ice and Fire knows that the Others are growing in significance to the narrative, and in the main narrative MOST characters, those who rely on the “official” histories of the maesters, simply don’t believe in them.But the facts of their existence and their renascence is becoming painfully obvious. This story is absolutely packed with details, about the last hero, the Others, the long night, the timeline of settlement and more, and we expect that crucial bits of information from Old Nan’s tale will turn out to be very useful in the pages and scenes to come—such as the fact that the Others hate “iron and fire and the touch of the sun” and most critically, the fact that Bran Stark knows the ending, as we learn later in same chapter:

All Bran could think of was Old Nan’s story of the Others and the last hero, hounded through the white woods by dead men and spiders big as hounds. He was afraid for a moment, until he remembered how that story ended. “The children will help him,” he blurted, “the children of the forest!”

This story within a story technique (aka hypodiegesis) can hint at the future, disclose background of characters or reveal backstory that influences main plot. So while GRRM has said these events are as remote from characters in the story as we are from Gilgamesh/Noah, this tale turns out to be not only an entertaining way to bring us into a richly imagined past, but is also highly significant to the narrative. And sure enough, three books and nearly ten years later, GRRM made another revelation about the Last Hero which can be paired with the information from AGoT. In AFfC, Samwell Tarly of the Night’s Watch tells Jon Snow, who shares in the same background knowledge Bran has:

“The armor of the Others is proof against most ordinary blades, if the tales can be believed, and their own swords are so cold they shatter steel. Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian. I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it.”

So GRRM is playing long game of a slow reveal using backstory that is found in books and legends by his characters in story to hint at the future of his narrative. From these far flung hints, we assemble the knowledge that the Children of the Forest helped the Last Hero to defeat the Others, which he did using a blade of dragonsteel. We learn elsewhere that the Children were the source of the knowledge that the Others are vulnerable to obsidian, we also hear that they did not forge blades of metal, but used obsidian in all their weapons. So while according to Old Nan the Children helped the Last Hero to defeat the Others in some significant way, we have to look elsewhere for the origin of the blade he used since we know from Nan’s tale that the sword he set out with had broken as he sought the Children. And sure enough in ACoK, many leagues to the south and in a character PoV that at the time had nothing to do with the North, the Wall or the Others, another secondary character related a story that seems unrelated on first listen. Here’s the Lysene pirate, Sallador Saan’s telling the Legend of Lightbringer to Ser Davos Seaworth.

The Legend of Lightbringer

“Do you know the tale of the forging of Lightbringer? I shall tell it to you. It was a time when darkness lay heavy on the world. To oppose it, the hero must have a hero’s blade, oh, like none that had ever been. And so for thirty days and thirty nights Azor Ahai labored sleepless in the temple, forging a blade in the sacred fires. Heat and hammer and fold, heat and hammer and fold, oh, yes, until the sword was done. Yet when he plunged it into water to temper the steel it burst asunder.

“Being a hero […] again he began. The second time it took him fifty days and fifty nights, and this sword seemed even finer than the first. Azor Ahai captured a lion, to temper the blade by plunging it through the beast’s red heart, but once more the steel shattered and split. Great was his woe and great was his sorrow then, for he knew what he must do.

“A hundred days and a hundred nights he labored on the third blade, and as it glowed white-hot in the sacred fires, he summoned his wife. ‘Nissa Nissa’ he said to her, for that was her name, ‘bare your breast, and know that I love you best of all that is in this world.’ She did this thing, why I cannot say, and Azor Ahai thrust the smoking sword through her living heart. It is said that her cry of anguish and ecstasy left a crack across the face of the moon, but her blood and her soul and her strength and her courage all went into the steel. Such is the tale of the forging of Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes.”

So, this story tells us of a magical blade, which we learn elsewhere was instrumental in defeating the “Great Other” and ending a period of catastrophic darkness. Within the narrative of ASoIaF, Saan is telling Davos Seaworth about the original Lightbringer, so that he can judge the authenticity of the one Stannis had pulled from the chest of the statue of the mother in the burning sept on Dragonstone. For the close reader though, there are connections to be made between this story and Old Nan’s tale of the last hero which serve another function to the narrative. GRRM is laying clues to his end game. He does this using thematic references in character arcs that refer back to these legends that exist in the background.

Now, the very existence of a diverse pantheon of legends that are related both orally and in texts within the narrative is a marvelous piece of worldbuilding. You could almost view this as an example of internal intertextuality, the process of a text shaping the meaning of another text, in this case tales of the Long Night are used as a device inside the narrative to weave a complex web of backstory that not only builds the world through a series of connections, but also holds great significance to the narrative arc.

And speaking of connections, the Legend of Lightbringer ends with a reference to the moon cracking. Well, back in a AGoT we hear a story in Daenerys Targaryen’s PoV about the moon that just might be connected to the Lightbringer mythos.

Doreah’s Story

“A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. […]

Silvery-wet hair tumbled across her eyes as Dany turned her head, curious. “The moon?”

“He told me the moon was an egg […] Once there were two moons in the sky, but one wandered too close to the sun and cracked from the heat. A thousand thousand dragons poured forth, and drank the fire of the sun. That is why dragons breathe flame. One day the other moon will kiss the sun too, and then it will crack and the dragons will return.”

So this brief tale from the Far East of the world, introduced a multi cultural element to the narrative and added texture to the story. Many years later, TWoIaF confirmed the Qartheen origin:

“in Qarth the tales state that there was once a second moon in the sky. One day this moon was scalded by the sun and cracked like an egg, and a million dragons poured forth.”

Doreah’s story suggests that fire might be involved in hatching dragon eggs, which becomes significant to the narrative very shortly after she relates it. But perhaps more significantly, with the publication of the next book we saw that it contains a point of intersection with the Lightbringer story that suggests that there might be a connection between the two. The cracked moon in the former story was a result of Azor Ahai’s wife Nissa Nissa’s cry of anguish as he sacrificed her in the forging of his magical blade. In the latter story the crack is explained by the moon wandering “too close to the sun”, and the result was the birth of dragons. Both stories contain elements of sacrifice, fire, and creation and the one may in fact simply be an alternate or symbolic rendering of the other, each informed by the culture they took root in. That all these elements might be part of a larger, cyclical tale is a rather compelling idea and a lot of fun for the engaged reader to consider.

The impact of using storytelling as a worldbuilding technique is reflected in the complexity of the narrative. At the same time a diversity of stories adds to the realism of the tale. Stories from the North like Brave Danny Flint, Mad Axe, 79 Sentinels, Arson Iceaxe, and the ‘Prentice boys are mentioned to add depth to the portrayal of a cultural history that directly impacts the main story. The story of the Rat Cook, which derives from the same pantheon, has a specific relevance as it’s used to elaborate on a precept that has huge significance to the narrative. The interesting thing about this story is that it’s only mentioned in passing, so we don’t have a left to right narrative as we do with the Last Hero and Lightbringer stories. But it’s possible to compile the references from several places to tell a coherent tale:

The Tale of the Rat Cook

In the North, they tell the tale of the Rat Cook, who served an Andal king —identified by some as King Tywell II of the Rock, and by others as King Oswell I of the Vale and Mountain— the flesh of the king’s own son, baked into a pie.

The Rat Cook “chopped the prince to pieces” and cooked the son of the Andal king in a big pie with onions, carrots, mushrooms, lots of pepper and salt, a rasher of bacon, and a dark red Dornish wine. Then he served him to his father, who praised the taste and had a second slice. Afterward the gods transformed the cook into a monstrous white rat who could only eat his own young. He had roamed the Nightfort ever since, devouring his children, but still his hunger was not sated. [But] “It was not for murder that the gods cursed him,” Old Nan said, “nor for serving the Andal king his son in a pie. A man has a right to vengeance. But he slew a guest beneath his roof, and that the gods cannot forgive.”

The concept of guest right is hugely significant to the narrative of ASoIaF and GoT, most notably in the Red Wedding and its aftermath. The story of The Rat King helps explain characters’ reactions to that and other events, and as a parallel to a specific event that occurs later in the story (*spoiler– Manderly’s pies) it helps the reader to apprehend what’s really going on in the main story, while allowing the author and his characters to continue obscuring the action. It’s really a masterful device, which again serves the dual purpose of advancing the narrative and providing a foundation for it.

And then there are the stories that appear at first glance seem to do little to advance the narrative. But setting mood is a valuable part of narrative and worldbuilding both, so the final story is Nimble Dick Crabb’s Squishers.


“Best we keep a watch tonight, m’lady,” Crabb told her, as she was struggling to get a driftwood fire lit. “A place like this, there might be squishers.”

“Squishers?” Brienne gave him a suspicious look.

“Monsters,” Nimble Dick said, with relish. “They look like men till you get close, but their heads is too big, and they got scales where a proper man’s got hair. Fish-belly white they are, with webs between their fingers. They’re always damp and fishy-smelling, but behind these blubbery lips they got rows of green teeth sharp as needles. Some say the first men killed them all, but don’t you believe it. They come by night and steal bad little children, padding along on them webbed feet with a little squish-squish sound. The girls they keep to breed with, but the boys they eat, tearing at them with those sharp green teeth.” He grinned at Podrick. “They’d eat you, boy. They’d eat you raw.”

“If they try, I’ll kill them.” Podrick touched his sword.

“You try that. You just try. Squishers don’t die easy.”

So comic relief for sure, and if you’ve listened to our Brienne episode you know just how amusing we find this passage. But this particular story does more than relieve the tension of a monotonous journey. It actually sets up a feeling of dread that will prevail when, having passed through the dreary pine woods and bogs of Crackclaw Point, the trio arrive at the Whispers, which incidentally is named for another story Dick Crabb told Brienne:

“Ser Clarence Crabb […] was eight foot tall, and so strong he could uproot pine trees with one hand and chuck them half a mile. No horse could bear his weight, so he rode an aurochs […] His wife was a woods witch. Whenever Ser Clarence killed a man, he’d fetch his head back home and his wife would kiss it on the lips and bring it back t’ life. Lords, they were, and wizards, and famous knights and pirates. One was king o’ Duskendale. They gave old Crabb good counsel. Being they was just heads, they couldn’t talk real loud, but they never shut up neither. When you’re a head, talking’s all you got to pass the day. So Crabb’s keep got named the Whispers. Still is, though it’s been a ruin for a thousand years. A lonely place, the Whispers.”

For what it’s worth, Clarence Crabb bears a distinct resemblance to the American folk hero Paul Bunyan, but with a macabre twist. And in case you missed it, the story of the Whispers also contains an offhand reference to a magical kiss that just might be a legendary antecedent of the kiss of life we see in the main story. So Nimble Dick spends the outward journey from Maidenpool telling an apparently never ending series of legends about Crackclaw Point, all of which serve to build up the horror vibe of the chapter. And that’s no accident because the Squishers are almost certainly an homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, described here:

I think their predominant color was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. I was somehow glad that they had no more than four limbs. Their croaking, baying voices, clearly used for articulate speech, held all the dark shades of expression which their staring faces lacked … They were the blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design – living and horrible.

It’s nothing new to talk about GRRM’s love of Lovecraft and its influence on the story. The ironborn Maester Theron is said to have written a treatise called Strange Stone all about the oily black stone that was mentioned repeatedly in TWoIaF claiming that objects made from the black stone quote “might be the work of a queer, misshapen race of half men sired by creatures of the salt seas upon human women” a race which Theron named The Deep Ones, the source of legends of merlings, while their fathers are quote “the truth behind the Drowned God of the ironborn.”

And while it’s not made clear whether Theron’s Deep Ones are related to Squishers, it doesn’t take a great expertise in the Lovecraftian mythos to see the similarities between the Squishers and Lovecraft’s description of his own Deep Ones. Using an homage to Lovecraft in a setting where he hopes to build horror, such as the Whispers, is a classic tactic of GRRM using what he hopes is the reader’s background knowledge to create expectations. Finally, with the character of Nimble Dick we’re offered a collection of related stories that create a convincing depth to that particular area of Westeros, while allowing the author to draw upon his references later to create a feeling of cohesion with his greater world.

By their nature history and legend provide texture to the world, and all of these stories in the background add tremendous depth, contributing to GRRM’s overall worldbuilding technique. By providing a literary and legendary past to Westeros, Martin imbues his world with realism akin to our own, giving it a relatable structure that enhances the reader’s understanding and enjoyment. In ADwD, Jojen Reed says to Bran Stark:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies […] The man who never reads lives only one.

Similarly, a world with stories is a world with thousands of lives, not just a single thread. The background stories and tales within the main narrative function to support the overall expansive feel GRRM’s multi stream narrative fosters. In other words, ASoIaF gets depth from its history and legendary past, and breadth from its multi PoV structure. That the background information comes to us through both oral and written traditions adds to the world’s verisimilitude, to use Martin’s term. But the Last Hero and Azor Ahai and Lightbringer and the Rat Cook aren’t only window dressing. In A Song of Ice and Fire the past informs the present and the future. GRRM uses worldbuilding in a unique way that presses all the elements into dual service. In so doing, he’s created a world that is both real and fantastical at the same time, which functions on multiple levels. It’s possible to read ASoIaF in an entirely casual way and still enjoy and appreciate the work the author has presented. But the constructed world has so many layers that for the close reader, or the super-fan or fan analyst it’s possible to dive deep and find those hints, allusions, foreshadowings and homages. That’s what draws many of us in and I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into some of the minutiae of ASoIaF.