Why the south of Westeros is the north of Ireland

As Game of Thrones ends, a revealing resolution to its perplexing geography.

  • The fantasy world of Game of Thrones was inspired by real places and events.
  • But the map of Westeros is a good example of the perplexing relation between fantasy and reality.
  • Like Britain, it has a Wall in the North, but the map only really clicks into place if you add Ireland.


A world of "goblin porn"

The Known World, with Westeros top left. Image source: A Wiki of Ice and Fire / public domain

Warning: if you haven't caught up, mild spoiler ahead.

"Hell is other people talking about Game of Thrones," writes Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian this week. A few days more, and the eighth and final season of the show she dubs "densely plotted goblin porn" — clearly, she's not a fan — will be over.

Meanwhile, hell is hard to avoid. When it comes to following GoT, I'm on Team Arwa (a.k.a. Team Stewart) but even we have heard rumors about a sudden bout of genocidal mania, and Daenerys perhaps no longer being such a good baby name.

Fortunately for map nerds, GoT's dense plotting also extends to its topography. Just like the series' peoples, protagonists and events — often borrowed from actual history, then slightly altered — its fictional map is more than loosely based on ours.

Maps to frame fantasy

The first part of Gulliver's Travels (1726) contained a Map of Lilliput and Blefuscu, showing the fictional islands positioned in the Indian Ocean, north-west of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). Image source: British Library / public domain

Fantasy locations have been a literary device at least since Plato spun his stories about Atlantis, back in the 4th century BC. From Plato only a description of the island survives, more recent tales of fictional geography came with a map: Thomas More's Utopia, Jonathan Swift's Lilliput (and other islands visited by Gulliver), and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

The watershed fantasy map, the one that spawned a thousand imitations, is the map of Middle-Earth, created by J.R.R. Tolkien himself (from the 1920s to the 1940s): as the endpapers to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they framed the wanderings of the Fellowship, the movements of armies and heroes, and the deep history underlying the narrative.

"I wisely started with a map and made the story fit," Tolkien once quipped. George R.R. Martin did it the other way around: he envisaged the opening scene of the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series adapted as GoT) and built the tale — and the world around it — from there.

Not just a badly drawn Britain

Mighty Westeros side by side with tiny Britain. Image source: Imgur

Only then did he take on the mantle of the First Cartographer, and it's his hand-drawn maps that appear in the books. Another similarity with Tolkien, whose fantasy world was inspired by real geography was that Martin also drew his world with one eye on the map of Europe, and especially the British Isles.

Most of the action, in the books and the series, takes place on the continent of Westeros (there is a whole Known World out there as well). There's an obvious parallel with Great Britain in the Wall in the North: at 700 feet high and 300 miles long, it is a clear extrapolation of Hadrian's Wall (a mere 73 miles long, and never higher than 20 feet).

Westeros is much bigger than Britain, though: about 3,000 miles from the Wall to the south coast, about six times the distance from Aberdeen to London. But Westeros is not just a badly drawn Britain, nor a mirrored version of its land mass (two popular theories). Things click into place — literally — if you do the following:

Take Ireland, turn it on its head, inflate it by about a third, and stick it to Britain's bottom (via a new land bridge called The Neck). And hey presto, there's Westeros.

Britain and Ireland, joined at the - ahem - south coast

In fact, Martin admitted as much at the 2014 Comic–Con: "If you want to know where a lot of fantasy maps come from, take a look at any map in the front of your favorite fantasy book and turn it upside down. Westeros began as upside-down Ireland. You can see the Fingers at the Dingle Peninsula."

This has some implications for the (presumed) parallels between locations in Westeros on one side, and Britain/Ireland on the other. For instance, King's Landing, the capital of Westeros, corresponds to Galway rather than London.

But such correspondences are futile. Each borrowing from actual history and geography is given a little twist, so people can argue until they're blue in the face whether the Red Wedding was inspired by the St. Bartholomew Day's Massacre or by the Black Dinner, whether the Dothraki are the Huns or the Mongols, and if Winterfell is Manchester or Leeds.

For some, King's Landing is reminiscent of old Constantinople. In the TV series, the old walled cities of Mdina (Malta) and Dubrovnik (Croatia) stand in for the capital. And Martin himself dreamt up the teeming city remembering the view of Staten Island from his childhood home in Bayonne, New Jersey.

For some, that tension with "real" history and geography adds a layer of enjoyment to GoT. Team Arwa can feign interest in a cartographic discovery that hardcore fans have made years ago, and will be happy only when the last dragon has finally landed.

Strange Maps #974

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

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  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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