Being both a fascinated medieval scholar and a long time fantasy reader, I proved an easy victim for your captivating talents. Here at last is what I've been waiting for so long - the fantasy novels that are in fact a history of an alive and true, though imaginary, world. Actually, the first real example of this sort since the great Tolkien. That's how the fantasy must be written nowadays! That's, in fact, what it was always really meant to be.
Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I set out to give A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE as much of the flavor of a good historical novel as of traditional fantasy. I am glad you feel I've succeeded.
Well, I have some questions for you, Mr. Martin, concerning the details of your world. Please forgive me if I put down too lengthy an account for them, taking too much of your precious time to read it, but I thought it would be better to present them in a single list.
So many questions, and so detailed, is a little daunting... which is part of the reason that it took me close to a year to get around to this reply. In future, fewer questions might get you a quicker answer.
Question 1: Philological. The names of the Targaryen dynasty have a rather peculiar sounding to them comparing to the other Westeros names. Are these names of Valyrian origin? If so, do they have some specific meaning? Do the "ae" sounds simply occur frequently in Valyrian language, or do these syllables mean something? Also, does the "rys" syllable mean something (as in Viserys, Daenerys)? It reminds me somewhat of the Celtic "rig" (Latinized "rix"), meaning "king".
Tolkien was a philologist, and an Oxford don, and could spend decades laboriously inventing Elvish in all its detail. I, alas, am only a hardworking SF and fantasy novel, and I don't have his gift for languages. That is to say, I have not actually created a Valyrian language. The best I could do was try to sketch in each of the chief tongues of my imaginary world in broad strokes, and give them each their characteristic sounds and spellings.
Question 2: Military. What is a typical Westeros knightly armour like? Is it actually a true full plate, resembling European suits of second half 15th - 16th centuries, or a composite suit of plate and mail, like European suits of the previous period (at the time of Agincourt, for example)?
Westerosi armor does not correspond one to one with any single period in European history, but I suppose it is closest to the armor of the Hundred Years War. Not only Agincourt, but also Crecy and Poitiers before that. Of course, there were important changes in armor between each of those battles, but there were also holdovers, individuals who had used or older armor, styled from the earlier period. I took that trend considerably further in Westeros, and felt free to mix armor styles from several different periods. You will also note that Westerosi armor tends to "later" styles as you go south. Plate is more common in the Reach say, while mail is more the rule in the North, and beyond the Wall the wildlings have very crude primitive stuff.
It seems that in Westeros knights still use their shields actively, but in Europe the true full plate was rarely combined with a classical hand-held shield.
That's true. Again, I was looking for to Crecy and Poitiers... and to the Crusades, even earlier. I wanted shields for aesthetic reasons. Shields are cool, as are heraldic surcoats. Alwhite plate, the traditional "knight in shining armor" look so beloved of film directors, strikes me as visually boring, except in the highly elaborate Milanese style, which is gorgeous to look at in a picture but pure hell to try and describe in words.
Also, is the helmet more like an armet of the 16th century (that is, a true close-helm with a closely fitting round visor and close protection of the chin), or like an end-of-the-14th- -century pointed-visored basinet?
I have mixed and matched helms from different periods, though I don't believe I have mentioned any armets. The "halfhelms" I mention are classic Norman helms from the Hastings era, conical helmets with open faces and a nasal bar. I also have knights in greathelms, both visored and closed, and a few that could be described as basinets, though I don't believe I use that term. To the mix I have also added a few pure fantasy constructs -- the elaborately shaped "beast" helms worn by Jaime Lannister, Sandor Clegane, and a few other champions of note, wrought in the shape of maned lions, snarling dogs, or what have you.
Question 3: Cultural. Are the Westeros the only place with the developed knightly culture? Is it their own invention, or was it imported from somewhere else (from Valyria, perhaps)? Are their any countries that share a common (or at least relative or similar) culture with Westeros?
There's some overlap with the Free Cities across the narrow sea, but no, it is not a common culture. The knightly tradition probably derives from the Andals, but while there is still a place called Andalland on the maps, repeated waves of invasion and conquest has left little of the original culture.
What about the Braavosi? They leave the impression of being culturally related to Westeros (like medieval Italy to France, for example), or is it just my illusion?
Braavos is the odd duck among the Nine Free Cities, but still more Valyrian than Andal in its origins. You'll learn more of its history next book.
Question 4 and last: Administrative. Just how strict and direct was actually the power of the Targaryen kings of old?
Strict? Varied with the king. Direct? The king always had the power to intervene, but after Jaehaerys the Targaryens tended to rule through their lords.
The territory of Westeros is huge, and the fact of survival of the local royal houses (like the Starks) suggests a relatively loose connection (more loose than that of a 14th century France, for example, where the Dukes - as independent and selfish as they were - were all in fact blood relatives of the Crown). The position of a Targaryen king reminds me somewhat of that of a Holy Roman Emperor - a monarch of course, but ruling over the more or less cohesive federation of territories with their own local ruling dynasties. It doesn't mean that such a monarch has no power - it means that his power is much more dependent on the strength of his personality than that, say, of a king of France.
There's a certain amount of truth to this, yes. Although the early Targayens also had the advantage of dragons, which the Holy Roman Emperor lacked.
Thank you very much for your time spent reading this, and excuse me again if I took too much of it. I would of course be greatly honoured if you would choose to answer some or all of my questions, but as I understand the probable scarcity of your time, I wouldn't strongly mind the contrary. Thank you also for your great books, and good luck to you and all your characters!
You're most welcome. Thanks for all the time and thought you have obviously lavished on the books. Do keep reading.
I picked up Mr. Martin from his hotel at 9:45 p.m. (shame on me as I was supposed to pick him up at 9 o'clock, but I couldn't ran away from work until a bit later). SO I met him at his hotel, and apologised at least 40 times for the delay (which is typical spanish of course!). we took a taxi, and headed towards Plaza del Sol. In the taxi we talked about our lives, as I showed him all of Madrid's buildings that were on the way. A note for spanish people, Mr Martin met his agent in Spain and I understood that he was going to get published in spanish soon enough, but don't believe me over this wholeheartedly... well, we arrived to the Plaza Mayor, we're we had some beers.
We talked a lot about spanish history (The Cidian legend, the Moors and the Reconquest, spanish military orders, spanish titles... etc) and he told me that he did not borrow much (if anything at all!) from spanish history, since his only language, is, of course, english. We talked about trivial things and joked (I tell you, such a contagious laughter!)- Then, we proceeded to talk about Literature, when he asked me if I read fantasy. I confessed that I read a lot of history and historic novels, and that I read fewer and fewer fantasy. We talked about authors like Jordan, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind ( I have 3 books from his series, which I bought a couple of years ago, and still haven't touched them yet), Ursula Leguin, Robin Hobb and Guy Gavriel Kay (which we both admire). We spent a lot of time talking about the Wars of the Roses and we talked about the Yorkist, Lancastrian and Tudor ancestry and claims, and we compared our sources. We also touched a lot the Cathar heresy and the Templar implication on it.
We talked about the Spanish empire, Charles V and Phillip II and their reigns, the disaster of the Armada. We also talked about the classics: Shakespeare and Cervantes essentially. We also spent a lot of time talking on Colleen McCullough, and it turns out, that Martin is eagerly awaiting for her next book to come out ( so am I... the October Horse for those interested). We also talked about Patrick O'Brien and naval novels. And he admitted to be a fan of alternate history novels.
Of course, we had to speak about the father of fantasy: JRR Tolkien... and his disciples (mainly Guy Gavriel Kay). Mr Martin confessed that he was eagerly awaiting for the Lord of the Rings film, since as he told me, after the disappointment of Willow, it is a major chance for fantasy to conquer Hollywood... he also confessed that the success of the film could open the gates of Hollywood to many modern fantasists, including himself... oh, wouldn't a SOIAF film be wonderful!!!
After that we went to some "mesones" (typical castilian inns) to have dinner.... and we talked about ASOIAF over some delicious hams, cheeses, sausages, olives, omelettes, and wine. There are some subjects that I will just point out (and I will keep the information to myself. Please understand that I believe that Mr Martin said certain things in confidence; a confidence I will not break, of course), others, I'll make an effort to recall what was said:
* Ser Loras ( and I will keep this to myself as he was explicit) (sic!) LOL
* Warriors and Knights: he told me that he was sort of fed up when people wrote to him asking "who's the strongest fighter? Who's the best? Etc." He explained to me that there are some very strong fighters, he only mentioned 3: the 2 Cleganes and Loras.... ;) however, he could not conceive how people could wonder who was the best in a fight, battle or duel.... it just depends in the day, and everything... a fight is part strength and skill, but outside factors weigh much more that those 2.
* The Lannister succession
* Valyria... oh, and we will get to know much more on the Free Cities during the next books
* Brienne... we joked a lot about this. He told me that it was insane and foolish to believe that as in all fantasy, women warriors were fair and beautiful... For mercy's sake! Female warriors are ugly, manly and brutish... if not how could you expect them to fight against the likes of Clegane!
* I asked him if the Baratheon fight for the throne was after the Trastamara struggle in Castile, (as I asked him in an email) and he replied that well... who knows!! All over the world there have been struggles for thrones! What applies to one is the same in the rest.
* If Robert Baratheon takes after any King in history, that's Edward IV...
* The Wildlings and Tormund... (literally "Oh yes... he is a nice fellow")
* Dorne... and the border struggles in the Marches.... well I cant remember a lot about this precise matter. But he told me that well yes, there have always been skirmishes in the Marches, and new fuel to the Dornish hate towards Highgarden was added when the Young Dragon appointed the Lord of Highgarden as regent...
* Martin does not read the board at all!... sometimes his girlfriend visits us, and comments him about certain matters
* In his books, he takes ideas from everywhere (for example, the Rock is taken from the rock of Gibraltar - for which I glared at him... after all I am a Spaniard!), but he makes these bigger and wider... (Casterly Rock is way way way way bigger than Gibraltar)
* Ways in which you could storm and take the Eyrie with an army... :) basically just besiege it completely, and they will give up!