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.