Thursday, December 11, 2014

Westeros & North American Geography

The American Tolkien?
George RR Martin is often referred to as "The American Tolkien", in that both he and J.R.R. have largely defined the high fantasy genre for their respective generations. Aside from that, and their abbreviated middle names, the two authors and their works are quite different. While Middle Earth is locked in a battle between good and evil with strong moral themes and (relatively) ethically consistent characters, Westeros is a land of moral ambiguity and ethically complex characters. The worlds that Tolkien and Martin have created, while both grand and beautiful and scope, have drastically different tones and themes. However, it is the contention of this post that there is another similarity between the worlds the two authors have created: they are both strongly influenced by the geographies from which they are from.

It is well documented that Tolkien built Middle Earth with Europe in mind. For example, The Shire is meant to be very similar to Tolkien's home in England, and Rivendell to Oxford. The East is an area where danger and war came from. To the south is a warm continent with dark skinned, weak-willed people1. Action was situated on the edge of a larger continent with an ocean to the west and mysterious lands beyond that.

Similarly, it seems that Westeros had a strong influence from North American geography. This was not explicitly intentional by GRRM, like it (somewhat) was for Tolkien. Any of the examples I will discuss below might likely be coincidences. However, taken together, it seems apparent that the geography of the world that the created of the A Song of Ice and Fire series lived in had a large influence on the world he created.

Lets try and document some of the ways that Westeros and North America are similar:

  1. Both situate themselves by having a large continent to the east reachable by boat, with a largely unexplored ocean to the west.
  2. Westeros and NA both have large majority, white populations that came from the east, defeating pre-iron age natives by either killing them or forcing them to the margins of habitable land.
  3. Both have natives with perceived ethic of environmental harmony.
  4. Both have a dominant, highly organized religion which supplanted native animist traditions.
  5. Lets assume that the permafrost region of North American can be analogous to the region north of the Wall2Lets compare how Westeros scales to NA if we assume the Wall is at roughly 60°N latitude, We know the wall is ~300 miles long, so we can scale the rest of the continent from there.3

First the cold, snowy  North region of Westeros has a border almost exactly at 49 degrees, right where the US Canada border is.

Second, the political capitol of the realm, filled with villainy and wretched people lies on the east coast on a large river at almost the exact latitude in North America as it does in Westeros.

The mountains on the mid-latitude west coast, a region of gold mining that has since dried up, exists on both continents.

The southern regions of both continents are culturally different, settled by a different group than the rest of the continent. This area includes darker skinned people living in a deserty, mountainous region mostly falling south of 30°N.

I would like to emphasis again that I do not think that GRRM planned any of this intentionally. Of course he didn't specifically intend for the border for the North to be at the same spot as the border of Canada. But I think this can be the beginning of a discussion on how geography, mental maps, and our relationship to the physical world influence literature and other creative works.

Both the author and reader have topological and ontological frameworks with which to build the world, and these get expressed by how we interpret and relate to the work. Trying to understand these relationships can help us untie the prejudice and assumptions that we bring to art and the world (see Tolkien example above). I am not a literary critic by training, but I think these are some important concepts to examine.

1. Speaking of racism in these series...I find it interesting that the ASOIAF books have strong depictions of misogyny, violence, and abuse because they represent accurate depictions of the depravity of both that world and our world, but racism is largely missing from the books despite having a racially diverse character base
2. No real reason to assume this, except to see how interestingly close these regions line up between NA and Westeros. Who knows what kind of patterns drive global ice cover on Planetos.
3. For the map nerds: I used a Mercator projection because I had to use some projection for illustrative purposes. It had to be a cylindrical projection because I wanted the wall stretch from more-or-less directly east to west, and I didn't want to have to find a conic projection with a tangent line at 60 degrees. I could have used a Gall-Peter's, I guess, but you don't want me to be that kind of asshole, do you?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The True Size of the North

Map by Tear ©
On the right is the map of Westeros that we are all familiar with. Each time we open a book from the A Song of Ice and Fire Series we are greeted with this immediately recognizable continent. Over this land, conveniently shaped to fit on two consecutive pages, I have enjoyed following the adventures of some of my favorite characters in literature.

With the publication of The Lands of Ice and Fire, us fans have been offered a greater view into the world. As a geographer by training, I quickly snatched it up. Maps are a way that I (and many other readers I know) are able to deeply immerse ourselves in the worlds of fiction, fantasy or otherwise.

As anyone who has taken a cartography class knows, however, maps are never a true representation of the world. Not only can we not include every detail of the world on map, but due to the curvature of the Earth and the flatness of paper/computer screens, no map can accurately display the location of all features. Every map will have either size, distance, direction, and/or shape distorted at least a little bit. (For more information on how this works, check out this ugly but informative page by UC-Boulder.)

This lead me to wonder how the "real" world of A Song of Ice and Fire might be different than they are displayed in the books. This webpage consists of my attempts to explore this question.


I have made the following assumptions regarding the world of ASOIAF in my analysis. I have tried to justify them the best I can, but they are still somewhat arbitrary, and deviation from these assumptions will produce different results.

  1. Westeros is a continent on a spherical globe. I'm not sure how much evidence there is in the book for different shapes of the world (flat vs. round). For all I know, the world in this series might be flat. However, this would make my analysis pointless so I willfully ignore the possibility.
  2. The size of the planet on which the series takes place is roughly the same size as Earth. If we are to take the TV show as canon, then we know the planet has at least the same gravity (and therefore mass) as Earth. 
  3. The Wall is positioned at 60° North Latitude. I chose this latitude because it is roughly where the southern extent of permafrost exists in Canada and continental Asia. We know The Gift is arable land, and areas north of the wall have regular snow even in the summer. 
  4. All canon maps have used the Mercator projection. This projection often gets a bad rap because it exaggerates the size of high latitude features, like Greenland and Canada. However, it is fantastic for one thing: navigation. Which, of course, is exactly what it was invented for, and why I would be used in a fantasy book. If Martin says a character is moving east, then we should be able to assume that she is moving right on the provided map. It is also safe to assume that The Wall runs directly east-west, and would only be shown on a map going left to right. These things are only possible in Mercator-like maps.

So lets start with the world as we know and love it, in a Mercator projection.

Note the straight lines of longitude and latitude. This is a characteristic of cylindrical projections like Mercator. We have defined this map's projection, and we know the continents' latitudes. We can can compare the size of this world with our own.

The longitude selected here is arbitrary (in fact these two maps have different longitudes). But from an American perspective, the placement of Westerosi regions is very interesting. The North begins at almost the exact place as the Canadian border. Dorne, which is ethnically and climatically different from the rest of Westeros, sits near the Mexican desert. Kings Landing is at almost the exact same latitude as Washington D.C.

If we know that northern latitudes have exaggerated sizes in Mercator maps, than we should be able to assume that northern Westeros isn't really as big relative to Valyria and Sothoryos as it appears. Generally, mid to high latitude continents are displayed with conical projections. Most maps that show exclusively the US or Europe have this type of projection  This would also be the appropriate choice for displaying Westeros and Essos. The following is a map in an Albers Projection, which distorts shape but keeps area the true.

We can see that this is indeed the case. The North once seemed to be about the same size as the rest of the realm, and now it appears to be closer to a quarter of that size. (I have cut off the eastern part of Essos because this projection was only intended for use in North America. Far east becomes too distorted to be useful.) 

And again, we can see how these changes between projections are analogous to the same on Earth.

While "Up" on the page is no longer directly north, we get a better idea of how the size of land masses compare.

We can make the same comparison between different projections of Westeros exclusively:


As you may have guessed, the map on the left is Westeros as we are used to it (in Mercator), and on the right is Westeros in a conical projection.

Let's use this as an opportunity to see how big Westeros really is. I used relatively rudimentary techniques, and I'll try to update these numbers more accurately in the future. But here are following approximations:
  • The North: 415,000 sq. mi/1,070,000 sq. km
  • The Reach: 380,000 sq. mi/984,000 sq. km
  • The Realm: 1.6 million sq. mi/4.1 million sq. km
This means that The North is still the biggest region in the Realm, but not by as much as appeared before.
To compare, The North is roughly the same size as Bolivia. The Reach is roughly the same size as Egypt. And the Realm (Westeros south of The Wall) is a tad bigger than India, and just over a third of the size of the continuous United States. That means it is also roughly the same size as Europe minus Russia.

We now know how big Westeros is, and how its size compares relative to its world. However, we still have not seen a "true" representation of the series' lands. Albers Projection distorts the map like Mercator does, just in a different way.

The follow map attempts to display the continents as they might be seen from space. 

This gives us an even different look at world. We are able to imagine how the continents might wrap around the globe. Interestingly, if I am correct that the wall is at 60°N, then the cartographers of The Lands of Ice and Fire stopped drawing their map right at the equator.

Finally, if you are curious to see how these continents really look on a globe, below I have embedded this map draped over a Google Earth model. You can zoom and fly around to you heart's desire. Currently there is just the outline of the continents, but I would like to add more details in the future.