In-Between Locations

What gives Game of Thrones its strange credibility and its seeming complexity, its gravity and its sense of place, its sensation of depicting a lived-in world uncannily like our own, are those cities and buildings. They’re somehow sufficiently unfamiliar-yet-familiar to seem like real old places.

On the pasts and places of Game of Thrones

In July and August I watched the seven weekly episodes of Game of Thrones. In June and July I watched all sixty episodes that preceded them. All summer I read the scholastic recapitulations of the plots and themes of each episode in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I didn’t read the books; I read message boards and forums instead. Then, for each episode, sometimes when I could divide my attention, but often when I shouldn’t have, I listened to several closely similar but slightly different podcasts that did just the same—scores if not hundreds of hours in all. I grew more accustomed to the voices of podcasters Joanna Robinson and Jason Concepcion and Mallory Rubin than those of the show’s actors themselves. Against my conscious intention not to acquire all this useless knowledge, I can draw the maps of imaginary places and diagram the family trees of the agnatic and cadet branches of imaginary noble families; and remember more reliably the details of the fictional Houses of Stark and Lannister than the factual Houses of York and Lancaster. And now, just as summer fades and the subject becomes ever more untimely and displaced, I am adding to that comet’s red tail, writing 3,000 more words about the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Time moves differently there. Seasons last longer than years. Buildings or trees or ancestors on the show that, your cultured human intuition tells you should date to, say, 800 years in the past are revealed to be 8,000 years old. The wench-and-trencher aesthetics of the show amount to a kind of Renaissance Faire Middle Ages, whose closest European historical analogue would have been the century spanning the reigns of Henry VII to Elizabeth I. But in the internal timeline of this imaginary place’s imaginary history, this feudal and courtly and late-chivalrous and decidedly pre-parliamentary limbo, with its jousting knights and conclaves of friar-like maesters, has persisted more or less forever—with no printing press, gunpowder, or double-entry bookkeeping in sight. Ambitious fan theories turn on the magical capacity of certain of the show’s characters for visionary time-travel: to not only binge-watch pivotal episodes from the imaginary world’s imaginary history, but—by recounting them and even intervening in their unfolding—to spoil them.

Time spent watching and thinking about the show comes to resemble time inside the show. “So much of what’s been gratifying about this project,” said Concepcion to Rubin, his partner, in the final moment of the final episode of Binge Mode, their sixty-seven-episode recap marathon, “is feeling like we’ve been in the same place at the same time.” Concepcion and Rubin and Robinson all compare the likely two-year gap between this past season and the next to the story’s own Long Night, a long interval of inconsolable darkness. The consolation, for me, of all this watching and studying and listening, has been endlessness—a comprehensiveness that is different from fulfillment. It goes on and on. Conversely, I first saw the show, at a home with a big television and an old sun porch and a new tree house, on an idyllic day last June, as what the Westerosi would call a child of summer—briefly coincident with, whether it in fact ever existed at that or any given time, what I now feel to have been a state of wholeness.

The art of commentary on Game of Thrones, at its best, relies on the ability to treat fictional characters like real people, and to treat real people like fictional characters. Commentators move seamlessly from psychoanalytic speculations about the imaginary inner lives, the strengths and frailties, of the show’s characters, to those of the show’s actors and directors and especially writers, David Benioff and David Weiss—and of course to that of George Raymond Richard Martin himself. Intricate Kremlinology applies equally to the Red Keep of King’s Landing and the Hollywood sanctums of producers and directors and actors and writers—and the similarly feudal fealties and ambitions to be found in both realms. Martin himself has described his work as trying to bring a wised-up realpolitik to otherwise fatuous sword-and-scorcery genre conventions; Benioff famously once pitched it as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth.”

To watch and think about the show in this way is to will a waking dream between realistic fantasy and fantastical reality. Much of the entertainment is in interpreting the hall-of-mirrors pastiche: to see the Vikings in the Ironborn and the Mongols (or is it the Huns?) in the Dothraki; to detect the fate of Pompeii in the Doom of Valyria; to hear that most of the accents of the show’s Northerners are from the deep English North: to learn that actor Sean Bean, and therefore surely his character Ned Stark, is from Yorkshire. But what pierced the veil of Game of Thrones, for me—what returned me unwillingly back from the vision into the real world—was the Alcázar of Seville, Spain, masquerading as the palace of a Westeros prince. Most of the real-world shooting locations for the piazzas and battlements and palace gardens of the Seven Kingdoms are cannily chosen to be unfamiliar, or half-disguised with digital set dressing. But with its glades of slender columns and intricately articulated arches and tracery screens, the Alcázar—from the Arabic Al Qasr, or Royal House, built primarily between the 12th and 14th centuries during the period of Al-Andalus and a UNESCO world heritage site—is too singular and present-day famous for the suspension of disbelief. It made me wonder: where in our world, when we are watching Westeros, have we been spending our time? All those online commentaries—in which production location surveillance is its own specialty—reveal that for the landscapes of the icy or merely chilly places it’s the countryside of Iceland and Ireland, and for the cities and buildings of the fiery or temperate places, it’s Spain, Malta, Croatia, and Morocco.

What gives Game of Thrones its strange credibility and its seeming complexity, its gravity and its sense of place, its sensation of depicting a lived-in world uncannily like our own, are those cities and buildings. They’re somehow sufficiently unfamiliar-yet-familiar (when not as famous as the Alcázar) to seem like real old places. They provide a world not only visibly lived-in and timeworn, but confer the ability of certain places to transport you across time. Buildings, especially old stone ones, precisely record their state—and in their details and atmosphere something of the state of the world and its people—at their very moment of completion. And then, if like Rome’s Pantheon or Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, they avoid ruination or over-restoration across centuries, they can entirely preserve and restore that state across deep time. The moody interiors of such buildings send your body and—if willing, your spirit—immersively and comprehensively into a revival of a phenomenological experience from the past.

The fantasy genre of Martin’s novels has its roots in the Gothic revivals and romantic medievalism of the 19th century, especially by way of the books and designs of English Pre-Raphaelite and Arts-and-Crafts polymath William Morris into the mind of their notably devoted reader and fan, J.R.R. Tolkien. The fantastically medieval and factually medieval can seem, at first glance, all of a piece: Britain’s Houses of Parliament, built around the time of the American Civil War in the Perpendicular Gothic Revival style, blend seamlessly with the neighboring Westminster Abbey, which was built during the very last decades of the original Gothic style in England, some 400 years earlier: it’s all old.

Revival was in the air during the radical industrialization and globalization of the mid-19th century; strangely, medievalizing architecture was then sometimes called the “modern” style. A figure who embodies this tendency to leap forward and look backward is Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, an influential French architect and architectural historian active in the middle decades of the 19th century, author of vast and various encyclopedias and treatises that remain definitive. On the one hand, he was technically innovative, a precursor of what we would now call functionalism in design—a kind of Maester Qyburn of his time, who studied the efficient and dragon-like structures of bats’ wings and proposed an uncompromisingly organic tectonic of ball-jointed iron and steel columns and beams. On the other hand, as a fan of all things Gothic, he was a restoration artist, and as such a willful fantasist. Many of the melancholy ugly-cute gargoyles you see on Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, heavy heads resting in their clawed hands, are his. They date only to the 1840s. His also is the picturesquely tall and narrow spire that presides over the intersection of the cathedral’s nave and transept: an 1870 detail that has very little to do with the 13th century original, and everything to do with what Viollet-le-Duc felt should be there.

This reminds me of what the makers of Games of Thrones do to the historic buildings of Mdina, Malta and Dubrovnik, Croatia and Essaouira, Morocco: capture the realistic and timeworn features of the gates and walls and corners, and then grow them out in a kind of digital retouching, adding further towers and domes and spires and banners that return them to timeless fantasy, to a time out of time. Or to a soothing pseudo-castle-ness that Americans have received from Walt Disney. Atop Uz Jezuite Street, a historic and picturesquely weather-beaten cascade of Baroque steps in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, the show inserts (with what appears to be an anachronistic computational pastiche of the dome of the Hagia Sophia and the towers of the Tower of London) an imaginary cathedral called the Great Sept of Baelor. But Viollet-le-Duc, at Notre Dame and elsewhere, did this in stone, not pixels—making of fantasy a kind of reality. “Restoration,” he wrote in his 1854 treatise, The Foundations of Architecture, “is a means to reëstablish a building to a state of wholeness, which may in fact never have existed at any given time.”

Other architectural advocates of the Gothic Revival felt very differently. Instead of a fantasy of wholeness, they valued a reality of fragments and remnants, even of broken pieces. In 1877 William Morris founded The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to prevent what he called “forgery”: the over-restoration or refurbishment of the factually Gothic into the fantastically Gothic. An equal-and-opposite figure to Viollet-le-Duc was Morris’ longtime correspondent and sometime mentor John Ruskin, who in his 1849 treatise The Seven Lamps of Architecture, described this ahistorical refurbishment as, “a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed.” Ruskin’s great exemplar was Venice, which he described in his other architectural work, 1853’s The Stones of Venice. What makes Venice so picturesque is precisely the absence of fantastical wholeness that Viollet-le-Duc might have hoped for. Venice, the port city at the top of the Adriatic and capital of a very old seafaring and trading nation at a cultural crossroads between East and West, features extraordinary juxtapositions, sometimes within a single building, of architectural details and styles from different times and places. In the so-called Venetian Gothic Style, as in the 14th-to-16th-century Palazzo Ducale, pointed arches whose historical and cultural references might reach as far as Baghdad and Bengal stand atop columns that are interpretations of the classical monuments of ancient Rome.

The Gothic revival of Game of Thrones, for all its occasionally Icelandic weather, is a Venetian Gothic: hybrid, littoral, cosmopolitan. Many places where Game of Thrones has been filmed are all, in this way, Venice: corners of the old Levantine seafaring Empires of the Venetians and Byzantines and Ottomans in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as, in the Western Mediterranean, the landscapes of the so-called Moors, north and south of the Straits of Gibraltar. The island of Malta, at the middle of the Mediterranean, halfway between East and West, Europe and Africa, and successively at the edge of most every Empire you can think of, was where most of the first season of Game of Thrones was filmed, and has buildings in every style, its streets full of complexities and contradictions. That many of the show’s historic filming locations were originally constructed along what were shifting borders and blurry boundaries, not at great capitals—that they are buildings of overlapping diasporas—is what makes them work so well for a fantasy television show. Because the show’s buildings are architectural mutts, they remind us mysteriously of everywhere and nowhere, and accommodate the further admixture of digital retouching. As they likely did for the people who originally inhabited them, these buildings evoke more renowned and remembered monuments, and in that recognizability feel all the more real. But like the enterprising bastards and surprising trueborn heirs of Westeros, they bring together unexpectedly robust combinations of the traditional traits of their distant ancestors.

The Tower of Joy is the most significant building in Game of Thrones: an imaginary little castle, somehow both forbidding and charming, on a rocky outcrop of a windswept and sun-scorched plain in the kingdom of Dorne. In its shadow and within its walls take place the show’s most twisty twists and most promising promises, plus a catalytic death and a near-manger-worthy birth. It’s also the Castillo de Zafra, its name probably derived from a classical Arabic word for harvest, in what is now Guadalajara, Spain, along what were once the shifting borderlands between the Kingdom of Aragon and the Caliphate of Córdoba, and their successor polities. The original foundation of the fortress’s acutely-angled keep, its layout typical of structures from Marrakech to Seville in the Umayyad and Almoravid eras, was likely built by Córdoba—sometime before, at the beginning of the 12th century, the little castle was taken over by Aragon, which likely added the narrow towers to defend it against its original builders, (and later, in a Westerosi twist, by its local lord against his own king). It was restored in the 1970s. It’s not just long-ago buildings that bring the world’s real past into the show’s imaginary present. The dramatic circular seaside platform, with its low stone parapet and steeply stepped overlooks, where at the Red Keep of King’s Landing a medieval trial-by-combat requires two fan-favorite characters to kill each other, is not some ruin of a long-ago castle but the Adriatic terrace of the Hotel Belvedere—built in 1985 with bright blue swimming pools and glass elevators, just outside Dubrovnik. The hotel was mostly destroyed during the 1991 siege of that city by Serbian forces, in the Balkan wars of those years, and its guests displaced by refugees.

Think of those Game of Thrones actors, in their paste jewelry and paper armor like their imaginary world’s own traveling troupes of mummers, play-acting at a site of that real siege—modern ruins just out of the frame. To see such a place, and remember the real trials of combat that not so long ago besieged it, and continue to shatter places like it, settles a chill onto the show’s reductive depiction of even the imaginary tribes of an imaginary geography: Northerners flinty and trusty to a fault; Southerners fiery and exotic; inscrutable silk-robed visitors, with their counting-houses and spice markets, from the imaginary Orient of Essos. It cools you to the characters’ zealous defense of gods against gods; to their unvarying evocation of enemy Others; to their fascination with patrimony. And, in a more trivial way, if you’re a pedant about architectural history, the scenographic mash-ups can make you fretful. When I watched the show’s early protagonists Ned and Katelyn Stark so poignantly part for the last time, by a city gate, all I could think of—perhaps my defense against their sorrow or mine—was that, dressed in their doublets and surcoats from the Dark Ages, they were standing in front of an Italianate Classical Baroque archway, from some 300 years after the Renaissance. The particular shapes of that Baroque archway, its entablatures, rustications, and pediments, carry as much signification as words, are as dependent as language on historical time and geographical place. I felt the same way every time I saw a Romanesque arch in director Peter Jackson’s cinematic version, with its awesome landscapes and awful buildings, of Tolkien’s Middle Earth: how did the Byzantines sail from the 13th century to New Zealand?

This summer, like Viollet-Le-Duc, I directed my mind’s eye to the pastiche of Game of Thrones in order to see, somehow, an imaginary completion and fulfillment. As if a show could make its watcher whole. But the buildings embedded in this pastiche were the stones of Venice, and as Ruskin would have appreciated they were broken pieces, fallen across time and sometimes mended into complex combinations. They were in-between locations, borders having passed back and forth under their foundations—in which all those passages left rough edges, ruins and imperfect reconciliations. Even as the imaginary politicians and magicians of Westeros tend toward absolutes and eternities, and toward endlessly cyclic conflicts—of life and death, fire and ice, North and South, mortal and monster, highborn and low—the buildings in which you are dwelling as you watch the show tend toward something that is maybe worldlier and wiser. These fragments of Croatia and Malta and Andalusia—embedded into fantasies and beamed beyond all conceivable imagining of their original builders into the inner lives of tens of millions of Americans—tend toward the complexity of in-betweens; are evidence of complex cultural exchange: sometimes of intense conflict but also of complicated coexistence and confluence. Martin has called himself a humble Gardener, comparing his contingent and serendipitous cultivations to the vast and orderly constructions of Tolkien, whom he calls an Architect. But the practice of architecture is not Tolkienesque world-building. It’s a practice, somewhere between ruins and construction sites, of acknowledging only seeming endlessness; whose lessons are not of order and permanence, but of weathering and transformation and renewal.

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