On the Game of Thrones title sequence

  • a map that renders time as well as space!
  • maps and their dangerous illusions
  • tricky shadows: questions of power in Thrones
  • the Song/Thrones/HBO/fandom complex
  • fire-forged swords: GRRM and JRRT
  • maps and literature

A colleague of mine at Swarthmore, Bob Rehak, has an excellent blog on special effects in media.  Recently he posted some thoughts on the great title sequence opening HBO’s Games of Thrones, which won an Emmy last year.  Like some other great openings, such as the title sequence for The Sopranos, it will be recognized as one of the best ever, successfully “branding” a TV show with its hypnotic mix of soundtrack and visuals [http://graphic-engine.swarthmore.edu/?p=1813].  I look forward each week to the adrenaline rush it gives me.   (Thrones is now also rocking really cool, rather fugal new soundtracks for the closing credits that are different each week and fit the mood of each show’s ending.)


Bob’s comments on the Thrones title sequence covers the topic of maps, opening sequences, and pop franchise paradoxes as they apply to George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books as realized by HBO’s Game of Thrones. Some thoughts & responses to Bob’s Thrones blog post are below.

Bob lauds how the opening sequence for Thrones is fun because it “renders” Westeros with a mix of GPS-like and high tech digital mapping (and changing POV, from aerial swooping to ground-up views).  There’s even the suggestion of an aerial spy camera’s shutter clicking (and appearing for a split second in our field of view) as we fly over the Wall.   Yet this “map” also features throwback technology like (digitally rendered) gears turning to raise cities and castles (sort of like animated Legos, but also like the medieval mechanical arts constructing castle-destroying catapults, castle-building pulleys, etc.).  It’s an animated map that maps time unfolding as well as space extending:  totally rad.


I think, however, that Bob’s comments (and especially those of the experts he cites) may overestimate the reliable “intel” of such mapping systems.  These mapping systems provide the illusion of omniscience regarding both the present and the future: that’s their deadly attraction.  We have the best mapping and strategic technology available in Afghanistan, yet—like other, earlier armies with “superior” tech too— we are losing that war because we never really figured out how to map tribal elder allegiances, an alternative economy not built on poppy plants, and other intangibles that are a matter of on-the-ground, not high-flying, knowledge.   Such anthropological mapping is even more difficult than tracing Bin Laden and plotting the kill.  War-gaming strategies only work against forces that play the “game” by the same rules.  What will Lannister and Stark armor and stone, for instance, do against either wildlings or dragons, or Stannis’ “sword of fire” against wildfire?


In fascinating ways the first two Song of Ice and Fire books and Thrones on HBO elaborate this point.  The series is brilliant about the over-confidence leaders have in technology and strategy, juxtaposed with the “fog of war” that happens on the battlefield and can’t be predicted or mapped, only reacted to either poorly or luckily.   A particularly comic version of this occurred in season 1 when Tyrion was accidently knocked out while preparing for battle.  Tyrion misses the entire massacre—an absurdity brilliantly rendered via camera-work, as we see the scene literally upside-down:  it’s shot from Tyrion’s point of view as he views returning warriors slogging home unheroically when the fight is over, while he wakes groggily from his concussion.

Song’s and Throne’s rejection of omniscience is related to its understanding of the paradoxes of power.   Only the most demented and sinister characters, such as Joffrey, believe their power makes them omnipotent.  One of the most famous speeches from season 1—highlighted in one of the trailers for season 2 in a way that seems to make it a truth promoted by Martin and Thrones itself, not the opinion of one of Martin’s characters*—was this comment by the spymaster Varys:


“power resides where men believes it resides.

It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall….”


This idea was brilliantly reprised in season 2’s opening episode in the scene where Cersei responds to Lord Baelish’s foolish boast that his “knowledge” of Cersei’s secret gives him “power” over her.  She responds by commanding her guards to kill him, then at the last moment deciding to spare his life—for now.  As she leaves, she taunts him:  “power is power.”


But what could Cersei’s tautology mean?  Merely that armed strength is power?  What causes “men” to believe where power resides?  Varys begs the question by suggesting it’s all just a trick.  But the multiple plots of Song/Thrones hardly point to one conclusion on this question.   The opening sequence’s map may mime the way castles and dominions rise and fall, but it has trouble delineating the murky causes of these effects—and those causes are Martin’s real subject.   What are the sources of power?  If it’s indeed a trick, why and how does it work?  Does it really lie in the spectacular display of weaponry, or magic, or brute force?  Is loyalty necessary for power and, if so, is it created primarily by fear, or by something else?  (Cersei says emphatically that the more people you love the weaker you are.  Given her history, you can see at least why she believes this, or thinks she must.)


The novels’ leviathanic length is, arguably, justified for just this reason:  via each of its many point-of-view characters, Martin gives us vividly different answers to the question of where power resides and what hidden gears turn the wheels of history.  It also teaches us that what makes for power in the short run may be a very different thing from in the long run.  Gaining dominance, in other words, is one thing, while keeping it is another. Compared to most of what’s on television, Thrones approaches Shakespeare’s history plays not just in the intensity of its drama but in the richness of its meditations on power.

*It’s also worth thinking about Varys’ power speech in context, rather than as a universal truth of Martin’s.  Why does Varys make this speech when he does?  Is it part of his own shadow-game?  To what ends?  There’s been some debate on this on various fan forums, such as:  http://asoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/topic/63486-why-did-varys-say-anything-at-all-to-kevan/page__st__20



Bob rightly says that Martin’s “contentious, codependent relationship with his fan base is often battled out in such internet forums, where creative ownership of a textual property exists in tension with custodial privilege.”  I agree, and would add that the Song/Thrones complex (print and e-books, HBO, fan re-creations, and other online incarnations, including the official supplemental materials on HBO GO) is probably one of the most interesting current examples out there of a pop brand phenom’s multiple incarnations not being in control of a single “author,” director, or corporate sponsorship, even though it is also codependent on all of these.   As Bob stresses, the interaction between these elements is neither top-down nor unidirectional.


Three fun examples of these kinds of interactions:

  • the many hand-drawn maps posted online, where fans with loving care pointedly try to surpass the official map provided with the text, or available on HBO GO. One dedicates the hand-drawn map to the “Seven” gods and to Davos Seaworth, one of the most honorable of any of the characters;
  • the actor playing Arya (the superb Maisie Williams) in one of the promo videos/interviews on HBO GO says that she was inspired to have her hair cut for season 2 for a contrarian reason, precisely because fans on the Internet were confident she’d never do that.  (Was getting her hair cut really solely up to her, though, I wonder?);  and
  • the funny April Fool’s joke in Bill Amend’s Foxtrot cartoon for 4-1-12, on the consequences if Thrones were sponsored by Hasbro, creators of “My Little Pony.”


A less fun example of Game of Thrones’ multiple avatars in action:  the endless comments on Thrones sites, especially Facebook, where readers complain that the HBO series is unfaithful to the books, and in response fans of the HBO series tell them just to shut up.  No one’s yet addressed the fascinating ways in which the HBO series is a powerful reinterpretation and revision of the source text—in many cases, going far deeper into important characters’ psychology and changes than the novels do.  This topic I’ll try to develop a little in an upcoming blog post.



Near the end of Lord of the Rings, the Ring is dropped into molten rock, melting it and dissolving its cursed powers.  In many fascinating ways, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire sequence is the most ambitious challenge yet to Tolkien.  Martin is attempting to out-do the master not just in the number of gods, worlds, magic, and would-be kings, but also in the arena of gender. Martin has created many more complex female characters, both heroines and villains, than Tolkien ever did.  And the categories of “hero” and “villain” are too generic for his creations, for unlike in Tolkien most all of them have Gollum’s complex and very human mix of good and evil in their souls.


The alchemical and fire-forge imagery in the Thrones title sequence may be another instance of how Thrones respectfully but audaciously challenges Tolkien.  For here new weapons of power are created from the fire and molten metal; they are not returned to it.

In the title series’ opening shots, a sword is viewed against a belt buckle (?) with the totems of the major rivals to the Iron Throne, including a dragon, a wolf, and a stag.  Behind these trophies, generating a muffled roar that resonates through all the music, glows the golden fire from the forge that created all of these precious objects signifying worldly power.


This shot of sword and buckle then gives way to shots of a kind of moving orrery or astrolabe, and this even more sophisticated example of “medieval” technology and science is also juxtaposed against the forge’s molten fire.  The orrery’s arms spin and rotate in the visual field, powerfully suggesting not just shifting planets and stars of the heavens (the traditional referents for orreries and astrolabes) but also the ability to map or predict the cyclical rise and fall of all earthly powers in Westeros influenced by those heavenly signs and powers.  Vast tracks of time passing are suggested, so that the fates of the five kings competing for the Iron Throne, while they compel us, are understood to be a small drama in the epic scale of history.


Such a perspective of course is very much in the spirit of Tolkien’s epic fantasy.  But fans of both authors should not underestimate the ways in which the bard of Thrones, born in a federal housing project in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of a longshoreman, seeks to challenge rather than just imitate the bard of the Ring, the Oxford professor of medieval languages who was born in South Africa, the son of a bank manager, and grew up in Birmingham, England.  Guess GRRM had to challenge JRRT since he too was born with four names.



A quick last thought for now.  Has anyone done a good study of maps accompanying great children’s literature and epic “fantasy”?  I’m thinking of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, of course, but also remembering that I spent hours as a kid pouring over the detailed maps in the inside-book-covers of Winnie-the-Pooh and Wind in the Willows to accompany my reading.  The maps mixed both geography and snippets of story telling and were great devices for “burning” the characters and adventures permanently into memory.  The maps also enforced my understanding that these were special places I could secretly visit via books.   Many children made maps on their own too.  One of the most intriguing was a detailed map of an invented country made in childhood by a boy who would grow up to be a famous sculptor, Claes Oldenburg.  There are lots other famous story-maps are there, and not just for children’s literature.   Borges, for instance, has a little parable about a map that becomes so detailed it eventually grows to be as large as the world it tries to represent.  What are some of your favorites, and why?


Thrones is inspiring a cottage industry of artists doing their own maps of Martin’s labyrinthine world and posting them online.  The excellent HBO Go website for Thrones is one of the richest archives for any show on TV, and it includes many maps of scenes important to each episode with histories of the localities and events embedded in the mapping.  These and the fan-generated (in many cases, carefully hand-drawn) maps are more fascinating than the rather corporate and generic map that comes with the e-book edition of A Clash of Kings—an interesting example of how the online “secondary” materials for a text actually improve, not merely supplement, the primary “text” itself.   With the case of Thrones, this supplemental material is both corporate (i.e., officially sponsored by HBO and definitely linked to the commercial promotion of the HBO series) and freelance (in many cases, generated by individual fans as a non-commercial gift free to all who are interested, their way of saying thanks to George R.R. Martin and/or HBO).



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5 Responses to On the Game of Thrones title sequence

  1. Pingback: Some Reasons Why Daenerys Targaryen’s Character Is Even Better in Game of Thrones Than Song of Ice and Fire, Books 1 & 2 | Peter Schmidt@English Literature, Swarthmore XPress

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