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In the Beginning Was the Word: How Medieval Text Became Fantasy Maps

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 August 2020

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Summary

HBO's Game of Thrones introduces its world of medievalisms with a most un-medieval opening sequence: every episode begins by sweeping over a dynamic steampunk map of cogs and gears. Descending from a grand armillary sphere with a sunlike glow, the camera falls toward a two-dimensional map of the world. Then as the view zooms in on discrete locations, a stacked three-dimensionality of plateaus and stylized layers emerges. Featured cities, which start as flat images, pop up out of these substrates, clockwork mechanisms crank towers upwards, and bridges unfold and lock into place. Houses, castles, and even landmark trees arise with meticulously intricate workings and bring the viewer fully into the space. These chosen areas – cities and castles where the episode's events will unfold, down to rooms in the final season – gain visual depth and texture even as the land around them remains flat and map-like, retains its place-names, and keeps the viewer oriented. There is a recursivity about this map: the armillary sphere illuminating it all is shown to be in one of the very cities that unfurl, encased within its academy walls. The Season Eight view of the Red Keep includes a mosaic floor map of Westeros. In part because the map prefaces a program set in a medieval fantasy world, the map itself feels medieval. But despite the knights, taverns, and castles of the show itself, this introductory map is not medieval. The machinery that pulls up the walls and houses is sleek and modern, and has no analogues within the world of the story. The map itself uses semi-realistic terrain, designed to look somewhat like a tabletop strategy game, and it orients northward. Even when the camera turns to visit more distant lands it spins sideways, keeping the focus pointed back to Westeros's northlands. This is not, in any of the ways that it presents the world, a medieval map.

And yet, the creative team at Elastic that designed the sequence understood its aesthetic to be thoroughly and explicitly medieval.

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Studies in Medievalism XXIX
Politics and Medievalism (Studies)
, pp. 183 - 200
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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