This post is about a really narrow part of world building, but I think it’s something that GRRM utilizes very well. To begin, when I say “ignorance” I don’t mean it in the pejorative sense; I just mean characters who don’t know things. And I’m talking about a specific sort of knowledge they lack, which is knowledge about the world. Obviously secrets, misinformation, and simply the pace that news travels at is a big part of the story, but this is focusing on characters simply knowing about their world. When characters have limited knowledge about the world, it makes the world feel bigger.
The first time I noticed this was on my second read, as Catelyn approaches the Eyrie with Tyrion as her prisoner:
When her uncle saw that she had stopped, he moved his horse closer and pointed. “It’s there, beside Alyssa’s Tears. All you can see from here is a flash of white every now and then, if you look hard and the sun hits the walls just right.”
Seven towers, Ned had told her, like white daggers thrust into the belly of the sky, so high you can stand on the parapets and look down on the clouds. “How long a ride?” she asked.
Catelyn had never seen the Eyrie before this moment, only knowing a description of it from Ned. But why does this matter? Partly, it’s a convenient mechanism for a writer. A character who doesn’t know something serves as an excuse to have information presented. A character returning to a place they see all the time doesn’t spend time drinking in the details — try to remember your last commute to work. A character who can see thing fresh or ask questions is as much a staple in writing as are paragraph breaks and full stops; even more true in fantasy and scifi. But, that’d delivering the world to the reader; I believe these moments of ignorance are actually part of the actual world building.
Bricks and Mortar
Catelyn remembering Ned describing the Eyrie is such a minor detail, but it’s these minor things, one stacked on top of the next, that build the World of Ice and Fire. Some details are the bricks in the structure GRRM is creating, but I think these moments of characters not knowing everything about their world are more like the mortar holding the bricks together.
Part of world building is coming up with lots of cool ideas, lightsabers, face dancers, giant eagles, and flying broom sports. But, part of it is also making that world feel real and lived in. In the real world, people don’t have encyclopedic knowledge. Unless you’re from a one stoplight town or are a taxi driver in London, you don’t even know all the streets in the city where you live. Having varying bodies of knowledge among the characters makes the world feel big and rich, and its inhabitants feel real.
We get these details-of-ignorance all throughout the series. Arya doesn’t know how far the God’s Eye is from Riverrun. Black Lorren doesn’t know what the Dothraki are. Brynden the Blackfish is shocked to learn just what Moat Cailin looks like. The rather well traveled Jorah Mormont knows there’s cities to the East of the Red Waste, but not what they are or how far away. It’s possible that there’s no person in Westeros outside of the Citadel that knows the Dosh Khaleen exist.
The more people don’t know things (when they’re not mere idiots) the more we’re reminded just how much there is to know. If it feels like most of the characters have seen the world, then it won’t feel like a very big world.