“Dear Elio,” it read, “you should probably go out and buy an expensive bottle of champagne to share with Linda this evening, or make a reservation at the best restaurant in town: we’ve closed a deal on the World of Ice and Fire concordance.”
As long-time obsessives of Martin’s novel series, A Song Of Ice and Fire, the arrival of the author's emails were always a source of great excitement for now 40-year-old Elio García Jr and his partner, 44-year-old Linda Antonsson.
In 1998 they founded Westeros.org, the behemoth fan site dedicated to both the books and later, HBO’s ongoing TV adaptation, and had grown used to regular contact with Martin.
On occasion, he would even share unpublished notes with them, from heraldry for houses he hadn’t used to details on Westerosi history from 150 years prior to where the novel series begins. But this was something much bigger: something more than a well-meaning message to keep the most ardent devotees in his fandom abreast of franchise developments.
Two years earlier, a time-strapped Martin had invited the couple to co-write a companion volume to his series, offering them 50 per cent of the proceeds to do so, and finally, it had been green-lit. They would spend the next five years combing through Martin's five published A Song of Ice and Fire novels, as well as integrating fresh notes from the author.
That Martin would entrust fans he’d met just once (in 2004, when Garcia was driving near Martin's place in Santa Fe and rang him to see if they could meet) with the task of co-writing a blockbuster commission isn’t actually as odd as it initially sounds.
By this point, he had already begun to refer his editors to García and Antonsson for fact-checking and continuity details, trusting them enough to send them the A Feast For Crows manuscript in 2005 for proofing.
Later, when HBO’s juggernaut production began, Martin would also point the show producers in the couple’s direction, and they’ve since applied their encyclopedic knowledge to everything from the official app and the Apple enhanced editions to the comic books and subtitling.
“George says he knows his characters better than some of the people in his own life,” says García over the phone, with Antonsson also on the line, “and sometimes it feels like I’ve spent more time in Westeros than I have in this world.”
Antonsson, a fair-skinned redhead, and García, a baby-faced man with glasses and a ponytail, met in 1999 via an online text-based role-playing game or MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination) based on Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings in 1995. García, a Cuban-American, was studying English Literature and History at the University of Miami, while Antonsson, a Swedish-native, was completing a Masters in Classical History at the University of Gothenburg.
Three years later, García had moved to Sweden, where Antonsson persuaded García to read Martin’s first book in the series, A Game of Thrones.
That same year, the couple decided to create their own game based on Martin’s universe, along with a little website that would provide players with all the information they needed on the story and setting. Before going live, García and Antonsson duly sought Martin’s permission, which is how the two-decade long relationship between author and readers first began.
“George was very easy to contact back then. His email address was available on the internet and readers would regularly get in touch, he wasn’t getting that much fan mail back then,” says García, whose own GoT-themed Gmail is a reference to one of the most famous dragons in A Song Of Ice and Fire’s history.
Martin, particularly impressed with the couple’s representations of his heraldry, came back to them quickly with his permission and support. Has he played the game? "He said it sounded far too interesting, as since he's been a roleplayer for a long time, he was afraid he'd enjoy it a bit too much," García says.
Since HBO’s TV adaptation began in 2011, westeros.org has evolved from a 10,000 member strong home to theory discussion, FAQs and Martin’s responses to reader questions to a lucrative commercial enterprise with over 130,000 registered fans.
It continues to host the couples’ (very niche) game, Blood of Dragons, which they still play when they have time, as well as news and information about all things GoT, including episode guides, video reviews, a forum and a Wiki.
Thanks to targeted ads, as well as Amazon Prime pop ups for fantasy games, the site more than pays for itself, though because of the book royalties, García says they “haven’t touched the money from the website for a while”.
As he puts it: “Fifty per cent of anything that George is involved in, well, it does pretty well”.
Has Martin perused the site? "He's certainly highlighted it often when talking about fan sites, encouraging fans to go there, and recently, even, when he was discussing something he was working on, he referenced the Wiki of Ice and Fire that we run."
The couple married (after a 16-year engagement) on October 28 2014, on the same day The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros was published. Instead of a reception, the newlyweds went straight to their local science fiction bookstore, where they spent the afternoon signing books.
Then, they went back to work. “The site is a full time job,” says Antonsson, who shoots the weekly episode reviews from their home office, against a backdrop of shelves stacked with fantasy titles and GoT memorabilia, from a Varis figurine to plastic dragons and a mini replica of the stone direwolves that guard the Stark crypt. By her own admission, Antonsson, “hordes” Game Of Thrones jewellery: “I love anything with the heraldry on, particularly Targaryen and Martell”.
The site’s most lucrative periods are, naturally, when new Game Of Thrones airs. In the week that the second episode of series eight hit screens, westeros.org was visited by 1.4million users.
“We thought the site was being attacked, says García. “The traffic went to the page about Jenny’s Song, which Florence & The Machine sing over the end credits. The character Jenny of Oldstone had never been mentioned in the HBO version before, and we’re the only website that had information on her.”
Other popular pages for season eight include ones dedicated to the Golden Company and Harry Strickland, the Last Harth (the seat of the Umbers, where the wights pass through on the way to Winterfell), Aegon Targaryen, Rheagar Targaryen and, obviously, Jon Snow.
“For about 20 years, I don’t think a single day has gone by where we haven’t interacted with or thought about GoT,” says Garcia, who with Antonsson, has appeared several times on Sky’s fan show Thronecast as an expert. Beyond painstakingly collating information to contextualise Westeros in a concodorse - devoting individual sections to details as niche as clothes, shoes and drinks - García has spent a good portion of leisure time figuring out things Martin intentionally left out.
“A lot of the discussions among fans are around world building,” he says, referencing applying a real-life lens to an imagined universe to achieve as genuine, immersive, pseudo-factual picture as possible.
Using “a rule of thumb method from the pre-modern era, where societies could sustain about one per cent of their population as military troops,” Garcia calculated the population of Westeros at roughly 40 million by counting up the country’s soldiers. As you can well imagine, to be the person who figures out these “authentic” details, well, that’s a hell of a lot of kudos in fan forums.
“The other thing I did which is much nerdier but more satisfying to my medieval history interest was to look up scholars from the middle ages who had done demography of Medieval Europe,” he adds. García then recorded the population densities for each correlating region (“The Reach, for example, is kind of George’s medieval France, The North is obviously Scandinavia”), before adding them all up for an overview of the continent. “Again, I got a number pretty close to 40m”.
Another major coup was figuring out the size of Westeros. “[George] used to have wiggle room when it came to distances as he purposefully didn’t include a scale on the map,” says Antonsson. “But then a fan - who may or may not be named Elio - realised that the wall could be used as a scale, because the distance of the wall is referenced.”
In fairness, García adds, “For the most part, George has been very, very good on travel times. It’s other areas he’s had a little more difficulty.” When Martin released The Hedge Knight, a novella set in the same world some 90 years before the events described in the Fire and Ice series, it was García who flagged what he calls “a fairly significant continuity error”, relating to the lineage of Targaryen kings and an age of a character that didn’t quite fit with the overarching timeline. It was this point Martin realised just how useful García and Antonsson’s grasp of the books could be.
He started to send them his manuscripts from the third book, A Feast For Crows, and deferred to the couple during the writing process.
“For that novel, he checked which family sigils featured stars, specifically seven-pointed stars, because he wanted to limit those to families with a strong connection to the faith,” says Antonsson.
“It was the first time we had an early sense of what was to come in the plot.” Martin has asked them “a few things” in relation to the upcoming The Winds of Winter, although they won’t say what, and García still makes it his business to highlight discontinuities, like when Bran's horse Dancer changed gender between books. “Oh yes, that’s persisted, so I recently sent his editors a reminder about fixing that,” says García.
Although Martin has always fostered a close relationship with his readers, A Song of Ice and Fire fans are so invested in his world that making minor mistakes has become a source of enduring anxiety for the author.
As he said in one 2011 interview, just before the pilot aired, “People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they’re going to nail me on it.” Westeros might be what García and Antonsson have “arranged our lives around for 20 years”, but they say more zealous fans exist. The Spanish are, apparently, the craziest, and some collectors spend “enormous fortunes” on limited edition books and merchandise.
Strangest of all is the diehard faction of fans so furious with Martin for not yet having finished the books, they’ve become devoted to trolling the author and his supportehors.
The big fear among disaffected readers is that, like fellow fantasy writer Robert Jordan, who died before completing his Wheel of Time series, Martin might never get to finish the books. As such, his health has become a specific focal point for the “GRRuMblers”.
The abuse has been so bad that other novelists have stepped in to defend Martin. British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman wrote a blog post titled “Entitlement Issues”, breaking down to these disgruntled readers “the simple and unanswerable truth: George R. R. Martin is not working for you”.
Most prominent in the renegade movement is the “Finish the Book, George” blog and the “Is Winter coming?” forum, but García also has to moderate the comments on westeros.org in order to keep the vitriol at bay. “Parris, George’s wife is on the forum,” he says, “And things like people very morbidly discussing George’s mortality or his weight or what have you, or saying he’s going to die soon, these are not constructive.” He has even banned the founder of one splinter forum that encouraged an unstable person to wildly spam his site and others.
Westeros.org is such a big deal that, according to García, who has a great relationship with GoT writer and producer Bryan Cogman. “Even the actors have studied the site’s wiki when trying to get a sense of their characters”. And it’s also influenced which actors are actually in the show.
“Before the show went into production David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] made an account to chat with fans and ask them for their opinions on things like casting,” says Garcia, “they specifically credit westeros.org with pointing them to Jason Momoa for the character of Kahl Drogo.”
And it’s not just the site that’s on their radar. According to Antonsson, Garcia has a “certain notoriety” among the actors: “Early on, they became aware of Elio’s knowledge and so were wary of his questions in interviews [for westeros.org],” she says. “Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) once warned Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) to ‘be careful how you answer, because he knows everything’,” she says, proudly.
So how exactly has HBO made use of the fact that they know, well, everything? “They ring us when they need a quick answer on a little detail, tiny things like naming styles of characters in the free cities, or, for this season, the lyrics to the Jenny of Oldstones song,” says García. According to Antonsson, queries relating to texts for songs, prayers and ceremonies crop up the most.
And what does the couple think of the show? “I was very happy with the first season,” García says, “But then somewhere along the way, from the third season, it felt like the writers were not just compressing or combining but really altering things to something that felt not even in the same universe of how George thinks or approaches things.” The GoT show moved past the books’ plot line from the start of series six.
“They seem to think revenge is a lot more interesting and exciting that George does as a topic,” continues Garcia. He’s keen to impress that he understands the demands of a production of this scale, that he “tried to be as reasonable as possible” with the direction HBO was taking Martin’s material, given the context, but that ultimately, “it became clear that their’s wasn’t just a different take, but actually incompatible with what George was doing”.
Beyond a lack of source material post-season five, García nods to Martin’s decision to stop actively contributing to the show after the fourth season as a reason things have, in his opinion, gone so down hill: “Maybe George saying he wasn’t writing anymore was a sign that it was moving too far away from the novels for him to keep participating at that level,” he says.
The final straw? First, the character of Stannis Baratheon (not developed enough), and second, “Dorne was a mess”. He points to the “horrible cliche” that was Marcella’s death, as well as Sand Snakes, Elia Martell’s daughters, and how they became known as “B-movie bad girls”. “That is not a thing to aspire to,” he says, his tone tinged with frustration and despair.
"The show plays fast and loose with history," Antonsson adds. "For example, there's a scene in the second episode where Tyrion says something about how the Northerners remember what happened the last time dragons came north, implying that something violent happened.
But we know from the histories that the last time dragons came north, it was at the very start of the Dance of the Dragons when the eldest son of the Princess of Dragonstone flew to Winterfell to be a guest of Lord Stark and gain his support for his mother (who was going to war over the throne with her half-brothjer). Nothing violent or frightening happened with his dragon at all."
“Elio got very sad at the end of the fifth season, I don’t get sad, I get mad, and that’s what enabled me to keep watching. I could do the videos and rant about my feelings,” continues Antonsson, who now does all of the episode reviews by herself. “Looking back at the last video review Elio did, he looks absolutely destroyed, like he’s going to start crying”.
And it’s not just them. "We’re not the only people in his circle who have had issues with the show. Jane Johnson, [George's]UK editor, who is a good friend of his, had some negative things to say about some of the adaptation choices,” he says. The issues they have with how the TV series has developed echo the gripes of many others, especially since the final, eighth season has started to air.
“The main problem is that everything that has been moving so fast that there’s really no time for those richer moments of character interaction,” says Antonsson, who thinks the series was cut way too short, and that there should have been at least nine seasons. Martin himself has said as much in interviews; that he would have liked to have seen it spread over more seasons, and that there was enough material to do so.
But what about the endgame? Do Antonsson and García think the show’s finale will chime with the conclusion Martin has planned for the books? “The journey is going to be very different, even if the destination is more or less the same,” says García. “The problem is, the Night King doesn’t exist in the books. There isn’t this one character that you can kill and kill all the wights. I feel like they’ve set that up because they need a fast, easy conclusion,” says Antonsson.
Apparently, Martin once threatened fans with a last book that would be 700 pages describing snow blowing over everyone’s graves, but the couple are confident that the author has something more satisfactory up his sleeve. “Jamie will kill Cersei and die in the process, that seems certain,” says Antonsson.
“I don’t know about Jon and Daenerys both being alive at the end,” she says, now referencing both the books and the adaptation. “The latest thing we’ve been discussing is that we could see them both dying and there being a child left. I think that the child might be recognised as heir with Tyrian as regent,” which she hopes will be framed in HBO’s version as an epilogue. “That’s my wish for the show,” she says, “we’ve seen the actors reveal that the ending is sad and melancholy, so that gives me hope they've caught some of that”. García agrees.
While Bran’s role in the TV version has become increasingly vague, if not all together redundant after The Long Night - which Antonsson reviewed as “extremely climactic” - both are still certain that he’ll play a major part in the denouement of the books.
“George has long said that the title of the final book will be A Dream of Spring, and I think the epilogue to the whole series will be Bran as the last Greenseer, alone, beneath the Weirwood, and the dream of spring will be his. He’ll be looking through the eyes of the Weirwoods and the ravens and seeing those who survived and those who didn’t and life going on as spring returns and winter’s ended,” he says. “It feels poetic and bittersweet, and George always said it would be bittersweet.”
Antonsson goes further: “When Bran wakes up from his coma after being pushed from the window in the books, the first words he says are where he finally names his direwolf,” she says, referring to Summer, who gets killed off in the TV show at the same time as Hodor. I would not be surprised at all if the very last line of the very last book mirrors these exactly, showing that in this story, life still goes on: ‘His name is Summer.’”.
Kathleen Johnston is Social Content Editor at British GQ