Westeros is Poorly Designed
Aside from being a migration nerd, I’m also a general-purpose nerd nerd, and a hobbyist world-builder. Yes, hobbyist world-building is a thing. But because I’m both kinds of nerd here, I’m the guy who reads Lord of the Rings and is perpetually bothered by the ridiculous economic models being presented. Like, really? Everything between the Shire and Rohan is depopulated save for a few ruins here and there? Did the land just up and stop yielding harvests or something? Sure. Okay. That’s some plausible economic geography.
But in most cases, the obvious demographic and economic illiteracy of an author is totally forgivable because they’re not making any claims to realism. I don’t trouble over the absurdly small scale of warfare in Star Wars compared to the size of the galactic population and economy because, um, if I wantedrealism I wouldn’t be watching Star Wars.
There is an exception to my forgiveness: Game of Thrones, or, if you prefer, A Song of Ice and Fire. This setting is often held up for its “gritty realism.” Now of course there is magic at work here; you don’t get dragons and a gazillion-foot-tall wall of ice without some kind of breach of realism. And I’m fine with all of that.
But what I’m not fine with is the ridiculous demographic illiteracy of Westeros.
So I’m now gonna play party-pooper on Westeros. I exclude Essos because (1) there’s way less available information and (2) such information as does exist indicates if anything an even more preposterously unbelievable setting.
How Big Is Westeros?
A Moderate Continent
Here are three visual references I found for the size of Westeros:
In case you’re wondering, no, those pictures do not all indicate the same sized continent.
I hasten to add, of course, that when I say “Westeros” henceforth, I really mean the Seven Kingdoms. I won’t get into anything Beyond The Wall.
Okay then: Westeros is pretty big. George RR Martin (henceforth GRRM) has compared Westeros to South America in size. Looking at the map above, it’s clearly smaller in land area than the European Union, though not muchsmaller.
But this is weird. South America is about 6.9 million square miles. The European Union is about 1.7 million square miles. So we have a very big problem already, the author doesn’t seem to have any idea how large his world is. Whoopsie. Turns out, some valiant readers have come up with anestimate of about 3.6 million square miles.
I’ll use 3.6 million square miles as my baseline estimate, but will also calibrate all major results with a 1.6 million square mile figure, and a 6.9 million square mile figure.
It is important that we begin with the size of Westeros! First of all, thisshould be one of the easier things to get a handle on since it (1) is fixed, (2) is often directly or indirectly referenced in the book and show due to character travels, (3) is often presented in maps. Of course, we’re also told that the maps aren’t strictly accurate and really represent Westerosi impressions of area, and the characters (books and show) do seem to have an amazing ability to disregard the physical laws of travel. But nonetheless, these geographic constraints remain much more fixed and determinable than direct population estimates.
How Big Are Armies?
Actually, It Doesn’t Matter
Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire nerds (henceforth just “Game of Thrones” or “GoT”) obsess about military mobilization rates. On its face value, this makes sense. GRRM gives us lots of information about army sizes. We routinely get figures referring to thousands of soldiers, and there seems like a real concern that we know who has more men or less men. Fans then take these figures, apply a reasonable “mobilization rate,” and extrapolate to a population. Here’s an example.
This method, however, is bullcrap. There are two major reasons why the “start from armies” approach will systematically mislead readers: