Game of Thrones is everywhere. Between the books, show, after-shows, and podcasts – not to mention YouTube explainers, online fan discussion, cosplay conventions, apps to learn Dothraki – it can almost feel like Westeros has been willed into existence. If you were to take the Howl podcast Hardcore Game of Thrones’ word for it – and had extremely flexible views of history and geography – you might believe Westeros is real.
Parodying the voice and structure of Dan Carlin’s popular Hardcore History podcast, which offers dramatically-presented, multi-hour dives into ancient cultures and significant historical conflicts, Hardcore Game of Thrones treats the world and events of A Song of Ice and Fire as fact, with series author George R. R. Martin as a foremost historian of Westeros (and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss as reliable but secondary scholars). Just as Carlin accessibly unpacks the complex history of the Punic Wars and World War II’s Eastern Front through primary sources and Carlin’s own amateur but infectiously obsessive perspective as a self-described fan of history, Hardcore Game of Thrones creators Alex Berg and Jason Greene untangle the complicated history of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fires’ central conflict, the War of the Five Kings, telling the story with the early history of Westeros and Robert’s Rebellion as context over eight episodes and 19 hours.
It’s Berg and Greene’s commitment to the format and their knowledge of A Song of Ice and Fire that make the podcast compelling throughout. Far from feeling like a dry recitation of (fictional) events or too inside baseball for anyone but book readers, the show crackles with energy as Berg, as narrator George R. R. Carlin, captures Dan Carlin’s gravelly baritone, his intense quotation style, and even his conspiratorial whispers, while Greene as the show’s primary writer nails Carlin’s conversational but analytical voice, enthusiastically picking apart battles and political maneuvers and frequently using modern metaphor to bring the audience closer to the experiences of the characters.
Initially Berg and Greene had no plans for a podcast parody of Hardcore History – they just liked imitating Dan Carlin’s voice.
“We would go on these long walks where we would smoke cigars along the LA River – myself, Jason, our audio engineer Mike Hughes, and our friend Nick Hughes,” Berg said. “As riffs we would take turns saying things in the voice of Dan Carlin, and somehow that gradually transformed into doing little bits of Game of Thrones or whatever else we’d been reading that week as Dan Carlin.” Hardcore History was new to them, and soon Nick suggested they do a Hardcore History parody of Star Wars. They laughed about it, but the idea stuck with Greene, who was a longtime fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and had introduced the series of Berg. Greene suggested that they take on George R. R. Martin’s books since they fit Dan Carlin’s style.
“We got together and started plotting it to see what we could do and quickly realized the project was enormous and kind of abandoned it,” Greene said. They picked up the project several months later after encouragement from Mike Hughes and sat down to bullet-point what events they would cover. The list of quickly grew.
“We realized if we started talking about why it matters that Robert is on the throne we’ll have to talk about Robert’s Rebellion. If we talk about Robert’s Rebellion, we have to cover the Targaryens, and it kept expanding and expanding,” Greene said. “We realized really early on that we needed to just focus on the War of the Five Kings, and that’s actually what made it more Carlin-esque,” Greene said. “Focusing on the war would allow us to talk about other parts of the world but also give it a streamlined narrative that made sense in a Dan Carlin universe, which is why there’s no Dany and no Jon Snow.”
As for the conceit of treating Westeros as a real place Greene says it was never a question. “That choice made the podcast more fun for us. It was fun to talk about the history as real, and it made it fun that we could refer to George R. R. Martin as a source.”
Berg and Greene’s goal was to remain as consistent in their telling as Martin without leaving out any important details (knowing they would surely get picked apart with tweezers by Reddit, according to Berg). In addition to the novels, Greene consulted The World of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, Elio Garcia, and Linda Antonsson, reviewed the online community’s discussion of fan theories, and turned to the Wiki of Ice and Fire for episodes 2 and 3 of the podcast which focus on Robert’s Rebellion.
“I was legitimately surprised by how much the world he created can could support,” Greene said. “It’s source material able to support the idea that it’s a real place…which is kind of why I think the podcast works with Dan Carlin’s voice. He’s talking about real people making real decisions sometimes making sense and sometimes not, but they always feel human. That definitely comes across in George R. R. Martin’s writing.”
Berg and Greene adopted the idiosyncrasies of Carlin’s conversational style in performance and writing, including Carlin’s frequent use of contemporary analogies. In Hardcore Game of Thrones Berg’s narrator compares Chris Christie allegedly closing and reopening the George Washington Bridge to Mace Tyrell cutting off then graciously reopening the flow of food from the Reach to King’s Landing.
“We thought a lot about making sure that the analogies we were using would be hopefully fun but also certainly an interesting way of thinking about this story and one that you might not get from the show,” Greene said. “We wanted ways of grounding it and empathizing with the characters in ways [people watching the show] maybe hadn’t considered before – making them and their struggles more relatable.”
Berg and Greene contextualize the otherworldly horror felt by characters at the Battle of the Blackwater and the devastation experienced by those in the Riverlands, and Berg says it was important that they find a balance – if they took their project seriously – between the more casual narrative tone and a more somber look at Westerosi history.
“When you listen to [Dan Carlin’s] Ghosts of the Ostfront about when the Russian army finally invades Berlin and basically rapes their way through Prussia, he is making it clear that yeah, history can be entertaining, but you do still have to show some respect for the people who suffered through it,” Berg said. “Game of Thrones isn’t real, as much as my life for the past two years would suggest otherwise, but we’ve been trying to be mindful of, if it was real, the points where a historian would feel compelled to remind the audience, ‘This was kind of shitty – what Tywin did to Tyrion was no good.
Howl released the last episode of Hardcore Game of Thrones on April 20, along with the first three episodes free on SoundCloud, and having completed the series Berg and Greene mostly express relief that the project is over and newfound appreciation for the complexity of the material they adapted. While Greene and Berg aren’t big fans of the TV show – they’ve more or less stopped watching in part to avoid book spoilers (which Greene notes is a pretty futile effort at this point) – Berg hopes that with season six of Game of Thrones airing now people might be inspired to get more of the backstory to the show.
“When you look at things like Oberyn’s battle with the Mountain or the battle of the Blackwater or Ned’s beheading I think those big moments the show does so well,” Berg said. “But one of the things that the show isn’t able to do because TV is a just different format is get in this rich backstory and this rich subtext…We hope that people who haven’t read the books are able to listen to the series and get that backstory that can enrich the world of the show.”
While the podcast can serve as a refresher for book readers or a look into the context the books provide for fans of the show, Berg and Greene say didn’t go into their project with a specific audience in mind.
“Our goal was if you never read the books and had never seen the show that this would be internally consistent enough to be enjoyable,” Berg said. “Our broader goal beyond that was to get more people listening to Dan Carlin and more people reading the books.” As fans of both, when the first five episodes were released in August 2015 Berg and Greene were gratified to see listeners resonating with the show and interested in checking out Hardcore History and A Song of Ice and Fire.
As to the question of whether they would attempt another series based on A Song of Ice and Fire or another fictional series, Berg and Greene say they couldn’t imagine putting forth the same effort for another world.
“After getting into it we realized part of what makes it fun for us is how incredibly dense and complicated the War of the Five Kings is,” Berg said. “I don’t think there’s another fictional series that either of us is as attached to. Though there are other fantasy series that are dense enough to support this kind of project I don’t think that either of us are as personally invested in, and without that personal investment I don’t think we’d have ever finished this one.”
“And if people like that style of storytelling, listen to Dan Carlin. He’s got all of history to draw on, and if you don’t know what ancient Babylon was like then you might as well be listening to a fantasy series… If nothing else, if we’ve been able to share with other people some of the enthusiasm we have for both Hardcore History and A Song of Ice and Fire and get both of those properties some new listeners and new readers I think we’ve done our job.”