In its first season, Game of Thrones—based on George R.R. Martin’s behemoth A Song of Ice and Fire series and adapted by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—became a beast as rare as dragons: a critical and ratings success that also fused together genre roots and mainstream appeal.
Season 2 of Game of Thrones is just a few days away, returning to HBO on Sunday at 9 p.m. for another 10-episode run of betrayal, bloodshed, and, er, scenes intended for a mature audience. But if you haven’t read the books, the world that the show inhabits can be a forbidding place without the maps, family trees, and lineages contained within the novels’ vast appendices. And Season 2 furthers the in-world jargon significantly, while introducing a slew of new concepts and places. What is the difference between the Drowned God and the Lord of Light? Who is the Red Woman? And what is the deal with the White Raven?
We delve into the first four episodes of Game of Thrones Season 2, Martin’s second novel (A Clash of Kings), and beyond to bring you up to speed. A note on spoilers: I spoil many details of Season 1 below. But I do not spoil specifics from Season 2, unless you count knowing settings and themes and characters as spoilers. In which case, spoiler alerts!
Clash of Kings, A: The subtitle for the second season of Game of Thrones, which is an adaptation of Martin’s second novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, weighing in at a substantial 700-plus pages, depending on the edition.
Drowned God, The: The deity worshipped by the residents of the hard-bitten Iron Islands after breaking away from the polytheistic belief system (see: Seven, The) followed by many of those in Westeros. The followers of the Drowned God are often baptized into this religion by drowning in the sea and then being resuscitated. Their mantra is “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”
Direwolves: A species of animal distantly related to wolves, they can grow as large as ponies, though far more ferocious and deadly. They are the symbol of House Stark (see: Winterfell) and their appearance south of The Wall at the start of Season 1 was taken to be an omen as one pup for each of the six children in the Stark family was found beside its dead mother. Of those direwolves, one was killed (Sansa’s Lady, beheaded reluctantly by Ned Stark as ordered by Queen Cersei; see Queen Regent) and one, Nymeria, was cast out, when Arya (Maisie Williams) threw stones at her, lest she be killed after attacking Prince Joffrey. Of the others, Grey Wind is in the camp of Robb (Richard Madden); Summer and Shaggydog are at Winterfell with Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson); and Ghost is beyond The Wall with Jon Snow (Kit Harington).
Dragonstone: The original seat of House Targaryen, an island with a massive castle carved out of black rock. After the war that ended the reign of the Mad King, the island was taken as spoils of war by House Baratheon and was given to Stannis (Stephen Dillane), who resented the present. As the older of Robert’s two brothers, he believed he should have been given Storm’s End, which instead went to Renly.
Dragons: Fire-breathing creatures that died out several centuries ago and haven’t been seen in Westeros since. However, at the end of Season 1, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) threw the three-dragon eggs she was given as wedding presents onto the funeral pyre of her husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and three dragons hatched.
Goldcloaks: A nickname for the city watch of King’s Landing, the seat of the monarch of the Seven Kingdoms. They are currently overseen by Lord Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter), who betrayed Ned Stark in the throne room.
Greyjoy’s Rebellion: A rebellion against the Iron Throne led by Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) of the Iron Islands (see: Pyke), which resulted in the death of his eldest two sons and his younger son, Theon, being taken hostage by the Starks. It occurs, in the books, roughly nine years before the start of the action.
Hand of the King, The: The most trusted adviser to the king and a member of the small council. The most recent men to hold the position were Jon Arryn and Ned Stark (Sean Bean), both of whom met untimely ends. At the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance)—who previously served as the Hand to the “Mad King”—was named The Hand to his grandson Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but as he is enmeshed in a war with Robb Stark, he instructed his younger son, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), to take the position in his stead.
Harrenhal: An enormous black-stoned castle that is reputed to be haunted and its owners cursed. Built by Harren the Black, the castle was attacked by Aegon the Conqueror, who used his dragons to melt the stone of the castle’s walls, killing Harren and his family. Since then, any lord who has been unlucky enough to reside over the castle has died horribly.
Ironborn, The: The self-given title of the inhabitants of the weathered archipelago known as The Iron Islands, who have their own belief system (see: The Drowned God) and their own sense of morality (see: Iron Price). Pirates and raiders, they are feared throughout the seven kingdoms for the harsh legacy of centuries of raping and pillaging. (See also: Iron Price, The.)
Iron Islands, The: An archipelago of seven islands located off the western coast of Westeros. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), a ward of the Starks, was raised here before he was taken as a hostage following his father’s rebellion (see: Greyjoy’s Rebellion); he’s the male heir to the region.
Ironmen: The title that Westerosi use to refer to residents of The Iron Islands, who call themselves The Ironborn.
Iron Price, The: An honor code among The Ironborn, who believe that something—whether a person or an item—should be taken by force, rather than bought. When something is claimed as the spoils of war or pillage, it is said to be bought with the “iron price,” whereas when something is paid for, it is known as the “gold price,” which is deeply frowned upon.
King-Beyond-The-Wall, The: A former member of the Night’s Watch, Mance Rayder, has united the so-called free folk (see: Wildlings) and proclaimed himself by this title, setting himself up as the ruler of the icy northern expanse beyond The Wall.
King of the North, The: The title bestowed on Robb Stark, who wishes to secede from the Seven Kingdoms and reestablish the North as its own kingdom once again.
Kraken: The symbol of House Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, a giant squid in gold on a black field. Their official motto is “We Do Not Sow.”
Lightbringer: The legendary sword of hero Azor Ahai that is said to be ablaze with fire. It is the subject of a prophecy: when the cold winds blow, a mighty warrior shall draw a blade from the fire and that sword will be Lightbringer and that warrior will be Azor Ahai returned. (See: Red Woman, The.)
Lord of Light, The: A name for the red deity worshipped primarily on Essos, a neighboring continent to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Priests who follow the red god are often known as “red priests” (see: Red Woman, The), who can perform miraculous acts. (See also: R’hllor.) The religion is based primarily on opposing forces of nature: the light, fire, and life that R’hllor represents pitted against the darkness, ice, and death of the nameless god who will be vanquished by the return of Azor Ahai. (See: Lightbringer.) Among one of the favored sayings of the Lord of Light’s followers (see: Red Woman, The) is: “For the night is dark and full of terrors.”
Mother of Dragons, The: A nickname given to Daenerys, who performed a miracle and “gave birth” to three dragons (see: Dragons), the first seen in several hundred years.
Oldtown: The oldest city in all of the Seven Kingdoms, this fortified city was build by the First Men, the early inhabitants of Westeros. It is also the location of the Citadel, the home and training center for the Maesters, the learned advisors of the lords of the realm. From here, the Maesters can release a White Raven to all of the corners of the continent to signal the end of summer.
Pyke: An island that is the ancestral seat of the Greyjoys, who rule over The Iron Islands. Pyke’s throne, the Seastone Chair, is currently occupied by Balon Greyjoy (see: Greyjoy Rebellion, The), father to Theon, and the island is comprised of a series of towers, haphazardly connected to one another by rope bridges.
Qarth: A walled port city—pronounced “Karth”—located on the southeast edge of Essos’ desert, The Red Waste, that is home to the Qartheen and their ruling class, The Pureborn. It is also home to a group of warlocks known as The Undying, who have blue lips from habitually drinking a powerful drug called shade-of-the-evening, which opens the gates of perception.
Queen Regent: The title given to Cersei (Lena Headey), after the death of her husband, King Robert Baratheon, and the ascension of her son, Joffrey, to the Iron Throne. Given that Joffrey has not yet reached the age of majority, Cersei still has a hand in the day-to-day running of the Kingdom.
Red Comet: A blood red comet that appears in the sky after the birth of Daenerys’ three dragons. Some view is as an omen of dread, of blood, of war, or of victory. The wildling Osha (Natalia Tena), who is now in the service of Bran Stark, believes it means only one thing: dragons.
Red Woman, The: A nickname given to the red priestess, Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who is currently in the inner circle of King Stannis Baratheon (see: War of Five Kings, The), who believes he has the best claim to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. She is a follower of the Lord of Light. (See also: R’hllor.) Melisandre believes that Stannis is the reincarnation of Azor Ahai (see: Lightbringer)
Red Waste, The: A barren desert on the continent of Essos where there is very little food or water and which seems to stretch on for eternity. Daenerys built the funeral pyre for her husband, Khal Drogo, here and hatched three dragons after being abandoned by her khlassar.
R’hllor: The fire god (see also: Lord of Light, The) worshipped by the red priests and residents of Essos, whose influence is growing in Westeros, particularly due to the conversion of Stannis Baratheon and his council. When the last of the dragons died, R’hllor’s power was said to wane considerably. But now that the dragons have returned…
Rock Wife: The legal spouse of a member of the Ironborn culture. (See also: Salt Wife.)
Salt Wife: Taken by the iron price, these are foreign women who are seized during raids by the Ironborn and viewed as concubines, rather than true wives.
Seastone Chair, The: The throne and seat of power of the Iron Islands.
Seven, The: The principal belief system introduced to Westeros when the Andals invaded the continent. (Before then, the inhabitants believed in the Old Gods.) The Seven represents a single deity with seven aspects: Father, Mother, Warrior, Maiden, Smith, Crone, and Stranger. While still the dominant religion in the Seven Kingdoms, some adherents are turning to the Lord of Light (see also: R’hllor), while residents of the Iron Islands have always been devout followers of the Drowned God.
Skinchanger: According to legend, a person who can enter into the mind of an animal and see through their eyes and control their bodies. If untrained, they enter into the minds of animals while they themselves are unconscious or asleep. (See also: Warg.)
Silent Sisters, The: A sworn sisterhood of women who devote their lives to service of The Stranger (see: Seven, The) and take vows of celibacy and silence. They prepare corpses for funerals and handle bodies and bones of those slain in battle.
Spider, The: The nickname for Small Council member Varys (Conleth Hill) the eunuch, whose whisperings are always well-informed and who appears to know everything going on in King’s Landing, as though he were a spider on the wall.
Wall, The: A 700-foot wall that acts as a barrier between the Seven Kingdoms and the icy wilds beyond, including the so-called Haunted Forest, which is guarded over by members of the Night’s Watch. While some believe the stories of what lies beyond the wall to be the stuff of superstition and childhood nightmares (downplaying them as “snarks and grumpkins”), it contains a very real threat in the form of the White Walkers and who knows what else… (See also: Wildlings.)
War of Five Kings, The: The second season of Game of Thrones revolves around the battle for the control of the Iron Throne. Spoiler alert: At one point, no fewer than five would-be rulers claim the title of monarch: Joffrey Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), Robb Stark, and Balon Greyjoy.
Warg: Another word for Skinchanger.
White Raven: A symbol that the long summer is coming to an end. Released by the Maesters of Oldtown to the great houses of Westeros, they are emblematic of the snow and cold to come. And after so many years of summer, it’s a harbinger of dark times.
White Walkers, The: An ancient race (known in Martin’s novels as The Others) who have not been seen or heard from in millennia and are now bogeymen in children’s fairy tales. However, during the events of the first season, it is clear that this ancient evil has awoken beyond The Wall and their presence again threatens the lives of everyone in Westeros. Their touch can seemingly turn the dead into mindless minions bent on killing. Jon Snow kills one such zombie by setting it on fire, burning his hand in the process and saving the life of Lord Commander Mormont (James Cosmo).
Wildlings: The barbarians—who refer to themselves as the “free folk”—who live beyond The Wall. Their raiding parties are stopped by the Night’s Watch, but lately the wildlings have been quiet and their villages emptied. Jon Snow’s uncle Benjen (Joseph Mawle), a ranger with the Night’s Watch, went beyond The Wall to discover why… and hasn’t been seen since.
“Winter Is Coming”: The official motto of House Stark (see: Hand of the King, The), who believe that dark days are always ahead, no matter how long the seemingly endless summer can last. It harkens back to a time 8,000 years earlier, when the White Walkers invaded Westeros. (See also: White Raven.)
Winterfell: The ancestral seat of House Stark, located in the North of Westeros (though below The Wall). Since the events of the show began, the only Starks remaining at Winterfell are Bran and Rickon.