In A Song of Ice and Fire each POV character has a very incomplete view of events and they often find themselves surprised, overtaken, or impacted by actions, intrigues and battles they have no knowledge of. Distance and secrecy are the two major limiting factors. Often events are far away and communicated only by hints and rumors. Just as often actions are close by but intentionally hidden by other actors. Then there are inequities in power, intelligence, and reliable sources information as well as dissimilarities in needs, desires, and ideology which can create mental distance in place of physical distance. The reader has greater knowledge of the political and magical events, but only up to a point, as this knowledge is based on a haphazard synthesis of incomplete (sometimes delusional) perspectives.
Similarly, every one of the POV characters of A Song of Ice and Fire has a very limited perception of the world system in which they live, what Illyrio Mopatis’s refers to as the “one great web.” All the factors that impede their knowledge of political and magical events also prevent them from seeing the disparities that exist between the different sections of the world in their economic relationships, political and technological development, and acquisition of knowledge. The Jade Sea, Southros, and Summer Isles are extremely far away. The Free Cities are only a short trip across the Narrow Sea, but the high lords, ladies, and learned of Westeros are largely ignorant of their inner workings and social complexity, which they generally perceive as far away and unimportant to their own society and its power struggles. Whenever they think of Near Essos they see only a ready source of mercenaries, ships, and capital, or a land of disgraced exiles and petty wars. The position these same lords and ladies occupy in world trade is principally limited to that of supplier, customer, and tax authority, with actual commerce left to lesser men. Most of the POVs are highborn Westerosi and hence on the periphery of the world system, physically and/or mentally. Consequently, the plans of those who reside at the center of the system or between the center and periphery, the merchant-bankers, corsair-kings, religious leaders, and spymasters of the Narrow Sea and East, are never discovered by the POVs, only revealed to them. And these revelations are fairly miserly ones at that, for it would not serve their purposes to fully confide the extent of their power or their ambitions to those they consider their instruments and victims (nor are they ones to normally confide in each other).
Readers are therefore largely informed about the East through Westerosi who have little understanding of Illyrio’s great web and consequently we see only the briefest of glimpses of the world system at work. Naturally these observations and interactions are very cursory in nature and often come off as relatively unimportant within the larger story: traders arguing in a marketplace, ships in a harbor, a list of goods, the citizenship of a lone sailor in a brothel, the ingredients of a dish, the outfits worn at court, the title of an office, the words chosen by an envoy, the offhand comment of a mercenary. But just as the reader gets a better sense of political and magical events as the story progresses, so the structures and movement of Illyrio’s occasionally glimpsed web come more and more into view as these fragmentary pieces of information accumulate. Picked out of the text and assembled together they form a mosaic of an underlying order upon which the events of the War of Five Kings and Daenerys’s Emancipation War play out. Continue reading