A beginner's guide to Game of Thrones
If you're not already a fan, chances are you find all this dragon and incest stuff baffling. Ahead of the new series of the hit show, our reporter has a useful guide to the essential facts
The hype surrounding season six of Game of Thrones is off the charts. An early trailer for the swords and sorcery romp nearly broke the internet. The non-appearance of actor Kit Harington - aka moody heartthrob Jon Snow - on the red carpet at last week's LA premiere of the latest run of episodes generated international headlines. Teasers for the new series seem to be running every three minutes on Sky Atlantic, ahead of the show's April 25 return.
But what if you belong to the minority which has somehow avoided the GoT bandwagon? Fifty hours in, this sprawling tale of feuding nobles, rampaging dragons and gratuitousness toplessness is an intimidating proposition. For the newcomer, a multitude of questions present themselves. Why is everybody so nasty? Who are we supposed to cheer for? How come that brother and sister are slobbering all over one another? Fret not, as we have assembled the ultimate GoT beginners' guide.
It's fantasy - but not fantastical
Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are most people's idea of fantasy. Brimming with sex and violence, GoT is something else entirely. A list of the series's most shocking sequences would run to several pages. Suffice to say, they include a pregnant mother stabbed through the belly and a torture victim having his undercarriage sliced off.
There's an Irish connection
The beating heart of GoT is the vast Paint Hall Studio in Belfast. Once part of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, today this yawning network of warehouses is home to such iconic GoT sets as the Great Hall at King's Landing (and the iconic Iron Throne), Harrenhal, Castle Black and Winterfell. The surrounding countryside has been pressed into service too, with outdoor scenes shot at Tollymore Forest and the Mourne Mountains.
Among the Irish actors to have featured prominently are Aidan Gillen (Lord Petyr Baelish), Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton), Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth) and Jack Gleeson (King Joffrey).
There are lots of bad guys - and one or two heroes
If you're looking for someone to chuck your popcorn at as you watch, may we suggest the leading members of House Lannister? Cersei and Jaime are psychotic twins engaged in a life-long incestuous affair. Their cruel father Tywin was meanwhile killed by his third child Tyrion, who shot him through the heart with a crossbow after finding him sleeping with the prostitute Tyrion had pledged to marry.
And we haven't even mentioned Cersei and Jaime's sociopathic son Joffrey, whom she passed off as the child of her cuckolded husband King Robert Baratheon. When Robert - an enthusiastic glutton in the Henry VIII tradition - died in a suspicious accident, Joffrey was crowned regent and ruled with notable viciousness (even by GoT standards). But he's dead now - poisoned by the aunt of his betrothed, who could not stand to see her beloved niece shackled to such an ogre.
Let's talk about those heroes…
Tough luck if you're searching for a good guy to rally around. His name was Ned Stark and they killed him off in the very first season. The shock death of the noble ruler of House Stark and King of the North was a shot across the bows of GoT fans. In this universe, nice guys don't hang about too long.
There have, it is true, been one or two vaguely decent protagonists since. Ned's son Robb (dead), Stannis Baratheon (dead), Jon Snow (dead, we're told), Ser Jorah Mormont (infected with a deadly virus, so… probably dead).
There are lots of strong ladies
The great contradiction swirling through GoT is its treatment of female characters. The series has often used rape and sexual violence as cheap plot devices and, in its early years, was full of semi-clad actresses shaking their lady bits.
At the same time, GoT has given us some of the outstanding female protaganists in the annals of recent television. Take flinty Arya Stark, Ned's youngest daughter and a young woman determined to shape her own destiny, even if she must kill to do so. Just as strong, in her way, is older sister Sansa - a ditzy teen who has grown into a resourceful power-player. Perhaps the most powerful female character, however, is Daenerys , the "Mother of Dragons" of House Targaryen. The sole surviving member of the family that ruled the Seven Kingdom for generations, she has grown up in exile and is plotting the overthrow of the Baratheon-Lannister dynasty.
You've probably heard of this Jon Snow guy
The "Bastard of Winterfell" was introduced as the illegitimate off-spring of nice Ned Stark. But hints as to his true lineage have been dropped with ever greater frequency and it appeared he was about to become one of the most influential figures in the series. And then, at the end of last season, he was killed off.
Is he coming back? That is a question the internet has wrapped itself in knots debating the past 12 months. All may - or may not - be revealed next week.
Did we mentioned the apocalyptic horde of snow zombies?
As if backstabbing royals weren't enough Westeros also has to reckon with an army of blood-thirsty reanimated corpses, known as the White Walkers. They've been nibbling at the fringes of the story over the past few seasons. But last year they made their grand entrance with perhaps the best ever episode of GoT.
If you are looking for an entry point, this is where to begin as 'Hardhome' tells the straightforward tale of Jon Snow travelling north with some friendly eskimo-barbarians only to be overwhelmed by a mob of homicidal undead. By the time the terrifying Night's King - aka rule of the White Walkers - makes his entrance, we guarantee you will be hooked.
Game of Thrones season six: what are the burning questions?
1. Is Jon Snow dead? The moody warrior was stabbed by his fellow members of the Night's Watch after he allied with the unruly Wildlings. But what of rumours that priestess Melisandre will bring him back from the dead?
2. What happened to Daenerys Targaryen? The "Mother of Dragons" was saved from a deadly ambush by her pet flying lizard, who deposited her on a mysterious steppe surrounded by barbarians. What next for the fiery ruler?
3. Is Arya blind? The Stark princess abandoned her new vocation as an assassin to take revenge on an old enemy. She was promptly struck blind. Is it permanent?
4. How will Cersei take her revenge? Cersei Lannister was forced to undertake a humiliating walk of antonement after an affair with her cousin emerged. She is certain to pursue vengeance against the religious fundamentalists who inflicted this punishment, but how? And what part with will returning brother/lover Jaime play?
5. What's up with Bran Stark? The Stark princeling didn't feature at all in season five. We last saw him making the acquaintance of of a mysterious wizard, the "Three-eyed Raven".
6. Will Tyrion prove a wise ruler? With Daenerys gone, Tyrion Lannister is in charge of the eastern city of Meereen. How will he deal with the restive locals and the Sons of the Harpy insurgents? He's a canny politician, but the unrest appears intractable.
7. What about those flashbacks? Trailers for season six have hinted at a flashback to Robert's Rebellion and the birth of Jon Snow. What secrets will they reveal?
8. What about Ser Jorah's Greyscale? The loyal knight contracted the fatal condition in the course of his on-the-road adventures with Tyrion. How long can he keep the secret?
9. Is Theon Greyjoy back? Broken in mind and spirit (and turned into a eunuch) by Ramsay Bolton, Theon is a parody of a man. But he helped Sansa flee Winterfell - a hint that he has remembered his true self?
10. Is Sansa free? Forced to marry evil Ramsay Bolton, Lady Stark jumped to freedom from the battlements of Winterfell. Can she escape the Boltons?