Living in a fantasy world with Game of Thrones

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As the historical epic Game of Thrones returns for a new series, Sarah Hughes meets the fans who prefer role-play to reality

It's the babies that suggest Game of Thrones fans might be more devoted than most. George R R Martin, the author of the best-selling fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire on which the television series is based, has a fan section on his website, a little corner where readers can send him things to tickle his fancy. There are cakes baked in the style of the great Stark castle of Winterfell, intricate dragon tattoos bearing the Targaryen words “Fire and Blood” and most of all there are pictures of babies. Babies called Arya and Bran and Sansa, toddlers named Tyrion and Daenerys beaming gummily, little Jaimes and Rickons grinning at something just out of shot.

“There are definitely a bunch of people out there named after characters from the series,” admits Elio Garcia, who runs Westeros.org, the biggest fan community for the Song of Ice and Fire series with more than 56,000 members. “Lots of people have named pets Ghost [after Jon Snow's silent direwolf] as well.”

The devotion doesn't stop there. Committed fans, many of whom refer to themselves as The Brotherhood without Banners in reference to an outlaw group from the series, do everything from role playing and running Tumblr and Twitter accounts in the name of Martin's characters to selling striking prints, customised playing cards and intricate jewellery on Etsy and eBay.

It's also a fanbase that is growing by the day. Like The Sopranos and Mad Men, Game of Thrones, which returns to Sky Atlantic tonight, is at that point when it is moving beyond its core base and into mass culture. Not only is it both HBO and Sky Atlantic's most watched show (pulling in nearly 12 million viewers for the former and 5.6 million for the latter), it was also the most pirated TV show on the internet last year with 4.3 million downloads per episode and one of the fastest- selling DVD releases of the year.

Other television shows from Glee and 30 Rock to The Thick of It and Peep Show are falling over themselves to reference it. Sports Illustrated launched its Power 50 issue by featuring NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the Iron Throne of Westeros (the kingdom at the heart of the show) while The Economist used it to discuss conflict between technology giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Meanwhile, the internet is filled with pastiche videos and tributes to the show's anti-heroes and heroines, and Swedish power-metal band HammerFall even recorded a song about the Night's Watch called “Take the Black”.

Most tellingly of all, you could barely move in the US this Halloween for people dressed as Game of Thrones characters: there were Jon Snows huddled under thick black cloaks, Robert Baratheons, war hammers in hand, and an army of Daenerys Targaryens, blond wigs flowing and dragons perched on their shoulder. It seems that everyone wants to be Khaleesi, if only for a day.

So why this show and why now? “Even in the age of Netflix and on- demand access to everything, there's still something to be said about building hype around a show you have to wait for each week,” says Jacob Klein, editor of HBOWatch.com, adding that Game of Thrones is “clearly the cable network's flagship programme right now… the material is so deep that there's just so much to talk about and have visceral reactions to. That's part of what fuels the hype.”

It's also the case that Game of Thrones with its epic tale of a divided kingdom, its portentous strap line “Winter Is Coming” and its willingness to throw in a gratuitous sex scene every 20 minutes or so, is ripe for send-ups. As such it's been parodied on everything from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons while one of the best moments in the final season of The Thick of It was the discovery that slimy Conservative lackey Phil is a huge fan.

At the same time, those parodies only work because the world created by Martin and adapted for television by David Benioff and D B Weiss is so compelling. If Game of Thrones was hokum the references would fall flat – instead it's well crafted, wittily scripted and just over the top enough to keep you tuning in each week. “The show – and the books – have such a wide range of influences from real history such as the Hundred Years War to things like horror and more obvious fantasy elements, and that appeals to a wide range,” says Adam Whitehead, who runs UK fantasy blog The Wertzone. “It brings together fans of The Walking Dead, The Tudors, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.”

As such, television networks are falling over themselves to find the next Game of Thrones. Television schedules are filling up with historical dramas from The White Queen to Marco Polo or big budget fantasy fare such as Da Vinci's Demons and upcoming pirate drama Crossbones. As Adrian Hodges, the scriptwriter behind the BBC's new adaptation of The Three Musketeers, recently admitted: “Game of Thrones is a reference point. It's a much more sexual and violent world than the one we're going to create but in the sense of the seriousness and reality of it.” Similarly, David S Goyer, the writer behind Da Vinci's Demons, said he hoped his show would “appeal to Game of Thrones fans”, adding “people are loving historical fantasy and escapism right now, which tends to happen when times are hard and there's uncertainty in the world.”

For the original fan base, the show's growth is a mixed blessing. “It is hard not to think back to the days when the forum had a couple of hundred people on it and miss that perspective,” admits Garcia. “You know how it is, some of the older members have that sense of 'oh we liked it before it was cool' like when you discover a band before anyone else.”

Not that Garcia is really complaining. He and his fiancé Linda Antonsson have served as unofficial consultants on the television series and are finishing work on The World of Ice and Fire, a companion book to the novels, due out later this year. “It's certainly true that the show is booming in popularity,” he says. “It's at that point in zeitgeist where it seems as though everyone is talking about it.”

'Game of Thrones' returns to Sky Atlantic HD tonight at 9pm. The first two seasons will also be available on On Demand

Hit and myth: Game of Thrones goodies

'Game of Thrones' accounts for 75 per cent of all HBO Europe's branded-goods sales, making it the fastest-growing merchandise property for the cable channel globally, outpacing previous hits 'Sex and the City' and 'True Blood'.

Dragon's Egg Paperweight

Ok, so it won't hatch dragon babies but it's pretty to look at and a girl can dream. £45.

Game of Thrones trainers, Hear Me Roar bag and key chain

Let your feet do the talking in customised Converse All Stars. £78. Carry them in the Hear Me Roar bag and get back inside with the Lannister keychain

Game of Thrones playing cards

See if Queen Cersei can trump King Joffrey or if the Mother of Dragons beats all with this customised deck of cards. £7.46 plus shipping.

Iron Throne Beer

What's better than watching 'Game of Thrones'? Watching 'Game of Thrones' while drinking specially themed beer of course.

Life-sized Iron Throne

Yes, that's right, it's a life-sized copy of the Iron Throne. Yours for only $30,000 – one for the wealthy despot in your life.

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