What I Learned on My Vacation to Westeros

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What I Learned on My Vacation to Westeros

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was published in 1940, at a time when Europe was consumed by a war of unprecedented scale and violence, but the postscript is written from the future vantage of 1947. For all that the story is rooted in a speculative conceit, it demands to be read as a political fable about the ease with which reality yields to the coherence of fantasy. “Ten years ago,” Borges writes, “any symmetry with a semblance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism — was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?”

It was two weeks later, and we were in the cave where Melisandre had given birth to a shadow creature, and our guide, Brian, a wiry man with fervent eyes and a volatile wit, was talking about the varied quality of some of the other “Thrones” tour operators that were out there in the early days of the boom. One week he’d notice a guy on his tour taking photos and jotting down notes, and the next week he’d arrive at a location to find the same guy giving a tour himself, regurgitating Brian’s material, messing up his jokes. Like his colleague Robbie, Brian took great pride in his stint as an extra on the show, and the repertoire of anecdotes he had thereby accrued.

Since the peace process, Belfast had developed a cottage industry in so-called black-cab tours of loyalist and nationalist neighborhoods, and of the elaborate murals variously honoring terrorists, hunger strikers, political prisoners, colonial conquerors and so on. Many of the guides on these tours, Brian noted, were themselves former paramilitary members. It was his contention that a lot of them had sensed the change in the prevailing market winds and pivoted away from Troubles tourism to “Thrones” tourism. He himself had been in some borderline-hairy situations with these guys, he said. There was, for instance, an unpleasant incident a while back at Ballintoy Harbour, the location for the Iron Islands scenes on the show, He’d been on the beach taking a photo with his tour group, all dressed up in cloaks and broadswords, and one of these new tour guides showed up with his own smaller group — plastic swords, chintzy cloaks — and asked if he could get in on the photo. Brian suspected his competitor was planning to use the photo for publicity on his own Facebook page, and declined the request, at which point the man drew his gift-shop cutlass and challenged him to a duel. What seemed like a playful gesture, Brian said, was palpably the vector of a sincere threat. But he wasn’t afraid of these men. If you’d done time on the set of “Game of Thrones,” he said, there wasn’t much that could scare you.

Brian’s guiding style was very different from Robbie’s. For all I knew, it was entirely unique. Of all the consumer-facing tourism sector workers I had ever encountered, he was by some distance the most foulmouthed. Within minutes of leaving the pickup point that morning, he was delivering an unexpectedly gritty monologue about the importance of punctuality with respect to the day’s itinerary. He wasn’t going to miss a location, he intoned, because someone had decided to take time into their own hands. “I don’t drop locations,” he said. “I drop people.”

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