World of his own
When the red carpet was rolled out at Freemasons’ Hall for A Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, 1,400 devoted fans came to see the king of epic fantasy fiction. Sarah Holmes takes a trip to the Seven Kingdoms
Staff at Freemasons’ Hall are accustomed to seeing visitors explore this glorious Art Deco building from time to time. They’re even used to seeing fashionistas queue around the block to get a glimpse of the latest sartorial creations during London Fashion Week. But when a medieval warrior showed up on the steps this summer… well, that was something they weren’t quite prepared for.
Wielding an old-fashioned war hammer, the bearded warrior lumbered back and forth, drawing a fascinated crowd on the piazza opposite. Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will have, of course, recognised him as Robert Baratheon, the ferocious ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and a central character in George RR Martin’s wildly successful fantasy fiction series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
The actor portraying Baratheon on this occasion was one of a medley of costume players tasked with bringing Martin’s captivating world to life as part of an elaborate publishing event in late August.
‘Harper Voyager presents George RR Martin and Robin Hobb in conversation’ sought to unite two of fantasy fiction’s greatest exponents in an exclusive interview that saw more than 1,400 fans descend on Freemasons’ Hall. A further 5,000 people tuned in online, courtesy of a Blinkbox live-streaming service.
‘It garnered a lot of attention,’ says Karen Haigh, Head of Events at the Hall. ‘More than one million people tweeted and posted about the event on social media, and inside, the Grand Temple was filled from the main floor right up to the balconies.’
The live streaming aspect posed a new challenge for the team at the Hall. ‘It takes a lot of equipment to produce a live webcast, so it was a feat trying to integrate that into a Grade II listed building,’ says Karen. ‘But our IT specialists worked tirelessly to make it happen.’
While the fantasy fiction community convened upstairs, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the man dubbed the American Tolkien, in the rest of the building it was business as usual. ‘We organise our events so there’s no disruption to the meetings,’ says Karen. ‘The members are used to seeing queues of people, but for this event I think they were quite fascinated. Many would have liked to have attended themselves.’
Remarkably, very little was added to the temple to distract from its intricate features. Three golden thrones were mounted on a stage, but otherwise there was a refreshing lack of gimmickry. From the carved illustrations on the hefty bronze doors to the vivid mosaic cornice depicting Pythagoras and Euclid, the rich architecture of the Hall was enough to capture the audience’s attention.
‘We wanted somewhere grand and fantastical,’ says Jane Johnson, longtime editor of both authors and chair for the event. ‘Great halls and exotic palaces feature in both writers’ literature, so it felt very apt. Although it’s fiction, there’s a historical element to the books, which was beautifully channelled through the Grand Temple.’
‘It’s fiction, but there’s a historical element to the books, which was beautifully channelled though the Grand Temple.’ Jane Johnson
Martin’s intensely constructed saga of a wealthy dynasty overthrown by popular revolt draws inspiration from history – defying the magical expectations of the genre. It is this penchant for antiquity, from an author who used to submit historical fiction instead of academic essays to his college professors, that helped to endear his novels to a mainstream audience.
Back in the Grand Temple, visitors craned their necks to get a better view of the magnificent artwork on the ceiling. It was a heartening sight for Karen. ‘It proves that it’s not some secret society,’ she says. ‘Freemasonry is a modern organisation with traditional values. It has an incredible history that everyone is welcome to discover through places like Freemasons’ Hall.’
That message rang true for Johnson, who had always harboured an interest in the Craft: ‘I’ve always been struck by the beauty of Freemasons’ Hall, but I never expected to go inside, let alone host an event. I’d always thought women weren’t allowed into the inner sanctum, but we were made to feel incredibly welcome. I know George and Robin loved it.’
For Robin Hobb, this was the latest in a long line of events promoting her most recent novel, Fool’s Assassin. However, it was a rare appearance for Martin at a time when there were concerns over his health and whether he would finish the last book in the series. All rumours were deftly quashed as he cut a spry figure on stage.
It wasn’t long before conversation turned to the inspiration and lives of the authors, with both Hobb and Martin providing candid insights never volunteered in an interview before.
‘I’ve been to sold-out events before,’ remarks Johnson, ‘but none could rival the atmosphere of this one. It was bigger and yet intimate – a truly marvellous evening.’