Until we read Laura Miller's April 11th New Yorker piece on fantasy, horror and sci-fi writer George RR Martin, we didn't know much about HBO's new Game of Thrones, except that it's an American medieval fantasy TV show based on Martin's series A Song of Fire And Ice about seven kingdoms, a battle for a throne, and warring noble families (and that while many TV critics loved it, at least one one was spit-roasted for the crime of categorizing it as strictly boy TV).
Then something in Miller's excellent piece -- which was primarily an exploration of the fantasy fiction writer's sometimes turbulent relationship with parts of his fan base -- jumped out at us. At annual gatherings in various cities, Martin sends his followers -- more often than not people who have traveled from elsewhere and therefore are unfamiliar with their surroundings -- out to locate and bring back food for which in return they are officially knighted. The way Miller described the "quests," they sounded like a fun, low-tech, one night version of Amazing Race, or maybe a scavenger hunt that also involves eating, lots of beer, bragging rights to a crazy evening well spent, and getting a nickname bequeathed from a hero. We wanted to know more!
In our interview, we speak to David M. McCaman, a San Francisco-based marketing executive, founder of the George RR Martin internet forum, Brotherhood without Banners and a long-time Martin-anointed knight himself. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: According to lore, the quests began with a George RR Martin fan, a request and a late night drive en masse to 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly for a cheesesteak. Details please.
David M. McCaman: The first real gathering of all the fans that had met through message boards was in 2001 at the WorldCon in Philadelphia. One of our guests at our fan club party, who was also a member from the BwB message boards, wanted George to knight him. Of course, George being George said, "You can't be a true knight without a vigil and a quest..."
SI: ...and at some point, it was decided that the quest involved getting a Philly cheesesteak at Pat's King of Steaks. Why there? Was it the allusion to royalty in the name? Or is it that owner Pat Olivieri is held to be the originator of the Philly cheesesteak?
DM: In Philadelphia there is Pat's King of Steaks and across the street there is Geno's Steaks. There's always a war between Pat's and Geno's over who has the better cheesesteak. Pat's is the one George preferred, so we all went there. Around 2 or 3 a.m., George used the sword that one of the BWB members brought and knighted everyone and gave them a name, called them Ser or Dame and knighted each and every one.
SI: Wait, wait, WAIT. A sword? Someone just happened to have a SWORD with them?
DM: Someone brought a [prop] sword to the hotel room where the party was. It was WorldCon -- there were lots of people dressing up, lots of fantasy and science fiction authors. So, yes, he brought his sword along [to Pat's].
SI: So you're saying that it wasn't particularly unusual that someone had a sword with them?
DM: No, but I imagine that it was pretty unusual being in front of Pat's Steaks at 3 a.m. with [George] holding a sword, knighting people. It was the only [quest] that he actually went on. Usually the people [who are being knighted] go off and bring the food back. But that one he came out with us and shared right in front of Pat's.
SI: Let's backtrack a little bit. Describe this quest-worthy cheesesteak.
DM: It was fantastic. George recommended that everyone go with the original, which is the basic cheesesteak with [Cheez] Whiz. But other people had the provolone or with Whiz, some got them with banana peppers or hot peppers as well.
SI: How did the visit to Pat's morph into a long-held tradition?
DM: The original group went back to the message boards and were talking to each other and putting signatures on their posts like "Ser So-and-So, Knight of the Cheesesteak" and had pictures of George knighting them. By the next year, it was just an anticipated thing for new people to do. From there, it just became a tradition that after or before the BWB party, the new members who hadn't been knighted yet would go off and seek local food that George wants to have.
SI: Describe the knighting ceremony itself. What exactly happens?
DM: You get down on one knee, George will put the sword on your shoulders then he will take your name or your nickname -- most people have nicknames -- and he will give you a "Ser" or a "Dame," depending on if you are male or female, then he will come up with a second nickname for you. Like the first guy, the guy from the steaks who brought the sword, he drove George [to Pat's] in his car -- while we all took cabs -- and got totally lost. So George called him Ser Aghrivaine the Wanderer.
SI: What kind of transportation is required in a quest?
DM: It usually depends on the size. Early on it was a few taxis. Later, as it got more people it was smaller groups of people would go together -- some people would drive cars, pile into a car or truck, some people would get taxis. When there was the haggis mission in Glasgow, Scotland where a couple of guys were really smart: Instead of going out on the town for hours, trying to find the best haggis for George, these guys went down to the hotel [kitchen] and the chefs made haggis for them and they became The Knights of the Haggis.
SI: If we had attended the Los Angeles Con in 2006 what quest food would we have been seeking out?
DM: We must have had close to a hundred fans at LA Con and George sent everyone off from there to Pink's. They became the Knights of the Pink's Dogs.
SI: Pink's? Pink's is in Hollywood. The LA WorldCon was at the Anaheim Convention Center. That's a roughly 70 mile round-trip hot dog run. Are all quests distance-based -- or do they sometimes require creative problem solving?