Bonhomme du Carnaval stands in front of the Iron Throne. The man next to him holds a sword made completely of ice and brings the frozen blade down upon a strand of solid water, shattering both. A castle looms to my right. This is a cold wedding, a frigid allegory of my entire life. HBO has partnered with the City of Quebec, and in spite of my usual brand cynicism, a special kind of magic has been revealed.
Yesterday, I was confused about why HBO would fly a small group of Canadian journalists to Quebec City to spend a night in the famous Hotel de Glace, the largest igloo in North America. Now, standing mere metres from Bonhomme (a cultural figure more magical than Santa Claus and the subject of at least 33 percent of my French language education) and a to-scale ice sculpture of one of the biggest pop culture icons of the past four years, I understand. Spectacle that invokes history is magic, and they way we access that magic today is through a shared love of symbols and stories.
The ice hotel is intimidating, made of weather and indifferent to life. But I survived because Game of Thrones provided a story that made it human, and the effect is no less powerful even if the story isn’t real.
Made completely out of ice and sporting an internal ambient temperature of -5 degrees celsius, the Hotel de Glace is at once beautiful and dangerous. Going on a tour to see the structure’s 44 snow suites gives one the impression that for all the strange human aesthetic, the building has the ability to kill you with cold, alien indifference. My room had two chairs made completely of naked ice; they were not for sitting. If one were to leave her phone on the bedside table over night, it would be consumed by the hotel. That was made clear during the half hour tutorial on how to sleep in ice rooms.
Like Castle Black, the residence of Jon Snow and his forsaken brothers at the Wall, the ice hotel is spectacular and cold. Aside from the threat of ice zombies, the Hotel de Glace is actually more hostile than Castle Black, since fire won’t melt the rooms and drown the watchers on the Wall in their sleep. As such, the dormitory at The Wall is probably a few toasty degrees warmer than the hotel’s sub zero accommodations.
After learning how to not die while sleeping, we were invited to the chapel. Our cold approach was met with torches, a red carpet and the Game of Thrones theme, while a light projected on the snow read “All Men Must Die”.
The spectacle continued inside. All of the drinks were specially concocted GoT themed potions presented in giant ice cube glasses with on-brand emblazoning. House banners adorned the walls and an interactive map of Westeros served as the room’s focal point. We were invited to sit on the chamber’s ice pews while Brian Blazik, HBO’s vice president for Canada and Latin America, stood next to an altar that held up a baby with White Walker eyes.
Reality and fantasy merged thanks to clever marketing and amazing location scouting. When Blazik hit play on the Game of Thrones Season Four BluRay trailer (I realize how crazy this sounds), I felt energized. The House Banners on the wall seemed more real, the prop swords and armor stuck in the snow felt more tangible, the cold air that I was breathing became crisper.
The trailer brought intense dramatic memories to the front of my mind as the ice chapel changed from an ephemeral space without a past into a place with strong historical importance. It was already good, but now it felt comfortable and familiar. It felt like it belonged in Game of Thrones.
Time plays a key role in television. Schedules keep rolling, and a viewer can measure the experience in hours. We tell stories with a beginning, middle and end.
The same goes for the Hotel de Glace. It is open to the public for roughly the same amount of time it takes to air a season of Game of Thrones, after which it is destroyed and then reconstructed all over again. Each year the hotel has a new theme – this year the concept is Space-Time, and every suite represents a new era in history – but the cycle takes place in the same location and is always a spectacle.
In fact, comparing a season of Game of Thrones to an iteration of the Hotel de Glace highlights the way that time can amplify spectacle. GoT’s production schedule is lengthy and demanding, utilizing sets around the world, some of which can only be used in certain seasons due to weather considerations. Spread across two production units, the year long effort culminates in ten hours of television that’s only new once.
Similarly, the Hotel de Glace is ephemeral. Its three-month existence ends when heavy machinery smashes it back to the water cycle. Unlike Game of Thrones, a particular iteration of the ice hotel can’t be experienced again a year later. By the time I work up the nerve to spend another night in a cold, strange sci-fi bedroom, it will no longer exist.
But there is a history echoed in the city it calls home. Though the Hotel de Glace is 15 years old, Quebec City is among the oldest cities in North America, and is the only fortified city north of Mexico with walls still standing. There is an atmosphere that comes with age. Quebec has it and so does Game of Thrones.
History is essential in fantasy genre storytelling. Just as a glance at the massive Chateau Frontenac instills a sense of the past, the name of a character’s ancestor in Game of Thrones fills in the gaps of the world outside the camera frame.
The combination is what caused the transformation in atmosphere. The ephemeral and transient nature of the Hotel de Glace blended with the implied history of Game of Thrones evoked in the trailer. Theatrically, the spectacle of the ice hotel was filled with the past of Game of Thrones and both ended up feeling more tangible because of it.
Was I really more excited about a trailer for a TV show I’ve already watched multiple times than I was about interacting with the massive spectacle of the ice hotel? That wasn’t quite the case, but it was close.
“The Watchers on the Wall”, the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, ends with handsome bastard Jon Snow finding one of his brothers lying dead in the tunnel that leads North of the Wall. Grenn died fighting a giant – not just a tall man, but an angrier, axe-wielding version of a fairy tale monster – and despite all odds, he won. The last we as viewers saw of him, he was reciting an oath as the monster charged. It was a story that he told himself, a false one at that, but it gave him the will to defy the odds and save his brothers.
The stories that we love are real to us. We know they are false, inasmuch as they didn’t happen, but the truths resonate with as much weight as history. In fact, the History of Quebec City (or anywhere else in the world) is perhaps even less real to me than the events of Game of Thrones, a TV adaptation of some fantasy novels. Both are stories that I have not experienced first hand. One happened and the other was fabricated. But only one has the ability to transform an empty and cold space into something deeply meaningful.
Game of Thrones is like Grenn’s oath: a story that we know is false, but we desperately want to believe because it helps us deal with our littleness. We don’t ride dragons, we aren’t the giants breaking down doors, and we aren’t the slayers of monsters or magical knights. We’re just small weak humans living under the spectacle of our own personal ice hotels, and stories help us survive the night.