HBO’s Game of Thrones

Getting Medieval on Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards

Like millions of other devotees, I was glued to my television to witness the most recent episode of HBO’s astoundingly popular Game of Thrones. I love the show, even when its characters annoy me, and “The Battle of the Bastards” (Season 6, episode 9) promised to feature an epic medieval battle.

Since I’m a medieval military historian as part of my day job, this means that my viewing of the episode constituted “research,” and that I have quite a few thoughts about just how medieval the Battle of the Bastards (BoB) really was. In discussing my reactions, it should go without saying that SPOILERS abound for the episode. Also, some of this is a bit graphic. You’ve been warned.

During the after-show interviews that aired on HBO, Game of Thrones producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff—who co-wrote the script for this episode—stated that they indeed wanted a big “medieval” battle, and that they based the BoB sequence on the historical Battle of Cannae. This is odd, to say the least, since the Middle Ages roughly date from 500 to 1500 CE, whereas the Battle of Cannae occurred on 2 August 216 BCE—seven centuries before we get to the medieval period. Miguel Sapochnik, the director of the episode, has subsequently filled in that rather wide gap. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says

Initially we based BoB on the battle of Agincourt which took place between the French and English in 1415. But as needs changed, as did budgets, it became more like the battle of Cannae between the Romans and Hannibal in 216 BC.

In other words, BoB is an ancient battle fought with medieval military technologies.

The correspondence between BoB and Cannae revolves around the primary battle plan: to envelop the opposing force and crush it. At Cannae, Hannibal had brought his Carthaginian forces down from the “wall” of the Alps (his path through them, long a mystery, may have recently been found) and had been ravaging the Italian countryside for two years when he was met by a Roman army on the plain beside the Aufidus River, about 14km west of the coastal city of Barletta today. Hannibal was outnumbered: ancient sources report he had perhaps 50,000 men and was opposed by more than 86,000. While these are inflated numbers, to be sure—such accounts are notoriously unreliable when it comes to accounting—the general proportion of the armies in the field is probably roughly accurate.

The armies at Cannae formed up as parallel lines, but when the Romans surged forward into them, the Carthaginian center was pushed or fell back. Whether or not this action was deliberate or just dumb luck after the fact has long been debated among scholars. One’s answer, perhaps not surprisingly, generally depends on what one thinks of Hannibal’s brilliance as a military strategist. Regardless, the Romans pressed their advance and as the Carthaginian flanks held while the center receded, Hannibal’s lines bent into a great crescent and then, at last, held their ground. Though for a moment they had surely thought they would drive Hannibal in flight from the field—which was and is the desired outcome of a battle, since it allows one to cut down the panicked and fleeing opponent with relative ease—the Romans now found themselves surrounded by him on three sides. And when Hannibal ordered his flanks to press forward, the Romans were further packed in until they were encircled and slaughtered.

The Battle of Cannae.

The Battle of Cannae.

It is this same tactic, called a pincer movement, that Jon Snow and his Team Stark war council intended to unleash upon Ramsay Bolton’s larger forces in BoB: like Hannibal, they planned to use their enemy’s superior numbers against him. Hemmed in, those numbers would crowd and impede one another. And the results would have been catastrophic for the Boltons.

The fact that the Starks instead ended up on the receiving end of this same kind of pincer movement is a testament both to Ramsay’s cunning and Jon’s imbecility as a leader. (Seriously, not only did Jon abandon his plan completely, but he failed to give any directions or orders once he did; it was a total Leeroy Jenkins, which never goes down in the annals of great leadership.)

The Battle of the Bastards, mimicking the Battle of Cannae.

The Battle of the Bastards, mimicking the Battle of Cannae.

In terms of reality, we might say so far so good: the tactics in BoB are known from history, and the way that Benioff and Weiss flipped the script on the predictive outcome was rather clever.

There were also some great moments of realism within the action on screen. I would be hard-pressed to think of a better sequence at capturing the horrible chaos of medieval battle. I applaud Sapochnik for keeping the camera in the thick of the tumult with Jon rather than going for the grand panoramic shot as directors often do. It was a brilliant decision that left me riveted as a medievalist.

Indeed, throughout that intense sequence I kept thinking of the Battle of Crécy, one of the most famous battles of the Hundred Years’ War. We have a few eyewitness accounts of that battle, including that of an anonymous fighter from the Low Countries, who wrote of what he saw:

Men hunted there all so bitterly;
No man wished to give way to the other;
Men split many a helmet,
so that the entire brain and blood
out of the head must fall.
Of the bitter battle we cannot describe,
For it was so horrible and so ghastly.
Eight helmets sprang from four.
Many bodies were struck down,
So that the intestines spilled out;
Men hewed off arms and legs
in the terrible chaos of battle.
Soldiers trampled many under foot,
Who nevermore rose again nor stood.
They came to a heap on both sides.
No one could avoid the other;
Men fought bitterly forward and back.
The sword went up and down.
Each slew there another lord;
The horses leapt all asunder.
The screams and shouts were so great
That they frightened even the dead,
To there many men were sent.
No affair had ever been so bitter;
Those killed and those wounded,
Their blood leapt there like rivers:
It was horrible to see.

(“Rhyming Chronicle,” trans. Kelly DeVries)

The terror and the tumult that I saw in BoB captured the trauma of this experience better than anything I have seen. And it went even further, as Jon finds himself trampled by the living and nearly buried by the dead, an awful truth of medieval conflicts. Another man who survived the Battle of Crécy, for instance, was the herald Colins of Beaumont. In his own poem recounting the tragedy of the battle, he writes of living men still being pulled from the likes of corpses strewn upon the field … three days after the fighting was done.

The piled dead.

The piled dead visible behind the Starks’ line.

So there was much in BoB that I liked as a medievalist, much that rang true.

Alas, not everything did.

Take, for instance, the armoring of the men involved. The average ten-year-old knows you shouldn’t ride a bike without a helmet, but apparently no one of any importance on either side—not Jon, not Ramsay, not Ser Davos, Tormund, Wun-Wun, or anyone else I can think of—has heard about this potentially life-saving invention. It’s astounding. And sure, I know the director wants us to be able to recognize Jon in the fighting, but there’s got to be a way to do this that doesn’t make him look like a bloody fool. For crying out loud, folks, if you can’t think to put a helmet on before entering a medieval melee, you’re a dead man walking (rimshot).

Another problem was Ramsay ordering his archers to shoot indiscriminately on his own men in order to pile up the dead. I suppose the notion the writers had was to show us how evil this particular bastard is, but as an audience we have long known that Ramsay is the moral equivalent of a dumpster fire behind the downtown Denny’s. We didn’t need the reminder.

Besides which, it’s an entirely irrational and ahistorical act: who would subsequently follow a man who so carelessly tosses away the lives of his followers? As Kelly DeVries points out, it’s simply unheard of. Such a leader would awake in chains or worse. It’s not as if the world of Westeros follows a theocratic regime of divine right of kingship that might (but still probably not) convince men to skip to their deaths so readily. Here, I suspect the show’s creative team wasn’t inspired so much by history (nothing like it happens at Cannae, Agincourt, or any other battle they’re likely to know) as by the movies: a strikingly parallel scene occurs in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. There, it is the wicked English King Edward I who orders his archers to loose on the massed melee during a very, um, creative version of the Battle of Falkirk. When one of his officers points out that they’ll hit their own soldiers, King Edward (Patrick McGoohan) turns to him and says “Yes, but we’ll hit theirs, as well. We have reserves. Attack!” (Watch here, starting at 4:00 mark.)

I’ll grant that Braveheart might be a fun movie, but it sure isn’t history, folks. The Battle of Stirling Bridge ought to have involved both a bridge and a river. There was no prima nocte (“first night”) practice. Isabella, the French-born princess who falls in love with Gibson’s William Wallace was only nine years old when he died and still living in France. And oh gods the fact that all the Scots are in plaids … well, suffice it to say that when it comes to history Braveheart is almost as loony as Gibson has sometimes been.

So BoB had some fantastic medieval elements, and it had some elements that were just plain fantastical. Of course we can’t expect a fantasy to match reality. And I well understand the need to add creative twists for dramatic effect. In my novel The Shards of Heaven, for instance, I retold the naval Battle of Actium between the forces of the future Augustus Caesar and those of Antony and Cleopatra. It’s very likely that in real-life the sun was shining that day, but I thought it more interesting for my historical fantasy to put it in storm. Plus, the Trident of Poseidon probably didn’t take part in the fight. More’s the pity, I think.

In truth, as creative artists we are constantly walking the line between reality and imagination, and it is up to our audience how far they are willing to follow us from the known comfort of one into the unknown wonder of the other. Despite the historical oddities of this last episode, I for one am willing to keep following these particular creative artists once more into the breach.

So keep it up, HBO. Give us more quasi-medieval battles!

But, seriously, for the sake of humanity, let Jon borrow a damn helmet next time, okay?

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. The Gates of Hell, the second volume in The Shards of Heaven, his historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, comes out this fall from Tor Books.

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