Getting Medieval on Game of Thrones

As my fellow medievalists around the world will attest, telling people that you specialize in the Middle Ages (roughly dated from 500 to 1500 CE) is a decent way to start up a conversation with strangers. Few people that I meet aren’t fascinated with the medieval period, and they almost always have a question or two they want to ask an expert about the “real” Middle Ages.

These days, that means questions about Game of Thrones, HBO’s stratospherically popular television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s staggeringly popular series of epic fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. Millions of readers anxiously await Martin’s sixth volume in the book series, and millions more viewers recently wrapped up the fifth season of the television series. Combined, the works are now a cultural touchstone, one that is branded—both by its own advertising and by the media and mainstream popular culture—as a “medieval” series. So the question I’m asked more than any other these days is this:

How medieval is Game of Thrones?

The answer depends, not surprisingly, on what you think it means for something to be “medieval.” After all, despite the fact that the label is so often applied to the series, neither the television episodes nor the books they are based upon are actually set in our real-world Middle Ages—and not just because Westeros and dragons aren’t real (despite the sighting of the latter in 1388 reported by the chronicler Henry Knighton). Nevertheless, I think that the “medieval” label isn’t the least bit wrong.

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Let me explain how that is so by giving you my answer to another question I’m often asked: What’s your favorite medieval movie?

My answer, without hesitation, is Brian Helgeland’s 2001 film, A Knight’s Tale, starring the late Heath Ledger. Like most “medieval” movies, I saw it on opening weekend (for professional purposes, of course), and I knew I would love it from the opening credits, which are so full of non-medieval elements as to be laughable: clothing, armor, and hairstyling that’s a complete mish-mash of periods and types, turkey legs that wouldn’t be on the menu since they are native to North America, couched lances that improbably (and consistently) explode on impact … and, oh yes, a raucous crowd chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

Oh, but it’s perfect. And don’t get me started on that dance scene, which transitions so smoothly from what we expect of a “medieval” dance—simple instruments, slow movements, an utter lack of passion—to a joyous celebration of youthful exuberance as the gang boogies to the tune of David Bowie’s “Golden Years.”

It’s completely not medieval. It’s also one of the most medieval things I’ve ever seen.

How is that possible? Because like the artwork of the pre-Raphaelites, the music of Wagner, or the architecture of Disney’s Cinderella Castle, the film grabs certain very real, very historical medieval elements (including Geoffrey Chaucer!) and then re-imagines them into an entirely new, entirely original vision of the period, one that thereby speaks more directly to our own. That dance scene is so marvelous because it uses the motifs and milieu of the Middle Ages, but it welds them to the expectations of our modern world.

In other words, the dance captures the true spirit of the medieval dance by not giving us a true medieval dance. Likewise, the opening credits capture the true spirit of the medieval tournament by not giving us a real medieval tournament at all: it gives us instead a more recognizable sporting event of action shots and the audience doing the wave, and even that inevitable pack of drunken fools who’ve taken their shirts off. Helgeland’s film doesn’t give us the actual truth; it gives us the familiar truth we expect to see. And, not to get too philosophical, but that probably makes it more true than the truth.

Which is exactly what Martin has done in creating what (aside from being entirely outside of history) is perhaps best described as historical fantasy.

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Martin is, by all reports, a voracious reader of history, and that breadth of knowledge permeates his pages and, from them, the television screen. It’s often said that his dynastic rivalries are rooted in the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), when thousands of men and women died in the brutal clash between the Houses of Lancaster and York as each sought the throne of England. But it’s hardly as simple as a math equation: Martin’s Starks and Baratheons don’t equal the historical Yorks, and his Lannisters don’t equal Lancasters (despite a certain orthographic familiarity). Martin doesn’t engage in one-to-one associations between the real world and his fictional one. So while Martin’s Robert I Baratheon has a number of striking similarities with the first Yorkist king, Edward IV (1442-1483)—his wife Cersei Lannister is at once modeled on Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and on one of his mistresses, Jane Shore.

Nor are all of Martin’s sources medieval. Readers have been quite right to see much of the later early modern period in the works, too. Matthew Iglesias, for instance, observes that much of the technology in Martin’s world seems more advanced than that of the medieval period, and Benjamin Breen goes further in likening the setting to

the globalizing epoch of the 16th and 17th centuries. A world where merchants trade exotic drugs and spices between continents, where professional standing armies can number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, where scholars study the stars via telescopes, and proto-corporations like the Iron Bank of Braavos and the Spicers of Qarth control global trade. It’s also a world of slavery on a gigantic scale, and huge wars that disrupt daily life to an unprecedented degree.

Martin may have planted his work in the Middle Ages, but it is hardly confined to that space. The author’s vision has grown much bigger, much bolder than that.

Martin’s expansive lands (along with Helgeland’s film and the other examples given above) are, in point of fact, what we call “medievalism,” where a more modern work looks back upon and refashions particular elements of the Middle Ages into a new imaginative construction. It isn’t at all true to the full historical truth, and as my friend Kelly DeVries has written elsewhere, that’s a good thing indeed: “the real Middle Ages were very boring—and if Martin’s epic were truly historically accurate, it would be very boring too.” Elizabeth Woodville was a fascinating character. So was Jane Shore. Put them together in one figure and we have the intoxicatingly marvelous figure that is Cersei. Like the compiler of a “Greatest Hits” album, Martin has taken the juiciest bits of the medieval world, enhanced them into high definition, added some new tracks, and then subsumed them through his own creativity into a pseudo-medieval world that—because it is what we want to see, what we want to imagine—is in a sense more “medieval” than the real thing.

That isn’t good history. It’s better than history.

And therein lies my love of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. These works might be built of who we have been, but they have become living and breathing entities that speak of who we are today and who we want to be tomorrow. The manipulative Cersei might have her roots in the figures of our past, but she is most frightening because she is all too familiar to our present. The struggles of Tyrion and Arya (like the Princes in the Tower forever twinned in my mind) can evoke both our laughter and our pity and our inspiration. The fate of Eddard Stark shakes us because we know only too well how good does not always triumph. Even the cruelty of the Boltons might barely give us pause were we to hear it on the nightly news. So it is, too, with Daenerys, Sansa, Jon, Melisandre, and all the rest of Martin’s expansive cast of characters.

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We know them. We know them all. Martin’s works cut to the heart of our own cultural, political, and religious worldviews in the way only a fantasy can: it is not in the mirror, after all, that we see the truth of ourselves; it is in the eyes of strangers in unfamiliar lands.

So how medieval is Game of Thrones? Not very, thankfully, and yet—like those exploding lances in A Knight’s Tale—it’s real to the truth of our imaginations and our expectations. And, by the gods of this world or that, it’s this non-reality that makes it truly wonderful.

This article was first published July 2015 as part of our Medieval Matters series.

gates-hellMichael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven and its sequel The Gates of Hell, is available from Tor Books.

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