George RR Martin’s French Interview Translated, His Use of Burgundian History

grrm-burgundy

Recently, George RR Martin did a book signing in <gasp> Burgundy. Why is this a reason to get excited? Because he also gave an interview with the French alternative rock station Le Mouv from the burial site of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless, who were key players in the French civil war that inspired so many events A Song of Ice and Fire. Saying I was excited about Martin’s interview when I found it on Nerdalicious is the understatement of the century.

During the interview, Martin not only discusses his use of French history but he is sitting in the great hall of the museum the Chartreuse de Champmol. This former palace contains the ornately carved tombs of two key players in the “French Wars of the Roses” (aka the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war): Philip the Bold (d. 1404) and his son John the Fearless  (d. 1419), who were Valois dukes of Burgundy. As a reader below notes [tweaked slightly]…

“The tombs are in the great hall of the palace (which is call “salle des gardes” guards room since the XVIIIe century) since 1827. The great hall was built by Philip the Good between 1450 and 1455 and was rebuilt in 1504 after a fire. The hall is in Gothic style and is 9 meter high, 18 meter wide and 9 meter long. The hall was use for the feast and to show the wealth and the power of the house of Valois of Burgundy (the most famous dukes of Burgundy).

George RR Martin was between the fireplace and the tomb of Philip the Bold to be exact (so the visitors could still view the room during the interview). He was not only next to the tombs but where the dukes (of the house of Valois Burgundy) had hosted their visitors and had held their court (when they were in Dijon and not in Paris or later in Bruges). The room is also not far from the Bar tower (the oldest part of the palace) where René of Anjou was held prisoner by Philip the Good.”

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The tombs of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, and Margaret of Bavaria at Chartreuse de Champmol just outside of Dijon in Burgundy, France. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As the journalist and author spoke, Martin acknowledged that it is inspiring to come to a place where a lot of the history took place. Martin said he has “certainly read a lot of the history of Burgundy.”

The Armagnac-Burgundian war was a blood feud rooted in the strife between two noblemen close to the French king, Philip the Good and Louis of Orleans. Initially, in 1407, the dukes clashed over economic and foreign policy. The king – Charles VI — was crazy and rarely lucid, however, so the dukes also wrestled for supremacy. After the dukes died, their heirs and adherents inherited the feud and it raged on until 1435. In events that call to mind the expression they “fiddled while Rome burned,” these two factions – ultimately dubbed the Armagnacs and the Burgundians — squabbled while the rest of France descended into chaos and death.

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The Armagnac wolf and the Burgundian lion in this manuscript page symbolizes the conflict between the two factions surrounding the French king. Like the Lannisters and Starks, their civil war would tear their country apart and lead them to be “asleep” to greater threats.

During the Armagnac–Burgundian war, Burgundy was one of the richest duchies around, famed for its lavish expenditure on art, velvets, and illuminated manuscript as well as its hugely talented artisans. In an age when nobles – especially the rich Burgundians — felt compelled to showcase their wealth and power through insanely expensive cloths-of-gold and art, it’s no surprise that they would want their burial places to be lavish as well.

In 1383, Philip the Bold built Chartreuse de Champmol just outside the Burgundian capital city gates to house his remains and those of his descendants. Philip’s intention was for the burial site of the Valois dukes of Burgundy to rival or surpass that of the French kings. As a result, the site was once chockablock full of dazzling art work.

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This crucifixion painting was once part of the Champmol monastery and is now in the Cleveland museum of Art. Specifically, this painting was in one of the choir monks of Champmol’s hermitage.

Today most of the collection that still exists is scattered around the world, except for a few pieces of art and the superbly carved tombs the dukes commissioned.

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Tomb of Philip the Bold. Note the intricately carved ivory base and the gilt decoration on the lion (at the feet of the effigy).

Bottom line:  it’s very exciting not only to see George RR Martin in such an important Burgundian site but also to hear him discuss the influence of French history on his work.

The interview has a quirky format: the interviewer poses the questions in French and George RR Martin replies in English. Since Martin has stated he only speaks English in the past, he must have received the questions in advance or somebody must have held signs with the translated questions off camera.

In this article, I’ve translated some of the interviewer’s questions. After living in America for over a decade, my French has become very rusty, so be warned that this may not be the perfect translation. But, I think you’ll get the gist of it. My assumption is that you will listen to the interview, so my goal is really just to provide more insight into what the interviewer is asking. As a result, I only provide parts of Martin’s answers for context.

Question #1

The interview begins with the journalist noting that they are there “at a historic site, a room of tombs,” and asking Martin: “do you have an impression of having returned to a source of your inspiration, of your work – in a place marked by history?”

Martin replies that it is certainly “exciting to come to places where the history took place, where two great dukes are lying in a room is inspiration.” He notes that the previous day he saw the hole in the skull of John the Fearless through which the Hundred Years War lasted another generation.

John_the_Fearless_assassination

In September 1419, the dauphin (leader of the Armagnac party) and John the Fearless (leader of the Burgundians) met in a specially constructed wood enclosure on a bridge to talk peace. Looking for any excuse, after John the Fearless touched his sword helm to steady himself as he stood up, the Armagnac Tanneguy du Chastel struck John in the face with an axe.

By this, Martin is referring to the events that ensued after the Armagnac party met their rival, John the Fearless (Duke of Burgundy) on a bridge ostensibly to broker peace in 1419. When John braced himself on his sword hilt as he rose from kneeling  — the Armagnacs whacked John in the face with an axe and slaughtered him. The Armagnacs killed John because the duke had assassinated their former leader, Louis of Orleans, some twelve years before. (Louis of Orleans was the possible lover of Queen Isabeau of France, brother to the king, and regent during the king’s madness.)

The rivalry between the Burgundians and Armagnacs led to a civil war that so distracted the Parisian nobility that it gave the English the change they needed to regain their foothold in France. Who paid the price? The French peasants.

Jaime’s ambush of Ned echoes the ambush of Louis of Orleans. It even looks like the contemporary miniature.

JaimeDuel

Jaime’s ambush of Ned looks a lot like John the Fearless’ ambush of Louis of Orleans. © HBO.

louis-of-orleans-assasination-game-thrones

This miniature of Louis of Orleans’ ambush may have inspired the look of the scene on HBO.

And, of course the war between the Wolf and the Lion resembles nothing so much as the war between the Lannisters and the Starks – two families with equally close ties to the throne. (In some ways, the Stark-Lannister conflict parallels the Armagnac-Burgundian War more than the English Wars of the Roses. In the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, the English Yorks and the Lancasters were not equally close (emotional) relationships with the king in the same way as the dukes of Burgundy and Orleans.)

Question #2

The interviewer asks Martin why not write a pure historical fiction saga.

Martin replies that while he loves historical fiction and reads a lot of popular history, he does not like how, in historical fiction, he knows the ending. He knows what will happen: who killed the Princes in the Tower and who will win Towton and Bosworth Field. Martin likes freedom of being able to draw on history, rearrange it and produce something that is unpredictable. “I try to combine themes of historical fiction and the best of history, draw on the great incidents there, and make them my own. “

Question #3

The interviewer notes that Martin manages to stay very far away from the clichés of fantasy.

To which Martin replied that for him, magic and sorcery are like salt in a stew – a little goes a long way. He remarks that he draws from Tolkien in that Tolkien is relatively low magic and he [Martin] is as well.

Question #4

Next, I believe the interviewer asks Martin why, unlike much fantasy, Game of Thrones doesn’t employ big dramatic heroes.

Martin replies that all good fiction is character and in the real world he doesn’t see cardboard heroes or villains who have no motivation other than to do evil. Martin sees grey, complex people driven by their own dreams and demons.

doorway-chartreuse-champmol

The doorway at Chartreuse de Champmol.

Question #5

The interviewer says something to the effect of: “In Game of Thrones, there are battles, wars, blood, violence but it is not that through which the essential story is played out. Everything [in the story] plays out through ruses, treason, intelligence – it is our history really.”

Martin acknowledges that, in term of medieval history “it all interests me” from the battles to medieval feasts. He says that he tries to approach it as realistically as possible.

Question #6

Next the interviewer asks Martin if he ever imagined that his series would have grown to such a magnitude [presumably scope and size] when Martin began to write.

To which Martin laughs and replies “No” and says he originally sold it as a trilogy.

Question #7

Finally, the interviewer asks Martin if he knows how his story will end and what will become of the characters. Martin says he does know what becomes of all the major characters, but he is still debating the fate of some secondary characters.

**

If you want to learn more about how Martin uses Burgundian history in Game of Thrones, History Behind Game of Thrones has written articles discussing how the Armagnac-Burgundian war influenced the ambush of Ned Stark, the kidnapping of Tyrion by Catelyn, and the Lion (Lannister sigil) vs. the Direwolf (Stark sigil). To see the entire Armagnac-Burgundian war series, click here.

 

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

15 Comments

  • Reply July 20, 2014

    Kerry

    Wow, what an amazing setting for that signing! Thanks so much for digging up this interview. I think it’s really interesting that the series is called “Le Trone de Fer” (The Iron Throne) in French instead of Game of Thrones – really hammering home what the important part is!

    • Reply July 20, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I know – I was thrilled when I noticed the interview on Nerdalicious. It’s really very cool. It is interesting because in the English speaking countries we make a big deal about the Wars of the Roses history because we know it so it strikes us so much. But in France, they must really see the connections to the French history Martin uses.

    • Reply May 23, 2015

      timetravellingbunny

      The Iron Throne is not THE important part of A Song of Ice and Fire.

  • Reply July 20, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Kerry’s observation is interesting. I’m sure I read somewhere (I may have mentioned it – or another person mentioned it on a different thread) that GRRM says that in part he derived inspiration from Maurice Druon’s series “Les Rois Maudits”. The first book in the series – about Philippe le Bel, King of France – is called “Le Roi de Fer” and the English title had a pretty literal translation “The Iron King”. Ever so, ever so, ever so slightly off-topic, the early 1970s French TV adaptation of “The Accursed Kings” can be found on YouTube now but it might seem very old-fashioned to young people, as it is shot on sets rather than on location and of course CGI as known now did not really exist 40 and odd years ago. There is a more modern French version made since the Millennium with Gerard Depardieu as the iron king. I think Jeanne Moreau is in it as well. It’s many, many years since I read that series of books but if I recall correctly one of the points of the plot was a dispute between the person who held the County of Burgundy and the person who held the dukedom of Burgundy. I can’t recall whether it was the county or the dukedom but one of them at a later date than the time of the series (though Druon does mention it) became Franche-Comte. Of course Napoleon swept away all the old French names and introduced the Departments whose names are still used today. I think the lady who writes the King Edward II blogspot has some quibbles (and that’s putting it mildly) with “The Accursed Kings” series. I can’t speculate how accurate they were in comparison to what actually happened but I did enjoy the books way back when.

    • Reply July 20, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I haven’t seen the whole Accursed King series, although I started watching it and did like it. It is such a great period in history – fantastically dramatic. Fascinating.

      Ooh I’ll have to go see what she says about the Accursed Kings. That should be very interesting.

      I found it intriguing and very cool that Game of Thrones is being marketed in France with a name that’s so close to Druon’s book. (Btw, GRRM has referred to Druon’s book as the “real Game of Thrones”.) It is almost like the book has a whole other face in France and as somebody who is very distantly part French – I’m a quarter French-Canadian – and grew up on the Quebec border, I think that is really fabulous.

    • Reply May 23, 2015

      timetravellingbunny

      Tcheky Karyo played Philip Le Bel, not Gerard Depardieu. (Fortunately. I haven’t seen it, but having historical characters be played by someone who looks absolutely nothing like them tends to put me off!)

      • Reply May 23, 2015

        Watcher on the Couch

        You’re quite right, Bunny. GD played Jacques de Molay: Guillaume Depardieu played Louis le Hutin the eldest son of Philippe le Bel. I read the books (except the 7th one) long since but have not seen the 2005 TV version though I have seen some of the 1970s version episodes (complete with wobbly scenery). I have heard that a generation of British school children trace their knowledge of French swear words back to when BBC2 showed the 1970s version.

        • Reply May 23, 2015

          timetravellingbunny

          Ha, I took French classes for years, since I was 4, but the only French swear word I know is “merde”.

  • Reply July 21, 2014

    Martine

    Just to say a big Thank You Jamie for this! It’s so lovely that there are those of us in this world who immediately feel beyond excited at GRRM being in Burgundy. I know I’m absolutely one of them…
    Thanks for creating a superb place where we can gather and learn! xxx

    • Reply July 21, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Martine, thank you! What a lovely thing to say, and it’s so nice to hear that other people are excited by this amazing interview.

  • Reply July 21, 2014

    A french reader

    I would like to add a precision : the tombs of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, and Margaret of Bavaria are no longer at Chartreuse de Champmol but in the city museum of fine arts (inside palace of the Dukes). The abbey has been close since the French Revolution and has been almost destroy. It’s now a psychiatric hospital but you can still visit the Well of Moses and the doorway of the church.
    For more information see the wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champmol)

    To answer to Watcher on the Couch about the Franche-Comté, it’s the county. Franche Comté can be translate as Free County. It got the name because it was not a part of the French Realm unlike the dukedom (so it’s free).
    The name Burgundy and Franche-Comté are still use in France. It’s the name of two region (group of departements).

    Pardon my english

    • Reply July 21, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      First of all, welcome, and second, I’m delighted to have somebody from France reading. Especially when you comment, it offers a unique and much desired perspective.

      As for the fine arts museum…

      Ah! Thank you so very much! I will have to tweak (maybe overhaul 🙂 ) the article.

      When I was researching this article, I found the reference to the fine arts museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts) confusing. I assumed that maybe Chartreuse de Champmol was owned by the museum of fine arts or something. However, I see now I neglected to read the end of the Wikipedia page.

      In the photographs of the tombs, it looks like they are in a church. Did the museum recreate a church setting for the tombs?

      Also does this mean that GRRM was interviewed in the fine arts museum? I heard the interviewer ask him about how he felt about being at such a historic site. Did you, by chance, catch or know where they held the interview? If possible, I’d definitely like to update the article.

      • Reply July 21, 2014

        A french reader

        In fact, a part of the museum is in the medieval part of the palace*, where the dukes lived. The tombs are in the great hall of the palace (which is call “salle des gardes” guards room since the XVIIIe century) since 1827. The great hall was built by Philip the good between 1450 and 1455 and was rebuilt in 1504 after a fire. The hall is in Gothic style and is 9 meter high, 18 meter wide and 9 meter long. The hall was use for the feast and show the wealth and the power of the house of Valois of Burgundy (the most famous dukes of Burgundy).
        The interview take place in that room. So GRR Martin was between the fireplace and the tomb of Philip the bold to be exact (so the visitors could still view the room during the interview). He was not only next the tombs but where the dukes (of the house of Valois Burgundy) had hosted their visitors and had have their court. Well, when they are in Dijon and not in Paris or later in Bruges. The room is also not far to the Bar tower (the oldest part of the palace) where René of Anjou was hold prisoner by Philip the good.

        *The palace of the Duke have a medieval part and a classical part. It house the city hall and the museum.

  • Reply July 22, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Thanks for explaining about the Franche-Comte, French Reader. The concept of the boundary changes as France grew back in the day can be difficult for a modern person to wrap his/her head round. People understand about William II (2nd) of Normandy conquering England in 1066, but the fact of France later assimilating the dukedom of Normandy except the Channel (Anglo-Norman) islands is not given such prominence in British children’s schooling. At one time (you probably know this) much of the British aristocracy were of descent from people who came from areas in modern-day France even if those areas had not been assimilated into France when their ancestors first came to Britain. The Plantagenet Kings came from Anjou (and claimed the British throne because of a marriage between one of their house and a princess descended from a Norman king of England). I heard a radio interview many years ago involving Roy Dotrice, who reads some of the audio book versions of ASOIAF. He comes from the island of Guernsey and said that many people living there still called the UK queen “La Duchesse” – as in the Duchess of the Dukedom of Normandy. Of course, things may have changed now because the children of the Channel Islands were evacuated to mainland Britain during the Second World War and whereas Norman French had been the native language of the islands until then, the youngsters returned after the war speaking English and English, I understand, has stayed the main language of the islands until this day. (Well that’s my understanding….unless someone who lives on the Channel Islands reads this and can make matters completely clear).

  • Reply May 23, 2015

    timetravellingbunny

    “He knows what will happen: who killed the Princes in the Tower ”

    Actually, he does not, or if they were killed, no more than any of us. Wouldn’t we all want to know?

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