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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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. “
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.