George RR Martin: In His Own Words About History, War, and Mortality

George RR Martin in front of a lot of books. Image: © HBO.

George RR Martin in front of a lot of books. Image: © HBO.

History Behind Game of Thrones devotes considerable ink to attempting to draw parallels between Game of Thrones and real-life history — generally we are interpreting the stories and trying find similarities to history. When George RR Martin reveals what he used as a historical basis for a character or a scene, we jump on it. The problem is that he rarely discusses his use of history.

You can find comments he has made in ancient interviews on Westeros.org. You can also find the odd tidbit here and there — such as his big reveal about the Red Wedding and, later, the Purple Wedding. However, his most recent interview in Rolling Stone is wonderfully illuminating.

Likewise, History Behind Game of Thrones, we rarely stop to take a moment to discuss how our perspective on George RR Martin’s use of history has evolved in the year since we began this website. For example, we no longer think George RR Martin uses just one historical figure to create one character. We realize — in large part due to George RR Martin’s interview with Bernard Cornwall — that Martin frequently uses counterfactuals — divergent “incorrect” what-if versions of history.

History Minor

In the Rolling Stone interview, George RR Martin made some fascinating comments about history. History was  Martin’s minor in college. (For our international readers, a “minor” is a secondary area of study in an American undergraduate degree in which the student takes some, but not as many classes, as their “major” discipline.) Martin says he isn’t interested in sociopolitical trends as much as the stories: “History is written in blood, a gold mine — the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It’s better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.”

The interview also discusses what I’ve always suspected — George RR Martin has read a staggering amount of history. In fact, the interview used a phrase that struck great fear in this researcher’s heart: Martin has a “library tower.” This library tower is being housed in a separate building… across the street. Let me just say that again: T O W E R.

university-of-toronto

Library tower? Not cool, George. Not cool. (This “library tower” at University of Toronto is the basis of Umberto Eco’s library in The Name of the Rose. Source: reblogged from Tumblr http://opus111.tumblr.com/)

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Where Martin Quibbles with His Idol, Tolkien

Tolkien_1916

Tolkien

In his interview, George RR Martin discusses the inherit problem with kingship and leadership: ruling is hard. A good person — a well-intentioned person — can still make a terrible ruler. Martin did not say it, but, arguably, some of the best medieval kings were the most ruthless. He  quibbles with Tolkien’s over-simplistic treatment of rule, “If the king was a good man, the land would prosper.”

For somebody who claims he isn’t interested in socio-political analysis, his next comments are king of interesting, “But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine?” Martin then adds that after Sauron is gone, the orcs are still alive in the mountains. Tolkien doesn’t address how Aragorn handles this. “Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”

On His Use of the Wars of the Roses

George RR Martin discusses how execution — the storytelling — can be more important than ideas and notes that “ideas are cheap.” He cites Shakespeare as a a great example of somebody who borrowed from heavily from history but redeemed his work through superb storytelling. Martin states he takes “stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things”and works them into something he hopes is “uniquely my own.”

The journalist then made a pretty bold statement about Martin’s use of the Wars of the Roses — considering the fact that martin has said repeatedly that the A Song of Ice and Fire series (hereafter “ASOIAF”) does not just use the Wars of the Roses as its historical basis (reproduced here):

wotr-reimagined

Use of War in Game of Thrones

In a previous article, I wrote about how Game of Thrones is like a grand meditation on the nature of war. Since then I’ve discovered that, while George RR Martin said he was a conscientious objector for Vietnam, he isn’t against all wars.

Ygritte

Rose Leslie as Ygritte. Image: Helen Sloan © HBO

Presumably, deciding not to go to Vietnam was one of the most pivotal decisions of George RR Martin’s life and he’s given it a lot of thought he appeared before the draft board. Perhaps, the passion Martin has towards the subject of war — and frankly, thank God he has it — is what fueled him to write thousands of pages of the ASOIAF series and gave him the determination to stick with the series for almost twenty years.

ASOIAF is about how war often serves the purposes of the most powerful – especially historically. Martin refers to a scene in Henry V in which a soldier says, “Well, I hope his [Henry V] cause is  just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France.” In this respect, Ygritte is a zeitgeist character when she says, “We’re just soldiers in their armies, and there’s plenty more to carry on if we go down.”

Martin says that one of the central questions in the series is Varys’ riddle about who has the power: a rich man, the priest, and the king who command a common sellsword.

varys

The deceptively canny Varys (Conleth Hill)  Image: © HBO.

Martin asks rhetorically why anyone went to Vietnam. He believes it is part of a larger structure of obedience. He asks “Why do we recognize power instead of individual automomy?”

For me personally, these deeper philosophical issues are what gives Martin’s work — and that of Suzanne Collins for that matter — its power. Perhaps because I’m a woman, I gave little thought to war until I started this website. In fact, my original interest was in the “drawing-room drama” aspects of the political history in Wars of the Roses and the Tudor period. It wasn’t until I started investigating the financial motives behind the Hundred Years’ War — and the despicable raids on peasants — that my perspective changed.

Martin’s novels have pressed me — and hopefully many other people — to reexamine war in not only a medieval but also modern context. While Game of Thrones is entertainment, hopefully these deeper themes can encourage reflection amongst us all.

 

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."

10 Comments

  • Reply April 30, 2014

    Grant

    It’s not quite the same thing, but in the social sciences it seems to be that women do focus more heavily on development issues and gender issues while men focus more on international relations and security issues.
    Instead of looking at the why, I’ll just put up two posts Dan Drezner made on the matter, but it is an interesting difference. For myself, perhaps because of my gender and the norms it has on it, I was drawn towards conflict, crime and state power, with far less interest in development and gender.

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/11/should_women_get_phds_in_international_relations
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/16/following_up_on_dames_getting_phds_in_international_relations

    As for Martin’s riddle, I don’t know if he’s ever studied political science, but that does describe the basics of political legitimacy (one of the most difficult things to define in political science). It exists where people think it exists. At any point in time it could be a priest (theocracy), merchant (oligarchy) or king (more regular monarchy).

    • Reply April 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oh that’s a really interesting comment. Thanks, Grant! I’ll definitely have to take a look at these when I get a chance.

  • Reply April 30, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    Slightly off topic, but I had no idea there were baby orcs 🙂 I really enjoy watching George struggle with Tolkien, because he has such a deep love and respect for his work, but he gets so frustrated by it. He mentioned him at each of the talks I went to last year when he visited Australia, he loves talking about him.
    It is interesting that both authors’ anti-war stances come from opposite experiences, George as a conscientious objector and Tolkien’s as a soldier.

    • Reply April 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Olga, that is quite interesting actually. I was tickled by the baby orc reference. I don’t know if there are baby orcs, but you think they’d come from somewhere right? So cute! (But not…)

  • Reply May 1, 2014

    Jun

    Yes, the ASOIAF series have a running theme that binds together several separate but connected issues: Power, war, slavery.

    In all of the books Martin asks, Why do some people lead and others follow (or not follow), sometimes against their own interests and even lives? The Hound obeyed Joffrey to kill the butcher boy, but later turned his back and spat “Fuck the king.”

    What makes any of us obey and follow? This question is directly connected to his reflection on the Vietnam War. In the interview he mentioned an anti-war slogan that said something like “If they call for a war and no one goes, is there still a war?” There was a war and many men who went to Vietnam did not necessarily want to. Why?

    The question of slavery is hinted at in the origin story about Braavos (told to Arya by the Kindly Men in Book 4) and fleshed out in Book 5. As a slave, Tyrion realized that on some level people “chose” to be slaves because a slave still has a choice not to be enslaved, and that last choice is death — echoing the initial mission of the Faceless Men.

    Looping this reflection back to the theme of power and obedience and free will … See, it’s one big thought all connected together. The key quote about free will comes from Little Finger to Sansa: “Even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them.” (Book 4)

    • Reply May 1, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      What a wonderful, insightful and deep comment. Thank you for sharing it.

      • Reply May 1, 2014

        Jun

        No thank YOU. What a beautiful and fabulous blog you have. I discovered it last week and have been getting lost in the posts ever since. Love it!

        I wonder if you have any interest in comparing historical facts about slavery and ASOIAF’s depiction.

        • Reply May 1, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          Thanks!! I’m really glad you like it. Actually, I think a slavery series that would be really interesting/meaningful. Maybe when the season is over because I think I might be at capacity. (I am trying to follow the season – we will see how this works out. :)) We’re you thinking Spartacus? Slavery in the ancient world? As a general concept? I did some reading on modern human trafficking a few years ago and slavery is sadly still a modern and relevant issue.

          • May 1, 2014

            Jun

            Great! Look forward to your slavery series. The thing with ASOIAF is that it’s never referring to just one historical event or person. Not being a historian myself, I only recognize slavery in ancient Rome/Greece, which includes gladiators (the fighting pits anyone?), in ancient Egypt (the decaying civilization), and in the not-so-distant past in the Americas. There could be more.

            In his youth George RR Martin wrote a book called “Fevre Dream.” It’s a vampire story, a nod to Mark Twain (steamboat on Mississippi), a Southern Gothic story, and an early examination of slavery, not only of people who are chained and shackled but also of the mind of many more. Clearly this is not a new theme for him.

          • May 1, 2014

            Jamie Adair

            Oh that’s very interesting. I loved the Anne Rice series (before it fell to pieces) and the southern gothic genre. Was Fevre Dream good? Have you read it?

            Yes, just to warn the slave series will take a while. (Possibly 1-2 months after the series ends.) I usually try to read several, if not many books, on a topic before I start writing. I don’t want to just repeat what’s on Wikipedia if I can help it, so I’m always trying to find details that aren’t easily found on the Internet or in widely read books. I don’t always succeed, BTW. (I’ve drafted some articles about Isabeau of Bavaria, but, because there are more books in French, the translated Wikipedia articles were actually better than the English books and journal articles I could find. 🙁 )

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