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