What is the cultural and literary value of Game of Thrones?

Not everyone’s a fan of dragons. (c) HBO linked via Wikia

Recently a student asked me for a private interview for an assignment.  I thought it might be interesting to share the interview here, and if nothing else, it might stimulate some interesting comments and conversation.  The interview is about not only the history in Game of Thrones but also why we are drawn to it as well as its literary and cultural value.  The interview is long, so I’ve broken it into three parts.

I’d be very interested in your own ideas about some of the questions here. Please add them to the comments.

1. Do you think Game of  Thrones has any modern relevancy?

Yes, I do because it speaks to themes and issues we struggle with today <the rest of the response is in second part of this interview>. I also think that people are looking for TV shows and books with a lot of “world building” in them: shows that take people to other worlds. Because people’s lives have been so stressful in the last four years with the economic problems, I think people want to watch fantasy and history shows where you get absorbed into a completely different world and can escape.

2.  Do you see any historical references or connections to real life events in the books?

Yes, the struggle for the throne (War of Five Kings) is a blend of the Hundred Years War where Edward III tried to claim the French throne and the Wars of the Roses – basically two wars over succession. The war between Joffrey Baratheon’s uncles mirrors the conflict between Richard II’s uncles. The Wildling raids are similar to the on-going raids between England and Scotland in the high and late Middle Ages. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are similar to the Heptarchy of England in the Dark Ages.

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at the religious conflicts in Game of Thrones yet, but they have overtones of the Dark Ages conflicts between paganism and Christianity as well as the Crusades.

Daenerys’ army of freed slaves, the Unsullied, are similar to the ancient Spartans and possibly the Mamluks. The Spartan Battle of Thermopylae closely parallels the Unsullied’s stand against the Dothraki.

The Dothraki khalasar. (c) HBO linked via Wikia.

The Dothraki are based on the Mongols and Huns as well as the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Alans tribes – according to GRRM.

The Greyjoys are similar to Vikings. See these posts about Yara and Theon.

Harrenhal is likely based on a combination of two real life fortress castles: the notorious Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire (now in ruins) and the Tower of London. More on this in an upcoming blog post.
3. Do you believe Game of Thrones has a deeper literary merit beyond the magic and dragons of this sci-fi series?
Definitely. I think a lot of people hear dragons and tune out. Because there’s a lot of cheesy fantasy and sci-fi writing, people assume that if a writer is working in that genre, his work must be low quality. Many genre books suffer from the same stereotype. Case in point: the literary community didn’t take Stephen King seriously until he wrote On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That book made people take a second look at his writing technique and the skill demonstrated in his novels. Talent and technique can be independent of packaging (i.e., writing subject).

From a literary perspective, I think GRRM’s novels are greatly underestimated – no doubt because of their commercial success, style, and relative newness. Only within the last couple of decades has academia began seriously studying JRR Tolkien’s work – fifty years after he wrote it. While George RR Martin did not write ASOIAF in the literary writing style that is often the hallmark of serious literature, he does make significant genre changing contributions in other ways.

Martin is very much in the same tradition as Tolkien. Tolkien deliberately set out to breathe life into the Dark Ages. Tolkien tries to recreate the Dark Ages in a way in which we believe the myths are real. That is, people in the Dark Ages believed in magic and dragons. To many, these weren’t myths; they existed. In a way, Tolkien created a world where we can feel how it would have felt to live then. Then he makes the myths real and then he makes the myth the story.

Martin uses a similar technique to bring the late middle ages to life. However, GRRM’s world is more grounded in reality. Fewer dragons, more history. Martin employs what I tend to think of “historic symbolism.” See #11 below .

4. What is your personal opinion of the books?

I think the books are greatly underestimated in terms of literary value. To a certain extent, with the historic symbolism, GRRM creates a new genre. Because George RR Martin is not a great stylist, like say Graham Greene, I think people tend to overlook ASoIaF’s literary value.

I think the panoramic scope is a significant accomplishment. It’s impressive for a writer to build hundreds of named characters and make them distinct and memorable. He also successfully creates powerful fully realized strong and convincing female characters, which is probably tricky for a man writing about the Middle Ages.

I’ve heard many people say that they find the books have a more historic feel than a lot of historical fiction. I love the books because GRRM captures the nuances of late medieval attitudes. He recreates the complex relationships that occur when agendas compete with oaths of fealty. GRRM includes many tiny details, such as sigils, order of precedence, and the study of genealogy. In my opinion, GRRM is likely an expert in medieval history. He has said in interviews that he reads everything he can find about medieval history – and I believe i t   i s  e v e r y t h i n g.

GRRM creates a three-dimensional world that translates in a non-gimmicky way how the fifteenth century might have felt. He eliminates a lot of the tacky tropes that are the hallmark of bad medieval fiction – such as tavern wenches, excessive amounts of jousting and knights in armor, and superfluous specialized jargon (“groat” “garderobe”) that contribute little dramatic value. GRRM doesn’t hit us in the face that “THIS IS THE MIDDLE AGES” – for example, an opening scene with a king on his throne – but rather builds his world slowly.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the length of the books. I’m not convinced any novel should be a thousand pages. With that said, that’s a minor criticism relative to GRRM’s amazing accomplishment.

By 

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."

5 Comments

  • Reply September 11, 2015

    Jessica Winn

    I also saw the connection with Tolkien when I read GRRM’s books. I wonder, if you also see a connection to Tolstoy’s W&P? I saw some similarity in the way GRRM develops the multiple characters and dives into their inner motivations.

    • Reply September 15, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Sadly, I have not read War and Peace. Although with my newfound interest in war, maybe I will one day. I wouldn’t be surprised if GRRM found some inspiration in Tolstoy’s novel. From the little I know of War and Peace, there are several similarities:
      1. The historical realism.
      2. GRRM’s allusions to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. (Stannis’ misguided attempt to conquer Winterfell during the winter is, I believe, an allusion to Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow and retreat from it, including the problems Napoleon had with the cold, supplies, troops deserting, etc.).
      3. The epic scale of the novels.
      There are probably quite a few others… but I don’t know Tolstoy. I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts.

  • Reply July 31, 2016

    Greenwoodpall

    Jamie,

    First of all I’d like to thank you for your wonderful blog post and apologize for being late to the party. It was most interesting.

    Unfortunately, I’m going to have to disagree. In all honesty, I have never witnessed such complexity in a storyline. To the best of my knowledge, A Song of Ice and Fire is unparalleled in that area except perhaps for the Harry Potter series but those are a million miles away from what we are witnessing here.
    I genuinely don’t know how this author manages to keep up with all the webs he’s drawn. What is staggering is not only the complexity of these webs is that he doesn’t get tangleded in them and doesn’t do major blunders and plot holes.
    I’ve read the five books that are out there and it’s absolutely mind blowing. Where I think you are wrong is here : I recently read an article in the NYT that stated that he was like Balzac or Dickens. I’ve read both authors. Take my word for it: it has nothing to do. It is like comparing Shakespeare to Stephen King. Modern litterature is more like a written movie. There is a lot of action, moving pieces, complex characters. But this is at the cost, often of genuine literary quality i.e. Nobel Prize in Litterature stuff. I think it’s not surprising that GRRM was a scenarist in Hollywood. In a lot of ways he still is when he writes these books. I won’t desparage his work but you can’t deny it’s very simple phrases with subject verb complement and basta.
    These books are genius to understand power, treason, loyalty, love, sex, power, murder, emotions, humanity, life, … and I could go own but in no way should you see a staple of american litterature of the caliber of Hemingway or any other of those legends of litterature. It’s actually quite insulting to them.
    As to the lenght of the novels I’m not angered or mad at that. In France they had the “roman fleuve” that were 13 000 pages. I’m more mad at the time it’s taking him to finish the series. I was lucky enought that when I got hooked on Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and so on and so forth all the books and movies where already out (I know, late comer) my point is that I didn’t have to wait in anguish to know wether my favourite character was going to die.
    My point would perhaps be that you should praise his work as the greatest plot ever constructed because I can’t think of a better one and it avoids all the “usuals” and stereotypes that movies fall in but you should abstain, I beleive from elevating it to much. I’ll also say this: he doesn’t need to write well he needs to write nice and simple as to not overcomplicate his readers life.

    Anyways, cheers.

    • Reply August 2, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      First of thank you for the lovely compliment, and also thank you for taking the time to write this superb comment. You raise a very interesting question — one I’ve thought about a lot since I began this website — and that is, “What is literature?”

      When I started this site, I didn’t realize how many literary devices GRRM used or how purposefully he employed his historical allusions (or “borrowings”). I assumed the books didn’t have any literary qualities beyond a typical bestseller. But, I no longer believe that is the case. The volume of literary devices, symbols, and allusions I’ve found cannot be accidental. They directly support his themes of war and peace, power and succession, and the human tragedy that results when leaders are distracted by their power games.

      But, here are my thoughts, undoubtedly controversial and definitely unaligned with the canonical perspective on literature.

      Traditionally, the works deemed literary employ poetic language. Yet, there are many works that fall under the auspices of literary fiction because of such language that are poorly structured, dull, unevenly paced and fail to meet any standards for great work.

      Poetic language can serve as a gatekeeping device, making a novel less accessible. This, in turn, renders modern literature the domain of the highly educated (and often wealthy) elites. But, I would argue, and I believe the canonical view supports this, that literary works also include literary devices, symbolism, allusions, foreshadowing, etc.

      If a work has these elements, but it doesn’t have elevated language, is it still literary? Are some subjects more literary than others? Does sex and horror preclude a work from being literary? If so, Frankenstein and D.H. Lawrence’s novels would be kicked out of the canon.

      George RR Martin employs all of the traditional devices in great literature — except for poetic language. I would argue that poetic language should not be the sole defining characteristic of literature.

      You make some very good points about the length and my personal preference for being able to finish a novel in one or two sittings should not be (and isn’t) a indictment of GRRM’s work. I have tremendous admiration for GRRM’s ASOIAF series. Because I have spent so much time studying its historical allusions and symbols, I actually believe it is underrated — despite all the media hype.

      I would be very interested in your thoughts on all of this. I realize what I write is unconventional and controversial.

  • Reply August 3, 2016

    Jun

    There has long been tension between genre fiction and serious, literary fiction. Ursula Le Guin has talked about how literary writers use genre fiction (eg, sci fi) and then disparage it. See: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-ChabonAndGenre.html

    Given GRRM’s background and attitude and the places he hangs out, I am inclined to believe that he is happy to be labeled as a sci fi fantasy genre writer rather than a high-brow literary figure a la Philip Roth, even though I’m sure he’s happy to be recognized for his achievements.

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