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 Do you see any historical references or connections to real life events in the books?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 are based on the Mongols and Huns as well as the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Alans tribes – according to GRRM.
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