Dragonlords, Dark Ages, and Deeper Meanings in Game of Thrones

ned-death

You win or you die. The harsh circumstances of Ned’s death were not unlike a real medieval execution. The accused would admit to crimes he may not have committed to ensure his family was treated well. © HBO.

This is the third part of the interview. This part focuses on George RR Martin’s world building, the themes in Game of Thrones, and if those themes have any relevance or deeper meaning for us today. This part of the interview made me reflect on questions like, Why study medieval history?

Traditionally, people have believed in studying history because it can prevent repeating the mistakes of the past. But, what lessons are there in the Wars of the Roses?

Riot in King’s Landing over food. © HBO, linked via Wikia.

9. Do you think the complex fantasy world George R.R. Martin created mirrors our complex reality? 
Yes, in that it is a three-dimensional world Martin created. I think that he subtly conveys commonalities between our world and his world – possibly, to make the Middle Ages and his (Westeros) world seem more real to us. The following sometimes subtle issues in Westeros mirror our world:

  • Disparity between rich and poor – the riot in King’s Landing over food.
  • Materialism. Greed. Acquisitiveness. We don’t traditionally think of the Middle Ages as being materialistic because we associate that word with shopping and purchasing material objects (designer hand bags, luxury cars, etc.). Historians often use the word “acquisitive” to describe medieval nobles – meaning many nobles eagerly shed blood to acquire things, particularly land. Back then, shopping wasn’t the sport it is today, but greed came out in other ways. The subtext – that historians often assume but do not usually articulate – is that late medieval nobles were often fighting to either gain more land or protect the land they had (that is, protect property and inheritance rights).

Game of Thrones subtly incorporates this theme of greed. That’s the stake that Houses like the Freys and Boltons have in the War of the Five Kings – a fictional example of a medieval succession war. The lesser noble families either want to make sure they are on the side of the winning king – so they aren’t executed and they can preserve their land and family name (“legacy”) for their children – or, they want to enlarge their land holdings by being on the winning side and receiving rewards from the king.

Gendry

© HBO linked via Wikia

Other commonalities:

  • Violence.
  • Power, its use, abuse, and the lengths people will go to get it. How power can corrupt.
  • Sadism. Joffrey and Ramsay Snow are excellent examples.
  • The struggle to fulfill your ambition.
  • The desire for your parents’ approval. Jamie Lannister is expected to be his father’s heir and have sons (instead he joins the Kingsgaurd).
  • Autonomy, independence, and freedom. All of the characters are constrained by their position in society and society’s expectations. Daenerys is bartered into a dynastic marriage with Kahl Drogo – she slowly gains power throughout the marriage only to lose with his death. But, then she gains freedom and starts to gain power. Sansa is expected to be a lady. Joffrey is expected to be brave. The non-elite, such as Gendry, have fewer protectors and struggle for freedom.

10. Do you think the journey of characters/politics in the books sync up with our own journey to a more modern civilization?
This presupposes that there is such a thing as “modern” or that as the centuries pass we make “progress.” I’m not sure that is the case. Saying things are better now in the twenty-first century implies a value judgment. <Apologies – this sounds so prickly.> Regardless of the age, I think we are in a constant struggle (sometimes unwittingly) between our efforts to “improve” structures for the good of society and how to respond to changes that harm society.

sansa-headshot yara-head tywin-head balon-head robb-head

Images: Copyright HBO.

However, I do agree that the Game of Thrones journey syncs up with our struggles today. We are beset with the same issues as GRRM’s characters:

  • Like Sansa, women still struggle to realize their ambitions. In some parts of the world, women can only realize their ambitions through marriage since it is not socially acceptable to work. But, like Yara, many women throw off society’s expectations and forge their own paths.
  • Like Roose Bolton, Tywin Lannister, and Walder Frey many of us are caught up in our desire for societal dominance and prestige. A quintessential example might be the rapacious CEO. We strive for power, influence, and wealth regardless of who we might hurt, and we rationalize our actions with phrases like, “it’s for the good of our family.”
  • Like Balon Greyjoy, we, especially immigrants, struggle to maintain our culture and traditions within our families and we are insulted and enraged when our children turn their backs on those traditions. Also, like Balon, many of us are disappointed with our sons. And, like Theon Greyjoy, many of us are let down by fathers who abandoned us.
  • Like Robb Stark, many of us will do anything to protect our families. But, sometimes, like when Robb broke his promise to marry Walder Frey’s daughter, we succumb to temptation and lose our way.

Many of the themes in Game of Thrones – the struggle for power through war, the desire to preserve a family legacy, materialism (or acquisitiveness), class and wealth differences  – are taken directly from under-recognized issues in the fifteenth century. In my opinion, these are timeless themes.

Some medieval “status symbols” from left to right: (1) plate armor and horses; (2) furs, jeweled collars (huge necklaces for men), cloth of gold; (3) private libraries, books, and illuminated manuscripts, some of which cost as much (relatively) as a Ferrari; (4) heraldry; (5) livery. Images: Wikipedia.

armor-fifteenth-century Henry-VIII-collar illuminated-manuscript heraldry Tudor_Rose_from_Holbein's_Portrait_of_More

Sure, the Bill Gates’s and Warren Buffets of the country do not wage war with guns. But, the power and income disparity between a medieval peasant and a great duke, isn’t that different. For example, Bill Gates reputedly made just under $1.0 billion last year, which is roughly 10,000 times the salary of a high tech worker and 30,000 times the average income.1 In fifteenth-century England, a great magnate might have an annual income of, at the most, £45002 , this was 900 times the income of the average person and 264 times the income of a highly skilled tradesman like a top stone mason3 .

Many of America’s wealthiest leaders come from upper-middle class or upper-class backgrounds, so they aren’t as “self-made” as they appear and could afford entry into elite institutions. (Bill Gates’ father was a banker. Sheryl Sandberg’s was a dentist.) I don’t have a problem with this per se, but we fool ourselves into thinking our society today is dramatically more egalitarian than the Middle Ages.

The power and influence somebody has when they make 30,000 times what the average worker makes means that we are relative peasants in relation to a modern-day “baron of industry.” At some level, we (society) must be comforted by these structures because the pattern keeps repeating itself and we continue to facilitate and enable such structures.

I don’t write this to say “down with industry,” but rather to point out the parallels in power structures.

11. What do you think the books are based off of?

tolkien

JRR Tolkien. Image: Creative Commons/Wikipedia.

Game of Thrones is a blend of epic fantasy and history.

George RR Martin, in my opinion, draws heavily on Tolkien’s epic fantasy tradition. In The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Tolkien merged real Dark Ages history, speculative history, linguistics, and fantasy together. He tried to bring to life a variation on Dark Ages “England” as it would have been if all their myths were real – for example, dragons existed.

George RR Martin draws from this epic fantasy tradition and takes it in a new direction. Like Tolkien, he finds inspiration in history – but GRRM uses the late medieval period instead of the early medieval period (aka the Dark Ages). In my opinion, Martin introduces a form of “historic symbolism” wherein he kind of winks at the historian – deliberately – to see if they can uncode his “borrowings.” GRRM includes symbolic imagery to see if history buffs can guess the source of his borrowings.

Based on what George RR Martin has said in interviews, some of the storylines and characters are “borrowed” (his word) from fifteenth-century England, in particular the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years war. In my opinion, GRRM also found inspiration in other periods from history from other periods, such as the Assyrians, the Spartans, the Mamluks, the Tudors, and the Dark Ages.

But, Martin likes changing his plots to reflect “counterfactual” (what if) versions of history. For example, he creates storylines based on counterfactuals like “What would happen if Edward IV was killed instead of becoming king?” (The Robb Stark plot.)

12. Do you connect any of the characters to known figureheads past or present?

452px-Kleopatra-VII.-Altes-Museum-Berlin1

Cleopatra Image: Wikipedia

Definitely, but there isn’t a straight one-to-one basis for the characters. George RR Martin has stated he likes to borrow from multiple characters. I believe he often blends several historic figures into one person and add touches of his own when he creates characters. Some examples of “borrowings” from famous people include:

  • Robb Stark – partially inspired by a young Edward IV
  • Sansa Stark –  a blend of Elizabeth of York and possibly Anne Neville (two queens of England)
  • Robert Baratheon – a blend of an older Edward IV, Henry VIII, and possibly Edward III maybe
  • Daenerys Targaryen – (possibly) Cleopatra, Merlin (as a dragonlord), and Henry VII
  • Tyrion shares a lot of common ground with Richard III, maybe the erudite side of Anthony Woodville, and a famous dwarf whose name escapes me!

 

By 

  1. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/20/us-incomes-falling-as-optimism-reaches-10-year-low_n_1022118.html []
  2. See  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Neville,_1st_Duke_of_Bedford []
  3. A master stone mason made just over 16 livres 16 sol. This assumes a livres to pounds equivalency, which may not have been the case. For the stone mason wage, see “The Role of Dress in the Image of Charles the Bold” by Margaret Scott on p. 51 in Flemish Manuscript Painting in Context: Recent Research ed. Elizabeth Morrison, Thomas Kren []

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."

9 Comments

  • Reply December 19, 2013

    PatW

    Is the famous dwarf Sir Jeffrey Hudson? And Stannis has always struck me as an exaggeration of Richard III’s straitlaced side.

    • Reply December 19, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Yes! That’s it. Thanks!

      re: Stannis
      *That’s* interesting. You mean Richard’s piety and possibly prudish nature (e.g., Jane Shore)? I’d love to hear more. If you do reply – please do ! – please preface any references to stories not yet shown on TV with a —Spoiler Alert—. Looking forward to hearing more…

  • Reply January 18, 2014

    Chas D.

    I would actually argue that Daenerys is another What if scenario–what if Margaret Beaufort had miscarried Henry Tudor (Henry VII) but instead gathered her own power base and pushed her own claims to the throne.

    • Reply January 19, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      You know, I almost wrote a post around that idea. I wrote one instead about Daenerys being (partially) based on Henry VII (), but I really found myself wondering if somebody (in this case GRRM) was finally giving Margaret Beaufort her due. Afterall given her strong will, strategic mind and talent, if Margaret Beaufort had been a man, she would have made herself king.

      • Reply February 6, 2014

        Chas D.

        After some further reflection, Daenerys seems to also have some links to Empress Matilda, the mother of the Plantagenet dynasty through her son Henry II. What struck me was Daenerys’ insistence on being called “Kahleesi” despite the fact her husband has died and she’s essentially lost all claim to controlling the majority of Dothraki. Similarly, Matilda, daughter of Henry I, married the Holy Roman Emperor–but he also died and she had no heirs. Likewise, when Matilda went forth to press her claim, she insisted that people refer to her as “Empress Matilda” instead of Queen. The title assertion upset a lot of lords and further prolonged the civil war that was the Anarchy and the dispute between Stephen and Matilda. Will Daenerys’ insistence on continuing to be called Kahleesi get her in as much trouble with Westerosi lords, I wonder?

        Another similarity also struck me with the earlier Plantagenets and the houses. That of Lady Olenna Tyrell being extremely similar to Eleanor of Aquitaine in her old age in terms of personality and being the matriarch of her own family. In fact the Tyrells seem to remind me somewhat of those sons of Eleanor.

        • Reply February 6, 2014

          Chas D.

          The only thing that Daenerys is missing in that Empress Matilda scenario is a bastard half-brother who is fighting for her right to be put on the throne. 😉

          • February 6, 2014

            Jaime Adair

            Ha. Yeah, well, Jon Snow’s parentage is still up for grabs. 😉

            You make some really interesting observations. Coincidentally, I was just watching Helen Castor’s “She Wolves” on Matilda and Eleanor of Acquaintance last night. (Quite good if you haven’t seen it.) I can definitely see some of Eleanor in the scheming – and still very politically active – Olenna Tyrell. In fact, she even wears a wimple like Eleanor would have worn and “O-le-na” isn’t that different from “El-ea-nor” – in fact, it is almost an anagram.

            You make an interesting observation about Daenerys. Not many queens have dared to exert so much power after their king is gone. Daenerys basically made herself into the king of the Dothraki after the Kahl died. That’s pretty unusual historically speaking – although Queen Isabella (Edward II’s wife) came pretty close.

            Daenerys is a real cypher. I have thought she shared a lot in common with Henry VII or even Margaret Beaufort. I’ve seen people compare her to Cleopatra and the Ptolemys (esp. the brother-sister marriages). In some ways, she is like Joan of Arc – raising a grass-roots army of the disenfranchised – in Joan’s case French peasants and in Daenerys’ case slaves and others without rights.

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