Game of Thrones Reaches Academia


Is academia embracing Game of Thrones? And, if so, what does this mean? Does it mean the world is changing or simply that Game of Thrones is worthy of analysis?

Recently, I learned from David Levesley’s great article that the University of Virginia is offering an English summer class on Game of Thrones. The course aims to use literary techniques to teach students how to analyze television. Instructor Lisa Woolfork describes Martin’s work as follows: “Literarily speaking, it’s very diverse and rich text. It has lots of layers, lots of characters, and it’s very smart.”

The course is ground-breaking in that it takes a serious look at not only fantasy literature — a genre rarely studied —  but also a television series that’s still in progress.

Academic institutions are now accepting thesis proposals on Game of Thrones. Recently, a masters student in France wrote his dissertation on A Song of Ice and Fire and its allusions to literature. If I understood the article I read correctly — and again my French translation skills are still rusty — he argues most ASOIAF allusions are literary and not historical.

In fact, he mentions this website in an interview and states that he thinks it is ultimately short-sighted. (Naturally, I have a different opinion. <grin> And, that’s okay. Debate is healthy and it challenges us to sharpen our thinking.) I’d still love to read the thesis — even though I may not agree with the perspective on history, I expect the thesis is fascinating and I wholeheartedly believe Martin alludes to literature and Shakespeare.

Not too long ago, historian Suzannah Lipscomb wrote an article for History Today in which she responded to a student’s question about whether historians should engage with popular culture. She writes:

Talking recently at a school about how and why we study history, I was asked whether serious historians ought to be ‘snooty’ about popular history. The questioner meant history as it is portrayed in films, novels and on television. How should we feel about the representation of history in forms of entertainment?”


For all you brave academics out there, the Grand Maester’s chain for you.

It is an interesting question. When the best and brightest writers, dancers, painters, and other artists, go into not just the serious arts but also the commercially oriented ones, does it mean their artistic talent is any less apt to emerge in the more lucrative mediums? Somebody once said that if Shakespeare was alive today, he would probably go into advertising. I think that person is probably right.

Dr. Lipscomb ultimately concludes that if shows like Game of Thrones enable us to engage with the past in a way that blows off the cobwebs and makes it come alive, why should historians be snooty about it? I wholeheartedly agree. Bravo for her.

Oxford-educated historian Dr. Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves, has written articles about Game of Thrones for The Guardian. And, a couple of academics have written articles on this website. Clearly, some historians are comfortable analyzing the show.

Frankly, I love seeing academics looking at Game of Thrones. I think it is brave, brilliant, and marvelous to see experts study popular culture in a serious way – or at least engage with it as a teaching tool. It is even better to see academics who are not afraid they won’t be taken seriously if they explore Martin’s work while he is still alive. Perhaps, this speaks to the effect of post-modernism on breaking down barriers about what’s suitable for serious analysis.



All images copyright HBO.

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."


  • Reply July 25, 2014

    Starfall Fan

    The French dissertation’s criticism of “History Behind GOT” is very…French. 🙂

    I don’t know about the academic standards in France but the dissertation seems to be more criticism than analysis. It criticizes without actually offering evidence for the criticisms. It cites literary elements without actually offering evidence and analysis for these literary allusions. For example, the student mentioned Chretien de Troyes and the Grail. He could have cited examples in the ASOIAF novels that allude to the Grail (like the wedding goblet given to Joffrey, for example). He didn’t. If the student had done these, the dissertation would have been much more interesting than it is. As it is, it reads rather like an essay written by a critic.

    The student seems to contradict himself by claiming that GOT has no historical basis and by doubting GRRM’s claims of trying to make the setting as realistic as possible, and then admitting that GRRM uses his knowledge of the Middle Ages in his writing.

    This might sound “snooty” but…in an American university, this dissertation would receive the red murder of a professor’s pen, even more so if it’s submitted by a student going for a Master’s degree.

    Be as it may, it’s nice to see academia embracing “Game of Thrones.” It makes the class lessons and discussions much more relatable. I enjoyed such classes when I was in university (one of the classes was on philosophy and using science fiction shows like Star Trek to discuss philosophical issues).

  • Reply July 25, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    At present I’ve only skimmed the dissertation. Alluding to Starfall Fan’s points I don’t know much about the academic values in France…guess it varies from University to University (if French Reader pays a visit here again perhaps he/she can enlighten us?). I imagine the Sorbonne has high standards. For myself, I think that ASOIAF draws from a combination of literature, myth and history. For instance, just recently I was listening to something about the Trojan War {from the “Iliad” I believe} where Patroclus wears Achilles’ armour and I thought of one of the Tyrell boys (Loras on TV) wearing Renly’s armour at the battle of Blackwater, although GRRM varies what happens from the allusion (in the original Hector killed Patroclus). Lions abound in Medieval stories and heraldry – I may have mentioned on another thread that Chretien de Troyes calls Yvain “the knight of the Lion” in his poem about Yvain. That did make me think of the Lannister lion. But having read the articles about Hadrian’s Wall and other factors from history on this site, I think real history creeps into GRRM’s saga as well, albeit often, as Jaime has rightly pointed out on the site, in a “counterfactual” way.

    Who knows about this website after broadcasting of the ASOIAF series has finished? I’m sure Jaime has a fertile enough mind to come up with something else at the appropriate time – the phrase “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” springs to mind.

  • Reply July 25, 2014


    Although I am guilty of the same ignorance of history, I do think that the main reason for most of our woes in today’s world is the general refusal to teach and learn history by every person who can read. There is no better way to understand humanity (especially how people do not change and people everywhere are the same) than learning world history in an honest, objective, and unsentimental way without nationalism, racism, or other self-serving agendas. I wish history were much, much, much more popular for everyone, which would remove at least half of the current problems.

    • Reply July 25, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Wow. That’s a very cool and compelling case for making history more accessible ( popular histories, reducing jargon, etc). When I was in school, history was (typically) poorly taught – a dull repetition of dates. Most kids hated history.

      You may be right about the world’s problems. I see a lot of Western social issues in the middles ages, especially materialism, elitism, and greed.

      • Reply July 26, 2014

        Watcher on the Couch

        I can’t speak for the teaching of history in schools these days – such a long time since I attended such an establishment. However, there have been some attempts on British TV to make history less dull (“Horrid Histories” and “The Worst Jobs in History” are two examples – some of them may have been posted to YouTube, though I don’t know whether they were posted with the consent of the makers or not). There will always be some people who complain about “dumbing down” though. I read that one of the reasons the BBC only made two series of “Rome” in conjunction with HBO was that some of the people “in the know” complained about the historic inaccuracies in the series, albeit it was well acted.

        There seems to be a section of the population in the UK (well England at least) that wants to belittle learning. Some people express an opinion that learning history is a waste of time. (If an interest in programmes such as “Game of Thrones” makes such people revise their opinions about history, good for “Game of Thrones”. I’ve also heard people say that degrees are a waste of time. There may be a few “Micky Mouse” degrees about, but when I said that I was very glad that the doctors at the surgery I attend had degrees, nobody disagreed with me. Obviously I can’t speak for the attitude people living in other parts of the world have towards education.

        • Reply July 26, 2014


          “Accuracy” is an impossible standard to begin with when it comes to history. The insistence to accuracy to the effect of exclusivity is one of many reasons that history is popular. Of course widespread knowledge of history is always an enemy to some social forces — as Orwell pointed out in 1984. What is accurate and what is not? (Dramatic purposes aside.) It’s a big can of worms.

          • July 26, 2014


            Argh I meant “… reasons that history is not popular.”

  • Reply July 25, 2014


    Very interesting. I think the dissertation shows that people are not afraid to lump Game of Thrones into the “good literature” category, and rightfully so! I think if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be the producer over at HBO helping GRRM bring the books to life.

    I’m married to a history major, so I’m somewhat biased, but I do think GRRM relies more on history than literature to write his stories, but I do think that there are some very excellent literature references in the books.

  • Reply July 26, 2014


    It seems almost impossible to argue that George R R Martin’s writing hasn’t been influenced by both history and literature, it’s not only self-evident, but he also mentions his influences in many interviews. Perhaps this essay was a purely critical one, an exercise in argument?
    Academia has been engaging with popular culture for many years now, with courses covering all aspects of The Lord Of The Rings, courses in the Klingon language, and the Science of Harry Potter. There was science in Harry Potter? I hear you ask. Apparently so.

    • Reply July 27, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I completely agree about Martin. I think he alludes to both literature and history. For instance, are his Princes in the Tower motifs a play on history, Shakespeare, or both? It’s hard to say. He has noted his debt to Maurice Druon but he’s also mentioned how much he knows about the Armagnac-Burgundian war in his recent interview in France.
      I haven’t read the dissertation – only the interview about it. (Is it linked? I didn’t see it.) I don’t know the specifics of the argument. Perhaps, Druon’s books cast a long shadow in France.) I think it is great he wrote it. I’d love to read it.

      I tend to think of Academia as conservative, but that’s probably based on my experiences being taught history by a generation that’s now retired. 🙁 When I was reading a Tolkien book on the history of middle earth they commented that Tolkien was only just now being considered worthy of serious academic study. (I think the book is 10 years old.) BTW, this isn’t literature but in a medieval history class I’ve been listening to the prof commented on the conservatism of medieval history professors, stating that the technical skills are so demanding –paleography, multiple foreign languages — that they have little time to read outside their discipline.

  • Reply August 24, 2014


    Actually, I am also teaching on course, but I am limiting it to the books and not the series. We will be looking at the five books and the use of genre, etc.

  • […] med å spoile serien for elevene sine om de ikke holdt seg i ro. Universitetet i Virginia holdt sommerkurs for elevene sine med analyser av «Game of Thrones» og Martins […]

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