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 Mic.com 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?”
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.