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Ready for Game of Thrones Season 6?

April 21, 2016

Late 15th-century depiction of Edward IV watching the beheading of Somerset

Late 15th-century depiction of Edward IV watching the beheading of Somerset
Late 15th-century depiction of Edward IV (left) watching the beheading of Somerset

Game of Thrones fans are abuzz about the premiere of Season 6 on April 24. To stoke anticipation, and celebrate the complicated world of Westeros (and speculate about the fate of Jon Snow), we asked a few of the College of Liberal Arts’ medievalists to talk about GoT’s influences and what they love about this epic TV show.

  • Professor Ruth Mazo Karras is chair of the Department of History and an expert on women, gender, and sexuality of the European Middle Ages.
  • Associate professor Mary Franklin-Brown teaches courses in medieval culture, literature, and languages in the Department of French & Italian and is assistant director of the Center for Medieval Studies.
  • PhD candidate Amanda Taylor from the Department of English is completing her dissertation on anatomy, affect, and armor in late medieval and early modern English and Italian literature.


How does Game of Thrones connect to your areas of academic research?

RMK: I’m a historian of women, gender, and sexuality. Game of Thrones has a lot of great roles for women, including more traditional ones (although sometimes with a twist) like Sansa, Cersei, Gilly, Selyse, Shae, or Olenna, and some more untraditional ones like Daenerys, Arya, Brienne, Melisandre, or Ygritte. In terms of sexuality, that’s what people always ask me aboutmore on that below. 

MFB: I study medieval romances and epics, and A Game of Thrones comes as the latest in a long strand of literary invention that began with medieval stories. I love watching how George R. R. Martin steals a page here and there (totemic animals, sorcerers, potions, love plots, heroic death) and then does something completely different with the idea. 

AT: I study 15th- and 16th-century epic romances from England and Italy. These are book-length poems with stories of knights, ladies, dragons, and wars. I describe these texts as the ancestors of books like the Game of Thrones. I also work on armor from this period, so for me, watching the TV series is like watching the literature and armor I study come to life on the screen. 


George R R Martin has said he was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, various massacres, and specific historical figures (plus, incest, political marriages, etc). What have you seen in the series that you recognize as historically accurate to the medieval period? And of those examples, what surprised you the most?

RMK: Martin has clearly drawn eclectically from different aspects of medieval and early modern history in different parts of the world; this is not a roman à clé about any particular time, even if Stark and Lannister have a few things in common with York and Lancaster. I think Cersei in particular is a good representation of a medieval queen, although not any particular queen. Forced by her father into a marriage with a man she doesn’t particularly like, yes, but especially the wielding of power as regent for her son(s). 

Brother-sister incest is not very common in medieval texts; we see it in the Volsung legend from medieval Iceland, but the sister is disguised and the brother doesn’t recognize her; moreover, she is doing it not out of love or lust but in order to conceive a truly brave son who can be the avenger of her bloodline. That’s not the case with Cersei and Jaime (and if that was her purpose, it didn’t work out so well for her). 

The amount of rape in Game of Thrones is probably not atypical of that in medieval societies. Women’s consent was not the bright line in the Middle Ages that it is (at least in law) today. Girls could be married quite youngit didn’t happen most of the time, but often enough not to be shockingand brides being treated brutally on their wedding night must have been quite frequent.

In fact, Martin’s books, in which the ages of Daenerys and Sansa at their marriages were younger than on the show, may be closer to the lives of medieval aristocratic girls than the show is, even if that seems like child abuse to people today. Women of lower status, across medieval societies, were often considered fair game by men of the elites.

Where Game of Thrones differs from what we find in medieval text is the darkness of its vision. Men in Game of Thrones not only don’t care about consent, which is bad enough; men like Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton, and Meryn Trant are sadists who take sexual pleasure in women’s suffering. There are medieval texts that show or recount sexualized torture, but generally in service of religion (evil pagans mutilating women), rather than warped individual desire. If there were individuals who took sexual pleasure from the pain of others, there’s no reason, and absolutely no evidence, to think it was more common in medieval Europe than any other society, whereas it does seem to be more common in Westeros. 

MFB: Another major influence on Martin was Maurice Druon’s Les Rois maudits (The Accursed Kings), a series of historical novels published 1955-77. English translations were reissued in 2013, with a foreword by George R R Martin himself, after the success of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Les Rois maudits follows the last of the Capetian kings of France, so it deals with the events that set the stage for the Hundred Years’ War. In 1314 the Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, cursed King Philip IV the Fair from atop the funeral pyre where the king had condemned him to die. How specific the curse was is not clear… legend has given it to be a curse upon Philip and his descendants for 13 generations, but eyewitness accounts indicate nothing quite so flamboyant. What is historically accurate is that at about the same time accusations of adultery threw the royal family into turmoil. Philip’s daughters-in-law were tried and executed. Philip’s own death, involving a stroke and a fall from a horse, followed before the end of the same year. None of his direct heirs reigned for more than six years (one lasted only five days), and in 1328 the throne passed to Philip VI, the first Valois king of France. 

I don’t think that Martin is following any of this closely. But he is writing fantasy like historical fiction, and I think that’s where the appeal lies. There’s no prologue, “Concerning White Walkers,” that explains the nonhumans to us. The focus is on the politics that get in the way of dealing with White Walkers, or even acknowledging their existence.

Speaking of the politics, that’s one of the things I enjoy most in this series: watching the characters who have power deal with the counsel they get. This was an important aspect of medieval kingship. The highest lords had to provide counsel, and then the king made a decision. Some of the best French epics have council scenes where disastrous decisions are made because of the personalities involved (I recommend Robert Harrison’s translation of the Song of Roland). In Game of Thrones, with Daenerys Targaryen and Robb Stark, you see them growing into their leadership roles, wrestling with the contradictory advice they get, trying to do the right thing. With Cersei Lannister, on the other hand, you have a character who can’t tolerate any challenge to her own world view, so she ends up surrounded by sycophants.

AT: Given my interest in armor and combat, I am always struck by the attention to detail in the TV series. They clearly have taken 15th-century armor design and fencing techniques into consideration. In the books, however, we are not often given extensive descriptions of armor. What I do notice in Martin’s stories is a similarity to the epic romances that I study. For example, they have multiple heroes and heroines and jump from character to character like Martin does. Ruth and Mary have already pointed out many of the historical links so I won’t go into detail about those, but in terms of story structure and events, Martin shows the influence of the literature of the medieval and early modern period. 


HBO’s Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been possible without series like the The Wire or The Sopranos. Since 2000, people have been talking about a “New Golden Age of Television” with long, complex plotlines and dark or morally-compromised characters. Of course, Game of Thrones started with A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of long novels. Have we suddenly developed patience for very long stories?

RMK: My childhood experience wasn’t Harry Potter but rather Lord of the Rings. That was another long-form work. Although it tends to frame things in terms of good vs. evil, there are compromised characters like Boromir and Saruman, even if they are compromised by an external force.

When I went back to read LOTR after I saw the first film, I was shocked at how racist and sexist it was. I’m not condemning Tolkien for this; he was of his time, and if I’m surprised at anyone, it’s at myself for not really having been bothered by that before. But I was also surprised at how, well, tedious it was. This is something that I read over and over as an adolescent. It had so little character development, so little dialogue. What I’m saying here, I think, is that we have had long stories beforeand long-running TV shows with a devoted fan base as well: think of Dr. Who. I think we may have lost patience for old-style ones and developed a new style, which includes a lot of action as well as character development.

And, of course, the visual representation of fantasy would be a lot more difficult without modern technology. The dragons in the Harry Potter films, The Hobbit, and GoT are so much more effective than we could ever have seen before. 

MFB: As a teacher, I’m reminded every day that the Song of Ice and Fire fan base, at least the younger demographic of that base, were brought up on Harry Potter. Remember how that series started with a slender, charming novel and ended with doorstops that teens were standing in line for hours to buy? Meanwhile, Sirius Black, a compromised character beloved of Harry and his young readers, died tragically and the hated Severus Snape morphed into an unsung hero.

J.K. Rowling educated the millennials for Game of Thrones.

As for long, complicated narratives outside of contemporary fantasy… this was a development in medieval romance. The first romance of knights of the Round Table, Chrétien de Troyes’s Eric and Enide (which you can read in a wonderful verse translation by Burton Raffel), follows a single couple as they wander through the woods, working out the problems in their marriage (seriously). Chrétien’s later romances get more and more complex. They follow one character for a while, then another, and the characters become less exemplary, more ethically compromised. The prose romances, such as the French Quest for the Holy Grail, expand on this tradition. Aristocratic readers loved the long form.

Unfortunately, in Game of Thrones, terrible things happen to women who read romances (Sansa Stark, Shireen Baratheon)...

AT: I grew up reading fantasy novels, almost all of which involve series that have multiple books that often are a thousand pages, so for me A Song of Ice and Fire fits within the genre perfectly. Readers of fantasy novels certainly have a tolerance for a long storyline, but I think more people are developing this tolerance in other media in part because of the popularity of video games. Games like Skyrim, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, etc. enable players to experience a world as a character. The character options, the multiple, seemingly-endless quests, and the overarching story lines situate players in a world where they can easily spend months, if not years, playing a single game. In this way, a wider audience has become interested in experiencing long series like Game of Thrones


Do you see connections between Game of Thrones plot points and contemporary society or politics?

RMK: Contemporary society? What’s that? Seriously, there’s a heightened awareness today of violence against women and of sexual assault of children. Some people claim that the show reflects that awareness, and others say that by displaying that violence and torture so commonly and in such an extreme way, the show is participating in rape culture rather than critiquing it. There may be some of that, but the sadists in the show are clearly bad people, and the graphic nature of the violence emphasizes that to us. There are shows that I have stopped watching because of gratuitous sexual violence, but not this one.

MFB: I think Tyrion Lannister’s character is timely, too. Martin has picked up a motif from medieval romance (the dwarf, who is always an evil figure), and given some thought to the experience of little people. That produced a character who has been bulliedabusedall his life, even by his own father. It’s only the rare characters in this story who can see him for what he is: a very smart, capable man who also happens to care about justice. But the crowd, and the court, see him as a monster. We may love Tyrion’s character, but bullying is alive and well in America today, and people are judged for their appearance all the time.

AT: I can see several connections between the story and contemporary politics, but I will address just one: immigration. The way that the Wildlings are hated and feared south of the Wall is reminiscent of the way that immigrants fleeing Syria and other violent places in the world are represented. For both the Wildings and immigrants fleeing war-torn areas, staying in the places they were born is not a viable option, but they are met not with compassion but fear or even hatred. Wilding characters like Osha and Ygritte show the diversity, humanity, and complexity of Wildlings and warn against depicting an entire group of people as a reductive caricature. This is a lesson we can all keep in mind when discussing immigration.


Speaking as fans, what do you predict for season 6?

RMK: As a medievalist I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the conflict between Cersei and the Sparrow movement. When the church challenged a ruler, there were usually deeper political issues going on, not just a wish to reform people’s personal morals. As a fan, I think that Jon Snow is, in fact, dead. Although that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of him. 

MFB: I agree on both points. “Dead” in this series does not mean “done.” If you’ve read the books you know that there are many ways for the dead to resurface (so to speak), and not just as members of that grisly army led by the White Walkers. My theory is that Jon’s spirit has passed into Ghost, as he and all the Starks are able to do. I just don’t know what kind of human body he might be able to come back to.

AT: Making predictions seems as dangerous as playing the game of thrones, so I will just say a few of things that I hope. I hope Jon Snow comes back in some form. I hope Arya gets more screen time. I hope Sansa is less victimized. I hope Brienne finds Sansa. I hope Dani becomes queen of the Seven Kingdoms with Tyrion as hand. And I especially hope Ramsay Bolton experiences a very unsavory end.