Game of Thrones and the Legend of the Medieval

Posted: May 6, 2014 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple weeks, my wife and I have been devouring the first season of Game of Thrones.  Yes, yes, we are behind the times.  I know the fourth season is currently on HBO.  Please forgive our pop culture delay, and don’t give any spoilers in your possible comments to this post. Thanks much.

Now, most everyone has heard of Game of Thrones by now, and realize that the series is a melange of fantasy/action/drama/political thriller.  The series is set in an imaginary land and time that is inhabited by 1434624mysterious creatures such as dragons and ‘white-walkers’.  But, the show does not revolve around magical beasts. There are no main character elves or dwarves, like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Hutts and droids like in Lucas’ Star Wars.  In Thrones, all the characters are human, and the emotions, the drives, the beliefs are all too recognizable. For a fantasy series, Thrones is strangely, and brutally familiar.  However, this familiarity stems from more than just the characters; the setting, though a make-believe land, feels like earth. The imaginary time period seems like a ‘real’ era of human history.

Game of Thrones takes place in a bizzaro European Middle Ages.

Everything in the show has the feeling of the medieval world; the clothing characters wear; the weapons that they use.  The castles, and/or hovels, characters inhabit.  The social hierarchy that exists, with lords, ladies, priests, warriors and peasants (this is even the terminology.) The political factions that are constantly scheming for power.  All of this, and much more, makes Game of Thrones seem to be a strange fantastical attempt to relive a ‘true’ past. The series is a sort of Renaissance Fair writ large; and writ bloody; and writ sexualized.

Winterfell

A typically medieval scene from Thrones

Game of  Thrones‘  medievalism is not unique. References to the world of the Middle Ages are a common aspect of twentieth century fantasy tales.  The most famous example is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though mentioned previously that Rings was more fantastical than Game of Thrones, what with hobbits, wizards, orcs, etc, the overriding aura of the two stories are more similar than different.  Like in Thrones, knights, steeds, magic and castles are all a part of Tolkien’s fantasy land of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s fantasies are not alone. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George Lucas’ Star Wars, though less obvious than Thrones or Rings, has the Medieval touch as well. Seemingly set in modern Britain, the Potter tales transport readers to the more magical, hidden ancient world of wizards, trolls, castles and ghosts just out of sight of the muggles.  Taking place in a galaxy far, far away on the other hand, the plot of Star Wars revolves around a brave knight (Luke Skywalker) utilizing magic and rare sword skills (only Jedis use the lightsaber) struggling against the forces of pure evil.  To defeat this evil, Skywalker must fulfill seemingly impossible quests. It is an Arthurian legend with a space cruiser. 

Why do these modern fantasy tales so readily depend upon medieval tropes ?  If this question never occurred to you, it is probably because you have always been inundated with these cultural themes.  After a lifetime of fantasy medievalism, we now simply accept the utilization of the historical era’s ideas, language, clothing and notions as a natural part of fantasy tales. It seems so natural in fact, that to plunk down such a tale in a different historical era seems odd, if not absurd.   Imagine if Game of Thrones depended upon Ancient Greece for its influence. Picture in your mind’s eye the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons wearing togas. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

The reason this seems absurd has much to do with our understanding (or stereotypes) of the Middle Ages. Whenever covering the period my history courses, I tell my students to think about what terms and ideas they associate with the Middle Ages. They respond as you might suspect.  My students imagine kings, queens, castles, knights, serfs, etc.  But, they don’t stop there. Some students invariably enter the realm of fantasy.  They will tell me that they think of witches, dragons, magic, and wizards when they conjure up an image of the long gone world.  My students understand these things did not exist during the Medieval period, but the ivanhoeideas come to their mind regardless. They just can’t help it.

My students are dredging up more than just the fantasies of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  Their associations of fantasy and the Middle Ages are much older than those two twentieth century writers. The early nineteenth century, and the Romantic movement is truly to blame. The romantics’ obsession with the Middle Ages as a time of wonder, magic and heroism must be the starting point to grasping why medievalism entwines so readily with our contemporary fantasies.  Responding to the cult of rationality associated with the Enlightenment, the Romantics created a Middle Ages that was mythical, irrational and magical. These modern Europeans created a legendary memory of the Medieval period that lives on even today. Game of Thrones is just the latest rendition.

 

 

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Comments
  1. abvblogger says:

    This is really interesting. I think there’s an association of a certain type of fantastic with a certain historical period. So, for example, we associate aliens with the present & future, though there is no reason why aliens couldn’t have stumbled upon a Shire like land. And I guess the fantastical preoccupations of the time shape that association. So 20th century fantasy has been about technology + space which adds up to aliens. 15th century fantasty was about spirits and monsters, so that’s medieval… and so on. I’m not sure that we’d necessarily require spirit / monster fantasy to be anchored in medieval ages though. I can see Greek myth working nicely as a novel.

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