The popularity of Game of Thrones – both the novels themselves as well as the HBO television series – is hard to deny. Millions of people watch the show, and some of them even heard about the books first.
One of the remarkable things about Game of Thrones is that, despite its supernatural elements, certain parts of the setting hearken to the popular conception of a medieval period: familial and monarchal rule, alliances based on marriage (and alliances broken just as easily), as well as other details related to technology and dress which indicate to an average audience that this series seems very similar to what they conceptualize as the history of western civilization.
I know I’ve already upset every Medieval scholar within range, so I’ll hasten to add that obviously there are huge problems with comparing an obviously fictional and fantastical series to real life. There are enough historical inaccuracies in the popular conception without tossing in the additional complications of fantasy.
The same could be said of Tolkien; an entire breed of fantasy novels has been and continues to be inspired by Tolkien, re-using the characteristics of a “sword and sorcery” genre, containing elements that never have never actually existed: knights did not exist in reality as they do in the common imagination; castles, kingdoms, and structures of government were far less epic and / or romantic; even very simple concepts of social and class mobility, gender equity, and the role of justice, which are such ingrained ideas in a modern audience, are complete anachronisms for the medieval time period. Tolkien and his successors in the genre have contributed enormously to the misconceptions rampant in the common imagination.
So Game of Thrones is bad, right?
Insofar as any fictional text – even historically based – is never going to be completely accurate, even taking massive liberties with the time period in order to a) tell a story and b) conform to the misinformation that already exists in the mind of the audience, we should not, of course, be using Game of Thrones as a textbook.
However, can we use Game of Thrones in our teaching to introduce students to true and accurate concepts in medieval study?
I’m thinking specifically in regards to death. Death happens so frequently in Game of Thrones as to have become an internet meme.
When asked about it, George R.R. Martin refers to the frequency of death in his writing as necessary for the character construction, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page, (so) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.” Death becomes his greatest tool in creating character, but it’s also his greatest tool in differentiating himself from other authors who are set their stories in a similar time period: he say that Tolkien and his ilk write “Disneyland Middle Ages,” a jibe the correctly identifies Tolkien’s fantasy as being unrealistically PG rated. (See, Martin agrees with all you medieval scholars, too!). Martin says, “we look at real history and it’s not that simple … Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”
So what can learn about death in Martin’s text that we can apply to Medieval studies?
Paradoxically, death in the medieval period is a way of life.
We might ask our students, how does death in Martin’s text change how we think of death in literature?
We might then go on to say, how does death in the medieval period inform the way people live their lives? How does the prevalence of death and destruction govern the rules of society?
When death is a major concern, how does that change how governing officials are chosen? How relationships are made? How families are constructed? Even further, how property is divided and how land titles are created?
In effect, Martin teaches the new scholar of Medieval study that Death changes everything. They don’t have to believe what Martin says about dress, technology, or even social arrangements (in fact, they should use what they learn to question Martin’s descriptions). But Game of Thrones gives new students a way into the conversation, and it gives burgeoning academics in the field a way to test their knowledge: it may not be Shakespeare, but the pedagogical potential of Game of Thrones has interesting implications for CMRS studies, and I would argue, humanities study as a whole.
Martin, George R.R. A Song of Ice and Fire (series). New York: Bantam, 2013. Print.