Actual medieval life was boring. What gives George R.R. Martin's blockbuster fantasy series its spark is not historical accuracy but rather the author's imagination.
As compelling as HBO's Deadwood is, it only gestures at the historical forces that shaped the real-world Old West: military conquest, industrialization, and ethnic conflict. Complex phenomena such as those undercut the notion of the individual taking control of his or her own destiny, a trope at the heart of this, and every other, Western.
Hollywood representations of the mob often paint gangsters' stories as dark but familiar versions of the American dream: the outsider's acquisition of wealth and respect. Such whitewashes make for terrible history, but as HBO's Nucky Thompson would say, "never let truth get in the way of a good story.
Showtime's blockbuster series is great television, but not a useful guide to real-world homeland security. Hint: we always tap the suspect's cell phone.
Perhaps the most marginalized viewpoint in war literature, and political narrative more generally, is that of the enemy itself. Yet in Game of Thrones, even the despots, king-slayers, executioners, and slave-traders are humanized and contextualized. As Adam Serwer notes, "Tolkien's monsters are literally monsters ... [but] most of Martin's monsters are people. Just when you've decided to hate them, [Martin] writes a chapter from their perspective, forcing you to consider their point of view." Martin shows how gender, race, class, age, and disability combine to produce multiple gradients and forms of power in Westerosi society, just as much as differences in material capabilities. By mixing things up, moreover, he reminds the audience that these categories are often constructed rather than fixed: the strong and handsome find themselves crippled; princes become slaves; noblewomen turn into stable hands; bastards grow to be commanders.
Indeed, the riddle of power from Clash of Kings, highlighted in one of the trailers for Season 2, suggests as much: "In a room sit three great men: a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sell-sword, a little man of common birth, and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. 'Do it,' says the king, 'for I am your lawful ruler.' 'Do it,' says the priest, 'for I command you in the names of the gods.' 'Do it,' says the rich man, 'and all this gold shall be yours.' So tell me -- who lives and who dies?" The answer from the book -- "that is up to the sell-sword" -- outlines the underacknowledged power of the lower orders. Peasants, infantry, sailors, stewards, camp followers, smiths, millers, and the like are the social foundations on which the elites stand and through whose allegiance they ultimately rise or fall. Today's academic realism has no such sophisticated social theory, whereas alternative, critical approaches put it at the center of their framework.
Perhaps nothing underscores this more than the portrayal of gender relations on the show. Westeros and surrounding lands are of course deeply misogynistic societies, but this hardly makes the show and novels sexist, as some have claimed. Rather, they force the audience to confront the violent reality of feudal gender relations. Martin's in-your-face depictions of debauchery, sexual assault, trafficking, forced marriage, and illegitimacy refute the gendered myth that knights and armies exist to protect women and children, just as they refute the political myth that states exist to protect nations from serious external threats. In standard fantasy, female characters who fail to play along with these myths tend to be punished (compare Eowyn to Arwen in Lord of the Rings). Not so in Martin's realm: Sansa, the only character who appears to buy into notions of chivalry, is painted as pitiably naive.
The stronger female characters of Martin's world are indeed constrained by gender norms, but rather than embody them they chafe at and try to maneuver around their circumstances, each representing different feminist ripostes to the gender-blind realist narrative of statecraft and world politics. Catelyn draws on her maternal power to guide her son's army. Daenerys, buoyed by the soft-power tactics she learned from her handmaid, seizes power in the wake of her husband's death, using it to, among other things, advance a feminist liberation policy in the lands across the Narrow Sea. Cersei uses her beauty and family connections ruthlessly, but constantly risks ensnarement by the very gender scripts she has so cleverly manipulated. Osha the wildling toys with Westerosi class and gender norms in conversations with Theon, then playfully throws them away in favor of a blunt eco-libertarianism. Arya refuses the roles society has set for her as a girl; warriors Brienne and Asha (whose name has been changed for the TV series) follow different paths to power on masculine terms.
Finally, Game of Thrones suggests a critique of the myopic focus on national security over the needs of individuals and the collective good -- a theme more consistent with human security doctrine than with classic political realism. Consider the foreign policy of Daenerys, the slave bride turned Bedouin queen of Dothrak. Newly bedragoned, but with husband and child dead, few followers, and no territory, she begins season two with little but soft power, ambition, and a concern for the oppressed. Tribal lords mistrust her, but refugees and former slaves flock to her banner, and her moral standing is crucial to helping her gain increasing power in the lands beyond the Narrow Sea. Daenerys faces hard choices and embodies contradictions, and she ends up grappling with all-too-familiar challenges and limits of humanitarian intervention and liberal imperialism. But she tries to balance the demands of power and principle rather than retreat into cynicism or indifference -- hardly the standard realist response.