Game of Thrones as History

It's Not as Realistic As It Seems--and That's Good

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in the HBO Series
Game of Thrones (Courtesy HBO).

For half a century, fantasy has essentially been a series of footnotes to Tolkien. Until George R.R. Martin, that is. Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire series -- now five novels and counting, with the first two dramatized by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on HBO as Game of Thrones -- ventures boldly outside the Tolkien box and has revitalized the entire genre in the process. Gone are hobbits, elves, orcs, non-human dwarves, ents, balrogs, and most magical items (although not all magic or magical creatures). Gone too are the Manichaean simplicities of a world in which most characters can be quickly identified as good or evil. Martin's saga has few one-dimensional heroes but many fully fleshed out people.

A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a world modeled after medieval England, and many claim that the series' genius and popularity stems from its accurate and sensitive portrayal of medieval life. Millions of readers and viewers have formed a passionate bond with Martin's creation, this argument runs, precisely because it is not simply made up but, rather, rooted in actual human experience. Martin himself has encouraged this line of thinking, claiming he reads "everything I can get my hands on" about medieval history and even including a bibliography on his Web site for those interested in his source materials. But is the argument correct? Just how realistic is A Song of Ice and Fire?

The short answer is "not very." Before hordes of angry fans launch their trebuchets in my direction, however, let me hasten to add that this is a good thing, not a bad one. As a historian of the period, I can assure you that the real Middle Ages were very boring -- and if Martin's epic were truly historically accurate, it would be very boring too. I'm glad Martin takes all the liberties he does, because I prefer my literature exciting. Medieval people did also, which is why their own most popular literary creations were nearly as fantastic as Martin's.

No Geat named Beowulf ripped the arm off a monster named Grendel and then fought the monster's mother in a cave. It is conceivable that there was an actual early medieval Scandinavian warrior-chief named Beowulf, but if so his life was likely spent farming, herding, hunting, fishing, and perhaps judging a few minor local disputes or doing some raiding. There probably was a warlord named something like Arthur living in post-Roman Celtic Britain, but at most he might have led a short, unsuccessful defensive campaign against Saxon invaders. Merlin, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, the Grail, Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, and all the rest were sketched in by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century and his various successors later on. St. George did not slay a dragon; Robin Hood didn't rob from the rich or fight the Sheriff of Nottingham. Just like Martin, the authors of those tales made things up rather than taking their cues from actual life, because the reality around them was so dull and drab.

During the Middle Ages, most peasants and townspeople led a pretty static life. They worked as children, worked as adolescents, and worked as adults; they got married, had children themselves, and died, either quite young or possibly after living to the grand old age of 55. Not much violence interrupted their existence. They could not read, went on no adventures, and had little entertainment except for church services and holy days.

A medieval peasant working in the fields or a laborer toiling in the towns certainly had a more onerous life than a farmer or blue-collar worker today, but the degree of misery should not be overstated. Mundane and boring does not necessarily mean harsh, and harsh does not necessarily mean unhappy. Contemporaneous literary depictions such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales do not portray the daily existence or mindset of the lower classes as terrible, and the merciless brutality regularly suffered by the lower orders in fantasy works such as Martin's does not reflect reality -- not least because it would have been economically ludicrous for nobles to so abuse the people on whose productivity their own livelihoods depended.

As for the nobles themselves, they had it a bit better. They ate a more varied diet, had more possessions, and met a broader range of acquaintances; they might also have had more education and entertainment. But their lives were still boring. Most men of noble birth would train in military arts that they would never use, and most women would train in domestic arts they would use, repeatedly (although only after their fathers or brothers had bartered them to the most politically well-connected suitor). Violence may have been more diverse at this level of society, but it was unlikely to have been more frequent. There was no incest (at least none recorded), no dwarves, few assassinations.

[Spoiler Alert] Some of the incidents and characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are indeed drawn from actual medieval history. Dragons, for example, were all over the place, especially in England and Scandinavia. They were not real dragons, naturally, but metaphors of evil. Religious icons often depict Saints George and Michael defeating dragons, by lance and feet, respectively. Scandinavian gods and heroes such as Beowulf often slew them in the course of their duties protecting weaker people. And in 1388 the generally trustworthy chronicler Henry Knighton even noted that a "fiery dragon" was seen flying around the north of England.

Cersei Lannister's walk of shame in A Dance with Dragons has both medieval and ancient precedents. Capital punishment was permissible in the Middle Ages really only for one crime: treason. Noble traitors were usually beheaded -- as Ned Stark was -- while non-noble ones were executed in more creative ways. (In 1305, William Wallace was hung until almost dead, then emasculated, ripped open, and, finally, beheaded, after having his intestines wrapped around a pole.) For adultery, humiliation was a standard punishment, and walks of shame were used for noble women. After her capture, Joan of Arc was taken throughout English-occupied France on a very lengthy walk of shame before her trial and burning at the stake for treason (to the Church). Martin has said that he based Cersei's walk on that of Jane Shore, mistress of Edward IV, in the late fifteenth century (although his treatment seems to owe more to William Blake's later representation of it than to the actual penance Jane was forced to endure).

Martin gives Vargo Hoat, the sadistic leader of the Bloody Mummers, the trademark gesture of chopping off his victims' hands and feet. King John of England did that to wounded rebels during his siege of Rochester Castle in 1215, and John of Worcester says that Harold Godwinson did it to Alfred Aetheling and his companions in 1036.

As Martin notes, swords were important. They were the weapons of leadership, both ceremonial objects and effective military tools. A sword could be given to a boy as a gift at birth or naming, and he would grow up playing with it and with other, lighter swords until it became a weapon he could wield with strength and agility. A sword could also be presented when a man proved himself worthy of it, just as Longclaw is given to Jon Snow by the commander of the Night's Watch in A Game of Thrones. And like Longclaw, swords could be named and could have their pommels replaced as necessary or desired.

At the Battle of the Blackwater in A Clash of Kings, Stannis Baratheon's fleet is defeated by canisters of "wildfire" and a massive chain stretched across the river. Here Martin probably has in mind Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantines had in their arsenal Greek fire, a petroleum substance that could be pumped over open fires to create a flame-thrower. The natural beds that produced Greek fire seem to have dried up by the early thirteenth century, but later Muslim armies managed to produce a synthetic version and put it in canisters that could then be thrown by hand or catapult. Such incendiaries were rarely effective and rarely used.

Chains across rivers or harbors, on the other hand, were very effective. A long chain crossed the Golden Horn, protecting Constantinople. How early it was placed there is unknown, but Icelandic sagas record it as a hindrance that had to be overcome when Harald Hardrada, later king of Norway, escaped from the city in the mid-eleventh century: his ship managed to make it over the chain with difficulty, although a companion vessel sank trying to do the same. Other chains protected the harbor on Rhodes, the city of York, the Golubac Fortress on the Danube, and even, centuries later, West Point, on the Hudson.

Martin's depiction of medieval warfare certainly has some accurate points, but, like his description of medieval life more generally, it is far more action-packed than its historical counterpart. The desired result of medieval warfare was usually not death but flight. Trying to kill the enemy was costly and potentially risky; it was easier just to get him to run away. Battles often turned on chance factors such as a leader's death or heroism or the combatants' relative enthusiasm. Good strategy involved finding a way to challenge perceived weaker forces, causing them to panic and rout, and then quickly claiming victory. Often medieval battles took no more time than 20 or 30 minutes from start to finish; longer fights were unusual.

The battle of Courtrai, fought between the French army and rebellious Flemish townspeople on July 11, 1302, was one of the bloodiest of all medieval battles, in part because the townspeople knew that if they lost they might well be massacred. The Flemish army prepared the field for expected French cavalry charges, digging ditches that were often flooded or concealed, and established their lines along a bend in a river to make their own soldiers' desertion difficult. Flemish soldiers did not break and run when the French charged and the battle took several hours to fight. Flemish forces were armed with spears and spike-tipped staves; these were used to knock French cavalry from their mounts, after which a coup de grace could be administered with a dagger. Hundreds of men were killed, perhaps as many as a thousand.

But for every Courtrai there were several Patays (1429), with English troops lying in ambush but being revealed and flushed quickly from the field by the French, and Towtons (1461), with a brief archery exchange followed by a single Yorkist charge that routed the Lancastrians. Neither Patay nor Towton -- nor the endless routine campaigning that involved little violence but lots of boredom, logistical troubles, and dysentery -- makes for good fantasy literature. Martin knows this -- which is why he treats the highly unusual Courtrai level of violence as his norm.

At times, Martin clearly invokes the Wars of the Roses, what with the house of Lannister (Lancaster) locked in a rivalry with the house of Stark (York), and there are parallels to Mongol invasions (the Dothraki), the Hanseatic League (the Free Cities), and so forth. But searching too intensely for the "real" elements beneath the text is pointless, since what is truly captivating about Martin's world -- the detailed descriptions, the strong dialogue, the multifaceted characters, the intricate plots and subplots -- stems from not from his source material but from his own imagination. That turns out to be the true magic.

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