For Medieval Scholars, “Game of Thrones” is Bittersweet

Game of Thrones
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, left) and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) on the new season of Game of Thrones (Photo: HBO)

With the recent start of its seventh season, Game of Thrones is back in the cultural spotlight as one of the biggest new entertainment franchises of the last few years. To put this popularity in perspective, the July 16th season premiere of the fantasy series was watched by 16.1 million US viewers (approximately five percent of the population) and in the UK the show broke a record for the most watched simulcast on the Sky Atlantic network. The show is in fact so prominent its medieval-inspired world has even begun to influence how people study the real Middle Ages. Some academics have praised the new attention it’s brought to their field, but for those whose jobs it is to teach students the actual history and literature of the time period, the show’s impact can be a blessing and a curse. So to look deeper into this issue, I spoke with my friend Kelly Williams, a PhD candidate in Medieval English Literature at the University of Urbana-Champaign, to see what a real medievalist has to say on the fantasy medievalism of Game of Thrones.

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Does Game of Thrones come up in your classes? How has it shaped your students’ understanding of the Middle Ages?

Definitely! The show has been most helpful in making European medieval concepts more familiar so that when students encounter something for the first time, they feel like they already have a point of reference. For example, I’ve used Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark to explain the concept of the Anglo-Saxon peaceweaver (a woman given in marriage to cement alliances between opposing groups), and I’ve used characters like Jon Snow, Loras Tyrell and Ned Stark – “flowers of chivalry and virtue” – to explain how codes of honor were ideals that didn’t necessarily work out in real life. Daenerys’s dragons have also made students react more positively toward fantastical elements in medieval literature, and a number of them have written smart and articulate papers on how these elements reflect a particular society’s values. I’ve also seen students become enraptured by the connections between Game of Thrones and the real-life events that George R. R. Martin drew on to write his novels. Some of them have even tried to use the show to understand the complexity of the Wars of the Roses. I personally haven’t been able to fully understand that history myself, so I admire those students for trying.

I also love seeing students use the show to check their own assumptions. For example, I guest-taught the episode “Mhysa” last semester and pointed out the scene where Daenerys, having just freed the slaves of Yunkai (or inspired them to free themselves, based on interpretation), is surrounded by a sea of brown-skinned people. Some students admitted that they hadn’t thought about representations of people of color on the show until I pointed out the race dynamics in this episode, and we had a very productive discussion about how media that portrays the Middle Ages (and fantasy based on the middle ages) tends to focus on European history and exclude people of color in the name of “historical accuracy.” Some students even pointed out other shows where people of color were only portrayed as slaves or members of “uncivilized” nomadic tribes and remarked upon how they reinforced conscious or unconscious racism in modern culture.

I was frustrated by some students’ refusal to see the female characters as anything other than prefigurations of Cersei Lannister 

On the flip side, however, I’ve also encountered a surprising amount of resistance on certain topics – particularly the interpretation of women. Some students have the tendency to reduce medieval women to three main character types: the passive, powerless victim; the badass warrior queen; or the scheming, power-hungry villainess. I remember more than one class where I was teaching some of Marie de France’s poetry and was particularly frustrated by some students’ refusal to see the female characters as anything other than prefigurations of Cersei Lannister (despite the text praising the women for their virtue). Granted, I don’t think that students have to agree with me, or that these analyses have been solely due to Game of Thrones, but the show is the most common analogy that students use when they describe their interpretation of a female character. And don’t get me started on people who see all the sexual assault on the show and try to argue, “That’s just the way things were for women back then.” Back when? When was there a Westeros?

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How do you feel about Game of Thrones starting to gain acceptance from the academy as a tool for studying history?

It’s bittersweet – on the one hand, I’m thrilled that the show has motivated more scholars to publish and generate discussions about a variety of topics. Similar to the way J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings inspired a lot of scholarship and captured student interest, Game of Thrones has boosted enrollment in medieval literature and history classes while also increasing the scholarly output on medievalism and pop culture. It’s a welcome addition for a field that currently faces deep cuts from universities, and I’m genuinely pleased that medieval history and culture is more appreciated by general audiences.

On the other hand, I’m admittedly a little disappointed at the overwhelming amount of praise the show receives and that it’s used as justification for why medieval studies should be kept around. True, the show can be a springboard for exploring real medieval history, and I shouldn’t be curmudgeony about the enthusiasm surrounding it – but I don’t like it being heralded as the savior of the field or the sole reason why the field is relevant today. I’m sure not everyone has used or implied these arguments, though.

I’ve only seen a few episodes of the show myself. Do you follow it? What have been your impressions of it?

I used to be a faithful follower, watching each episode as it came out, but I’ve been lagging since season four. It’s probably fair to say that my feelings and impressions of the show were different when season one aired in 2011 than now. I was finishing my undergraduate studies when my roommate introduced me to the series, and I remember being absolutely enthralled by the visual aesthetics, as well as the acting and the way the writers kept the complex storylines easy to follow. I still love seeing promotional pictures each season because I get to admire the costuming, and I continue to root for Tyrion no matter what he’s up to! But my enthusiasm has admittedly waned, mostly because I was fed up with the amount of assault I was seeing directed towards women.

Game of Thrones diversity
The real Middle Ages had much more diverse societies than those on Game of Thrones. (Photo: HBO)

What would you like fans of Game of Thrones to know about the real Middle Ages?

It was more racially, ethnically and culturally diverse than Westeros.

Looking beyond Game of Thrones, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about that era?

I have to laugh a little because the “era” is the span of about one thousand years and contained just as many cultures! I think our view of the middle ages tends to be a bit narrow: “medieval” is often a synonym for “barbaric,” so the assumption is that the “dark ages” was a widespread time period of moral bankruptcy, intellectual regression and perpetual violence. In reality, people were establishing universities and trade routes while also making important cultural advancements. The Islamic world (to use that term loosely) was responsible for progressing mathematics and medicine, while Asian cultures saw an outpouring of poetry and philosophy. Even Vikings – the archetype for Western medieval warrior culture – were advancing trade, founding new settlements and peacefully connecting with non-European cultures. While violence and political intrigue did happen, those things often overshadow all the good things that humans accomplished.

What are the dangers of misunderstanding or forgetting history? I’m reminded, for example, of the way certain hate groups have tried to appropriate Old English runes as their new symbols, or when the stories of women and people of color get overlooked. How we remember the past seems to have such an impact on how we understand our current identities.

“Medieval” is not a synonym for “barbaric.”

You’re absolutely right. It’s troubling to see people point to the European middle ages as justification for their racism and sexism. I’m also reminded of certain individuals who use medieval terminology to shape the way we think of our current world. Various journalists, bloggers and politicians have called ISIS “medieval” — Carly Fiorina specifically said she could use her degree in medieval history to fight ISIS — and Crusade rhetoric has emboldened anti-Islamic groups both in the US and internationally.

I don’t expect the average person to be an expert on the Middle Ages or history in general, but I do think twisting or obscuring history has led to a certain amount of perceived legitimacy to these causes. For example, using the term “crusade” today suggests that one’s actions are divinely-sanctioned and/or just. Calling political opponents “medieval” feels good because it paints “our side” as morally and culturally superior. Using runes as white supremacist symbols suggests that a culture of whiteness existed before the European colonial era and ought to be respected. But reducing history to a series of battles between good-versus-evil, civilized-versus-uncivilized and us-versus-them divides and dehumanizes people. I don’t think that we all need to become historical experts, but I do think that calling attention to actual history helps expose the way political and social groups misrepresent the past in order to further their own harmful causes.

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Lastly, could you recommend some stories for anyone interested in learning more about the real Middle Ages? What stories from that time period would you recommend, and alternatively, what current books, TV shows or other cultural projects could people also look to for entertaining but accurate depictions of that time period? 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail! In all seriousness, I’m not the kind of person who expects or even desires historical accuracy one hundred percent of the time in my pop culture (I don’t think it’s truly possible, anyway), but I do look for depictions of the Middle Ages that respect the various cultures they portray instead of reveling in violence and “Otherness.” Some of my favorites are The Lord of the Rings (both the movies and the novels – even though they’re fantasy, they tell you a lot about Anglo-Saxon England), The Secret of Kells, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut, Monarch (a board game designed by Mary Flanagan), Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. There’s also a YouTube video called “Medieval Music – ‘Hardcore’ Party Mix” going around that made me laugh (while also being great dance music). I admit, a lot of the things I’ve encountered thus far in my life are based on the European Middle Ages. I’m actively trying to branch out and would love recommendations from your readers.

Marie de France
Poet Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215), whose work formed the origins of the romance/heroic literature genre

If anyone is looking for introductory texts from the real Middle Ages, my favorites (and the ones I think are the most accessible) are Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the lais of Marie de France, Vis and Ramin, One Thousand and One Nights, Saga of the Volsungs, The Confessions of Lady Nijo and translations of Tang Dynasty poetry. Some of my other favorites (that are harder to access, but rewarding) are Sunjata and The Tain. Readers can keep an eye on Penguin Books, since they’ve done a good job translating and publishing medieval texts as inexpensive copies (and with great introductory material!).