Thursday, June 12, 2014

Who cares if "Game of Thrones" is authentically medieval?

I've just come across yet another article arguing that "Games of Thrones" isn't really medieval here (I've also posted it on Facebook). This one argues that its world has more in common with the early modern period, but also, quite rightly points out that its not even consistent about that. It's pretty clear to anyone who's worked on the Middle Ages that neither the books nor the TV show are accurately medieval in all kinds of ways, that's really a moot point. And for all that George Martin makes plenty of claims about Westeros being properly medieval and not some Disney or Tolkien-imitation, he also says that the story, not history, comes first. What really interests me is why people seem to care so much.

It's probably not surprising that there's a ready supply of academics not just willing but eager to write about this. 'Which inaccuracy or anachronism irritates you most in "Game of Thrones?' is a pretty good conversation starter at any Medieval Studies conference, and even those who get past the irritation enough to enjoy the show still notice the details. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we should stop writing these pieces (not that I have but I would if I had the chance); I think it's actually very important that we (the royal/academic we) do try to engage in these kinds of discussions. Not just because it means our students might not have quite so many false assumptions when they get into the classroom, but because, as the article I linked to says, "Game of Thrones" is much more about the present day than it is about the past; if we don't point this out, all the violence, racism, sexism etc can be just dismissed as 'authentic' and a chance to reflect on what our society is like gets lost.

Why there are editors willing to publish these stories in the mainstream media is relatively easy: the show is incredibly popular, so the pieces will be read. But is it just that so many people watch the show, and that they're all so keen on it that they'll read anything with "Game of Thrones" in the title? I don't think it is. One one level, the historical (in)accuracy of the show gives people an excuse to enjoy it by making it seem more serious and adult than fantasy is usually given credit for. Fantasy is still often looked down as being juvenile, if not outright childish, so putting in some history gives the show, and its audience, credibility and a kind of cultural capital. Articles that argue "Game of Thrones" isn't as medieval as it might appear speak to some of that. And if, like the one I've linked to here, they suggest that there's a lot of early modern history in there as well, that is still history.

1 comment:

  1. I read the Breen piece after you linked to it, Helen, and I find that there are some problems in it. What he reads as "early modern"--spice trades and banking establishments and the Mongol, er, Dothraki hordes--is also medieval. Spice was traded to and through Venice in a time that almost always gets called medieval, for instance, and the Mongol Empire flourished in the early 1200s CE--also typically "medieval" in terms of interaction with Europe, which it had. And the abortifacient has medieval historical precedent (pennyroyal comes to mind--not that I have made much of a study of abortifacients) as well as fantasy literary (Katharine Kerr's Deverry is one example). What Breen evidences is, I think, a reductionist view of the medieval, one entirely too common not only among the general public but among academics outside the area; the medievals (insofar as we can regard them as a cohesive group) were not the dummies they are often regarded as being. Their societies were as complex and their intellects as adept (if perhaps not as refined) as any of their successors, and we do them a disservice if, like Breen, we write them off as unknowing, unthinking brutes any more than we still are.

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