{ subscribe_url:'/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/insights-kluge-center.php', }

“Game of Thrones” and Why We Are Still “Dreaming of the Middle Ages”

Like almost everyone else these days, we at the Kluge Center have been talking about “Game of Thrones.” An exchange with historian Lev Weitz inspired this blog conversation. Lev is a Kluge Fellow and is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Islamic World Studies at the Catholic University of America.

The text of our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD – this interview assumes readers are caught up with the series.

Illustration from manuscript of “De re militari,” Roberto Valturio, ca. 1460. The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress.

 

DT: “Game of Thrones” weaves myth, fantasy, and complex geopolitical epic. As a historian, what do you find compelling about the way the story is told?

LW: The medieval geopolitics have always been the most compelling part of the story to me. The show has been at its best when it shows the audience how abstract medieval values — lineage, family honor, hospitality — have concrete effects on how people interact and how they operate politically. I’ve been most interested in the characters who recognize that the rules that structure Westerosi society are often arbitrary enough that you can bend them without breaking them. For example, you can’t kill a guest under your own roof, unless, like Tywin Lannister, you have somebody else do it for you so you have plausible deniability.

DT: The show could be viewed as an extended meditation on how rulers wield power, and on how they maintain their legitimacy. Early in the first episode of Season 1, Ned Stark explains to Bran that “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” How does this idea play out in the storyline?

LW: In hindsight that’s one of those “Game of Thrones” notions that might be noble because it emphasizes personal responsibility, but it’s also naive and dangerous. Westerosi aristocrats have to deal with the symbols and projection of power too, not just follow the path of individual righteous action the way Ned tried to. Similarly, King’s Landing — and a lot of fans — might have been a lot happier if Jon had just kept his mouth shut about his parentage and given Dany an easier path to the throne last week.

DT: Like you say, there is so much bending of the law, and those who aren’t willing to bend tend to not do so well. Ned Stark is decapitated by the end of Season 1 – emblematic of the moral man who refuses to compromise.

LW: People who can’t bend definitely tend not to do well. And maybe more importantly, they also set off years of war and destruction for other people. Varys says something along those lines to Ned — it’s great that you were trying to be merciful to Cersei and her kids by telling her what you’d discovered about her family, but the kingdom and everyone who lives in it might have had more peace if you hadn’t.

DT: Wow, Varys, so much irony here — the champion of realpolitik ends up falling on his sword choosing to back the ruler he thought would be more just.

LW: Yeah, Varys’s ultimate desire — the good of the realm, according to him — certainly contrasts with the behind-the-scenes methods he likes to use. Although one scene from last week suggests that he was trying to poison Dany and knew that time was running out, so he was back to his old ways before he finally fell on that sword.

DT: I think of him as classically Machiavellian — you do what you gotta do, but the goal is the stability of the state. What I’m intrigued by in the story arc is the way certain characters seem to become more naive with the passing of time. Tyrion has made mistake after mistake in season 8, usually assuming motives more noble than he should have.

 

Illustration from manuscript of “Concilium zu Constanz”Augsburg, Anton Sorg, 2 Sept. (Aftermontag nach Egidi) 1483. The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress.

DT: The political structure is medieval, based on the premise of feudal allegiances, knights, divine right of Kings, and so on. Are there ways in which the story diverges from these historical patterns?

LW: There are definitely divergences (besides the dragons). Insofar as Westeros is based more or less on medieval European society, it’s notable that there are no religious leaders who are simultaneously consistent political players too. The sparrows show up for a while but then they’re gone. Aristocratic families in medieval Europe would have had relatives who were bishops and abbots of monasteries, not only warriors and politicians. But what always rings truest to me about the show is when it gives serious consideration to how power is not only demonstrated through war, but projected and implied through ceremony and marriages and all these other tools that were necessary in pre-industrial, technologically simple conditions.

DT: About incest and madness: Jamie and Cersei are well aware of what they are doing. But for Jon and Daenerys, it’s an unwelcome revelation. Are there historical analogues?

LW: A taboo on relationships between close relatives — what anthropologists would call the incest taboo — is pretty close to universal in human societies, though not completely. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt back in the 4th century BCE, his successors would at times marry brother to sister to maintain royal bloodlines. There are a few other comparable examples, but they’re always exceptional. On some level, the whole idea of royal incest is to demonstrate that royals are a class apart from regular people. All the rules don’t apply to them.

DT: The Internet was abuzz with criticism about Season 8, Episode 3 and how, essentially, people of color were the foot-soldiers for all the white characters. What are your thoughts here?

LW: There have definitely been problems with the racial politics of the show, and there’s been a lot of good writing on this subject. To me the biggest issues have been in past seasons when enslaved populations in Essos were depicted entirely as people of color. Not only did that too easily and unselfconsciously entrench modern ideas of racial difference on screen, but it inaccurately depicted what medieval societies probably looked like, especially in the Mediterranean world and the Middle East. There were many slaves there, and medieval societies already had associations between enslavement and specific ethnic groups. But on the whole enslavement in the medieval world did not map on to stark racial divides the way it did in European-dominated societies in the Americas. If you were unlucky enough to get captured in battle or by pirates, you could wind up a slave no matter what you looked like.

That having been said, one thing I thought last week’s episode did well was subvert the narrative of the superhuman white savior figure with otherworldly blonde hair. Dany certainly doesn’t look like an easy harbinger of freedom and a better world anymore. It made me think a little harder about why I had been rooting for this character with a grandiose messiah complex for all these seasons, even with the good things she’s done.

DT: Women play leading roles throughout the show, often in surprising ways. What has been the critical reception from scholars and media?

Well, the sexual politics of the show have definitely come in for much-deserved criticism too–scenes of sexual violence depicted casually just to set a dark tone, for example, which renders women’s experiences and bodies disposable. I think the show has had success when it’s engaged explicitly with the conventions of Westerosi society that constrict women’s choices, personal and political, and show how they maneuver around them. Cersei, Margery, and Sansa have all been really compelling characters in this regard. When Sansa plays the damsel in distress to go along with Littlefinger’s plan rather than revealing that he killed Lysa Arryn, all the while telling him just with her eyes that she has power over him now — that’s the kind of moment I’ll remember from this show.

DT: OK, shall we even attempt to unpack the final episode? That would take another few gallons of ink.

LW: Yeah, we may wanna save that for a different blog.

DT: Hey, at least Jon Snow and Ghost were reunited.

LW: Yup…

DT: Thanks Lev. I’ll leave us with a quote from Umberto Eco, who wrote about how the Middle Ages continue to influence us today:

“…both Americans and Europeans are inheritors of the Western legacy, and all the problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages: Modern languages, merchant cities, capitalistic economy (along with banks, checks, and prime rate) are inventions of Medieval society….Thus looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood, or in the same way that the psychoanalyst, to understand our present neuroses, makes a careful investigation of the primal scene.” [1]

________________________________________
[1] Umberto Eco, “Dreaming of the Middle Ages” in “Travels in Hyperreality,” translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1986) p. 64-65.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.