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Game of Thrones and Machiavelli

Megan Cavell reports on the lecture ‘Power is a Curious Thing: Game of Thrones as a Machiavellian Mirror for Princes’ given by Janice Liedl (Laurentian University) at the University of Toronto on September 27, 2013.

Game of Thrones machiavelli

Last week I attended a session as part of the 49th season of the Toronto Renaissance and Reformation Colloquium. I know…not technically medieval…but the title was compelling.

The audience was, I must admit, not quite the one I had imagined. From my seat I could hear some undergraduate students chattering away behind me – one had come all the way from another province (what an eavesdropper, I am), one swore a bit, all could quote the books and tv show by heart. I felt ever so slightly out of place.

But Liedl’s talk soon began and her engaging style quickly calmed the filled room. She discussed first the historicity of Game of Thrones – having written and edited quite a few publications on the relationship between various fantasy series and history this was certainly an area she knew how to tread. She discussed the way fantasy literature liberates its writers from the constraints of history: they can surprise readers, while writers of historical fiction cannot (although I’m sure anyone who’s seen Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds would disagree!).

Liedl then moved on to discuss in turn four of the prominent families in George R. R. Martin’s series, especially with regard to the tv show. In fact, she made excellent use of video clips throughout her presentation, which helped to keep the audience engaged. The character sketches that Liedl provided were, perhaps, fairly obvious to the avid Game of Thrones fan. However, the links she made to Machiavelli’s philosophy were interesting, as was her use of The Prince as a tool for evaluating the effectiveness of various Game of Thrones characters in coping with political intrigue. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that Ned Stark was an idealist, but Liedl’s comment that his career resembled that of Thomas More was interesting, as were the associations she suggested between Tywin Lannister and the Borgia pope, Alexander VI.

In the end, Liedl traced out Daenerys Targaryen’s claim to the throne, her use of good judgement (regardless of occasionally bad counsel), and her ability to inspire both fear and love. This, Liedl claimed, is the ideal Machiavellian ruler.

As for the Q and A, this had a promising start, but – I must admit – I had a train to catch and couldn’t stay for the whole thing! I did listen to some excellent questions about gender (which Liedl argued Martin tackles by turning to historical models of powerful women, rather than guidebooks), the popularity of the series and the often quite brutal power dynamics that they display, and how the use of supernatural or divine powers by some figures (Stannis, Daenerys) tips the scales. Liedl fielded these questions well and left me rather disappointed to have to sneak out!

If you’re similarly hungry for more, check out Liedl’s blog: www.jliedl.ca. It looks like there are quite a few posts that tie into her talk, so you don’t have to feel like you’ve missed out! ~ Megan Cavell

Please also check out Megan Cavell’s website The Riddle Ages



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