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Should medievalists be teaching Game of Thrones?

By Richard Utz

“Once we get them in the door, they will want to be medievalists.” How many times have we said this about our own courses and subject matters, and how many times have we heard others say it?

And it is true: Shows like Game of Thrones may well increase undergraduate demand for Medieval Studies courses. It’s easy to see why we medievalists would hope that Game of Thrones could be a gateway drug to studying the ‘real’ Middle Ages, our area of expertise that affords us pleasure and a salary: An average of 23 million viewers watched each episode of season 6; the final episode of season 7 attracted 16.5 million viewers. The show has won more Emmys than other prime-time series ever. It is broadcast in 170 countries. And the final season is now upon us.

In an era where enrollments in humanities degrees are decreasing every year, many universities have offered classes linking the show to medieval studies. For example, Harvard ran a seminar on Game of Thrones. The course leaders were outspoken about their class as a “recruitment tool” for medieval studies and the humanities. And they told us exactly what they intended to do once the popularity of GoT has lured their undergraduates “in the door”: The official description for their course, entitled “The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models,” explained that they want to demonstrate how the TV show “echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.” As always, we academics are setting the record straight (I still remember nitpicky discussions about Braveheart using Irish instead of Scottish bagpipes), but it seems we aren’t interested enough in discussing GoT as a cultural media artifact per se.

Dozens of other instructors at other institutions and in other disciplines latched on too, most of them also with the stated intent to somehow find a way to harness the popularity of the series for their own (often endangered) areas of specialty: Roanoke College discussed the fascinating behaviors of the protagonists in a course on the history of anthropology; Northern Illinois University ran an honors seminar discussing the sempiternal question of the value of literature-based TV; and the University of Tulsa focused on the show’s portrayal of characters with disabilities within the wider historical and contemporary media depictions of physical, neurological, and developmental disabilities. I cannot speak to all these approaches and applications, but I have some thoughts about medievalists’ traditional educational uses of GoT:

Objection 1: What is our goal? 

This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but I don’t think that our most noble goal as educators should be the survival of our own discipline. Maybe that attitude was acceptable during the pioneer days of installing the humanities at universities in the late nineteenth century. But even then the likes of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche accused humanities scholars of “being of use only to themselves.” Instead, they praised scholars of law, theology, and medicine for producing judges, lawyers, priests, and medical doctors.

Today, we understand too much about the constructed nature of historical periods and academic disciplines not to realize that the Middle Ages may be little more than a “fraudulent” modern invention, as Jacques Heers once stated. And besides, there are more innovative and productive approaches to ‘using’ GoT in the classroom than what most widely advertised courses have promoted. Check out UC Berkeley’s class, “The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention,” for example, which was taught by David J. Peterson, the creator of the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages; and you’ll know what I mean.

Objection 2: How medieval is Game of Thrones?

My second objection against turning GoT into something like a ‘gateway drug’ for making future medievalists is that neither the TV show nor George R.R. Martin’s novels is actually situated in “the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.” Yes, Martin has claimed multiple times that the fictional societies he created are “strongly grounded in history” and intended to serve as a corrective against what he calls the “Disneyland Middle Ages” full of “princes, princesses, and knights in shining armor.” However, unlike the similarly unsentimental anti-Disney series The Last Kingdom or Vikings, which are historical fiction, GoT is completely devoid of such authenticating anchors: It is an historical fantasy. Like other fantasies, it offers a world that is self-contained, with its own detailed geography, languages, and distinct non-historical reality, a place entirely “Neo,” so to speak.

Instead of creating traditional kinds of historical authenticity and authority, it engages in a myriad of cultural references that have a medieval ‘feel’. GoT, thus, is a simulacrum: something that is neither an original nor the copy of an original—it is a copy of something that was fictional to begin with, and only plays with our historical associations.

Because GoT is a fantasy simulacrum of not-the-Middle-Ages, applying the traditional methods of literary studies, folklore, or history may not be particularly effective at helping our students (or ourselves) make sense of it.

Some instructors seem to place particular emphasis on demonstrating to their students the superiority of the real Middle Ages over Game of Thrones:

“When I read medieval verse epics with my students, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s like in Game of Thrones.’ No, if anything at all, it’s the other way around. Isn’t it partly our job [as professors] to use that interest and go deeper?”

Going “deeper” all too often seems to mean that the purpose of including GoT in a college classroom is to identify its sources and analogues in medieval history, literature, religion, and legend; to move swiftly from the “reel” to the “real” Middle Ages, to forsake the shadowy postmodern representations of medieval culture; and all that in order to focus on medieval culture and its own self representations (which many of us think are more authentic/credible/original). But honestly, there is no reason why Game of Thrones should be taught as a portal to the Middle Ages rather than as a cultural artifact on its own terms. What exactly are our reasons for insisting on teaching Geoffrey Chaucer, Oswald von Wolkenstein, or Dante Aligheri over George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Marion Zimmer Bradley? Is it the modernist aesthetic canon, the history of our educational system, the history of nationalism and colonialism, or some mysterious intrinsic quality that influences us? Can we be honest about these questions, to our students as well as ourselves?

Objection 3: Viewers don’t love GoT because they think its medieval

As my third challenge to what I consider the at least somewhat parasitic approach of using GoT to keeping the study of the Middle Ages alive and well in higher education I propose a simple check. Since we have ample data about why audiences enjoy the TV show, let’s test if any of these reasons are related to its alleged ‘medieval’ features:

FAMILY DRAMA & WORLD BUILDING

In 2014, GoT for the first time outdid another HBO show, The Sopranos, for the total number of viewers. Until then, The Sopranos had dominated the market as the show with the most attractive family drama specifically written for an adult audience, so much so that critics termed GoTThe Sopranos with swords” or, for you older viewers, “Dynasty in chainmail”. However, if The Sopranos focus on one single complex family clan, GoT could easily be called The Sopranos 2.0: Can you name even all the major houses of the show: The Starks of Winterfell, House Targaryan, Hous Tyrell of Highgarden, House Nymeros Martell of Sunspear, House Lannister of Casterly Rock, House Baratheon (of Storm’s End), House Mormont, House Tully or Riverrun, House Baratheon of Dragonstone, House Arryn of the Eyrie, House Baelish of the Fingers, House Greyjoy of Pyke, House Bolton of the Dreadfort, House Baratheon of King’s Landing, and I could continue. Adult audiences express how enthralled they are by the challenge of figuring out the various relationships, loyalties, and histories. This is also why the show offers us a visualization of this complex world via the engaging topographic opening credits. In its complexity, GoT world building more resembles that of Minecraft, Little Big Planet, LegoWorlds, or Dungeons & Dragons than that of most TV shows in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

BAIT-AND-SWITCH PLOT & ENGAGING CHARACTERS

One of the features of Game of Thrones that keeps our brains craving to follow the various relationships and plot lines is that it plays with your horizon of expectation: As Alice Walton puts it:

Central characters are killed, psychopaths claim power, weddings become bloodbaths, and bad guys develop consciences as time passes. The twists and turns of the plot lock us in, and the developments that are impossible to anticipate give us a dopamine rush that keeps us coming back for more.

The simplistic binary characterizations of most linear narratives are questioned, for example when Arya Stark and Joffrey’s Hound or Jaimy Lannister and Brienne of Tarth find common ground. Except for Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton, even the noblest characters show flaws and the worst ones have or show glimpses of, redeeming traits. Common archetypes and plots from mythic storytelling are explored and exploded. Alice Walton adds:

For example, the virginal blonde Daenerys doesn’t stay sexually or otherwise innocent for long – after shedding her oppressors (namely, her brother and husband), she gets a whirlwind education in sex, love, death, politics, and ethics. In the end – and it’s not even the end yet – she’s emerged as a different kind of archetype all-together: A promising female power who may give the central male characters a run for their money.

GUILT-FREE BARBARISM, VIOLENCE, & SEX

Already after its first few episodes, GoT spawned wide-ranging discussions about gender roles and sexism on television. Soon, viewers concatenated all these scenes into “best of” compilations on YouTube. So prevalent was the conscious inclusion of nudity in the show that critic Myles McNutt coined a new technical term, “sexposition,” to speak of the show’s noticeable use of sex as a backdrop for exposition about back story or character motives. Psychologists disagree on whether members of the audience register less of what is being explained or have a heightened sense of perception. What is clear is that the writers and producers of the show, in agreement with George R.R. Martin, use the technique intentionally because it allows for the exposition of the kinds of motivations and incentives included in Martin’s book, but difficult to include in a television show without adding many more episodes. Thus, the scenes may actually not be gratuitous, but a response to allow for the depiction of the complexity of GoT’s fantasy world.

Some viewers and critics have drawn the line when it came to some of the most drastic depictions of sexual violence, especially Ramsay Bolton’s rape of Sansa Stark on their wedding night. Here, too, however, I am not sure the horrid scene is gratuitous: Sansa Stark’s journey as a character has all been about seeing her romantic and unrealistic vision of her world – knights in shining armor, rescuing damsels in distress – hardened by adversity: including her father’s beheading, her own kidnapping, the murder of her mother and other family members, and her forced marriage to two different men, including the sadist who rapes and tortures her. What I am trying to say here is that the show would already have lost large segments of its audience if viewers did not feel that the violence and sex are woven into the plot and add to its verisimilitude and authenticity.

There are dozens of other features that have been advanced to explain the phenomenal success of GoT: That it’s an underdog story in which misfits who started off at the bottom overcome great odds to rise to power and/or glory: Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Danaerys, Arya Stark, Littlefinger; that it’s finally an example of fantasy, a wildly popular and thus often critically disdained genre, that can be just as complex and intelligent as so-called high-brow narrative; or that it’s cast is full of excellent newly discovered talent. Whatever the various reasons, I cannot for the world see that any of them depend on any direct connection with medieval culture. And thus it is clear as is the summer sun that the show’s purported “medieval” setting is not what continues to attracts audiences.

Objection 4:  It draws from more history than the Middle Ages

My fourth and final objection has to do with terminology. Somehow it seems to me that, when George R.R. Martin and many viewers use the term “medieval,” what they really mean is “pre-modern.” While it is true that actual historical connections are too vague and eclectic to draw conclusively, consider the following pre-medieval connections: Martin himself has said that the idea for ‘The Wall’ while visiting Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland (which takes us to 122 CE); Daenerys Targaryen has been shown to have uncanny similarities with the Celtic Queen Boudicca (which takes us to around the year 60 CE); the gods in Westeros’ Faith of Seven correspond to the Roman pantheon; the “wildfire” in GoT is based on the “Greek Fire” used in the Eastern Roman Empire; and Roman and Egyptian architectural features are used as the backdrop for several episodes.

And what about early modern elements, as summarized by Benjamin Breen?

“Let’s survey Martin’s world. Seven large kingdoms, each with multiple cities and towns, share a populous continent. Urban traders ply the Narrow Sea in galleys, carrying cargoes of wine, grains, and other commodities to the merchants of the Free Cities in the east. Slavers raid the southern continent and force slaves to work as miners, farmers, or household servants. There is a powerful bank based in the Venice-like independent republic of Braavos. A guild in Qarth dominates the international spice trade. Black-gowned, Jesuit-like “Maesters” create medicines, study the secrets of the human body, and use “far-eyes” (telescopes) to observe the stars. In King’s Landing, lords peruse sizable libraries and alchemists experiment with chemical reactions and napalm-like fires. New religions from across the sea threaten old beliefs; meanwhile, many in the ruling elite are closet atheists. And politically, in the aftermath of the Mad King and Joffrey, the downsides of hereditary monarchy are growing more obvious with every passing day.”

All these phenomena belong to what we generally refer to as the “early modern” period—the timespan between the days of Christopher Columbus and the French Revolution. And, as Benjamin Breen also points out, Westeroi technology and knowledge in the life sciences resemble more the 18th and 19th than the 14th and 15th centuries, and the almost complete absence of characters of color seems influenced by the modern invention of the Middle Ages as all white.

So, what is the role of Game of Thrones in the medieval studies classroom? Well, despite first impressions, the show’s connections with historical medieval culture are superficial, neomedieval, or broadly premodern; despite our desire for self-preservation as medieval scholars, GoT deserves to be read as the complex contemporary narrative and global media event it is, not to be construed into an unoriginal and anachronistic derivative of medieval analogues and sources that lead us to the Holy Grail of ‘real’ medieval self-representations; despite the decline in the humanities disciplines, the future of studying the Middle Ages in colleges and universities does not depend on any single contemporary TV series, but on our culture’s continued willingness to learn about and engage with the premodern past. This larger cultural desire of millions around the world to engage meaningfully with the premodern may well be the most important question we medievalists should help answer.

Richard Utz is Chair and Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Click here to view his university web page. or follow him on Twitter @ricutz 

Top Image: Helen Sloan/HBO



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