By Gillian Polack
The most recent English translation of Maurice Druon’s Le Roi de Fer (The Iron King), announces on the cover that George RR Martin thinks of it as “the original Game of Thrones.” Druon and Martin are both two sides of a coin, and one side of each of two very different coins. Both of these things. Their Middle Ages helps show us why.
To start with the obvious, although Martin ascribes to Druon the ancestry of his own epic fantasy series on the cover of Druon’s novel, elsewhere Martin sees and admits that Druon is an historical novelist, not a writer of epic fantasy. He wrote a piece for The Guardian in 2013 that says this explicitly: “I think Druon is France’s best historical novelist since Alexandre Dumas, père.”
Martin himself is a lover of historical novels (as he explained in a personal communication from 2014) and A Song of Ice and Fire is most certainly historically-inspired. It is not, however, a historical novel series. More than anything else, it is fantasy sometimes loosely based on history and sometimes merely inspired by it. Yet Martin acknowledges the importance of Druon’s work as a critical source for his work.
I called this two sides of a coin, and Martin’s acknowledgement is why. George RR Martin and Maurice Druon belong on the same shelf as writers because of the way Martin has been influenced by Druon. The influence is mainly through political history and the wars and feuds of a particularly messy period in French history. It is, in some ways, the same kind of opera. The over-the-top personalities and the amount of damage a single man or woman can do feeds multiple volumes by each author.
The role of the medieval supernatural, also, is a place where Martin owes a debt to Druon, especially in the first three books of Martin’s series. Toss the coin and whichever side it lands on, the supernatural will be part of this political world in an almost understated way.
This subdued supernatural emerges from French history in the case of Druon. The time of the Templars was also the time when the Western Church refined its means of identifying how heretics called upon supernatural beings to achieve their ends. The Church shifted from seeking and punishing heretics to seeking and punishing witches as well. The moment of shift is often defined as the first third of the fourteenth century in Kilkenny, Ireland, where a heresy trial was held that bore many of the hallmarks of later trials for witchcraft. The literature from the trial accuses the participants of being involved with supernatural beings in a way that was antithetic to their Christianity. We often call them witchcraft trials, but they began as trials for heresy when applied to the Templars over a decade earlier.
How the Templars were handled (a part of Druon’s fiction) included this calling upon devils and reversing Christian practice. His Templars therefore, have a hint of the supernatural that comes directly from the trials they were part of. The echoes for us are echoes of the witchcraft trials that came later. It can be subtle… or not, and Druon uses the material from the Templar trials in both ways.
What has a strong historical root for Druon, however, is more of a method for depicting a society and its politics for Martin. This is why the Middle Ages in the world of the two writers is as much two different coins as two sides of one coin.
Martin has not borrowed Druon’s Middle Ages or even used the same chief sources as Druon: there may be overlap, but it’s not large. Martin’s own Middle Ages comes more directly from the political struggles depicted in several of the most well-known medieval chronicles, especially in the first book in his series. His interpretations and his addition of the supernatural, however, echo those in Druon’s work and, given the tribute Martin makes to Druon, may be inspired or drawn from them.
Two different Middle Ages, but writing techniques that are similar. Panoply and display is important to both, and the impossibility of politics and how much people can hurt each other. Maurice Druon writes this as historical fiction which might be interpreting as containing a dash of fantasy or which might bring to life beliefs of the period. George RR Martin turns his Middle Ages into pure fantasy.
The further Martin progresses with his series, the more this set of choices is clear and the less of the Middle Ages as we currently interpret it is visible in his work. However, however far his work migrates from its earlier medieval construct, it owes Maurice Druon for the critical choices about who is important and how they should be displayed, what sort of magic and religion are allowed and how they influence the plot.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack