Why One Episode Of Game Of Thrones Is Worth A Thousand History Lessons

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

It’s about time we introduced Game of Thrones to the school curriculum, Ed West suggests, because it would teach kids more about the realities of the past than they learn in their dumbed-down, politically correct history classes:

Although fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s books and the television adaption borrow heavily from English history, most especially the extremely violent 14th and 15th centuries. It’s Shakespeare with boobs and arterial spray.

For example, the premise at the end of series one, of an adolescent pretender taking on the Queen and her psychotic young son after his father has been beheaded, while his mother seeks to protect her two younger boys — that was the actual state of affairs in 1461. After the beheading of his father Richard, Duke of York, the 18-year-old Edward of March claimed the throne as Edward IV and destroyed the army of the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, while his mother Cecily Neville sent her young sons George and Richard to France for safety.

Like Robb Stark, Edward had the blood of the old kings of the north, through his mother’s family who claimed descent from the ruling house of Northumbria, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that was united under King Athelstan in the 10th century.

Game of Thrones also borrows from the Byzantines (the Greeks really did know how to set fire to water, and used the trick several times), the Spartans, the Crusades and various obscure eastern religions. But the core is the realm of England, and the real game of thrones in which a large proportion of the country’s aristocrats were slaughtered in a 30-year period of madness from 1455 to 1485.

Like Robb Stark, Edward IV came unstuck when he chose to marry for love, thereby alienating his powerful cousin Warwick Kingmaker who was arranging a marriage alliance with France. According to the romanticised chronicles of the time Edward set eyes on Elizabeth Woodville when the Lancastrian widow turned up at his hunting lodge to beg for her dead husband’s lands and he was so entranced by her beauty that he tried to rape her. I say ‘romantic’ — clearly ideals of romance in the 15th century were rather different to ours, but this is something that Thrones captures so much better than most historical fiction.

The moral structures we have today, based around the idea of the freedom of the individual and the universal rights of all men, were developing in the Christian West throughout the later medieval period but would not truly flourish until the 18th century. Today in much of the world western ideas about the individual are still alien because people think in terms of the clan, which is why it is so hard to export liberal democracy to countries like Somalia or Afghanistan. Foreign policy experts could do worse than watch Thrones and ask themselves: are the Dothraki ready for democracy? What do you reckon?

Most historical fiction basically features a protagonist with 21st century values wearing a codpiece; I gave up on the Tudors when Cardinal Wolsey started giving a lecture on why we needed a ‘European community’. Most people in Britain think the EU is a pretty stupid idea today; in the 16th century it would have been inconceivable, even if Wolsey’s Treaty of London talked about ‘perpetual peace’ in Europe (a peace that was broken almost immediately, because that’s how things were).

Even the most sympathetic characters in Thrones, and I won’t give any spoilers for season four, end up doing some appalling things in the later books, not because they’re villains but because that’s the way the world was then, and how it is for much of humanity today. Bloody awful.

History classes have changed over the years:

Whereas my father’s generation would have learned about the kings of England at school, the bloody battles and usurpations, the poisonings, the tortures and the love affairs, and King Harold getting shot in the eye, by the time I was taught the subject the sort of questions we were asked went along the lines of ‘How would the social changes experienced during the 15th century have impacted on a female weaver living in Norfolk?’ Or ‘Look at Source A and Source B; what differences can you spot and why might that have been? Anyway, children, next term we’ll be reading about the Nazis. Again.’

(Hat tip to HBD Chick.)


  1. Rollory says:

    An even better analogue is Maurice Druon’s “Accursed Kings” series, about the lead-up to the Hundred Years’ War, which is FINALLY getting re-translated into English. The first 3 books (The Iron King, The Strangled Queen, The Poisoned Crown) are available now (on Amazon, or on the shelves at B&N) (or of course if you read French you can get the whole series in the original).

    It may read a bit oddly at first to an American reader as much of the translation is almost literal word-for-word; turns of phrase that are poetic and natural in French seem just really unusual to a prosaic American ear. But it’s well worth it, especially when you realize that every single major incident described in this gripping and fascinating series of novels actually did happen. Going to read the wikipedia pages about the various historical figures involved after I’d finished the books was surreal, Druon has stuck to the verifiable history so well.

  2. Gina says:

    GRRM cites Druon as an influence.

  3. T. Greer says:

    It’s Shakespeare with boobs and arterial spray.

    Or we could just read Shakespeare itself.

  4. William Newman says:

    Or we could just read Shakespeare itself.

    I seem to remember a British political figure remarking of the French Revolution that observing events there had helped him get his mind around how the powerful people whose careers survived or flourished through the sequence of revolutions in 17th century in England had behaved. I don’t remember who it was, but given the date of the remark, he would probably have read Shakespeare, and many of the people who approvingly repeated the remark had likely read Shakespeare too. Shakespeare wrote entertainingly and insightfully about many things, but a full appreciation of life in a vast unstable snakepit is hard to convey accurately within the confines of a stageplay.

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