History

“Game of Thrones” in Historical Literary Context

Game of Thrones Title Card (Source: Wikipedia)

Game of Thrones Title Card (Source: Wikipedia)

A jousting tournament attended by princes, lords, and ladies. In the lists on horseback a large, stoutly-built knight, a champion, is challenged by a thinly-built knight. The crowd sneer, thinking that such a challenger will be mown down by the champion. However, the opposite happens, and the challenger knocks the champion of his horse and wins the tournament.

Robin Hood, King Richard, Ivanhoe and the Merry Men in "Ivanhoe" (Source: Wikipedia)

Robin Hood, King Richard, Ivanhoe and the Merry Men in “Ivanhoe” (Source: Wikipedia)

I could be describing above an episode from the first series of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I am, however, referring to a scene in Sir Walter Scott’s novel entitled Ivanhoe (1820). Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh and was a prolific author, penning famous titles such as Waverley (1814), a tale of the 1715 Jacobite uprising (and  from where is derived the name of Edinburgh’s principal railway station), and Rob Roy (1817). His novels were part of the Romantic movement, which saw men turn away from the rationality of eighteenth-century, rationalist, “Enlightenment” mode of thought and look back to a more rustic past. The medieval period provided a perfect setting for romanticism and the gothic revival. Whilst various artists in the early nineteenth century had begun to paint portraits of “picturesque” ruined medieval abbeys, it was Sir Walter Scott, said Thomas Carlyle, who “had first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages”.

"The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Gibbon (1789)

“The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Gibbon (1789) [Source: Freeread.com]

Previously, the cultural and intellectual elites of England had generally held the Medieval period, or the “dark ages”, in contempt. The historian Edward Gibbon, who in 1789 published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said that the fall of the Roman Empire had ushered in a priest-ridden and superstitious dark age, and it was only his own period, with the birth of the Enlightenment, that human progress and rational thought had resumed. This is why in the eighteenth century people emulated the classical period in architecture and painting.

Yet within the space of 30 years since Gibbon was writing, this aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual trend had reversed – why was this? The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are part of the answer. The French Revolution was the culmination of Enlightenment thought, its politicians, men such as Robespierre, were seen as politicised philosophes. They had developed a rational, “humane” form of execution – the guillotine – to dispose of their aristocracy and monarchy.

News of the Revolution was at first received with delight in Britain as the French had finally cast off the shackles of feudalism. As the revolution progressed however, with the Reign of Terror, and finally, the declaration of war by Revolutionary France upon England, Britons were horrified at the results that were brought about by taking the principles of the Enlightenment too far. Conservatives such as Edmund Burke published tracts, such as his entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France denouncing the revolution.

But where would Britons go for cultural inspiration? By the early 1800s most of Europe – France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and parts of Germany – were under Napoleonic control, and hence at war with Britain. It is hard to admire and emulate the culture of the continent when you’re at war with virtually the entire region. The answer was to be found in Britain’s medieval past, as poets and painters idealised the medieval period. This trend continued after the war ended in 1815. Tellingly, when the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire in 1834, they were rebuilt, not in the neo-classical Georgian style, but in a Medieval style.

Sir Walter Scott (Source: Wikipedia)

Sir Walter Scott (Source: Wikipedia)

What, then, does any of the above have to do with Game of Thrones? The Medieval Revival, begun by Romantic-era poets and artists, was made famous by Walter Scott. Ivanhoe (recommended reading by George R. R. Martin for fans of the hit show) is almost like a piece of historical travel writing. Scott guides the reader through Medieval Yorkshire. We meet famous characters such as “good” King Richard I, “bad” King John, and Robin Hood. Medieval England is there in all its pomp and splendour: jousting tournaments, castle sieges, fair damsels, chivalry.

Other writers after Scott also continued the medieval revival. Historians would praise Magna Carta as the document which gave birth to the English constitution. The medieval period offered something for everyone. Alfred, Lord Tennnyson, published poetic pieces on both Robin Hood and King Arthur. For the conservative, upper classes, the medieval period – a time of social hierarchy – gave the Victorian ruling class a historical justification for their own exalted position. For the lower classes, the medieval period offered an idealised vision of a society in which the lords acted paternally towards them, when they weren’t virtual slaves to industrial capitalism.

William Morris in the late nineteenth century used the medieval period in his novels to justify his socialist views. His novels such as The Wood Beyond the World (1894) were a direct influence upon the medievalist J. R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings (1954).

In short, without Sir Walter Scott and the medieval revival after the 1820s, there would have been no Game of Thrones.

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