What Can “Game of Thrones” Tell Us About History?

By now, it’s well-known that George R.R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the HBO series Game of Thrones, draw liberally from our own world and its history.  Most obviously, Westeros resembles England, with the rival houses of Lannister and Stark paralleling the feud between Lancaster and York that tore England apart during the conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses.  Events such as the Red Wedding, likewise, have real-world analogues.  Aside from inspirations, what else does Game of Thrones have to teach us about history?  Can it tell us how history works?  The short answer is that yes, it can, in sometimes quite startling and unexpected ways.

At the level of narrative, both ASoIaF and GoT are immensely complex, with literally dozens of characters with substantial roles to play.  However, it is the relationships among these characters–often inscrutable or obfuscated by the characters themselves–that encourage a reflection on both how we think of the past as a discrete entity from the present and how we make sense of multiple series of events that may seem at first glance to be utterly unconnected.  For example, Petyr Baelish convinces Lysa Arryn to poison her husband, setting off the chain of events that ultimately leads to the events of the first novel and first episode of the series.  Can all of the deaths and destruction thus be laid at his door?  The question is a troublesome one to answer, for though one line of thought certainly leads to his door, one could also argue that the seeds for the current political crises can be traced back even further, to Robert’s Rebellion, or further still to Rhaegar’s kidnapping of Lysa.  The process could go on indefinitely; the series suggests, then, that while historical causality does exist, it is never as straightforward and uncomplicated as we might like it to be.

Furthermore, this tying together of disparate events encourages viewers to conceive of events and individuals as intrinsically connected to one another.  Even the most seemingly unimportant of events can have far-ranging consequences that often exceed the the purposes of those who perpetrate them.  What’s more, even those not directly involved in the action (or involved at all) may still feel the effects, both positive and negative, of the acts undertaken by someone hundreds and even thousands of miles away.  There is, then, a sense of historical vulnerability and of precariousness, as the characters (though not we, the readers) often perceive their circumstances as arbitrary, rather than as caused by an individual agent.

Just as importantly, however, both series feature seasons that can last decades. Now, this might seem like nothing more than a fantasy conceit, but it actually influences how characters within the series conceive of themselves and of the world around them.  When such a fundamental aspect of the measurement of time as a season exceeds the bounds of the usual means of measuring time (in this case, the year), one is forced to think of time itself, and one’s experience of its unfolding, quite differently.  Again, this is not something that the characters themselves might be acutely aware of, but we in the audience are encouraged to think about the ways in which we make sense of our daily experience through the unfolding of both natural and constructed time.  Game of Thrones potently reminds us that not only do we owe something to those who have come before, but they also owe something to us, for we are, for better and worse, the inheritors of the wrongs of the past.  These series reminds us that the question of what to do about that debt is one that is not easily answered, though in the end we have no other choice but to find some kind of solution.

All of this brings an awareness to readers–and perhaps, though this is less certain, to some of the characters themselves–that they are immersed in a world that is on the brink of great change.  Seldom do those who live in such times recognize it, but Martin’s opus, much like Tolkien’s before it, self-consciously provides readers with an opportunity to see how history is made, both in action and in remembrance.   Although we often do not realize it, we are all of us in the midst of history being made; we only come to realize it is history after the fact (and often when it has been enshrined by trained historians).  History in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones works in a multitude of complex and often contradictory ways, and this is one of the greatest sources of pleasure to be derived from these sources.  However, we should also be aware of the potential political ramifications from such an understanding of the unfolding of history, as well as the relationship between

Clearly, there is a great deal about this particular fantasy series that can have significant consequences for how we conceive of history in our own world.  Though the world that we constantly see is full of the most unimaginably heinous acts of violence and destruction, there is a moral lesson here nevertheless, and it is that each individual must constantly be aware of the law of unintended consequences.  When the laws and foundations that undergird the orderly working of society–which, in essence, are based upon an idea of history as progress, that the world is getting better–are discounted in favor the needs of the individual, then society itself begins to unravel.  It remains to be seen how both Martin and the showrunners will ultimately bring everything to a conclusion.  However, even if all of the plot lines are eventually neatly tied up (which is itself open to a great deal of doubt), the fact that there will be any measure of conclusion is itself a claim upon history.  In the end, the people of Westeros and Essos may finally learn the truth of the old adage that those who do not learn from history (and, it might be added, the heinous acts committed in the past) are doomed to repeat it.

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