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‘Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones’ walks fans through Westeros and beyond

Among fans of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s common knowledge that George R.R. Martin based much of his tale on actual history. Devotees can probably rattle off some of the more prominent real-world inspirations: the War of the Five Kings is roughly patterned after the War of the Roses, the North is vaguely analogous to medieval Scotland, etc. In Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones, author and scholar Carolyne Larrington explores these inspirations in greater detail, and sheds light on many others fans may not have considered.

For long-time lovers of A Song of Ice and Fire, the most interesting parts of Larrington’s book will be those where she goes off the beaten path. We’ve heard plenty about the historical underpinnings of Westeros, but less about the inspirations for people and places in Essos. Larrington fills in those gaps. For example, she draws parallels between the Faceless Men of Braavos and the Nizari Ismailis, an Islamic sect that operated out of Alumet Castle, a mountain fort, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In pursuit of their religious and political goals, members of this sect would carry out clandestine assassinations using daggers dipped in poison. Like the Faceless Men, they tried to avoid collateral damage.

It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but there’s no reason it should be—A Song of Ice and Fire is fiction inspired by history, not historical fiction. As a Fellow in Medieval English Literature at St. John’s College, Oxford, Larrington uses her vast knowledge of both history and literature from the time period to draw all kind of interesting comparisons. Whether they’re well-tread (there’s a lengthy section comparing the Dothraki to the Mongol tribes that united under Genghis Khan) or newly minted (she compares Daenerys’ difficulties in managing Slaver’s Bay to the difficulties of holding cities in the Holy Land following the First Crusade), the parallels provide a fun, engaging way to look into the past.

Daenerys captured by dothraki horde

With a title like The Medieval World of Game of Thrones, you might think that the book concerns itself only with the HBO show, but it’s clear that Larrington is a fan of both the show and its source material. Since those two things are diverging more and more lately, she sometimes has to split up her analysis. For example, in A Feast for Crows, Margaery Tyrell is imprisoned after a singer, the Blue Bard, testifies under torture that he had sex with her. Larington examines how this parallels what happened to Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was imprisoned and executed after musician Mark Smeaton, also likely acting under torture, gave evidence of her sexual affairs.

But in the show, Margaery is imprisoned after perjuring herself in front of a holy court while trying to protect her brother Loras. On TV, the Anne Boleyn parallel falls apart. With no more books to serve as a template for the show, you have to wonder if things like this are going to happen more often. If Larington writes a sequel to this book when the entire series is finished, she may have to divide it into “show-only” and “novel-only” sections.

But that’s not much of a factor when reading The Medieval World of Game of Thrones. Larington has an inviting style, and transitions easily because descriptions of the show or books, history lessons, and comparisons between the two. It’s a very thorough book that covers nearly every nook and cranny of the Song of Ice and Fire mythology, from the Night’s Watch and the Ironborn in the North all the way to Qarth and Asshai in the far east. Even superfans well-versed in the story’s historical bases will find plenty to chew on, and casual viewers who never bothered to think about it may find an entirely new way of looking at looking at their favorite show.

11 Comments

  • For example, in A Feast for Crows, Margaery Tyrell is imprisoned after a singer, the Blue Bard, testifies under torture that he had sex with her.

    Marg is imprisoned after Osney Kettleblack happily confesses to the High Septon that he bedded her. The Blue Bard is brought in later (while Cersei is already imprisoned).

    • My recollection may be a bit hazy, but doesn’t Cersei try and get Osney Kettleback to seduce Marg in order to entrap her, but Marg doesn’t sleep with him. They then use the Blue Bard by torturing him to get a false confession out of him in regards to his interactions with Marg and her ladies? I’m going to go and reread this section.

      • Yes. Marg only teases Osney. And they torture the Blue Bard to the point where he is saying what Cersei and Qyburn want him to say. But Cersei then has Osney go to the High Septon and outright confess to sleeping with Margaery. And Cersei “rewards” him in advance by letting him have his way with her.

        But the way it all goes down in the end is Osney confesses. Marg and her cousins are arrested. A septa presents herself to court about the arrest, saying that Osney confessed, that Marg didn’t have her maidenhead. Pycelle mentions the moon tea. Cersei has Tommen sign blank arrest warrants, and she then fills in the name, including that of the Blue Bard. She visits the sept. Gloats to Marg. High Septon talks about having doubts about Osney’s confession (he was to happy to confess sleeping with the queen) and tortures him. Finds out about Cersei. She gets arrested. Eventually Qyburn comes in to give her a rundown of what is going on, including the Blue Bard being brought in for questioning by the faith and that he’s saying what they tortured him to say.

        The chapter in question is Chapter 43: Cersei X in Feast.

  • I once saw someone claim that the series was painfully predictable because it was entirely based on the War of Roses, and that GRRM deserved no recognition as an artist. This person demonstrated all of the typical elitist cliches, and berated him, and his magnum opus, with every sentence. It was incredibly sad, because they weren’t just trolling, they clearly believed they had the entire series figured out, and that Martin was a flake.
    They obviously failed to miss the point. Even if it were specifically related to one event; he created these people, their lands, their religions, their struggles and triumphs, even their ancestral histories… It’s freaking amazing, even if you somehow don’t like the story.

    • I should mention that this was the first fantasy series that I ever got truly enveloped by, with LOTR being the only other one I had ever read. Now, not only have I read Martin’s works, but I am completely enthralled, and that should say something to his talent.

    • “I once saw someone claim that the series was painfully predictable because it was entirely based on the War of Roses, and that GRRM deserved no recognition as an artist.”
      –What a pretentious nit wit. Does this person actually think that all art in original? Every piece of art is influenced by something, previous works or someone. For them to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. Further there are plenty of writers over the years fantasy and otherwise who have borrowed from history to create stories. But not all of them have been successful. It takes a true talent to garner a readership like George has done.

  • I have to admit when I first read AFFC and Qyburn was questioning the blue bard and his “sensitive nipples” over his and Margerys “love play” my first thought was Mark Smeaton

    • My thoughts exactly. The book was written well before Natalie would have ever been cast. At least for the time being, Margery is not going to suffer the same fate as Anne.

  • This forking of the story lines of the book and TV show could be fortuitous to both HBO and Martin.
    In a decade once both have finished, HBO could realistically reboot the series with the emphasis that its based entirely on the completed books. There’s so many changes in character story lines that a reboot closer to the original works would be like a re-imaging and honestly billed as a completely new series.

    The question is would they start from book one again or just dive in from Feast and dance?