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.
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.