‘Game of Thrones’ Among the Medievalists
Trying to turn the spectacularly popular show into a means of encouraging future medieval scholars is misguided, writes Richard Utz.
Originally published in Inside Higher Ed, July 14, 2017
In May, Olivia B. Waxman reported for Time magazine on a fall 2017 class to be taught at Harvard University. The class is called The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models and will be collaboratively taught by Sean Gilsdorf, a medieval historian, and Racha Kirakosian, a specialist in German studies and religion. Waxman’s short article is part of a veritable media avalanche readying us for the beginning of season seven of the successful HBO series July 16. After all, GoT airs in more than 170 countries, has won more Emmys than any other prime-time series and is simply “the world’s most popular show” ever.
With their field suffering from the significant downward drift in student interest for humanities disciplines in the last decade, some medievalists have been eager to embrace the exceptional popularity of GoT. This summer’s International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, for example, featured a replica of the famous Iron Throne from the series. More seriously, in a 2015 report on a meeting about the career chances of young medievalists, Lisa Fagin Davis, the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, summarized her colleagues’ (albeit anecdotal) claims that shows like GoT may well have increased undergraduate demand for medieval studies courses. Confident in the appeal of her area of specialty as well as her colleagues’ qualities as classroom teachers, she stated, “We all know that once we get them in the door, they will want to be medievalists.”
The instructors of the fall 2017 Harvard seminar, who are similarly outspoken about their class as a “recruitment tool” for medieval studies and the humanities, tell us what they intend to do once they have lured the undergraduates “in the door”: to demonstrate how the TV show “echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.”
I have two objections to this approach: first of all, I don’t think that our most noble goal as educators should be the survival of our own discipline. Such an attitude may have been acceptable during the pioneer days of installing the humanities at the newly reformed universities of the late 19th century. And even then, the likes of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche accused humanities scholars of “being of use only to themselves” while scholars of law, theology and medicine remained connected with the general public by producing judges, lawyers, priests and medical doctors. Today, we understand too much about the constructed nature of historical periods and academic disciplines not to realize that the Middle Ages may be, as Nancy Partner once aptly put it, an “amoebic construct justified by nothing firmer than the uneven thinning out and eventual demise of Roman provincial government in Western Europe for a beginning, and, at the other end, the self-congratulating pronouncements of a few Italian intellectuals” who maintained they “definitely wrote better Latin than anyone who had lived since Cicero.”
My second objection against turning GoT into a “gateway drug” for making future medievalists is that neither the TV show nor George R. R. Martin’s narrative is really situated in “the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.” True, Martin has claimed that the fictional societies he created are “strongly grounded in history” and meant to serve as a corrective against what he calls the “Disneyland Middle Ages” abounding with “princes, princesses and knights in shining armor.” However, unlike the similarly gritty anti-Disney series The Last Kingdom (BBC, 2015) or Vikings (History, 2013), which fictionalize identifiable historical persons, eras, events and regions, GoT is completely devoid of such authenticating anchors. Instead, it offers a world that is self-contained, with its own geography, languages, cultures and distinct nonhistorical temporality -- a place entirely “neo,” so to speak. Rather than creating traditional kinds of historical authenticity and authority, it engages in a myriad of cultural references that have a vaguely medieval feel (by the way, I think it’s a premodern feel, because the show also echoes the Wars of the Roses and imperial Rome).
GoT, thus, presents a simulacrum of the medieval -- neither an original nor the copy of an original. The most prominent precursor for this “neo” world is, of course, the one created by J. R. R. Tolkien, whose characters, plots and themes, infused as they originally were by Tolkien’s own academic study of the Middle Ages, now independently and contingently populate thousands of computer games and other neomedievalist cultural productions.
If I am right about GoT’s neomedievalist core, applying the traditional methods of literary studies, folklore or history may not be particularly effective at helping students make sense of it. The Harvard instructors, for example, seem to place particular emphasis on demonstrating to their students the epistemological superiority of original medieval texts and artifacts. As one of them explains, “When I read medieval verse epics with my students, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s like in Game of Thrones.’ No, if anything at all, it’s the other way around. Isn’t it partly our job [as professors] to use that interest and go deeper?”
Going deeper here means, in a troublingly originalist sense, that including GoT in a college classroom should serve to identify a contemporary production’s distinct sources and analogues in medieval history, literature, religion and legend. The goal of the serious medievalist seems to be to move swiftly from the reel to the real Middle Ages, to abandon the shadowy postmodern representations of medieval culture to focus on medieval culture’s own self-understandings. The latter, although of course also highly subjective, seem to offer more truth value by virtue of being “old” (and within the instructor’s area of expertise).
Please don’t get me wrong: I do not advocate against medievalists’ involvement in reading and critiquing GoT. Quite the opposite. And I do not advocate against reading GoT against the backdrop of medieval sources and analogues. However, that can only be the beginning. After all, none of the main causes advanced to account for GoT’s popularity (attractive world building, thriller-fiction pacing, complex characters, sexposition, bait-and-switch plot, escapist fantasy, intricate power play, clever play with archetypes, diverse female characters, guilt-free barbarism and violence, Sopranos-like family drama) is exclusively related to medieval culture.
Clearly, an impactful cultural phenomenon like GoT deserves to be read as a self-standing cultural artifact, not as a derivative of its potential medieval models or a pretext for sustaining an academic discipline. So far, too often, medievalists have shown a narrowly parasitic relationship with medievalist and neomedievalist cultural productions. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001), J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007) or Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were a) used mainly to show the continued relevance of medieval studies and b) subjected to the same binary academic reception: What’s authentic and nonauthentic; what distorts history, and what doesn’t?
Instead of such an uninspiring approach, we should rather ask, why do our societies continually seek to connect with their premodern roots, consciously or unconsciously? What imagined aspects of premodern culture continually attract reinvention, recreation, re-enactment and re-present-ation, and why? And how does the centuries-long reception of premodern texts drive the work of contemporary artists, writers and scholars? I predict that answering these more complex questions will better demonstrate the value the humanities add to a college education.