Middle Ages vs. Antiquity: ‘Discrepancies’ in the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire Universe
Fantasy works, especially awesome ones such as Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire, could be deemed immune from criticism; however, comparisons with real history are in order.
In the first half of 2017, the world had been so anxious to see Season 7 of Game of Thrones, the hit HBO TV show based on the Song of Ice and Fire novel by George R. R. Martin, that one could not help but ponder why modern-day humans are so enchanted with feudalism.
The Season 7 finale with a zombie dragon ridden by the Night King which melted the Wall will be a conversation piece among GOT fans for decades.
And since the Game of Thrones series and the Song of Ice and Fire novel has long ago become part not just part of modern-day “popular culture,” but of actual “culture,” putting the premise and the setting of the show to some fan critique by comparing it to real-life history is about as tempting as the Iron Throne is for the main protagonists.
As with any other show worthy of the name, Game of Thrones has had a gazillion reviews offering all sorts of critique. There are those who love GOT and are still dissatisfied with it in various sorts of ways. In fact, “Game of Thrones and Its Discontents” would probably be a great title for a book on how the series and the novel have influenced global culture.
Then there are those such as myself inclined to believe that humans’ enthrallment with Game of Thrones and similar stories about kings and other good and bad feudal lords exposes certain atavistic pathologies in humanity’s mind, for example, a wholly irrational craving for feudalism.
All that said, if one is to temporarily cast aside the notion that a fantasy show/novel such as Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire should be immune from criticism because after all it is fantasy and ahistoric, a comparison with actual history reveals certain perceived discrepancies in the GOT universe.
Polytheism Begetting Feudalism
First of all, as George R.R. Martin has made it clear, Westeros is based on medieval Western Europe and its specific type of feudalism (that is the narrow definition of the term “feudalism” — not the wider interpretation tackle by my other GOT article).
The particular type of medieval feudalism in Western Europe, however, sprouted out of monotheistic Christianity. It was a system in which the nearly omnipotent Catholic Church led by the Pope in Rome acted for centuries as the intermediary between the humans and the single God. Of course, by “humans” one is to understand primarily “nobles”, “aristocrats”, and “lords” who completely dominated the populace well into the Late Middle Ages and even the Early Modernity.
Westeros, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly seem to boast that particular kind of overarching, almighty monotheistic religion. Westeros has the religion of the Seven, but isn’t that technically a polytheistic religion?
How may have the cult of the Seven given birth to exactly the same type of feudalism – with its lordships, self-perceived chivalry ideals, and common folk having no more rights than a banana peel – as that one of medieval Western European Catholic Christianity?
Not to mention that Wester also features an older cult for the Old Gods, and the cults from across the Narrow Sea, such as the that of the Lord of Light. Wouldn’t those additional cults erode in a pretty tangible way this very specific feudalism model?
That is nonetheless a valid question even when taking into account the fact that medieval Western Europe also had remnants of paganism as well as heresies such as the Bogomilism which arose in the 10th century First Bulgarian Empire, and spread West where it became known as Albigensianism and Catharism.
Westeros vs. Essos = Middle Ages vs. Antiquity
Second to the whole “polytheism producing feudalism” issue comes an even bigger discrepancy between the Game of Thrones universe and real history: the fact in GOT / Song of Ice and Fire, the Middle Ages and the Antiquity seem to co-exist and interact very closely without one wiping out the other.
Westeros seems to be a fine replica of the Western European Middle Ages, or, more precisely, the High Middle Ages (11th-13th century).
On the other hand, Essos, with its Free Cities and the cities of Slavers’ Bay, with its many gods and cults, seems to be an Antiquity place. There is BC Classical Antiquity written all over it, from the time even before the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean world.
The Free Cities do remind of the polises of Ancient Greece, and their interactions with Ancient Thrace, or of Phoenicia, of early Rome and Carthage. Essos seems to be set in the early centuries of the Mediterranean Greco-Roman world, say, 5th-4th century BC.
A case could be made that the Free Cities of Essos resemble the late medieval and Renaissance city-states of Northern Italy. The major argument in favor would be the Iron Bank of Braavos which is seemingly modeled after the 15th Medici family bank of Florence. All other features of the Free Cities of Essos, however, point to an Early Antiquity world.
Interestingly, in GOT /A Song of Ice and Fire, Essos and (in Season 7, Westeros) features also has the Dothraki.
These steppe horse nomads come from the heartland of the continent of Essos, which is also the hinterland of the coastal city-states, raiding its regions.
George R.R. Martin has mentioned that the Dothraki are modeled after the early medieval Huns, who invaded the remnants of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, or the later medieval Mongols (Tatars), who invaded Europe (as well as almost all of Asia) in the 13th century, or also after Native Americans, Amerindian tribes such as Sioux or the Cheyenne.
To the speakers of a number of European languages, however, who are also familiar with the Antiquity civilization of Ancient Thrace in the Antiquity, the name of the Dothraki might sound like similar to that of the Thracians.
In any case, the Dothraki probably best resemble the various mounted “barbarians” peoples during the Migration Period (Völkerwanderung) who first invaded Europe through the Great European Plain at the end of the Late Antiquity (4th to 7th Century AD), and kept invading up until the Mongols became the last to do so in the 13th Century.
But the exciting features of the Dothraki aside, the big Iron-Throne question here is: how do a medieval Western European Westeros and a Classical Antiquity Mediterranean Greco-Roman World Essos coexist, and interact so closely?
As narrow as the Narrow Sea is, wouldn’t they influence one another very swiftly and vehemently?
In that case, wouldn’t one’s cultural and political model sway the other’s and triumph over it?
Any way you look at it, the Westeros – Essos world seems like a mixture of Middle Ages and Antiquity that one might argue doesn’t make sense. Of course, it does because it is a fantasy world.
Serfdom vs. Slavery
Third, and possibly the weirdest discrepancy in Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire is the situation in which an absolute monarch such as Daenerys Targaryen Stormborn would go on a crusade to free the slaves of the slaveowners from the cities of Slavers’ Bay.
Daenerys Targaryen even has fire-breathing dragons at her command so her power doesn’t get more absolute than that in the GOT universe.
A feudal lord, a queen or king, with unrestricted power cannot technically abolish slavery since under her rule, which is technically feudalism, the former slaves would still have no human rights worthy of the name.
Nonetheless, Daenerys Stormborn is bizarrely portrayed, almost as an abolitionist of the scope of Harriet Beecher Stowe or Abraham Lincoln. Or at least, George W. Bush-type neocon “bringing democracy” to Iraq.
It is true that in medieval feudal Western Europe, slavery, which still existed here and there even in the Late Middle Ages, began to die down vis-a-vis the Late Antiquity period.
The catch, though, is a development encouraged by that same almighty Catholic Church: it was replaced by serfdom, with serfs held in bondage to their feudal lords, which is about the same as slavery as far as human freedom, rights, and dignity are concerned.
Excitement about Being Conquered
Fourth, one thing a democratically-leaning mind might be perplexed with in Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire is why anybody would even want to support Daenerys Targaryen’s quest to claim the Iron Throne, given that her dynasty were conquerors who unified the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros by means of force and violence.
Not to mention that the Targaryens didn’t engage in fair play as they employed weapons of mass destruction, namely, dragons, during their conquest. (Shouldn’t dragons now be subjected to their own regime for the non-proliferation of WMDs?)
And to top it all off, there was the Mad King, Daenerys’s very father, and the fact that the dynasty had to be toppled by force before it could destroy the Seven Kingdoms.
Against this backdrop, some blonde abolitionist-neocon successor shows up, and a bunch of dissenters start to rally to her side in order to resurrect her dynasty as an absolute monarchy likely to spill a lot more blood?
That might not seem very plausible, even from a medieval point of view.
Bonus: the Time-Space Continuum
This part is purely technical, a curious discrepancy about the Game of Thrones setup – more so in the TV show than in the books – has to do with the distances and time, in both Westeros and Essos.
Not even mentioning that one season (summer / winter) lasts several years, rather than one year having several seasons, and how such a phenomenon is possible from the point of view of astronomy, the question about the distances in Westeros has filled up thousands of threads on Quora and other online forums.
If Westeros is the size of South America, as George R. R. Martin has revealed, and King’s Landing and Old Town are thousands of leagues south of the Wall, the main characters and their armies somehow manage to cover great distances extremely quickly for the medieval conditions they live in.
On the other hand, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead seem to cover much the shorter distances beyond the Wall at an extremely “snail” pace.
It has taken them seven seasons to reach the Wall, while the humans seem as though they have been teleporting themselves back and forth across Westeros. (Sam Tarly made it from Castle Black to Old Town before the army of the dead could go from Hard Home to the Wall.)
Of course, the Season 7 finale has revealed that the Night King and his White Walker buddies had been waiting for a live dragon to come to them, get murdered, and be adopted as a blue-eyed zombie.
Essos is even bigger than Westeros, with longer distances, and travel there also doesn’t seem to take too long, as Daenerys’s exploits from Qarth to Slavers’ Bay have suggested.
Another questionable time-space continuum notion in the Game of Thrones universe is that it appears that Westeros remains stuck in the Middle Ages for 8,000-10,000 years – a development which, interestingly, reminds of the Strugatsky Brothers’ 1964 Hard to Be a God science fiction novel.
The series / novel, however, might have come at the right time since at least one character, Qyburn, now seems to be involved in research and development – for which, of course, he was banished from the Order of Maesters.
None of these perceived discrepancy really matter when it comes to the actual fantasy show and novel as it works out so finely and makes perfect sense in and of itself.
Still, a critical reading into the society of the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire universe is critically important given that this is probably one of the greatest literary and cultural creations of our time.
The myriad of complex issues presented by Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire, like the myriad of plotlines, is just one of the many great things about it.
I, for one, deem Game of Thrones to be the world’s second-best TV show to date, second only to The Wire, another HBO production.
Here is to a smashing Season 8!
Please consider donating to help us maintain and grow it!
Any contribution, large or small, is appreciated!
Learn more about donating to support our work here.
*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on intelligencerpost .com.