History in "A Song of Ice and Fire"

In this, the obvious contrast is with the only work of fantasy to compare in terms of ambition and achievement to Martin's own: The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's Middle-earth, unlike Westeros, is the creation of a dauntingly learned scholar: his ambition was to fashion from the languages, literature and history of the early middle ages an invented mythology that would nevertheless retain the stamp of the period that had inspired it. Martin's approach is infinitely more slapdash. Just as the characters and plot twists of his novels derive from a whole range of different periods, so too do their settings. The default mode is high medieval, but alongside all the tournaments and castles there are echoes as well of earlier periods. Offshore, a recognisably Viking kingdom boasts a fleet of longships; Westeros itself, like dark ages England, was once a heptarchy, a realm of seven kingdoms; the massive rampart of ice which guards its northernmost frontier is recognisably inspired by Hadrian's wall. Beyond Westeros, in a continent traversed by a Targaryen would-be queen, the echoes of our own world's history are just as clear – if more exotic. An army of horsemen sweeps across endless grasslands, much as Genghis Khan's Mongols did; memories of a vanished empire conflate Rome with the legend of Atlantis.

The result might easily have been a hideous mess. Instead, Game of Thrones is fantasy's equivalent of a perfect cocktail. Elements drawn from the hundred years war and the Italian Renaissance, from Chrétien de Troyes and Icelandic epic, fuse to seamless effect. The measure of how credible – on its own terms – people find Martin's alternative history is precisely the phenomenal scale of its popularity. The appeal of Westeros is less that it is fantastical than that it seems so richly, so vividly, so brutally real. The supernatural has no starring role: it is merely as present in the lives of its characters as a trust in the reality of angels, or a dread of demons, would have been in the minds of medieval men and women. People take their pleasures and endure their sufferings with a plausibility that puts to shame a good deal of self-proclaimed literary fiction.

The result, paradoxically, is that there are sequences where the invented world of Westeros can seem more realistic than the evocations of the past to be found in many a historical novel. No fiction set in the 14th century, for instance, has ever rivalled the portrayal in Game of Thrones of what, for a hapless peasantry, the ambitions of rival kings were liable to mean in practice: the depredations of écorcheurs; rape and torture; the long, slow agonies of famine. The pleasures of historical fiction and of authentic, adrenaline-charged suspense, of not knowing who will triumph and who will perish, have never before been so brilliantly combined. Imagine watching a drama set in the wars of the roses, or at the court of Henry VIII, and having absolutely no idea what is due to happen. No wonder Game of Thrones has been such a success – and that historians can relish it as much as anyone.


ASOIF contains many references to real history.

Folksonomies: history fiction

/science/social science/history (0.565941)
/science/social science/history/medieval history (0.545790)
/style and fashion (0.408415)

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A Song of Ice and Fire (0.968756): website | dbpedia | freebase
Middle Ages (0.936910): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Westeros (0.743816): dbpedia | yago
Genghis Khan (0.739624): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Early Middle Ages (0.699048): dbpedia | freebase
House Targaryen (0.696531): dbpedia | yago
Renaissance (0.648768): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Dark Ages (0.580401): dbpedia | yago

 Game of Thrones is more brutally realistic than most historical novels
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Holland, Tom (24 March 2013), Game of Thrones is more brutally realistic than most historical novels, The Guardian, Retrieved on 2014-04-21
  • Source Material [www.theguardian.com]
  • Folksonomies: history fiction