Starting next week, I will be doing weekly reviews of the second season of the HBO series Game of Thrones. The show is based on George R.R. Martin’s written epic series A Song of Ice and Fire, which is not only a fantasy masterpiece but also a work of historical interpretation. Martin’s stories and brilliant characterizations are often based on real-world people and events that he has incorporated into the fantasy realm. This makes for a startlingly realistic fantasy environment. My goal will be to identify historical parallels from each episode and talk about how Martin has adapted them into fiction.
Before watching season 2, I want to do a recap of season 1, which I recently rewatched. Spoilers after the jump.
The main story of season one is the path to war between House Stark and House Lannister. These houses are just two of several leading families maneuvering for influence in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, which form a united kingdom with the reigning monarch sitting on an Iron Throne and holding court at the capital city of King’s Landing. The conflict arises when the reigning king, Robert Baratheon, calls upon his childhood friend Lord Eddard Stark to be the Hand of the King (a position as head of the king’s privy council similar to that of the Stewards in Lord of the Rings). This move follows the death of the incumbent Hand and is opposed by Robert’s wife, Queen Cersei Lannister. As the season goes on, the Starks and Lannisters compete for influence at court, with Lord Stark’s investigations into the king’s son’s bastardy, hostage-taking by both houses, the king’s assassination, and Lord Stark’s execution for treason all culminating in the outbreak of open war in the season finale, with Lord Stark’s son Robb proclaimed King in the North and the Lannisters using the wealth of their house to assemble an army to defend the claim of Cersei’s son, Joffrey, against those of the deceased king’s younger brothers Stannis and Renly Baratheon.
Westeros itself is based on medieval Britain, with many similar features but the added twist that, being home to seven kingdoms rather than three, it is several times the size of Britain. This adds further complexity as each house rules over a geographically distinct area. The Starks rule the northern-most kingdom, with a thin neck of land connecting it to the southern part of the continent and its northern border consisting of a hundred-league long wall of ice guarding against barbarian invasion from the north. To further twist things even further, seasons in this fantasy realm are much longer than in the real world, so that seasons that last months for us last years for the people of Westeros. An ongoing plot point is the preparation for the coming winter throughout the kingdoms – however this does not relate to the historical dimension so I will pass over it for now.
Historically, Houses Stark and Lannister are homages to the Houses of York and Lancaster in mid-fifteenth century England. These two houses fought their own war of succession for the English crown in the Wars of the Roses from 1455-1485. The Wars of the Roses resulted in the formation of the united House of Tudor and the coronation of King Henry VIII. Another naming allusion to the Wars of the Roses comes in the form of House Tyrell of Highgarden, a major house that will be introduced early in season two and which takes the rose as its symbol, in comparison to the Stark direwolf and the Lannister lion.
To this point I have passed over the fourth major house of season one: House Targaryen, which ruled Westeros for three centuries until it was overthrown in the rebellion that placed Robert Baratheon on the Iron Throne. The efforts of two of the house’s surviving members, the siblings Viserys and Daenerys, to assemble an army with which to return to Westeros from exile is a major plot of season one that continues in season two. House Targaryen’s symbol is a three-headed dragon, for the dragons with which they conquered Westeros but that have since gone extinct. The house is named after the Tarquin line of kings that ruled Rome before the republic, and is itself a mixture of allusions to two other families from English history, the Anglo-Norman line coming from William the Conqueror (who defeated Harold for the crown of England in 1066) and the House of Stuart that ruled Britain as a united kingdom from 1603 to 1714.
The name of the capital, King’s Landing, comes from it being the site where the first Targaryen king, Aegon the Conqueror, made his landfall to defeat the army of King Harren the Black (see the resemblance?). House Targaryen ruled for three centuries before its overthrown by Robert Baratheon. The downfall of House Targaryen and its replacement by the Baratheon-Lannister alliance seems to be a loose allusion to England’s Glorious Revolution, in which King James II was replaced by an alliance between his daughter Mary Stuart and her husband William of Orange. The comparison is similar but not exact.
What is more explicit is the allusion to the Jacobites in reference to Viserys and Daenerys. After James II’s overthrow, he, his son James III, and James III’s son Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) all lived in exile plotting their return to Britain to reclaim their crown. A substantial, though in the end indecisive, reservoir of pro-Stuart support (the Jacobites, for Jacobus, the Latin form of James) existed in Britain, which the Stuarts drew on when they made their many unsuccessful attempts to regain the throne. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, the existence of a similar underground Targaryen support network is often mentioned, though the credence given to this network varies according to the speaker. Furthermore, while in Britain after 1689 the Stuarts were referred to as “Pretenders” to the throne, in Westeros that epithet is used by the Targaryens to refer to the Baratheons who took their throne and massacred most of their family. The comparison becomes more explicit in subsequent novels.
These parallels are more than trivial. The historical grounding of Martin’s plot is a key part of its believability, and keeps the fantastical elements from overwhelming the story. Part of making fictional characters believable is reaching an understanding of how historical figures have acted under similar circumstances. Much of the richness of Martin’s characterizations of the nobles who comprise the character roll call of Game of Thrones comes from such an understanding. Stay tuned for next week’s season premiere and my explanation of the War of the Five Kings.
UPDATE: Just found a recent interview with George R.R. Martin in which he discusses history and fantasy in A Song of Ice and Fire. Good stuff.