[Fair warning, If you are one of those binge-watchers who has not seen all of Game of Thrones Season 5 yet, then turn away, major SPOILERS ahead.]
It’s been a week since the last episode of Game of Thrones aired for the year. The season was spliced with some especially brutal scenes, even by Martin’s standards, and at several points, the internet took up its pitchforks and butter knives in protest against the senseless depiction of brutality against women, only to discover (again) that we all suffer from a unique brand of emotional masochism — has us returning to GoT precisely because we all crave the ritual torture, which by now runs thick as nicotine through our veins. Divorced of that, GoT quite literally becomes a mere story about dragons and zombies and a damsel-in-distress trapped in a tower by an evil prince waiting for her knight in shining armour. Martin has constantly defended his work by pointing out just how relevant that violence is to our real world, and that it isn’t just hyperbole — history really is every bit as brutal and perhaps more so than GoT ever could be. In fact most of the shocking events and customs seen in GoT actually have historical and cultural precedence.
Let’s look at what is clearly the most disturbing moment of GoT yet — Shireen’s “sacrifice” by Stannis Baratheon to the Lord of Light. Yes, it was brutal, and yes Baratheon won’t be winning the Father-of-the-Year award anytime soon, but was it really so unbelievable? I would think not. The scene seemed to mimic Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia just before the legendary Trojan War. The parallels are uncanny; in both cases a utilitarian general sacrifice is what’s most precious to him — his daughter — over to the gods, in an attempt to help the army move forward. While Agamemnon asked for the winds to blow their sails, Stannis Baratheon asked for the winds to thaw the ice, both of them placing their ambitions and the lives of many over the life of their innocent daughter, who until that point had been eager to help out in any way possible. In fact, seen from this light Baratheon’s sacrifice of his innocent daughter and only heir, far from being illogical and unnecessarily brutal, makes perfect sense, as it engages firmly with standard sacrifice customs practised in Ancient Greece.
Sansa Stark’s institutionalised marital rape by Ramsay again drew moral outrage, although it was strongly reminiscent of a young and virginal Dany being deflowered by Khal Drogo in the pilot itself, so one would think that we’d be used to it by now. I suppose the moral outrage comes more from being lulled into a sense of false security, having seen Sansa go through season after season of being passed around like a little play toy and surviving it all with her innocence still intact. The viewers could be banked on to develop a surrogate complex and be easily misled into believing that she would somehow make it clean. But Martin clearly has no patience for such sentimentality, especially considering that back in the middle ages (the period from which GoT borrows most heavily) women, especially princesses, were mere pawns for political gains and their bodies were vessels to produce heirs. In fact, one doesn’t really even have to fall that far back into history to realise that in many societies there is still no such thing as rape within wedlock.
GoT afficionados are probably familiar with the War of the Roses, one of the most important historical influences that Martin lists is the 15th century — a series of civil wars spanning over decades, full of betrayal, kings being murdered, deposed, marriages, alliances made and alliances broken, all for political power. The central struggle of the early seasons — the Lannisters and Starks — is borrowed quite directly from the struggle for power between the powerfully rich Lancasters, and the powerful Northern Yorks. The Duke of York, Richard Plantagenet, the historical counterpart to Ned Stark, was the Lord Protector during the reign of King Henry VI. He met his rival in the queen Margaret d’Anjou (Cersei), and upon claiming that her son Edward of Lancaster (Joffrey) was a bastard, he got himself removed from the council as soon as the king died. Eventually, Richard was defeated in battle and his head was mounted on a pike by Edward of Lancaster, much like Ned’s famous decapitation by Joffrey at the Red Keep. The Dukes son, Edward IV of York (Robb Stark) became a major player in the War of the Roses and he raised the North and took up banners against the Lancasters, based on ancient right. Like Robb, he too never lost a battle, but eventually he married a commoner Elizabeth Woodville out of love, and ended up alienating his allies and died at the hands of his sworn vassals, just how Robb was betrayed by the Freys upon his marriage with Talisa. However, the War of the Roses actually ended with the Yorksists coming out victorious, defeating the Lancastrians and Edward of Lancaster at the Battle of Tewkesbury, 1471. The historical Cersei, Margaret d’Anjou was taken prisoner. So if the Starks could perhaps take some time off from being totally and utterly stupid maybe there is hope for them after all? I’m still putting all my bets on Arya riding up on a lost-then-found Nymeria to save the day.
The Red Wedding itself is inspired by two separate historical events — the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre. George RR Martin summarises the latter by saying “Clan MacDonald let the Campbell clan stay overnight and the laws of hospitality supposedly applied. But the Campbells arose and started butchering every MacDonald they could get their hands on.” The hospitality customs in GoT are taken directly off of the Dark Ages according to which a guest and host were not supposed to harm each other, no matter how much animosity ran amidst them; else they feared damning themselves for eternity. They were, after all, quite the superstitious lot. This is actually the historical reason for why Catelyn is shown to insist on breaking bread and salt with Frey, she didn’t trust him to begin with and was hoping to bring upon the safety of the hospitality laws.
The actual historical and cultural parallels to events and customs in GoT are endless, or so it seems. GoT is not historical fiction though it does draw upon a whole host of fantasy tropes, replete with dragons, zombies, shape shifters, faceless men, pixies shooting fireballs with their hands, talking trees, and now apparently a Frankenstein monster as well.
The show doesn’t borrow from medieval history alone though. One of the impressive things about the GoT world is that it effectively merges historical and cultural practices from a wide range of societies across several periods in history, but manages to make them work together in a manner which feels organic rather than contrived. The Iron born or Greyjoys seem strongly reminiscent of the Vikings who lived by plunder alone, as is evidenced by the Greyjoy house words “we do not sow,” which basically means that they like to steal stuff. Fans of the History channel series Vikings might also have noticed the similarity between the Greyjoys “Drowned God to Valhalla” and the drowned God of the Vikings. The “Brotherhood without Banners” is a lot like Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. The Dothraki are like the Mongols who invaded Europe in the thirteenth century. The unsullied that Dany commands go through the same kind of rigorous dehumanisation and ruthless training that the Spartans of the ancient Greece City-State of Sparta went through. The Lord of Light, R’hollor, as a religion has precedence in Zoroastrianism. Both of them worship the Lord of Light (R’hollor/ Ahura Mazda) as opposed to the “evil” god (the geat Other/ Angra Mainyu.) Both also share the same reverence for Fire as the ultimate purifier. But although the religion imitates Zoroastrianism, the Red Priestess Melisandre draws many parallels with the daughter of the infamous King Henry VIII by his first wife Catherine of Aragorn, Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary, who during her short reign burned thousands of Protestants at the stake for opposing Catholicism. Melisandre, in turn, burns those who worship the Old or the New Gods.
The cannibalistic Thenns also have precedence in the Sawney Bean clan of the 18th century. They resided in a cave in the hillside and preyed on passersby, claiming over a thousand victims over a period of about 25 years. The clan comprised of Bean and his wife along with their 14 children and 32 grandchildren — the third generation being a complete product of incest. The Bean clan has since been popularised in several works of fiction including the movie The Hills have Eyes and a reference to it in Nick Cave’s book And the Ass Saw the Angel.
The actual historical and cultural parallels to events and customs in GoT are endless, or so it seems. GoT is not historical fiction, though it does draw upon a whole host of fantasy tropes, replete with dragons, zombies, wights, wargs, shape shifters, faceless men, pixies shooting fireballs with their hands, talking trees, and now apparently a Frankenstein monster as well (Qyburn’s reanimating The Mountain’s corpse into Robert Strong at the end of Season 5).
Yet, the show still manages to engage with real human experiences and history in a manner that even most works of historical fiction don’t, and that probably has a lot to do with their aversion to romanticising history and their willingness to deal with the aspects of lived human experiences that most would generally shirk from.