Middle Ages vs. Antiquity: What’s ‘Wrong’ with the ‘Game of Thrones’ / ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ Universe?

Actors Kit Harington (l) in the role of John Snow and Liam Cunningham (r) in the role of Lord Davos Seaworth during the Shooting of the Seventh Season of HBO Series 'Game of Thrones' at San Juan De Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain, on 21 October 2016. Photo: Inaki Andres/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

A fantasy work is simultaneously immune from criticism, and warranting a lot of it.


The arrival of Season 7 of Game of Thrones, the HBO TV show based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, has been so eagerly anticipated worldwide that it tossed me into some thought about why modern-day humans are so excited about feudalism.

Yet, on a different note, since the Game of Thrones series (and the novel it is based upon, of course) has long ago become not just part of contemporary “popular culture,” but of actual “culture,” the temptation not to resist offering some honest fan criticism is about the scale of the temptation of the Iron Throne.

As with any other show worthy of the name, there have been a gazillion reviews and tons of fan criticism. Many love GOT and are still discontented with it. (“Game of Thrones and Its Discontents” would be a great title for a book based on sound academic research about the novel, the series, and how they have influenced the global community.)

Some, such as myself, might even think that the love for it might expose some atavistic pathologies in humanity’s mind, such as an enchantment with feudalism.

If one is to forget for a moment that a show/novel such as Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire is, by definition, immune from criticism for being fantasy and ahistoric, following are some perceived discrepancies that could critique the GOT universe.

Feudalism under Polytheism  

First of all, as Martin has implied, Westeros is based on medieval Western Europe and its specific type of feudalism (the narrow definition of the term — not its wider interpretation, which my other article is focused on).

That type of feudalism, however, sprouted out of monotheistic Christianity, with the mighty Catholic Church as the intermediary between the humans dominated by their lords, and the single God.

Westeros, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly seem to have the same kind of overarching monotheistic religion. It has the religion of the Seven, but that is technically a polytheistic religion, now, isn’t it?

Would this have given birth to exactly the same type of feudalism as the one of medieval Western European Catholic Christianity?

Not to mention that the older cult for the old gods, and the cults from across the Narrow Sea, such as the Lord of Light, feature strongly in Westeros. Wouldn’t that erode this very specific feudalism model?

(Even when taking into account that paganism and heresies, such as Bogomilism, Albigensianism, and Catharism, stuck around in medieval Western Europe for a long time.)

Westeros vs. Essos = Middle Ages vs. Antiquity

Second, Westeros seems to be a fine replica of the (Western European) Middle Ages, while Essos, on the other hand, with its free cities, seems to be an Antiquity place, and more specifically, Classical Antiquity, with its many gods and cults, even before the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean world. The free cities do remind of the polises of Ancient Greece or Phoenicia.

GOT / Song of Ice and Fire also has the Dothraki, steppe horse nomads from the heartland of the continent of Essos (and hinterland of the free cities) raiding its regions.

Their name sounds a bit like that of the Thracians, the people of Ancient Thrace in the Antiquity, but they resemble the mounted “barbarians” 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 it up until the Mongols became the last to do so in the 13th Century.

So the big question here is: how do a medieval Western European Westeros and a Classical Antiquity Mediterranean Essos coexist? At the same time?

As narrow as the Narrow Sea is, wouldn’t they influence one another a lot more? Wouldn’t one’s cultural and political model sway the other and triumph over it?

Actors Kit Harington (c-r) as John Snow and Emilia Clarke (c) as Daenerys Targaryen during the shooting of the Seventh Season of the HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’, at the Beach of Itzurun, Zumaia, Basque Country, Spain, 27 October 2016. Photo: Javier Etxezaretta/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

The Time-Space Continuum

Third, and this is purely technical, a curious thing about the Game of Thrones setup is the distances, in both Westeros and Essos.

Not even mentioning that one season 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 for some reason seem to be moving rather fast for the medieval conditions.

On the other hand, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead seem to covering 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.)

It’s almost as though the White Walkers are waiting deliberately for the humans to organize their defenses so they can put up a fight to make the novel/TV show interesting.

Essos is even bigger than Westeros, with longer distances, and travel there also doesn’t seem to take too long.

Serfdom vs. Slavery

Fourth, and possibly the weirdest thing in Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire is the notion that an absolute monarch such as Daenerys Targaryen, who even has fire-breathing dragons at her command, goes on a crusade to free the slaves in the cities of Slavers’ Bay.

A feudal lord, a queen or king, with unrestricted power cannot technically abolish slavery since the former slaves would still have no human rights worthy of the name under her rule, which is technically feudalism. This portrayal of Daenerys Stormborn almost as an abolitionist of the scope of Harriet Beecher Stowe or Abraham Lincoln seems bizarre.

It is true that in medieval feudal Western European slavery, which was not non-existent even in the late Middle Ages, began to die down vis-a-vis the Late Antiquity period.

The catch, though, is that it was replaced by serfdom, with serfs being basically owned by their feudal lords, which is about the same as far as human freedom, rights, and dignity are concerned.

The ‘Lannister Flag’ flies over the Almodovar Del Rio Castle in Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain, 12 November 2016. Almodovar Del Rio is one of several Spanish location used to film the Seventh Season of hit HBO Series ‘Game of Thrones’. Photo: Rafa Alcaide/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Conqueror Excitement

Fifth, another 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 through violence.

Not to mention that the Targaryens didn’t play fairly, as they had dragons, and this was the decisive weapon of mass destruction in their conquest.

And to top it all off, there was the Mad King, and the fact that the dynasty had to be toppled by force before it could destroy the Seven Kingdoms.

Against this backdrop, some blonde girl successor shows up, and a bunch of dissenters start to rally to her side in order to resurrect her dynasty as an absolute monarchy, while being also likely to spill a lot more blood? That might not seem very plausible, even from a medieval point of view.

***

One of the great things about Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire is that it features a myriad of issues, just as it features a myriad of plotlines.

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.

And in spite of its immunity from criticism with respect to what makes sense and what doesn’t, it being a fantasy work, a critical reading into the society it presents is critically important given that this is probably one of the greatest literary and cultural creations of our time.

Ivan Dikov
Global Political Editor

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