Why One Episode Of Game Of Thrones Is Worth A Thousand History Lessons

Why One Episode Of Game Of Thrones Is Worth A Thousand History Lessons

Now that Game of Thrones has been established as a global modern classic – season four starts this evening in Britain, having premiered in the US last night – maybe it’s about time we introduced it to the school curriculum. It would certainly teach our kids a hell of a lot more about the realities of the past than they tend to learn in their dumbed-down, politically correct history classes.

Although fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s books and the television adaption borrow heavily from English history, most especially the extremely violent 14th and 15th centuries. It’s Shakespeare with boobs and arterial spray. 

For example, the premise at the end of series one, of an adolescent pretender taking on the Queen and her psychotic young son after his father has been beheaded, while his mother seeks to protect her two younger boys – that was the actual state of affairs in 1461. After the beheading of his father Richard, Duke of York, the 18-year-old Edward of March claimed the throne as Edward IV and destroyed the army of the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, while his mother Cecily Neville sent her young sons George and Richard to France for safety.

Like Robb Stark, Edward had the blood of the old kings of the north, through his mother’s family who claimed descent from the ruling house of Northumbria, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that was united under King Athelstan in the 10th century.

Game of Thrones also borrows from the Byzantines (the Greeks really did know how to set fire to water, and used the trick several times), the Spartans, the Crusades and various obscure eastern religions. But the core is the realm of England, and the real game of thrones in which a large proportion of the country’s aristocrats were slaughtered in a 30-year period of madness from 1455 to 1485.

Like Robb Stark, Edward IV came unstuck when he chose to marry for love, thereby alienating his powerful cousin Warwick Kingmaker who was arranging a marriage alliance with France. According to the romanticised chronicles of the time Edward set eyes on Elizabeth Woodville when the Lancastrian widow turned up at his hunting lodge to beg for her dead husband’s lands and he was so entranced by her beauty that he tried to rape her. I say ‘romantic’ – clearly ideals of romance in the 15th century were rather different to ours, but this is something that Thrones captures so much better than most historical fiction.

The moral structures we have today, based around the idea of the freedom of the individual and the universal rights of all men, were developing in the Christian West throughout the later medieval period but would not truly flourish until the 18th century. Today in much of the world western ideas about the individual are still alien because people think in terms of the clan, which is why it is so hard to export liberal democracy to countries like Somalia or Afghanistan. Foreign policy experts could do worse than watch Thrones and ask themselves: are the Dothraki ready for democracy? What do you reckon?

Most historical fiction basically features a protagonist with 21st century values wearing a codpiece; I gave up on the Tudors when Cardinal Wolsey started giving a lecture on why we needed a ‘European community’. Most people in Britain think the EU is a pretty stupid idea today; in the 16th century it would have been inconceivable, even if Wolsey’s Treaty of London talked about ‘perpetual peace’ in Europe (a peace that was broken almost immediately, because that’s how things were).

Even the most sympathetic characters in Thrones, and I won’t give any spoilers for season four, end up doing some appalling things in the later books, not because they’re villains but because that’s the way the world was then, and how it is for much of humanity today. Bloody awful.

But there is a deeper implication for the success of Thrones; most people in England would be pretty ignorant about these historical parallels, because of the revolution in history teaching that took place in the dark, sexually weird decade that was the 1970s, part of a wider cultural revolution aimed at transforming western societies (and which has its parallel in the US). 

Whereas my father’s generation would have learned about the kings of England at school, the bloody battles and usurpations, the poisonings, the tortures and the love affairs, and King Harold getting shot in the eye, by the time I was taught the subject the sort of questions we were asked went along the lines of ‘How would the social changes experienced during the 15th century have impacted on a female weaver living in Norfolk?’ Or ‘Look at Source A and Source B; what differences can you spot and why might that have been? Anyway, children, next term we’ll be reading about the Nazis. Again.’

This is a complicated method of history-teaching, and one suitable for more advanced students, but in all disciplines one must learn a basic, and not entirely accurate, under-layer of truth before advancing to deeper knowledge.

So yes Harold might not have been hit in the eye (some historians suggest his genitals were cut off instead) and Richard the Lionheart’s lover probably didn’t wander around Germany singing in the hope of finding the imprisoned king. (Richard is now celebrated in some schools as part of LGBT history, because he showed little interest in marriage and was a bit close to his overbearing mum; on the other hand he wasn’t entirely into the whole inter-faith thing when it came to Muslims, so I imagine his new found popularity won’t last.)

But the main reason for this education revolution was political; the aim is to deconstruct national identity, to remove from history what had always been one of its primary functions – telling the national story as a coherent narrative. 

Once you deconstruct a country’s founding tale it becomes easier to rebuild it in your own image. But the end result was not a generation of little Eric Hobsbawns; instead people just gave up on history altogether because it was so tedious and disjointed. 

The Left’s version of history is not just wrong, it’s boring, because it assumes that people are all good and all history is simply a path towards a glorious future utopia; it isn’t, and in reality lots of people are  brutal and selfish – something George RR Martin captures much better than many historians or academics.

Ed West’s The Realm: The True History behind Game of Thrones is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA


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