Rutgers professor explains the real-life parallels in the HBO series, and how the borrowing of different time periods helped this become the “most watchable medieval show”

Larry Scanlon, a professor in the Department of English, explains why HBO's Game of Thrones is “TV’s most watchable medieval show.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

With the much-anticipated final season of Game of Thrones nearing its conclusion, Rutgers University medievalist Larry Scanlon discussed the medieval traditions, genres and motifs that have influenced the cultural juggernaut and its source material, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels.

Scanlon is a professor in the Department of English at Rutgers–New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, with an expertise in the literature of late medieval England.  Though Game of Thrones is set in another world and reflects influences from periods before and after our world’s Middle Ages, Scanlon called it “TV’s most watchable medieval show.”

How do medieval views of marriage relate to major Game of Thrones plot points?

During the European Middle Ages, marriage had two main models. The first is the aristocratic model, which is what we see a lot of in the series. This is the idea that marriage is strategic and its key feature is an alliance between two aristocratic families or two royal houses in an attempt to preserve or consolidate political power. These marriages were sometimes decided far ahead of time, when the future king and queen were children. Love was not a factor, but more what this marriage would mean for the political landscape and balance of power.

The second understanding of marriage, sometimes called the ecclesiastical model, began to emerge in the 11th century. The church was more interested in regulating sexual behavior than in politics. It placed the emphasis on the vows exchanged between the two principals rather than the arrangements made by their families.  Although people don’t give Christianity credit for this emphasis on a kind of contract between two people, it is one of the starting points for the modern ideal of companionate marriage, or romantic marriage.

What are the origins of references to dragons as they are depicted in the series?

Dragons are a worldwide phenomenon and predate the Middle Ages. They are seen in many ancient cultures including China and that of classical antiquity. However, the idea of the dragon as this creature who flew and had legs, which is how we depict it, emerges in the Middle Ages, largely in manuscript illuminations and heraldic devices.

The most important poem of early medieval England, the Old English epic Beowulf, includes a dragon. This work, which may be as early as 700 AD ends with its hero becoming mortally wounded after defeating a dragon.

A large portion of the credit for popularizing the medieval figure of the dragon may well belong to the Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser. His epic poem, The Faerie Queene, first published in 1590, is based on King Arthur and brings together lots of medieval motifs from a post-medieval point of view. Spenser includes a huge winged dragon with flaming eyes, probably more closely related to Daenerys Targaryen’s fire-breathing dragons in Game of Thrones than most medieval examples.

How does the fictional land of Westeros connect to medieval maps of the world?

In Game of Thrones, the known world is composed of at least three continents: Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos.  Westeros makes up the western portion of that map.

The depiction of Westeros and Sothoryos and their fictional histories have parallels in King Horn, a Middle English romance composed at the end of the 13th century. As a boy, King Horn is set adrift on a boat after his father was killed during a Saracen invasion, and he finds himself in a land called Westernesse, where he and his companions are taken in by King Ailmar. After helping Ailmar defeat the Saracens, he will ultimately marry Ailmar’s daughter, Rymenhild.  He then returns to reclaim his homeland, called Suddeneand, and is eventually banished out of Westernesse.

Perhaps because the west was considered the boundary of the known world, medieval romances like King Horn often treated western lands as liminal spaces where humanity ends and all things desired exist.  That includes the Arthurian legends which were set in Wales.

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