Game of Thrones was once a cultural touchstone. A sequel (actually prequel) is coming and the reaction is a big shrug. What did this show teach us about history and story telling and the real historical record.
The Fall of Game of Thrones and Real History
The power of historical fiction for bad and for good can be immense in shaping consciousness of the past.
I can't read historical fiction because I find the real thing so much more interesting.
As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what's going to happen.
George R. R. Martin
TV Shows were once cultural events in the United States. For example, in the 1950s, I love Lucy garnered 14 million households watching the show, out of 40 million, every night it aired. Over a third of American TV sets were tuned to the final episode of Roots, the scenes with Ben Vereen’s unforgettable Chicken George, where he learns of his freedom. I am old enough to remember a who shot JR phenomenon in which a nighttime soap opera, Dallas, had its uber-villain oil man, shot in the season finale by – who exactly? Given the odious nature of JR Ewing, there were more than a few suspects.
But part of this era was the lack of streaming. The “Who Shot JR” question spanned the months between the end of one season and the beginning of others. The question graced the cover of Time Magazine when that magazine was as much a cultural touchstone as a popular TV show. There were watch parties and gambling. A big part of this was the lack of binging. People had to wait a week or three months to learn the twist of plots or the fate of characters.
Something is lost with binging.
Often looking forward to something is almost as good as the event itself. The speculation of the next thing. The savoring of the possibilities. I noted that this year, Amazon Prime is not providing the entire season of its hit The Boys but rather staggering the episodes. They have learned a bit of history and psychology as well.
Game of Thrones, though not on the scale of Roots or Dallas or the final Mash episode (again, in 1983, over a third of all TV sets were tuned to CBS), was as close to a cultural moment as I have seen in the past few years in terms of non-Super Bowl TV. It was the proverbial water cooler show. And the episode in which the Dornish Prince, the red Viper, fought the evil Gregor Clegane, the Mountain (the actor was well over 6,6” and north of 300 pounds, was touted as the Game of Thrones Ali vs. Frasier. And I loved Game of Thrones not for its Zombies, Dragons, and sorcery but because it felt like watching history. And more than that, HBO funded it. One of Blackwater Bay’s battles felt like hundreds of ships were involved.
I contrast that with an earlier HBO show called Rome which aired in 2005. Unlike Thrones, this was not fantasy but based on real people like Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Mark Antony, and Octavian. But in the climactic battle of Pharsalus in which Caesar destroys Pompey’s army, they clearly bailed on the budget. Caesar walks out of his tent; they then show a few close-ups of men fighting, then Caesar reenters his tent, noting that he won. I contrast this with Blackwater Bay, the Battle of the Bastards, or Hardhome from Thrones. Although the latter is fought against zombies, it felt more real than the frugality exhibited in Rome. But it was more than the type of grandeur one sees in movies such as Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, or Patton. George RR Martin’s characters felt fully fleshed; they thought, plotted, feared, lusted, drank, despised, and strove, just like historical figures.
I was thinking about this as I read George RR Martin’s latest distraction from the work fans genuinely crave. Martin famously finished the fifth book, Dance of the Dragons, of his seven-book series, a Song of Ice and Fire, in 2011. Unlike Steig Larssen and his Girl With a Dragon Tatoo series, Martin is very much alive and active today and has been for the last 11 years. Yet no Winds of Winter (the sixth book), and as for the seventh? It isn’t easy to imagine the portly and septuagenarian Martin has another product decade in him even if he finishes the sixth book. Yet he managed to stick in many other projects during the last decade. One of those, his book, coming out on HBO, is a series called House of the Dragon, based on Martin’s Blood and Fire. But, this new book is a prequel to the Game of Thrones series.
Though there is original material here, we already know that the Targaryen dynasty will survive, but the dragons will die off. But what is missing from the books can be summarized in a simple word, humanity. In some regards, the zombies from the original series exhibit more depth than the characters in Blood and Fire. However, aside from the Aegon the Conqueror (a knockoff of the real world William of Normandy, who conquered England in 1066 CE) and a character named Jaheryes, all characters are grasping idiots. They are all passion, lust, bloodthirsty, and grasping. None of the characters in the book’s second half think or act as fully fleshed humans would, one of the great differentiators for Martin’s original books and the thing that makes him so distinct from so many other fantasies and historical fiction writers.
One of the most notable aspects of the original Game of Thrones was not just Peter Dinklage’s fantastic performance as Tyrion Lannister, but what Tyrion was – the smartest guy in the room. And that was not easy in early Thrones. Tyrion had to compete with schemers such as his sister Cersie, Lord Petyr Baelish, and most of all, his father, Tywin. One of my favorite lines comes when Tyrion’s sister Cersie comments on his “plots and schemes,” to which Tyrion wryly notes, “those are the same thing.” Gold. At another point, Tyrion fools not one but three other schemers with his cleverness. It was virtuoso writing in which three very intelligent plotters are fooled by an even smarter one. Even the bloodthirsty types such as Baylon Greyjoy wreak havoc from the point of cleverness. He invades his enemy’s territory only after the enemy has taken his army to the far south.
Yet, once the writers had gone beyond Martin’s source material in the last two seasons, the intelligence is gone in the Game of Thrones TV series. Even Tyrion makes wrong after wrong decisions. It is at the moment when one realizes that characters are making decisions based not on their character development to that point, on decisions resident in the makeup of a human, but on the needs of the plot. Tyrion believes his treacherous sister against all reason and years of betrayal because the plot needs him to. Of course, the characters and the plot were written by the same guy. The writer is the God-King, calling all the shots, making the decisions, deciding who lives or dies. But in the earlier seasons, it felt as if Martin had written his characters and only then wove what would happen based on the decisions he thought they would make. And this is very historical. One of the main characters of the first season, and arguably the most honorable, Ned Stark, ends up being executed for treason, mainly because he was trying to help the wrong character. This is historical. Pliny the Elder, among many vocations a historian, died during the eruption of Vesuvius by bringing in a ship to rescue a friend, “fortune favors the bold,” but not in this case. Had he stayed put, he would live another day. After his great victory at Agincourt, Henry V, King of England, died just seven years later, leaving a young son behind and unconquered France in his wake. This minority and later incompetence of this son led to the Wars of the Roses, one of the historical touchpoints for Game of Thrones. The Rose Wars were not driven by plot but rather by the ambitions and frailties of genuine people. This is the thing missing from most fictional plots and totally at home in Thrones.
But whether successful or not, people tend to hew toward their natures, as illustrated within a historical record. After eight years of perseverance in a war in which he was always outmanned and out-resourced, yet emerged victorious, it would make sense that George Washington would be the guy to preside over the constitutional congress, who be the nation’s first president.
After rising to leadership of the Incan Nation and forging his people into a fighting force, it would make sense that Pachucuti would take this force on a series of brilliant conquests and forge an empire of millions.
In the Game of Thrones show, it would make sense that Jamie Lannister would free his brother Tyrion from a death sentence because he was always his protector, and it would cause further sense that Tryion would find his father for a final reckoning. The latter had tormented him his entire life and so when Tyrion murdered him, it was not to advance the plot, but something coming from the character, and the relationship of the two men. The fact it happened on the privy was another brilliant Martin touch, and maybe not. If Tywin had been clothed and armed, it might have been Tyrion who died.
Yet, after the historical nature was omitted in the later seasons, the narrative fell apart as plot movement kept trumping character. It made no sense that Tyrion would later trust his sister. Or that a key character on the second to last episode, who had been the one character who consistently helped the average person on the show would turn vengeful and put an entire city, peasants and all, to the torch. It only made sense if said character needed to do this because the plot commanded. What Martin did earlier is construct characters with certain natures, and then that drove events. What happened in the last two seasons was that, without Martin’s source material, amatuers took over and history was forgotten. It was like playing Risk with loaded dice.
So one of the best TV shows of all time whimpered to the end. But there are still two unfinished books, and that is why there is also such as great demand for them to completed. This is not to say that favorite characters will survive or that nobility will win out. Rather that the nature of the characters and the vagaries of history retake the narrative – just like real life. In the 20th century some of the more decent figures to have ever lived from Mohandis K Gandhi, to Martin Luther King Jr to John Lennon were all killed. Meanwhile Lenin, Stalin and the North Korean Kims get to die in their beds. The justice in history is that of which we make.
So of those unfinished books, and Martin’s obvious procrastinations, what do fans deserve from their artists? In the mid-1990s, after winning three consecutive championships, arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived left the sport to play … baseball. Then, after not getting a whiff of the majors, Jordan returned to basketball to reel off another three championships. Over eight years, Jordan’s Bulls won the title every year. But, he desired the hardwood more than the diamond.
They missed him, but the hue and cry were not as loud as that for Martin. Even today, the current most outstanding women’s tennis player (the greatest of all time is one S. Williams) named, Ash Barty, left the sport in her prime after winning her home country’s grand slam tournament at the age of 26. Again, disappointment? Sure, but she was replaced by 21 phenom Iga Swiatek atop the ratings, and we have even phenom-er, 18-year-old Coco Gauff, who, unlike the Polish Iga, hails from the US of A, Murica indeed!
Yet the real reason we never completely missed Jordan is that we had Hakeem, Scottie, Karl, and John when Jordan was away. I already noted that Barty’s absence is barely noted because of the other players. But there is simply no other Game of Thrones-type player quite like Martin. Some like Patrick Rothfuss (another writer’s blocked writer) exists but nothing quite like this. We also have several fine historical fiction writers.
But what Martin did, and better than anyone, was twofold. First, he added aspects of the fantasy genre to very historically grounded characters. But the actual key, his real inspiration missing from almost any historical fiction, is he filled them out. In the hands of Phillipa Gregory, Henry VII is a callow idiot under his mother’s thumb. Henry VIII is a brutal, bloodthirsty, lustful drunkard. Hillary Mantel’s series about Cromwell, Wolf Hall, gets close. But her books are not an ensemble but a one-person band.
Martin provides comparisons in a series of interviews: As noted above, the series is the real-life Wars of the Roses. The two greatest houses vying in the Wars of the Roses: York and Lancaster. The two greatest houses in Game of Thrones are Stark and Lannister. Even the map of the fictional Westeros looks like the island of Britain. There is even a wall in the North.
Tywin Lannister is Like Edward I, Tyrion maybe Richard III, Cersei Lannister is Queen Isabella who is rumored to have murdered her husband Edward II, or Margaret of Anjou in the Wars of the Roses. Cersei’s walk of shame, one of the more difficult scenes to watch in the series, reflects the real-life Jane Shaw’s Walk of Shame in the Wars of the Roses. And on and on. During the Games’ success, many other Steamers and even the big three networks tried their hands at a Game of Thrones-type success. We had Camelot, Beowulf, and even a Wizard of Oz-type show. None were successful, even in the case of Beowulf, because of the lack of depth of their characters. Even shows based on real-life events, such as the White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville and her husband, King Edward IV, both key players in the Wars of the Roses, were terrible because there was no depth in the latter case, not a flesh and blood character. Watching the show, I kept feeling like it was one of those teens CW shows, or 90120 (again, old) but with our heartthrobs in armor instead of beachwear.
In a recent video, one of my favorite YouTubers, the Critical Drinker, in his patented tipsy Scottish brogue, lamented, and nearly begged Martin to return to finish the books. In the Drinker’s eyes, Martin’s fans gave him wealth and privilege, and he owed it back to them to finish the things.
As much as I love the Drinker, I do not agree with that contention. If Shakespeare decided to get halfway through Hamlet and stopped writing to instead pen bawdy songs about Queen Elizabeth 1st, that should be his right. Now, if I commissioned Martin to finish the Song of Ice and Fire, that would be different if he was contractually obligated. But I do not know his publishing contracts. Fans have a choice to patronize certain writers, as we have done with Martin, and he has the right to give us his talent or seemingly squander it. The point of this piece is not to lay judgment or even castigate Martin for his choice but rather praise him for knowing history enough to convert it into exciting ways and hope he does finish his opus.
But let’s be clear.
This is not history itself. As much as I liked the Game of Thrones and even more traditional historical fiction writers such as James Clavell and Colleen McCullough, real history has always been the thing. As we began this podcast let me again quote historian Antonia Fraser, I can't read historical fiction because I find the real thing so much more interesting.” And Fraser has the bona fides having written in both fiction and a whole lot of non-ficition including my favorite, Faith and Treason about the GunPowder Plot.
Imagine this tale. An island kingdom that can trace its lineage 1000 years into the past and beyond is beset by a nation boasting of a much larger army, led by a tyrannical conqueror who has bested every army he has fought. The only hope for this island nation is its navy to prevent that army from assaulting its shores. And its greatest naval hero, who has already fought and won numerous fleet battles, leads his force against a navy nearly 30% larger than his own. This man’s bravery is legendary, even foolhardy.
He has lost an eye and an arm in service to his country. He is a flawed man being a philanderer and even gets seasick! But he is also brilliant and beloved by his nation. In a climatic battle, as his navy comes to grips with the much larger enemy, he places his flagship not in the traditional middle but in the vanguard, and he wears his admiral’s uniform on deck, making himself conspicuous. He is shot through and dies an hour later on the lower decks of his ship. But his navy, trained to peak perfection and superbly led, crushes the enemy fleet.
This victory immediately means the island nation will be safe. But it also means that it will be the preeminent naval power for over 100 years. And this navy brings to an end the transportation of slaves by ship, something that had occurred in history for thousands of years before.
No fiction writer, not even Martin, could conceive of this tale, but it was all real. I am writing about Britain, Napoleon, and Admiral Horatio Nelson.
The history of the academy, of the high and middle school, the history extolled by much of the media and even corporate America, is not this history. Progressives are so named because they wish not to see society progress but rather be responsible for what they see as the proper progression of society. And history has been warped, altered, and changed to fit the narrative of that world, particularly America, as an evil unredeemable place only to be saved by the heroes of the progressive movement. Consider changing the founding date from 1776 to 1619 or the equation of pre-Bellum Southern economies to capitalism.
I am the Conservative Historian because I wish to preserve the historical record. My podcasts are not some jingoistic, propagandist view of history. The United States kept slavery for over 80 years, persecuted native Americans, and denigrated Germans, Irish, and Chinese our history. But we also built an idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that has served as a beacon of freedom for billions. Our capitalist system has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. This is all history. Martin’s characters, at least his best ones, have depth, thought, and nuance. Some are good and honorable. Some are evil. This is life, and this is history. And history provides us a choice of who we will choose to be, as a nation and as a person.