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How Game of Thrones saved the North Ten years on, its fantasy world has turned Britain's national story upside down

Ned Stark, King of the North. Until he dies.

Ned Stark, King of the North. Until he dies.


April 16, 2021   7 mins

England is an unusual place. As Robert Tombs argued, it is the only country in which the national story is part of popular theatre. William Shakespeare is central to English identity in a way unlike writers in less happy lands; his history plays, chronicling events from the overthrow of Richard II in 1399 to the series of wars and regicides that were doomed to follow, have long been part of the historical vocabulary of everyday life.

No other nation knew its past as entertainment — not even America — and it is one of the reasons for England’s cultural power, drawing in millions of tourists to breathe in the air where Bolingbroke toppled his cousin, where Hotspur fought Prince Hal, and where monstrous Richard III murdered his nephews in the Tower. They don’t come for the weather or food.

Among the many American tourists visiting the country back in the 1980s was George R.R. Martin, already an established author who at 13 had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon England.

Here Martin visited Hadrian’s Wall, and as the darkness drew in he looked north and wondered what it must have felt like to be a Roman legionary, many of whom came from old cities bathed in the Mediterranean sun. Here they stood, staring into the darkness of Caledonia, not knowing what terrors existed beyond in the vast cold wastelands. What if, he wondered, it wasn’t barbarians they faced, but something altogether more frightening?

Centuries ago the people who lived by the ruins of that wall did fear such things. The walking dead were a part of northern European folklore, across Britain and Scandinavia; the Vikings talked of draugr who would rise up and attack livestock and people, ripping their bodies apart with their sheer brutal strength, and killing their victims so they, too, turn into draugr.

These ancient myths would form part of Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, an idea first laid out in a letter to his agent in 1993. He called the book, which would be published three years later, “a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder and revenge, with the Iron Throne of the Seven kingdoms as the ultimate prize.”

A further four books in the A Song Of Ice and Fire series followed, and by the fifth Martin was being called the “American Tolkien” and had sold tens of millions of copies; meanwhile Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Films film trilogy had provoked renewed interest in fantasy and the medieval. Two more books in the series are expected… at some future date.

When the first episode of Game of Thrones aired ten years ago this week, it was an instant hit, critically and commercially, seen as one of the greats from the golden age of television, beginning with the Sopranos in 1999 and taking in The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

It was the most epic of epic productions and each episode could be as expensive as a film; indeed, some battle scenes cost as much. The cast of characters, even with huge chunks of George RR Martin’s vastly complex epics cut out, felt enormous; Martin’s novels are so complicated that he sometimes forgets what has happened to a particular character and has to email a superfan in Sweden to remind him if the poor guy has been killed already.

The line-up of mostly British actors, both greats of stage and screen as well as up-and-coming talent, was unprecedented. You can’t watch any television series without spotting “that guy who gets beheaded in season 4” or the “man who has to eat molten gold” or “poor Theon, who, you know…”.

It was hard not to feel a certain love for characters like Sandor Clegane, the scarred monster capable of remorseless violence and cynicism, yet also a man with a certain sense of justice, and who forms a bond with Arya. “Lots of people name their swords,” she tells him, as they open series four righteously killing some low-born rapists. “Lots of cunts,” he replies.

Or Bronn, the loveable mercenary, in the spirit of Rhett Butler and Hans Solo; he doesn’t care for any cause and is quite nakedly in it for himself, but he’s not venal or cruel. Yet unlike previous examples of that archetype, he’s not going to turn good. As he later tells Tyrion Lannister, when refusing to fight the monstrous Mountain on his behalf: “I like you, pampered little shit that you are. I just like myself more.”

Tyrion was, of course, the figure we were most drawn to, a character who possessed a sense of pity and empathy. Tyrion is a letch and a coward, but he is humane and educated (not always qualities that went together in real late medieval history). “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things,” as he tells that other outcast, the bastard Jon Snow.

When asked by some gormless backwoods cutthroats how he would like to die, Tyrion replies: “In my own bed, with a belly full of wine and a maiden’s mouth around my cock, at the age of eighty.”

It summed up the show’s excess, both in the violence and sex, with scenes so gratuitous that porn actresses were used; indeed I wonder if, like 18th and 19th century editions of Shakespeare where King Lear has a happy ending, much will be excised as society’s moral wheel turns again. I hope so, from a purely selfish point of view; I’d like to watch it with my children one day, boring them silly by talking about all the historical analogies.

Yet despite this moral excess, George R.R. Martin and the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were able to escape both the traps of genre fiction and popular culture by plugging deeper into England’s folklore and tradition.

The comparisons with Tolkien are made because, while Martin covers so many similar themes, he inverts (or some would say perverts) almost all of them. While Tolkien drew on the Arthurian tradition of chivalry, Martin turned it around; here the knights are tortured monsters like the Hound, closet homosexuals like Loras Tyrell or, in the case of King Joffrey, the very opposite of Prince Charming.

Lord of the Rings has a strong Christian theme; Game of Thrones exists in a Christless world, Ross Douthat once describing the sinister fanatic High Sparrow as “the ghost of Christendom in G.R.R. Martin’s otherwise more pagan/stoic vision of medieval Europe”.

Similarly Game of Thrones reimagines the English national story, inverting the Henriad by giving it a Northern accent. Ever since Athelstan of Wessex united all the Angles and Saxons in 927 the South of England has dominated. Many medieval kings would never venture beyond the Trent, and when they did it was with an army at their back. Yet Martin’s epic often tells the story from the Northumbrian point of view, facing overmighty southern kings on one side and the wild men of the north on the others.

Game of Thrones begins with the House of Stark in their rocky, harsh homeland, Ned Stark administering justice for the North. The southern lords are essentially treacherous and conniving, the southern capital of King’s Landing a pit of snakes; the North is poorer and has its dangers but it is a place where people show loyalty to each other, and its rulers look their people in the eye.

In reality the House of Percy played a similar role as Kings in the North. The Percy home of Alnwick, like Winterfell, was perfectly placed to hold the North, which the family had done for generations, winning the loyalty of northern men who would come in their thousands to fight for Percy but had little love for the king in Westminster. Indeed, at one point during the War of the Roses the House of Percy ran the North virtually as a separate kingdom; their story is largely forgotten, because the national story came to be written down by the banks of the Thames.

British history is defined by the geographic gap separating the island; it is further from the rich markets of mainland Europe, that stretch of land  from the Netherlands to northern Italy that has been the continent’s richest and most productive for almost a millennia. No amount of levelling up can defy that geographical destiny.

During the late medieval period on which Game of Thrones was loosely based, numerous chroniclers observed how much poorer the north of London was. The border land was said to consist mostly “in wast grounds and ys very cold hard and barren for the wynter” and it “bredyth tall men and hard of nature”.

When Ned Stark arrives in King’s Landing, he’s asked whether he wants to wear something “more appropriate,” his clothes appearing rough and coarse to southern eyes. At the time, Northern aristocrats in London really would have looked far poorer and less elegant, and with much cheaper horses.

Far poorer than the Southern counties, the North could never hope to win in any trial of strength, and when the Reformation triggered the last Rising of the North in 1569, led by the House of Percy, once again the South was the victor. It always was.

The Northern leaders not only suffered death and defeat, but their story never came to be told, while Queen Elizabeth became a central protagonist in Our Island Story. In Shakespeare the Percys become proud and foolish, ultimately getting what they deserve by going against the rightful southern king. Even though through the prism of fantasy, it’s taken an American novelist, and two American screenwriters, to retell that story with a Northern voice.

The final series of Game of Thrones came out two years ago and ended with great disappointment, in fact so much so that millions of people demanded that it be remade (which perhaps says something about how mundane our problems were before 2020).

Yet although all those people who called their daughters Khaleesi are probably regretting it now, the show’s finale at least told a certain truth. The attraction of Game of Thrones, compared to most historical fiction, is that alt-history allows its creators to tell an almost purer truth about history and human nature. As amoral as some of the characters are in Westeros, they behave as people would have done in such a situation, devoid of modern idealism or comforts.

Daenerys, the queen over the water, is the only true idealist among the contenders for the throne, and campaigns to end slavery in Essos before liberating her homeland. And yet when she arrives in Westeros she turns out to be far more murderous and oppressive than what went before. Likewise the ancien regime, terrible that it was, had nothing on the horrors unleashed by modernity, which contained far greater lies than the world of chivalry.

Like with so much in the show, it was true to life, and we would have expected nothing less. As the cheerful psychopath Ramsay Bolton once put it: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”


Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable

edwest

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Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

Game of thrones is forever branded as rubbish.
The last series destroyed any rewatch value and so is consigned to the dustbin of history, that’s the real story not it’s
Historical background, not it’s characters, not it’s visuals.
A great series ruined by modern writing that without the books to base it on could not write a decent ending.
Because it seems that Hollywood is the place talent no longer exists

George Glashan
GG
George Glashan
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

there are interesting interviews on YouTube with GRRM, he used to be a tv show writer for Beauty and the beast ( I might be getting that show name wrong) he speaks of the scripts they’d write and how through the practicalities of filming and budgets 90% of i what was written would be altered and not usually for the better. seems its the nature of Hollywood and i think he was expecting it on his own show. I’ve never seen him express any resentment at how the last 2 seasons turned out.

The books though are brilliantly written, especially the dialogue when its any of the scheming characters interacting, for my money I prefer ASOIF to LOTR, and i like LOTR alot.

Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

I disagree, the ending was only not up to scratch because of the expectations built by the rest of the series. By comparison to pretty much everything else it was still good.
As some-one who was also disapointed at the time I have since come to reaslise that certian things HAD to happen in order to actually end it. There were things that could have been done a LOT better yes, but the same could be said of any series.
I personally think its a testement to the series that people were so upset about the ending – and I think a good part of that was simply because it had ended and they actually wanted it to carry on.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Agree fully – only I think the last few episodes were actually very good.
It went awry a bit earlier with the “superheroes gathered around one table” stuff, which broke the habit of having depth around the scenario each individual was in.
Either way – definitely some of the very best TV ever made.

David Owsley
David Owsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Yes I agree too. The ending was fine: the only bit that annoyed me was that Jon lived! After killing Daenerys I thought either the dragon and/or the Dothraki and/or the Unsullied would do for him in an instant.

Anakei greencloudnz
Anakei greencloudnz
3 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

John Snow should have died at the hands of the Unsullied after killing Daenarys – the dragon wouldn’t kill him because he had Targaryon blood, Jaime should have killed Cersei and then himself (the rock fall was lame), and the idea that everyone would gather around and agree to Bran (who did nothing but roll his eyes for 8 seasons) as the High King was unbelievable, even for a fantasy. It should have been Tyrian, the anti hero and the surviving Lannister, or Sansa who had the might of the North behind her.

David Holland
David Holland
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

I disagree. The ending was, despite the whitewalkers and the dragons, uncomfortably but satisfyingly true to life. Those idealists (characterised in GoT by the Khaleesi and the High Sparrow) who see themselves as having right or History on their side, to the point where all who question them are deemed evil, are the ones who create the most misery and slaughter. We only need look at the totalitarian and frequently murderous self-righteousness of revolutionary and extremist movements in the modern era to see that this is the case. The final season, although not without its faults, was a fitting end to a great series.

Last edited 3 years ago by David Holland
Ian Barton
IB
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  David Holland

I was particularly impressed with how the final scenes really brought to life the smoke-filled chaos of real battles.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
3 years ago
Reply to  David Holland

The last two seasons / series had, in my opinion, several issues.
Rushed plotting was a big one. Not much excuse for that as HBO reportedly offered to extend the show longer than it ran. (That certainly rings true based on its popularity.) So Benioff and Weiss got to end the show as they wanted.
Another problem was the sense of a smaller world. I understand that the show had a large cast of developed characters, but one of its strengths in earlier seasons was a sense that we were viewing these characters as they interacted with a complete world. That went away. I think some of that was tied to the much-maligned “teleporting”. Seeing travel from Point A to Point B gave us glimpses of a broader world and interaction with minor, sometimes one-off characters.
Even setting aside Daenerys’ resolution, the true “ending” was a mess that reverted to what I’ll call “Star Wars-style” geopolitics rather than sticking with the more realistic world of Westeros. We have a new king on the throne with no blood claim to it, who has weakened his position by allowing independence for his home region. Even his allies / counselors don’t seem to have much of a power base across the kingdoms. To repeat that sense of a smaller world: where are the other lords of houses from across the remaining kingdoms? Yes, quite a few have no doubt been killed as part of the vast bloodshed that we’ve seen on the show. This is a feudal society, however, where the great houses that we see are each supported by networks of vassals. (Over the course of the show we saw many of these vassal houses in the North, for example, and that’s the least populated kingdom.) We ended with what looks to be a wholly unstable situation, a king with no real claim supported by lords with no real power bases in their respective regions. The real remaining powers in those regions are whatever vassal houses came through these wars best. There’s no sense they were even at the table as these decisions were made, and they’d rightfully be jockeying for their own status to rise.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

The basic outcome was fine, but the writing in the last two series was awful, contrived and designed mainly to appease the expectations of superfans, or create cool vignettes. Signs of what would happen began in series five, particularly noticeable in the dialogue.It really was a shame.

Madeleine Jones
MJ
Madeleine Jones
3 years ago

Rewatching Game of thrones episodes isn’t fun… but I like rewatching certain scenes. Daenerys taking the Unsullied in Astapor is a fantastic example, as is the Hardhome battle. Game of Thrones’ weakest point was always, imo ‘making sense.’
Some character motivations got a bit silly at times (I love Sansa: but why didn’t you tell Jon about the Vale army in the Battle Of The Bastards?)
Ed raises an interesting point about Daenerys. Her story is absolutely tragic, and tbh, you don’t really see that in fiction. The final episode has this gem:

When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I’m sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men.

The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed that… if you truly believed it, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?

This is a powerful sentiment to make in the last five years. Immediately, I thought about Antifa and how they won (some of) the public with ‘Punch a Nazi’ until the public saw them burn, loot and murder (they always did, I know). I also thought about fanatics like ISIS and the Chinese Communist Revolution. These aren’t direct parallels to Daenerys (part of fiction is exploring and speculating on real-life issues and personalities) but are interesting to think about.
That said, I understand why people disliked Daenery’s turn. The plotting was contrived in her downfall. I have no issue with Daenerys going to the dark side (lots of people in history do). Just think the audience deserved tighter writing. Thanks for this article: I’m reading ‘The Worlds Of J.RR Tolkien’ which is a large book about Tolkien drawing inspiration from England and other places. Game of Thrones may not have Tolkien’s Christian analogies: but both are shaped by our history.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 years ago

The day after the finale aired, and a day before Kevin Williamson expressed the same sentiment in National Review Online, I wrote in the online comments to a GoT article in The Telegraph that Daenerys had not turned into her father the “Mad King”, but into a Westerosi Lenin. In an odd way, we did get what we all expected: Jon Snow was the hero who saved their world. But not from the White Walkers, from permanent revolution.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Yetter
Stuart Keeton
SK
Stuart Keeton
3 years ago

It’s Corrie with tits and swords

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Keeton

And dragons and zombies. I loved it.

George Glashan
George Glashan
3 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Keeton

…and less murders

Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Keeton

… and a plot
… and people who can act
… and screen writers

Ian Barton
IB
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Keeton

Vera Duckworth “reprised” by Daenerys

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
John Mcalester
John Mcalester
3 years ago

It certainly saved the Northern Ireland film industry and was doing wonders for the tourist industry as well, before covid.

Paul Marks
PM
Paul Marks
3 years ago

Mr Martin never finished his story – and the television writers were not up to the job of finishing it. The problems started late in series 7 (before the last series) with characters doing stupid things that did not fit with their established personalities, and the story writers tossed rational story telling out of the window by (for example) having a few characters go north to capture an undead (a likely suicide mission – which gained them nothing that actually worked), get trapped and then send off a message and have DT rescue them on a dragon – so message birds now fly at light speech, and so do dragons. Time, distance, all ignored. Later at the start of season 8 an army is basically wiped out in the defence (badly executed defence) of a castle, only to somehow come back to life so that DT can use them later for her conquest of Kingslanding (and to make a big speech to).
As for DT burning the civilians – it was done for no reason and was not in line about what had been established about her for the previous seven seasons. Kill an enemy or enemies – certainly, kill lots of women and children for fun NO.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Marks

Sounds like somebody’s been watching The Critical Drinker…

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

I LOVE him 🙂

David Simpson
DS
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Marks

“Mr Martin never finished his story – and the television writers were not up to the job of finishing it. ” that’s the truth, and the tragedy. A lot of wannabe GRRMs here

Fraser Bailey
FB
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Perhaps the next series could be called Game of Levelling Up. Actually, Levelling Up sounds a little similar to some of the battle sites in these sagas. Perhaps we shall witness the Battle of Levelling Up at which Burnham strikes down Sunak after a struggle lasting three days and nights.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Natalija Svobodné
Natalija Svobodné
3 years ago

Game of thrones reimagines english history… Largely because britain like most western countries are discouraged to have national myths and legends. Which is at odds with the goals of post nationalism. British history is interesting, bl*ody and riveting because it happened. Sad to see the need of national heroes and stories replaced by fiction, I doubt it is the glue to hold a nation together.

Last edited 3 years ago by Natalija Svobodné
Claire Olszanska
Claire Olszanska
3 years ago

Since when has Britain been discouraged to having myths and legends. And please stop using English and British as being interchangeable. British Isles have plenty of myths and legends.

Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley
3 years ago

Interesting you bring up the Percy’s and Northumbria – in all the many interviews with GRRM that I’ve watched and read, I’ve never seen him mention once these historical elements as a source of inspiration. The Starks are instead clearly based on the House of York and the Lannisters the House of Lancaster from the so-called ‘War of the Roses’ as has been repeated ad nauseum. I’ve also heard George mention he’s more into ‘popular history’ as opposed to ‘historical academia’, so it doesn’t surprise me more obscure parts of England’s past are less influential upon him.

A Spetzari
AS
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Walmsley

The Percy’s and Nevilles were two central families in the Wars of the Roses. Percy’s being allied to the Lancastrian cause actually.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

And I still haven’t watched a single minute of it!

Ian Barton
IB
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It took five years of people badgering me to watch this thing about medieval kings and sword fights (which obviously had to be dreadful).
Its quality shone through my pre-informed prejudices.
Add it to your bucket list 🙂

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Your loss. Seriously, seek it out if you enjoy quality storytelling. It’s wonderful.

Oliver Wright
OW
Oliver Wright
3 years ago

Interesting article in dire need of a copy-reader. Howlers include ‘Lord of the Films’, ‘North of London’ and ‘almost a millennia’.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Once the book(s) run out the TV Show became terrible.
As the author himself as pointed out part of the book is based on French Wars of succession, not just English (War of Roses) history.

British history is defined by the geographic gap separating the island; it is further from the rich markets of mainland Europe, that stretch of land from the Netherlands to northern Italy that has been the continent’s richest and most productive for almost a millennia. No amount of levelling up can defy that geographical destiny.

The last sentence is as true as ever. Nothing can make Blackpool compete with Corfu or Midlands with Bavaria.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jeremy Smith
David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Apart from global warming