09 July 2015

Game of Thrones, Fact in Fiction

Image captured from Game of Thrones trailer on YouTube.

I taught high school World History for 17 years; and these days, I often wonder what I could have done inside the classroom if I had the sort of media that everyone takes so for granted these days.

History as a subject is something of an acquired taste; i.e. it is not for everybody. Unlike the Maths and the Sciences, the nature of History always will be that coaxing students to accept that it has relevance in the present will always be its teachers’ greatest challenge.

When I was still teaching the subject, the most difficult part of the job was not getting students to read textbooks and memorise important names, dates and events. It was getting them to accurately visualise eras that they naturally had had no experiences of.

One technique that teachers used to determine if students were correctly visualising historical events was to ask them to make drawings of these. These drawings could tell teachers a lot and not really about students’ artistic talents.

For instance, it was not uncommon when I asked students to draw their visions of medieval warfare that several would include images of fighter aircraft, tanks or even aircraft carriers. All of these, of course, were anachronistic to the era and this amused me no end; but they also told me who I needed to reach out more to.

These days, of course, visualisation is no longer a problem; particularly if a teacher of History knows how to take full advantage of the media available not only to him but also to his students. YouTube alone is a treasure trove of well researched historical documentaries, each of which can provide more and better information than hours upon hours of painful lecturing ever could.

Alternatively, there are these well-produced mini-series that bring the past to the present in the form of historical fiction. The Borgias, Vikings, The White Queen and the Tudors are just a few of medieval Europe that come to mind. Then there is the biggest one of all: Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones is, of course, more fiction than history. However, its story has such a universal appeal that students who likely snored through World History are probably watching it. Its settings and characters may be pure fiction but are nonetheless based on the Medieval Ages and can be put to good use by the skilful History teacher.

The power play between the Baratheons, the Lannisters, the Targaryens and the Tyrells not only depicts the vulnerable nature of European medieval monarchies but portrays the might is right philosophy of the era. In other words, who had the muscle deserved the throne; and populist politics were yet centuries into the future.

The relationship between Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark is a vivid portrayal of the strategic alliances that reigning monarchs needed to forge with key members of the aristocracy to stay in power. The kings outranked the aristocrats; but such was the feudal nature of medieval Europe that it was not uncommon for some of these aristocrats to have greater wealth and military might than the monarchy.

Even the incestuous relationship between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, distasteful as it may be to modern audiences, has historical basis that even predates medieval Europe. In fact, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who were thought of as gods rather than humans, married within the immediate family to ensure that the lineage was not tainted with human blood.

Among the subplots of Game of Thrones are the machinations of the two-faced Petyr Baelish and the shrewdness of Lord Varys. These two portray the dynamics of the medieval court, where governance was conducted often on the basis of rumours and secrets; and whether they were substantiated or not was largely beside the point.

Image captured from Game of Thrones trailer on YouTube.

Lord Varys, as all fans of the show know, is a eunuch. Eunuchs had been around since ancient Sumeria and were people of low birth, some even slaves. They were castrated before puberty so they could perform various roles at court. Some, because they grew up in the company of the aristocracy and even royalty, became very powerful, as apparently seems to be the case with Lord Varys.

While many in the audience were disturbed by a Season 5 episode when Ramsay Bolton forced himself upon Sansa Stark with Theon Greyjoy, a.k.a. Reek, watching, in fact it was not uncommon to have members of the royal court to be present at the marital bed on the night of the king’s wedding to stand as witnesses as the marriage was consummated.

This may sound exceedingly perverse in the present day; but then again, there was no DNA testing in the medieval era.

Then there is Castle Black, the Order of the Night Watch, the Whitewalkers and the wall, reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall stretches across northern England and was built to keep out the sinister Picts during the Roman occupation of Britain. The Picts were fierce warriors who raided during the day and then faded into the mist like ghosts. For all we know, maybe they were the inspiration for the Whitewalkers.

There are many more; and even Daenery’s dragons used to be very much part of European myths and folklore. The tricky part for the History teacher, of course, is to how to separate fact from fiction as indeed, Game of Thrones has been liberal with the latter.

However, the crucial thing here is that Game of Thrones is a tool for capturing interest, so much more potent than hours of lecturing ever could. I used to ask my History classes to do reviews of some of James Clavell’s novels. If I was still teaching History these days, I would probably be asking my students to review Game of Thrones instead.




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