I am sad to report that tonight will be the last episode of the season of what has become one of my all-time favorite television shows, Game of Thrones. Last week’s episode, which was so electrifying to viewers it almost broke the internets, was one of its finest, and its infamous wedding sequence was a genuinely thrilling television moment. Among other things, it made me realize that what appeals to me most about the show is that it is, essentially, an extended treatment of one of my favorite genres: the gangster movie. Yes, there is the royal pageantry, and there are the fantasy elements. Also sex, and plenty of it. But when it comes down to it, GoT is basically The Sopranos in medieval drag, the Corleones in crowns and tiaras. And that’s what I love about it.
Gangster movies are essentially about politics in its most brutal form: who wields power, and who gets whacked. And it is in connection with that power theme that the series’, and the books’, relationship to history interests me. I’m something of a history nerd and had heard that the books were loosely based on some elements of the War of the Roses (1455-1485), although there’s not a one-to-one correspondence (among other things, the War of the Roses lacked dragons and ice zombies!).
I did some poking around the internet and I found some intriguing info about the real-life equivalents of GoT characters. (I will note that I’ve only just started reading the George R.R. Martin novels on which the TV series is based, I haven’t gotten very far into them yet, so most of what I’m writing here is based mostly on the series. You GoT Jedi Master-level nerds may want to give this post a pass, as the following info and speculation may seem too basic/familiar.).
First, Salon’s Laura Miller lays out some of the basics of the War of the Roses/GoT parallels:
Some of Martin’s references to the Wars are easy to pick up. For example, the two dueling clans in “Game of Thrones,” the Lannisters and the Starks, have names that resemble those of the two sides in the Wars of the Roses. Like the Yorks, the Starks are northerners, while the Lannisters, like the Lancasters, are famously rich.
Both English families were branches of the House of Plantagenet who vied for the throne after the deposition of the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, in 1399 and before the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between the characters in “Game of Thrones” and actual historical figures, but Martin was clearly inspired by Edward IV in creating, say, Robert Baratheon, the great, strapping warrior who became a stout, ailing king. There’s a dash of Edward, too, in Rob Stark, a brilliant commander who makes an impetuous, disadvantageous marriage.
Cersei Lannister, Robert’s ambitious, conniving widow, is thought by many to have been inspired by the hot-headed Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, the king Edward IV helped depose. Henry’s bouts of insanity left him frequently unable to rule, and Margaret, a leading Lancastrian, fought ferociously against those she saw as threatening her family’s hold on the crown. Historians view her as a prime driver in the Wars of the Roses, just as Cersei is substantively responsible for the War of the Five Kings in “A Clash of Kings.” Cersei also resembles Isabella of France, an earlier medieval English queen, who conspired with her adulterous lover to dethrone, and possibly to murder, her (bisexual) husband, Edward II, in the 1300s.
Miller also has some suggestions for historical books about the period, which sound like they’re well worth checking out.
Jay Jenkinson, from the Manchester Historian blog, has more on historical models for GoT characters:
On the Stark side of the conflict, Rob Stark bares some comparison to the Yorkish King Edward IV. The young Rob Stark illustrates his brilliance as a military tactician in a series of crushing victories against the Lannister forces in season two. However, he shows some political naivety in an ill-advised marriage. Edward IV shared Rob Stark’s military cunning, showcased in his succession against the Lancastrians in a series of battles at only 19 years of age. He too possessed some political naivety when he secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancaster sympathiser, which alienated his allies in Warwick.
Stannis Baratheon’s claim to the Iron Throne and his naval attack against King’s Landing is similar to William the Conqueror. The Norman Duke claimed the King of England for himself and led a huge naval invasion of England. Stannis and William were powerful military commanders.
Parallels also exist between Petyr Baelish ‘Littlefinger’ the Master of Coin, the kingdom’s treasurer on the King’s small council, and Thomas Cromwell an English lawyer and statesmen who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540. Both rose from minor social positions to be prominent players in court politics; Baelish was born a lord of a minor holding, whilst Cromwell was born the son of a blacksmith. Baelish also possesses Cromwell’s skill at manipulating court politics; like his historical counterpart he assumes an unthreatening demeanour, while scheming against his political opponents and utilising bribes to achieve his goals.
Other GoT historical trivia: much to my surprise, Joan of Arc was not history’s only female knight. There were a number of women-only orders of knights, as well as numerous women warriors in the medieval era. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that these women guarded kings like Brienne of Tarth does, or took fencing lessons like little Arya, but it’s fascinating info.
And for some more historical parallels: how about Daenerys as an Elizabeth I figure? Daenerys was the daughter of a “mad king;” and surely Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII could be considered, if not clinically insane, then suffering from some kind of monster personality disorder. Daenerys looks like she could have the makings of an excellent queen; like Elizabeth, she is shrewd, an excellent negotiator, and ruthless when she needs to be. Elizabeth famously remained unmarried, because she realized she needed to do so to retain power. I wonder if that is the case with the young widow Daenerys, or if, as an email correspondent suggested to me, love might get her into trouble. I’d look out for that Fabio look-alike who’s recently made an appearance on the show, if I were her.
Still, I’d wager that Daenerys has a decent shot at winning the game of thrones. She’s a stone badass, and also — dragons. It doesn’t look like Joffrey will remain on the Iron Throne for long; he’s too headstrong, too stupid, and arbitrarily cruel. Someone will probably take out the obnoxious little sociopath, a development I anticipate with relish. I’m having a hard time getting a bead on Stannis, but it bodes ill that he is so deeply under the spell of the creepy priestess Melisandre. Tyrion clearly seems to brilliant enough to plot his way to the throne, if he wanted it, but appears to have a disqualifying tender streak; besides, his status as a dwarf stature would apparently disqualify him. Bran is a dark horse I suppose, but he seems too dreamy and spiritual, not practical enough.
It looks as though Jon Snow is being built up as the hero of the book and a strong contender for the throne — in alliance with Daenerys perhaps, North/South, Fire and Ice? I’m not a big fan of Jon Snow on the TV show, but that’s mostly because the actor who plays him imbues him with all the incisive intellect and regal authority of the lead singer of a preteen boy band. But in the book he comes off as a much more substantial person.
History records that the “winner” of the War of the Roses was Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. Tudor was, says Wikipedia, “a remote Lancastrian claimant;” that would associate him, in the rough scheme of the books, with the Lannisters. The remoteness of his claim was due to an illegitimate family connection to the Lancasters. Also, “He was the last king of England to win his throne on the field of battle.” Though Jon Snow is a Stark rather than a Lannister (so far as we know; the identity of his mother is unknown), he resembles Henry Tudor in these particulars. Jon Snow’s claim to the throne would be remote indeed, since he himself is of “illegitimate” birth. He’s shaping up to be a first-rate soldier and if he does win the throne, it wouldn’t be surprising if it ends up being on the basis of a battlefield victory.
We shall see. For now, the final episode of the season beckons.
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