Game of Thrones and Germanic Culture
By Ryan Orr
he medievalism of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO spinoff Game of Thrones is unlike any other fantasy work in the history of the genre. It borrows from familiar fantasy tropes and constantly invokes the medieval world through imagery and themes, but it does so in a unique way. Martin draws inspiration from medieval history in a way few other writers have, paralleling particular characters, events, and stories from the real past into his fantastic world, while at the same time blending and convoluting those inspirations and using an artist’s imagination to create an astonishingly unique story and story world. While almost all of his inspiration comes from the real historic past, the way in which he blends different literary ingredients together serves to present to us a world which as at once purely fictional and fantastic, but also which echoes our own world, both past and present.
This essay will explore Martin’s use of Germanic culture – that is, the culture of the ethnically German peoples who dominated northern and western Europe from about the 1st to the 11th century CE – particularly as portrayed in Game of Thrones. Because it is a digital essay, it will also incorporate digital sources to add depth, and highlight some fan/pop-culture content where appropriate. It will focus on several points of comparison between Game of Thrones and real Germanic history, especially in regards to justice, kingship, and hospitality. Other elements, such as feudal relations and personal bonds, as well as the religion of the “Old Gods”, will be touched on, but are more fully explored in other essays. This essay is part of a larger project to explore both real history and Martin’s appropriation of that real history to create a unique and blended product. As such, it will focus on three of the major institutions in Westeros and their historical sources of inspiration: trial by combat, guest right, and kingship.
Guest Right and Hospitality
By far the most shocking moment of HBO’s Game of Thrones has been the Red Wedding. It shocked audiences because of two major factors: 1) its extreme violence, and 2) its unexpectedness. All through the show, and even more so in the books, the idea of “guest right” has been reinforced to us – the sacred law whereby a host is responsible for protecting his guests. This ancient custom was held as the first law, sacred to both gods and men, and was notoriously broken by the Frey’s in the murder of Robb Stark, his mother Catelyn, and their party. The custom is rooted in practicality and steeped in tradition. Interestingly however, it is largely an invention of Martin. While he borrows from historical reality, the idea of guest right seems to be his own invention, and speaks to two major themes in his work: historical inspiration and geographic determinism.
Video: Game of Thrones – The Stark Bannermen
Guest right in Martin’s legendarium is based on geographical determinism. The tradition is held onto by those in the North partially because of their traditions, but the overriding factor behind the continuing observation of the practice must be because of the geography of the North. It is a vast, inhospitable, and sparsely populated area. In regions such as this, hospitality and warmth are vital, especially when winter finally comes. Times inevitably arise where travellers need to seek any hospitality they can find, and there must be some sort of cultural understanding that both guest and host are safe in this arrangement; guest right provides for this. The tradition also seems to be older and connected to the First Men, who have more roots in the North. A World of Ice and Fire spends some time dealing with the idea of guest right, both by noting that “crimes in the North in which guest right was violated were rare but were invariably treated as harshly as the direst of treasons. Only kinslaying is deemed as sinful”, and also by referencing the story of the Rat Cook.1 The Rat Cook was turned into a rat by the gods for punishment because he broke the guest right.2 In the context of the history of Westeros, guest right is a logical custom. Martin may have borrowed some of the inspiration from history, but it does largely seem to have been his own invention merely inspired by real history, rather than a direct parallel of a medieval or Germanic custom.
There are several historical precedents from which the concept of guest right may be derived, however. The Romans and Greeks had a clear concept of hospitality and the protection of guests, though it does not appear that there was a clear Germanic parallel. Feasting, feast culture, and mead-hall culture are the nearest Germanic equivalent. Gift giving, especially the giving of food (through feasts) or hospitality, is an important part of primitive societies.3 Feasting and hospitality are tools by which social notables can reinforce their identities and play politics, as well as strengthen genuine relations, among friends and foes.4 They were also seen as pious acts of charity, as they allowed for the rich to give back to society and their inferiors.5 This act of giving food and hospitality is also essential for maintaining followers, and for asserting ones place at the head of a local community; the word “lord” actually derives from the Old English word for “loaf-ward”.6 Sharing food and hospitality was an important element of defining kinship (real or perceived), which was the glue that bound together the Anglo-Saxon world.7 The North, likewise, is based primarily around kinship groups (a notable family, their followers and retainers, and their related families), and as such the sharing of food and hospitality would be an important aspect of defining group identity. Hospitality functions as a statement of power and of social relations, and in places where power structures are based on personal relations and charismatic leadership, hospitality, visitation, and gift-giving are vital.8 This is connected to the nature of Germanic and Westerosi kingship, kinship, oaths, and personal bonds, themes that will be touched on later in this essay.
It is clear that Martin thus essentially constructed the idea of guest right by analyzing the underlying concepts, themes, and meanings behind different institutions and practices in history, even if he does not make direct analogies between the past and the present. The Red Wedding itself is based on a real historical event, and while there are several notorious examples of guests being killed by their hosts in literature and history, the idea of guest right is properly a literary invention of Martin.
Trial by Combat and Medieval Justice
Did I say the Red Wedding was the most shocking moment? Okay, I lied. Martell vs. the Mountain: that was the most shocking moment. This dual was one of two prominent examples of trial by combat, the other being Bronn vs. Ser Vardis Eggan, in the Eyrie. (Interestingly, both involve Tyrion). This concept is much more rooted in historical Germanic culture. Martin invokes the idea of trial by combat in Westeros, I think, for three main reasons. Firstly it is a singular event in which the gods can directly intervene, at least as the characters in the novel/show understand. Secondly, it is a classic dramatic trope, and makes for great viewing on screen (it has dominated popular discourse about the show). Thirdly, it adds a layer of authenticity to his fictional world, because “everyone knows” trial by combat was a legitimate way of settling disputes and rendering judgements in the medieval world. Enmeshing real history, or at least common historical tropes, into a fictional world serve to reinforce the image of that world as “medieval”, which in this case is a mixture of violence and grittiness as well as chivalric and noble.
Video: Young Turks – Trial By Combat
Single combat, judicial or otherwise, is a classic trope of medievalism in literature and film. It is rooted of course in reality. In Homer’s Iliad as well as in the Germanic Beowulf we see single combat between participants as major events of the text. The struggle between Beowulf and Grendel is a struggle for divine intervention: God will decide the more just of the two, and give victory to that individual.9 Likewise, the Battle of Maldon contains within it the idea that God will decide the outcome of a battle.10 Ordeals also invoke the intervention of the gods to determine guilt.11 The Germanic law codes that mention trial by combat likewise refer to the judgement of God.12 The Greeks believed the same thing.13 When Tyrion is faced with the judgement of his father for the murder of Joffrey, he declares “I will let the gods decide my fate…I demand trial by combat”; those in Westeros thus clearly associate trial by combat with divine intervention to determine justice in the same way that the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic groups did. The trial by combat is an important aspect of medieval justice, by both allowing God to determine the winner and by allowing men to demonstrate their valour, as well as settle scores and provide an vehicle for revenge.14 This aspect of personal motivations can be seen in Oberyn Martell’s decision to act as champion for Tyrion; he only wants to avenge his sister’s death.
Many other elements of Germanic law, including the famous weregild concept, are not apparent in Martin’s world. Trial by combat likely remains because it is a common trope of medievalism. It makes for dramatic storytelling, and is a great way to puncture an otherwise dry part of the story with an element of violent action, without the larger consequences (and much larger budgetary requirements) of a full-scale battle. Most audiences, especially in the fantasy genre, would prefer to see an exciting fight between Oberyn and the Mountain than see a medieval-esque rehashing of Law and Order. The inclusion of trial by combat also echoes historical reality, allowing Martin to add a layer of authenticity into his world. Westeros is also a world where many people believe the gods can have a direct impact on their daily lives or intervene in some way; trial by combat thus makes sense as a logical extension of this belief. Why should men decide if there are gods to render their own judgement? All in all, the inclusion of trial by combat speaks to the importance of Germanic culture to Martin’s story world. Other elements also demonstrate this, however.
Kingship and “the North” in Westeros
Notions of medieval kingship generally come from the Germanic regal tradition, with adjustments made for Christianity. Tacitus writes that “kings they choose for their birth, generals for their valur. But the kings do not have unlimited power without restriction, while the generals lead more by example than command”.15 Earlier historians have thus concluded that the Germanic tribes were essentially a democracy, because the sovereign’s authority came from the will of the people.16 This is buoyed by Tacitus’s observation that decisions are often made by counsels of the commons and the elites together.17 Some see the origins of the English parliament in these structures. This primitive democracy has largely been challenged by modern historians, but the image remains in popular culture. It is important to remember that Tacitus, one of the best sources for the Germani of antiquity, is writing largely a moralizing ethnography, that serves to set apart the southerners that “tended to be slavish and ruled by tyrants” and the northerners who were more naturally “inclined towards liberty”; this theme plays a major role in the Germania, and it serves as a lesson to the Romans about the moral corruption of their own society.18 While Tacitus’s observations about kingship and liberty among the Germani may thus be accurate, it is important to remember that he is essentially writing to criticize contemporary Roman morals, attitudes, institutions, and society.
Interestingly, this idea of a freedom-loving, pseudo-democratic north and a slavish, tyrannical south can still be seen in modern pop culture. Braveheart stands as the most dominant testament to this nord-centric attitude, a film about the free people of the north fighting against the evil empire of the south. Even the modern attitudes towards the Vikings may be as a result of this as well, with television programs like Vikings depicting the community councils that make decisions for the group (even if the elites of the group exercise undue influence). Masculinity also plays a factor in this. The racial theory of “nordicism” is grounded on the idea that the Nordic (that is, Germanic) races are superior to others, often using evidence from the classical or medieval world to assert that societal elites were Germanic, while the common people were of a lesser stock. Popular videogame Skyrim makes allusions to this cultural trope. The game features a story line whereby the peoples of the northern land of Skyrim (appropriately called the Nords) are fighting against the corruption of the southern empire; in an interesting twist however, there are many suggestions that these freedom fighters are actually quite racist towards anyone who isn’t a Nord. The trope is also present in Game of Thrones.
Video: Braveheart Trailer
One of the story lines which loomed largest in the first three seasons of Game of Thrones was the conflict between the Starks and the North and the Lannisters in the south. The contrast between the two major cultural groups of northerner and southerner is readily apparent in speech patterns, mannerisms, social customs, culture, and appearance; the differences between the two are constantly reinforced throughout the book series and the television show. There is even a racial component to the difference: the northerners are largely descended from the First Men (roughly analogous to the Celtic peoples of Britain), while the southerners are predominately descended from the Andals (roughly analogous to the Anglo-Saxons). The North fights for their freedom from the tyrannical King Joffrey in the south after the unjust death of Ned Stark, their former leader. The northern Starks and their allies are clearly presented as the protagonists in this conflict, and the television show focusses far more heavily on the characters and stories of the northerners in the war; this practice helps induce viewers to the show, interested in the rugged “northernness” of these characters, the righteousness of their cause, and probably the connections between other popular films, such as Braveheart.
Video: Game of Thrones “The King in the North”
When Ned’s son Robb, the leader of the northern rebels, is declared the King in the North, another difference between the northerners and southerners is introduced: kingship. By briefly comparing and contrasting kings Robb, Robert Baratheon, and Joffrey Baratheon, we can see how aspects of early medieval Germanic culture have been adopted to clearly delineate the different cultures of the fictional world, and, moreover, inform the audience who the “good guys” are. Robb was essentially elected to kingship by his followers, based on his blood and his ability. Robert Baratheon claimed the throne of the Seven Kingdoms in a rebellion, and held it by using his military skill to enforce compliance to the crown. Joffrey inherited the throne from his father, and proves to be an exceptionally ill-suited candidate for the crown. I do not believe that this tripartite division is part of a political message or modern social commentary on Martin’s part, although surely modern ideas play a heavy role in his writing. Rather, this division serves to reinforce the kings’ identities. Robb is good because leadership is thrust upon him, and his followers chose him. Robert is acceptable, because he toppled the previous tyrant and generally ruled with a fair hand. Joffrey is a bad king because he is a spoiled brat who merely inherits the throne through no effort of his own, and even his inheritance is illegitimate. Obviously this is a simplification of the characterization in Game of Thrones, but it is one important aspect of Martin’s character construction. Robb’s “election” is by far the most Germanic of the various types of kingship that have been shown thus far in Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire, and clearly serves to make him a more likeable and morally good character. The borrowings of Germanic culture in Game of Thrones thus serve to clearly delineate different fictional regions and cultures, as well as imply moral characteristics on fictional people.
Martin clearly draws inspiration from Germanic culture throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, and the connections are played up in Game of Thrones. Elements of Germanic culture serve as an inspiration for the northern culture in Westeros, as Robb’s kingship clearly demonstrates. Guest right is best seen as demonstrative of Martin’s geographical determinism: it is a cultural practice based on the region in which it emerges, and while it does have some historical parallels it is essentially his own invention. Trial by combat is a practice that is not specifically Germanic, but has been used by many cultures which believe the gods can intervene in daily life to render their judgement on disputes; because most Westerosi, like most ancient Greeks and Germans, believe in this sort of divine intervention, trial by combat makes sense within the cultural mentalité. Trial by combat is also played up in both the novels and Game of Thrones because it makes for good entertainment. Complex and obscure legal proceedings are almost never more thrilling than seeing two warriors have at it. Martin uses history as his source of inspiration and clearly aspects of Germanic culture are present in his work and in Game of Thrones. There are many more aspects of Germanic culture present that this essay has not touched on, including ideas of kinship, religion, oral culture, personal bonds, and oaths and honour; as scholarship on this cultural phenomenon grows hopefully these aspects can be more fully explored. Game of Thrones is the most popular font of medievalism in modern popular culture, and deserves the full attention of scholars of media, history, and medievalism, if we are to fully understand the series as a mirror of the past.
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