Education in Game of Thrones

Introduction

Education today is a complex, multi-step affair.  Elementary school, high-school, and then a variety of options such as co-op, trades schools, colleges, and universities all offer a variety of options to almost anyone wishing to advance their education or ready themselves for a specific profession.  With multiple options for help pay for education, including scholarships and government loans, very little is unattainable, provided that one is smart or tenacious enough.  In A Song of Ice and Fire, as in the television show Game of Thrones, education is more limited than the options available today.  There is a line drawn between who receives what type of education, as well as who that education is provided by.  A divide between nobles and commoners is immediately apparent, and the differences in what each social group learns is notable as well.  Additionally, there are of course various characters in Game of Thrones who undergo what would not necessarily be a normal education for their gender or social standing, and this will be addressed as well.

The Maesters

The Maesters are an order of scholars, healers, and scientists.  They devote their lives to study, and are sometimes known as “Knights of the Mind.”  They fill a role as advisors to the nobility of Westeros, but are above political allegiances; instead, they are assigned to serve one castle, regardless of who is the presiding lord.  To demonstrate their devotion to knowledge and abandonment of political ties, the Maesters are stripped of their last names, and instead go only by their title and their first name.  In practice, however, some still retain some degree of political allegiance.  The symbol of the Maester’s office is his chain; each link is forged of a different metal, and each different link signifies mastery of a different field of study.  These cover a wide variety of subjects, including economics (yellow gold), smithing (pale steel), history (copper), astrology (electrum), medicine and healing (silver), warfare (iron), and ravenry (black iron).

The Maester's Chain is forged of many links of different metals, each link and metal symbolizing mastery in a different area of study.

The Maester’s Chain is forged of many links of different metals, each link and metal symbolizing mastery in a different area of study.

A Valyrian Steel link signifies the study of Magic, though very few Maesters study this, believing it to be beneath them.[1]  Magic is widely regarded to have left the world by most learned men and Maesters in Westeros.  Many Maesters even view the study of magic as beneath them because they do not believe magic exists.  Even those who have studied it (and bear a Valyrian Steel link on their Maester’s chain) do not believe it still exists.  When Bran attempts to discuss his dreams with Maester Luwin, as well as the experience he has of seeing the world through the eyes of his direwolf Summer, Maester Luwin still dismisses these dreams and visions as mere dreams and nothing more.[2]

Of course, a Maester’s education is very exclusive.  Maesters are generally either the children of nobles or their bastards, and only those of noble birth would be able to afford the privilege of having a Maester give themselves or their children an education.  However, it is possible that a commoner can become a Maester, as the account of Maester Yandel details how he was left in the Scribe’s Hearth as an infant, raised as a servant of the Citadel, and eventually became an acolyte, then a Maester.[3]

Maester Yandel’s book (The World of Ice and Fire is written as if it were a book written by Maester Yandel) is a useful guide to the world of Westeros and beyond, but it is also useful for attempting to determine how books within the Game of Thrones universe would actually be written:  what tone they would have, what they would address, how they would do so, et cetera.  For example, because The World of Ice and Fire is written during the reign of Robert Baratheon, the text portrays his rebellion and reign as good and just, while completely denouncing the reign of the last Targaryen King.  Other, more distant Targaryen rulers are more frequently given praise, but the tone of the book makes Robert seem like a true saviour when he rebelled.  Whether or not this is completely true is at least partially relevant, but so is the fact that this book shows that education and history is meant to reflect well on the ruling individual at the time it is written.

Interestingly, education in a traditional sense does not seem to be linked to religion in a significant way.  While the Maesters no doubt would study some element of religion in their education given the vast breadth of subjects they master, the fact that the Sept is not the main educational element in A Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones is significantly different from historical real-world times.

Nobles

The education of nobles is of much greater quality than any but the wealthiest commoners.  One of the obvious benefits of noble education is the assistance of Maesters as teachers for the nobles’ children.  Amongst the various elements that the young nobles learn are the names, sigils, and mottos of the other nobles houses, illustrated by Bran and Maester Luwin’s discussion of them at Winterfell in Season 1, Episode 5.[4]

Bran goes over the various noble houses and their family saying with Maester Luwin.

Bran goes over the various noble houses and their family saying with Maester Luwin.

One would assume this is part of education for the future of diplomacy and politics, as it is evidently an important aspect of life in Westeros.

Samwell Tarly’s character also offers important information about the education a noble would receive, as well as the education he was expected to excel at.  Lord Tarly expects his son to carry on his renown in military endeavors, and attempts to train him Sam as a warrior.  Sam, however, is not respondent to these attempts, and instead focusses more on book learning.  Embarrassed and angry at his son’s lack of military prowess, lord Tarly sends him to the Night’s Watch.  It is important to note that he was not sent to the Citadel to train as a Maester because even that type of education was seen as an embarrassment to House Tarly.[5]

Another interesting point of education is that of wards, which also existed in the real world.  A ward would be the child of another lord who was kept and raised by a different lord, as a pseudo-hostage.  However, in the case of Theon Greyjoy, this is not necessarily representative of a hostage lifestyle.  Theon is treated roughly the same as the other Stark children, and even forms a close bond with Eddard Stark.  Theon’s fate aside, the fact that this type of scenario occurs both in Game of Thrones and the real world suggests it to be both effective and not distasteful, as Theon appears to have received just a thorough an education as the rest of the Stark children.[6]  This is not the only example of it, though not all of it was in a hostage-like situation.  Robert Baratheon was a ward at the Eyrie before coming into his castle and starting his rebellion.[7]

Less obvious, but still distinctly important, is the education of manner, hygiene, and politeness that would also be part of the education of real life medieval nobles, and would thus likely be part of the education of noble children in Game of Thrones as well.  While not everyone would have learned to read, it appears that most in Game of Thrones do, which makes it slightly different from the early turn of the century, but not drastically different from the years after approximately 1200.[8]

Noble Women

The education of women is typically different than the education of men.  While there are likely some similarities in education for noble children (it seems likely that both boys and girls would be taught the different houses’ sigils and mottos), there are some elements that are distinctly feminine in practice.  For example, in Season 1, Episode 1, one of the first scenes of the female Stark children shows both Arya and Sansa learning embroidery.  While Sansa is rather skilled and praised for her work, Arya is noticeably frustrated and longs for other activities.  Arya is seen a short time later, besting her brother Bran at archery and foreshadowing the unusual education she will end up receiving.[9]  Unlike their brothers, however, neither of the sisters receive tutoring from Maester Luwin.  Instead, they are tutored by Septa Mordane.  This education leads to Sansa learning to sew, dance, write, and playing the harp, among other things.  They are also both taught the history of their house and of Westeros.  What is most interesting, though, is that they are both taught mathematics and expected to take a fuller part in the management of a household’s accounts.  In fact, there is not too much difference between the male education and the female education, with the exception of boys learning to fight.[10]

 

 

Commoners

Common folk have fewer options than nobles when it comes to education.  While it has already been pointed out that some commoners can luck out and receive training as a Maester, it is far more likely that the only real education an average commoner would receive would either be from a figure close to them teaching them a family trade, or they would undergo an apprenticeship.  However, an apprenticeship in Game of Thrones is noted to cost a fair amount of money – Gendry is only able to remain the apprentice to the smith Tobho Mott because an anonymous lord paid the fees.[11]  In medieval England, a society that roughly parallels the world of Game of Thrones, it was actually illegal for the sons of peasants to be educated.  The reason for this may have been fear from the feudal lords that any educated individual might start to question the way things were done.[12]  If this type of system were to be paralleled in Game of Thrones, it is unlikely that any significant number of commoners could read, write, or have an understanding of complex topics like finance and science that the nobles would have access to.

Other Cultures

There is a different kind of education in the slave cities that Daenerys is freeing, outside of Westeros.  Until the slaves were forcibly freed by Daenerys, some of them were well educated men who were in a position teaching the children of wealthier individuals who could afford to own them.  This type of education is a great surprise to Daenerys, especially the element where some of the educated slave-teachers enjoyed it, having a purpose in life.  Appearing in Season 4, episode 10, this is portrayed by the slave Fennesz when speaking to Daenerys.  While there is no character who fits this role in the books, Fennesz shows that some slaves had important roles in society, including educating children.[13]  However, this should perhaps have not come as quite as much of a surprise to Daenerys as it did.  As part of her wedding with Kahl Drogo, Viserys gives Daenerys three handmaidens: Irri, Jhiqui and Doreah.  Of these three, both Irri and Jhiqui were enslaved when Drogo’s khalasar defeated their own, and Doreah was bought from a pleasure house from Lys.[14]  Each of the girls was given to Daenerys to educate her in a particular role in her upcoming life.  Irri was given in order to teach her how to ride – a massive part of Daenerys’ new life with the Dothraki.  Jhiqui was given to Daenerys to teach her the Dothraki language, another important part in her new life.  Finally, Doreah – coming from a pleasure house – was to instruct Daenerys in love-making, as it is likely that Viserys wanted Drogo to be happy with Daenerys, and thus more willing to provide him aid. These gifts show that education being taught to nobles and powerful individuals would sometimes come from those they had enslaved.

Unusual Educations

Arya’s education in swordplay is rather unusual in Westeros.  There is only one other female figure in the show or novels who frequently uses a sword – Brienne of Tarth.  And Brienne is not an average woman either, as she is considered to be extremely unattractive and thus devoted herself to a martial life instead of one at court.[15]  Arya Stark is much the same – never interested in the life of court or practicing womanly endeavors, she is instead gifted her sword Needle from Jon Snow in Season 1, Episode 2.

Syrio has Arya learn swordplay by first instructing her to practice proper balancing.

Syrio has Arya learn swordplay by first instructing her to practice proper balancing.

Despite a mishap on the Kingsroad, she keeps her sword hidden until her father finds out about it.  At this point, Arya begins training under Syrio Forel, a swordsman from Braavos.  This education would be strange enough given that females would rarely have the chance to learn swordplay, but the manner of the education is odd as well, with numerous odd tasks given to Arya by Syrio, including balancing and catching cats.[16]

An interesting fan observation that is less about a traditional sense of education, and more about an education of how to play The Game of Thrones comes from the Reddit user First_Ranger.  They have noticed that Sansa has learned a huge variety of techniques for playing the Game of Thrones, and has had teachers that valued honour and loyalty (the Starks), teachers that were aggressive and manipulative (the Lannisters), and a teacher that is ruthless and subtle (Littlefinger).  While it may not seem like Sansa is receiving a traditional education of a woman, she is nonetheless being taught how to play the most dangerous game she can.

And while it might seem cutthroat to us, it is perhaps the most traditional education – though in an uncommon manner – she could get.[17]

Conclusion

There are a variety of kinds of education that occurs in Game of Thrones.  The most obvious education – those subjects that are studied by Maesters – is far from the only thing that is taught.  Swordplay, lovemaking, and politics are all taught at some point throughout the series.  Not only that, but it is sometimes those who seem least likely to take up a certain path of education that find themselves devoted to it.  Women mastering the sword and assassination, sons of mighty military leaders instead choosing to devote themselves to books, and slaves teaching their masters and their masters’ children.  Unfortunately for the average commoner, most education seems to be out of reach.  While there is a chance of apprenticing for someone in a skilled trade, this would require a significant investment of money, as Gendry is only an apprentice as long as the anonymous lord pays his fees.

Notes

[1] http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Maester

[2] Game of Thrones.  Season 2, Episode 3.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sup-uOawuGw

[3] Martin, George R. R. et. al.  The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones.  Preface.

[4] http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0234897/quotes

[5] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Samwell_Tarly

[6] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Theon_Greyjoy

[7] http://justadram.tumblr.com/post/55528050605/meta-monday-growing-up-noble-man

[8] http://justadram.tumblr.com/post/55528050605/meta-monday-growing-up-noble-man

[9] Game of Thrones: Season 1, Episode 1.  Winter is Coming.

[10] http://asoiafuniversity.tumblr.com/post/56377323141/meta-monday-growing-up-noble-woman

[11] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Gendry

[12]Medieval Education“. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014.  http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_education.htm

[13] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Fennesz

[14] http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Irri  and  http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Jhiqui  and  http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Doreah

[15] http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Brienne_of_Tarth

[16] http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Syrio_Forel

[17] http://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/26mrtr/spoilers_all_sansas_apprenticeship/

Bibliography

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History Learning Site.  “Medieval Education”.  2014.  http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_education.htm.  Accessed April 2015.

Internet Movie Database.  “Quotes for Bran Stark.”  http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0234897/quotes.  Accessed April 2015.

Martin, George R. R. et. al.  The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones.

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Tumblr.  “Meta Monday:  Growing Up Noble(man).”  July 15 2013.  http://justadram.tumblr.com/post/55528050605/meta-monday-growing-up-noble-man.  Accessed April 2015.

Tumblr.  “Meta Monday:  Growing Up Noble(woman).”  July 22 2013.  http://justadram.tumblr.com/post/56164363924/meta-monday-growing-up-noble-woman.  Accessed April 2015.

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