A Game of Archetypes: The Subversion of Medieval Narratives in Game of Thrones

By Heather Smith

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Idealized images of the Middle Ages have become an integral part of popular culture. The valiant knight, the revered lady, and the morally upstanding lord are familiar archetypes which the average television viewer would most likely reference if asked to define the “Medieval”. Mythical creatures such as monsters and dragons often co-exist alongside these archetypes.1 The world of Game of Thrones is no exception. Author George R.R. Martin has created a literary landscape which expertly fuses elements of medievalism and fantasy. “The known world” as it is referred to in the novels, has become the setting for the now-culturally iconic HBO television series. In this world of archetypal characters and landscapes, the formulas of conventional story-telling are both adhered to and subverted, creating an atmosphere defined by its dramatic unpredictability.2 Utilizing the official Game of Thrones trailers for seasons one through five, I will discuss how the series weaves in elements of intertexuality to create a world of Medieval archetypes and narratives. I will further examine how the adherance and subversion of these archetypes lies at the core of the series’ dramatic effectiveness and its massive fan appeal.

Season 1: Heroism and Oath-Keeping in The North

Game of Thrones creates a world of Medieval archetypes through the intertextual borrowing of Early Anglo Saxon narratives. In season one, Eddard Stark is introduced to audiences as the archetypal loyal and morally upstanding lord. When a ranger deserts his post breaking his Oath to the Knight’s Watch, Eddard sentences him to die and carries forth the execution himself stating:

The man who passes a sentence should swing the sword.-Eddard Stark

The vital importance of Oath-keeping in the world of Game of Thrones can be traced to the influence of Early Medieval Anglo-Saxon epic poems such as Beowulf. In lines 632-638 Beowulf pledges that he would rather die than fail to fulfill his Oath to fight the monster Grendel.3 In Game of Thrones, the archetype of the dutiful citizen is subverted. The Oath-Breaker in this case does not wish to die for his Oath-breaking and attempts to plead his case to his lord. The early death of this character serves two purposes. Firstly Eddard’s role as the loyal vassal to his King is reinforced through his sense of duty in carrying out the execution. The time spent constructing the archetype of Eddard as the central protagonist makes his death at the end of season one more shocking to the audience and sets the events of season two in motion. Secondly, the character’s introduction and swift death demonstrates the high stakes of the series and that at any time, any character could meet their untimely end.

The emphasis on Oath-Keeping in the North reflects similarities to Early Medieval Germanic societies. The trailer for season one highlights the stark contrasts between the Northern world of Winterfell and the Southern world of King’s Landing. Where Winterfell is dark in both lighting and clothing, the South is bright and colourful, drawing from the opulence of the High Middle Ages and the culture of excess. This collapsing of temporality adds to the complexity of the “Known World” of Game of Thrones and also provides opportunities to highlight the most prominent archetypes of various eras of the Middle Ages. The differences between North and South are emphasized in the trailer through the use of quick cuts between the characters of the North and South. Thus, intertexuality is utilized in Game of Thrones to construct a landscape of archetypal “Medieval” characters and narratives which create the expectation of formulaic plotlines. The simultaneous construction and subversion of archetypes drives the dramatic effectiveness of the series and creates an atmosphere of suspense and unpredictability.

Cersei and eleanor

Fig. Cersei Lannister (Left) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Right) Depicting similarities in the hairstyles and dress of King’s Landing, to the High Middle Ages.

Season 2: The Quest for the Iron Throne and Arthurian Literature

The concept of the Iron Throne draws from Arthurian literature and the idea of one centralized seat of power. In the season two trailer, the aura of distrust and political intrigue created in the first season is intensified. Prospective kings are pitted against one another and labelled “thieves”. Each prospective King is alternately depicted on an individual quest toward the Iron Throne. Familiar narratives in Arthurian literature revolve around the Round Table as a centralized narrative focus and symbolic seat of power.4 The Iron Throne fulfills the narrative function of being both the seat of power as well as a catalyst for the individual quests of the characters.5 This narrative is subverted in Game of Thrones through the unpredictability of the protagonist’s quest. Whereas in Arthurian literature quests are most often circular with the certainty of survival6, the quest for the Iron Throne is fraught with unpredictability. By the start of season two, all formulaic assumptions about the immortality of main protagonists have been destroyed with the death of the archetypal “hero” Ned Stark.

Arthurian narratives are further evidenced in the relationships of the warring “kings”. In particular, the relationship between Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre can be seen as a subversion of the relationship between King Arthur and Merlin. Though Stannis is warned about Melisandre, he is transfixed by her. In Sir Thomas Mallory’s publication of le morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) published 1485, King Arthur is similarly transfixed by Merlin. Merlin is portrayed by Mallory as the ideal adviser.7 Arthur’s “blind spot” for Merlin renders him unable to heed advice from other valuable sources which sows discontent in his kingdom.8 Both Melisandre and Merlin are prophets who counsel Kings or prospective Kings. The difference lies in the fact that Merlin is an expert interpreter of his visions where Melisandre quite often misinterprets hers. Where Merlin encompasses the loyal and wise adviser, Melisandre falters and her prophecies often lead to evil acts. As such, she can be viewed as a subversion of the archetypal Medieval Prophet. The incorporation of Arthurian-influenced narratives and archetypes further adds to the medievalism present in Game of Thrones and the heightened expectation of formulaic endings. As witnessed by the deaths of many of the prospective Kings thus far, quests in Game of Thrones are anything but predictable, and King’s Landing is no Camelot.

Season Three: Signs of the Apocalypse

The worldview of the characters in Game of Thrones as well as the dominant religion of Westeros is influenced by Biblical narratives.

 Death is coming for everyone and everything. The darkness will swallow the dawn. -Melisandre

At the outset of the trailer for season three, Melisandre is heard off-screen uttering this prophecy. A sense of impending doom has been present throughout the series in various forms including the now-infamous Stark house motto: “Winter is Coming.” Though it may at first seem an unlikely source for intertexual influence, the Book of Revelation provides some uncanny resemblances to the Faith of the Seven as well as the possibility of the Apocalypse in the known world of Game of Thrones.

In the Middle Ages, beliefs about the coming of the Apocalypse were pervasive and widely accepted. The foundation for these beliefs centered around the Book of Revelation which was known as the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages.9 Within the Book of Revelation, the significance of the number seven is continually emphasized.10 In addition Millenarianists of the Middle Ages believed that the totality of the world’s existence was predicted to last 6000 years.11 Each thousand years represented the six days of the week followed by one thousand years of rest or death. Similarly, the seventh God in the Faith of the Seven is Death.12

The seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse depicted on a medieval tapestry

The seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse depicted on a medieval tapestry

The Book of Revelation states that:

In front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God” (Revelations 4: 5)

The representation of God in seven spirits is remarkably similar to the Seven Gods of the Faith of the Seven; the predominant religion of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. In fact, were the Book of Revelation to exist in the world of Game of Thrones, The Faith of the Seven could even be seen as one possible interpretation of this passage. Thus, in addition to Medieval narratives, Game of Thrones is influenced by Biblical narratives. While not all of the characters overtly express a belief in the coming of an Apocalypse, the concept is made overt by characters such as Melisandre whose voices echo Medieval beliefs surrounding the end of the world.

season 4: The Crusades and Daeneyrs’s Problematic Quest

Daeneyrs’s quest in Essos reflects many of the ethical questions surrounding the Medieval Crusades and the narratives glorified by the Medieval Western world. The War of The Five Kings has been compared to Machiavelli’s quest for power.13 While four of five prospective kings reside in Westeros, Daeneyrs’s quest poses particular ethical dilemmas due to her location in Essos and the similarities of Essos to “the East”.14 Daeneyrs is represented as an archetypical example of the privileged causasian noble. In the trailer for season four she proclaims:

They (The freed slaves) have a choice. They can either live in my new world or they can die in their old one – Daenerys Stormborn

The narrative of the “white westerner” crusading for a cause to act as a Savior to the doomed East is inherently problematic for its construction of “the Other” as well as the tacit assumption of Western ideological superiority.15 

Daenerys surrounded by followers (left), depiction of Medieval Crusaders meeting

Daenerys surrounded by followers (left), depiction of Medieval Crusaders meeting “Barbarian” Muslims (Right).

Many examples of literature exist which glorify the Crusades and extoll the virtues of the Western Empire’s attempts to Christianize The East. One particularly famous example is La chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), an epic poem which tells the tale of the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 but is thought by many scholars to be propaganda for the First Crusade in 1095. In the poem, the western empire attempts to convert the last of the Eastern monarchy to Christianity, threatening to shame and kill the King of Spain if he does not surrender:

“You should accept the holy Christian faith and he will give you half of Spain as a fief. If you are not willing to make this treaty, you will be taken by force and bound; you will be taken to his residence at Aix and there you will be condemned to lose your life. You will die there in shame and dishonour.” – Ganlon to King Marsilie of Spain16

While Game of Thrones’ usage of the crusading narrative is somewhat subverted through the portrayal of a female protagonist rather than the archetypical male, the ethnocentric bias and sheer visual of a Caucasian queen in Essos remains a problematic representation.

Season 5: Al-Andalus and “Othering” in Dorne

The portrayal of the Dornish people in Game of Thrones presents an intriguing paradox. While the Dornish are portrayed as a sophisticated culture, they are nonetheless “othered”, particularly in the fifth season trailer. George R.R. Martin has confirmed that Dorne is heavily inspired by both Moorish and Celtic culture.17 As a representation of Medieval Spain, it is fitting that Dorne should encompass a fusion of cultures as Al-Andalus featured a similar melding of Muslim, Christian and Jewish influences. There is evidence that Medieval Spain was a center of great cultural exchange and even intermarriage between cultures.18 The use of the Alcázar of Seville, a Moorish palace in Seville for the filming of scenes of Dorne brings this setting to life. Celtic influences can be seen in more subtle forms such as patterns on Dornish clothing. Yet in spite of images of ornate architecture, there is a distinct sense of “othering” in how the Dornish people are portrayed. The first two glimpses of Dorne shown in the season five trailer include a Dornish female warrior lassoing a man’s head and a very brief establishing shot of the Dornish palace. Thus, the Sand sisters are introduced to the audience as violent warriors. Once again, as with Daeneyrs, the narrative is somewhat subverted in that strong female representation is made in place of archetypical male warriors.

The Sand Sisters shown with weaponry (left), an actual depiction of peaceful Spanish Moors taking in some entertainment (right)

The Sand Sisters shown with weaponry (left), a depiction of peaceful Spanish Moors taking in some entertainment (right)

The narrative of the “Other” is prevalent in Medieval literature. The Arthurian chronicles of Arthur’s nephew Gawain provide just one example of many. Gawain encounters the metaphorical “other” in the form of giants in Sir Gawain and the Green knight. Arthurian literature is one example of narratives in which the Other is presented as an enemy to be feared for their differences.19 Therefore, although progressive in some ways, the narrative of the Dornish people is another problematic representation of “The Other” which is reflective of “othering” which occurred in Medieval culture and literature.

The world of Game of Thrones is woven with elements of intertexuality to construct a landscape of Medieval archetypes and narratives which are adhered to and subverted in a myriad of ways. Through the influence of epic poetry, Arthurian literature, and Biblical and historical narratives, the landscape is moulded to create an “authentically” Medieval world where characters and narratives are complex and unpredictable. The fact that elements of medievalism continue to permeate and captivate popular culture is evidence of the massive historical and literary legacy left by the Middle Ages and its enduring impact upon Western culture.

Works Cited

1 M.J. Toswell, “The Tropes of Medievalism.” In Defining Medievalism Volume XVII 2009, ed. Karl Fugelso (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009), 69-70.

2 Martin Bleisteiner, “Perils of Generation: Incest, Romance, and the Proliferation of Narrative in Game of Thrones.” In The Medieval Motion Picture: The Politics of Adaptation, ed. Andrew James Johnston , Margitta Rouse, and Philipp Hinz (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 156.

3 Beowulf, trans. R.M. Liuzza (Toronto: Broadview Editions, 2013), 93.

4 Tony Davenport, Medieval Narratives: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 20.

5 Martin Bleisteiner, “Perils of a Generation”, 157-158.

6 Tony Davenport, Medieval Narratives, 21.

7 Louis J. Boyle, “Ruled by Merlin: Mirrors for Princes, Counseling Patterns, and Malory’s ‘Tale of King Arthur’.” Arthuriana 23, no. 8 (2013): 52.

8 Ibid.

9 William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, The Medieval Worldview: An Introduction.(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 21.

10 Ibid.

11 James T. Palmer, “Millenarianism” Medieval Apocalyptic (blog), https://medapocalypse.wordpress.com/short-essays/themes/millenarianism/.html.

12 George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia, and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 2014), 51.

13 Christopher Roman, “The Ethical Movement of Daenerys Targaryen.” In Studies in Medievalism XXII: Ethics and Medievalism, ed. Karl Fugelso (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014), 61.

14 Ibid.

15 Nickolas Haydock, “Introduction.” In Hollywood in the Holy Land, ed. Nickolas Haydock and E.L. Risden (Jefferson, McFarland and Company Inc, 2009), 19.

16The Song of Roland, trans. Jessie Crosland, (Cambridge: In Parentheses Publications, 1999), 10.

17“Historical Influences for Dorne.” The Citadel So Spake Martin (blog), February 29, 2000, http://www.westeros.org/Citadel/SSM/Entry/Historical_Influences_for_Dorne/

18William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, The Medieval Worldview, 122.

19 Jason Pitruzzello, “ What if the Giants Returned to Albion for Vengeance? Crusade and the Mythic Other in the Knights of the Nine Expansion to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Studies in Medievalism XXII: Ethics and Medievalism, ed. Karl Fugelso, 71.

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