02 April 2018

Guest Post: Game Of Thrones is more like real life than you know by Charles Purcell

Author Charles Purcell
Today I welcome Charles Purcell, former SMH journalist, freelance writer and author to tell us why Game of Thrones is more like real life than we know. Over to you Charles.

It’s the biggest question in the book world: when is the last instalment of George R. R. Martin’s multi-million-selling epic series A Song Of Ice And Fire coming out? Sadly, it probably won’t be released until 2019 – the same year the last series of the hit TV adaptation hits our screens. (No spoilers that way, see.)

Martin himself will be glad when it’s published; finally, his devoted fans will stop harassing him. Yet one of the ancillary questions to the GOT saga must be – just how realistic is Game Of Thrones? How true does it cleave to the brutal ancient world that inspired it? The short answer is … pretty real. And the long answer, once you remove the obvious obstacles – dragons, dire-wolves and magic – from the equation? It’s possibly as long as one of Martin’s sprawling epics.

Whole university courses have been devoted to the study of Game Of Thrones and its links to the real-life medieval era. But we don’t have to sit for six months in the halls of Harvard for an answer, we can wrap it up in 10 salient points.

1. GOT is inspired by England’s real-life War Of The Roses
George RR said that Game Of Thrones harks closest to England’s famous 15th-century feud.

2. The War of the Roses featured duelling houses
Like all the struggling for power between houses such as the Lannisters and Starks, the War Of The Roses was about the battle between House York and House Lancaster. They had cool house sigils, too: House York was a white rose, while Lancaster a red rose.

3. The fighting was unbelievably bloody
Think the Battle of the Bastards was savage? Just listen to this description of the Battle Of Towton, described as the most barbaric ever on English soil: “On Edward’s orders, no mercy was shown in victory. Skulls later found on the battlefield showed the most horrific injuries: faces split down the bone, heads cut in half, holes punched straight through foreheads. Some men died with more than 20 wounds to their head: the signs of frenzied slaughter by men whipped into a state of barbaric bloodlust.

4. You win or you die
Insurrections, rebellions and plots to overthrow the king and/or queen were common in English history. If you won, you got to sit on the metaphorical Iron Throne. If you lost, you were sent to the Tower Of London, en route to losing your head. Mankind has been at war for some nine-tenths of recorded history … so the constant fighting in Game Of Thrones isn’t atypical by any means.

5. Life was short and brutal
Rape, pillage and murder were never far away for the oppressed, largely illiterate medieval peasants, who had to swear their allegiance to a lord like in Game Of Thrones. If you were lucky, you got a just and fair lord like Ned Stark: too bad if you got someone like “Old Flay ’Em Alive” Roose Bolton instead.

Like then (and, some would argue, today), the legal system favoured the rich and powerful, who often employed their own punitive forms of justice.

Knowledge of medicine was extremely primitive. You could die from tooth problems, stepping on a nail, being crushed by a horse, being eaten by wolves or any number of viruses or illnesses (medieval greyscale?) for which there was no explanation.

The church was a comfort for many: but, as Tyrion once lamented, there was no god of “tits and wine”. Incidentally, the average life expectancy was under 35 … which is longer than many of the characters of GOT have lived.

6. Food and housing was basic
Peasants lived in huts. Tradesmen lived in slightly better huts. Merchants possibly owned houses with real bedding instead of hay or rushes. Castles and holdfasts were used extensively by the nobility, either for war or as ancestral homes.

The food was also terrible – largely plant based with the occasional meat offering – which is why The Hound loved his chicken and why someone like Hot Pie would have been worth his weight in gold. Take the number of calories you eat in a day and then cut them in half. On the plus side, everyone drank a lot of beer; mostly because you couldn’t trust the water, but also because it was fun.

7. Social classes were rigid
Despite the outliers of Littlefinger and Varys – men who rose above their humble origins by their intelligence and cunning – there wasn’t a whole of lot of social mobility in medieval times. If you were born a peasant you tended to stay a peasant. Intermingling with the lower classes was frowned upon, along with any resulting high-born bastards. Well-born ladies like Sansa were brought up to marry well, even to evil shits like Joffrey. In a world where power was inherited and might was right, the one place a man of humble birth could rise was on the battlefield. People like The Mountain would be rewarded by their Lords … but wouldn’t be expected to turn up to court too often.

8. Some GOT characters were inspired by real people
The Dothraki. Are they Huns? Mongols? Or, as more recently suggested, Scythians? George R. R. has said that the Dothraki are an “amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy”. Robert Baratheon is said to be inspired by fellow usurper overthrower Edward IV, while Tywin Lannister is a dead ringer for scheming moneybags Warwick the Kingmaker.

9. Some of the most memorable scenes in GOT were inspired by real life

When he was captured by the Parthians, the Roman general Crassus supposedly had molten gold poured down his throat to symbolise his thirst for gold. Viserys had a molten crown poured over his head to symbolise his desire for power; a lust so strong he was potentially willing to let the entire Dothraki army rape his sister if they could give him a real crown.

The Red Wedding doffs a bloody cap to the Glencoe Massacre, where 38 members of Clan Macdonald were killed by their “hosts”. Could The Wall be inspired by Hadrian’s Wall? You be the judge.

10. GOT depicts the eternal drama: the human heart in conflict with itself 
Family or realm? Love or duty? Mercy or brutality? Yesterday’s leaders wrestled with the same existential dilemmas we wrestle with today. And, of course, the feelings Game of Thrones evokes in us are very real indeed.
Charles Purcell is a freelance writer and published author, and you can check out his military thriller Game Of Killers: The Spartan now as an ebook or paperback.

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