Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings mythology, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is set in a world that looks like – and is clearly inspired by – our Middle Ages, but isn’t actually set in Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Instead, Game of Thrones takes place in a fantastical world in which winters last a generation and magic is real. However, given the similarities between our Westeros and Medieval Europe, it’s natural to wonder how much Game of Thrones accurately reflects our own history. In Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, Ken Mondschein, an expert on medieval warfare, looks at how Martin’s books – and, to a lesser extent, HBO’s adaptation – depict medieval warfare.
Like many academic books about history and pop culture, Mondschein’s book is at least in part an attempt to encourage fans of pop culture to learn a bit about actual history. And readers will learn quite a bit about the Middle Ages. Mondschein’s expertise shines through as he covers everything from different types of armor to the economics of financing wars,. He even includes a chapter about female warriors (with discussions of Brienne, Arya, Asha, Ygritte). Given the range of subjects, it’s impressive that Mondschein manages to delve into each topic in so much detail. He’s also careful to not oversimplify the subjects, pointing out certain regional variations or trends over time. For example, the look and purpose of armor changed as weapons technology changed.
All of this information can make the book a bit overwhelming for readers unfamiliar with actual medieval history. You’ll have to learn about the different types of helmets, parts of a sword, and even some macroeconomics to follow along. Fortunately, Mondschein’s enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and he takes the time to explain these concepts to his readers. He even includes a series of photographs of him dressing up in his own custom-made set of medieval armor. Even so, I would recommend having Wikipedia nearby so you can look up unfamiliar terms or names.
So, what does all of this medieval history tell us about Game of Thrones? Mondschein uses the similarities and differences between medieval Europe and Westeros to help explain critical aspects of the story. For example, one of the enduring puzzles of Game of Thrones is why Westerosi society so stagnant. Although we tend to view our Middle Ages as a period of stagnation compared to the Renaissance, the period saw considerable technological and social innovations. 699 C.E. was not the same as 1099 C.E. was not the same as 1399 C.E. Yet, Westerosi technology seems the same as it has been for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Mondschein argues that the presence of dragons might have forestalled the development of new tools of warfare, such as the cannon, which in turn short-circuited the rise of the modern, centralized state. Moreover, the long winters make agriculture especially difficult, leading to Malthusian cycles of famine and limiting population growth.
I also appreciated that Mondschein tries to reconcile medieval history and Game of Thrones rather than simply dismissing Martin’s work as unrealistic. Sometimes scholars simply declare any deviation from real history in a work of speculative fiction to be “unrealistic.” Mondschein instead tries to explain discrepancies using history. For example, he notes that both labor and commodity prices tended to be relatively cheap during the War of the Five Kings, which seems like a contradiction. However, he also notes that the war takes place at the end of a long summer, which likely led to a population boom and made commodities such as grain and horses more abundant. He even uses this analysis to explain discrepancies between prices in the A Song of Ice and Fire saga and in The Tales of Dunk and Egg, a series of short stories by Martin set during the Westerosi spring. In short, Martin’s world makes more sense once you learn a bit more about our own.
That said, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War doesn’t explore what, if anything, Martin’s world teaches us about our own (aside from sparking interest in medieval history). The best fantasy stories aren’t just escapism, but rather hold a mirror up to our society so we can better understand ourselves. For example, one of the most prominent themes in Game of Thrones is that people too often focus on narrow, short-term interests (for example, the Iron Throne) while ignoring longer-term threats (the White Walkers). This is why some reviewers can credibly argue that the story is secretly all about climate change. Mondschein touches upon these questions a bit in the introduction, but more in the negative. He seems to partly blame fantasy literature for the rise of white supremacism and misogyny in the United States. Although I share his concerns about our political culture, this introduction seems more like a reaction to the 2016 election than an analysis of Game of Thrones. Indeed, later in the book Mondschein notes that Martin handles issues of gender and ethnic diversity much better than most fantasy authors.
Ultimately, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War is a fascinating read for fans of George R.R. Martin’s oeuvre, but especially for fans who are also interested in real medieval history. This survey of warfare in medieval Europe might just help you better appreciate Martin’s world-building.
[Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]