In Defense of History Lessons: Book # 7 A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

Back in school, I was one of the handful

of kids who actually enjoyed history lessons. Not because our teacher was an inspiring, ‘O Captain, My Captain’ kinda lady. Her lessons were, if anything, rather soporific. She would drone on, reading passages from the textbook, while the class fell into a post-lunch stupor.  However, a couple of my friends and I – true-blue history buffs – would sit at the back and debate history. We had already zoomed through the textbook on our own, and now we were busy forming opinions and having arguments about whether Communism was ever a realistic philosophy and whether Subhash Chandra Bose‘s faith in Hitler’s friendship was misplaced. There was no nuance to our any of our arguments, yet. That would come with college. But we did begin to appreciate why history is and always will be an important subject. It teaches us a lot about human psychology, about how we make the same mistakes over and over, and it takes us back to root causes of many of our current problems. But one outstanding feature of history as an academic subject, which I began to appreciate only recently, is that it has proved to be such a generous fount of great literature.

What got me thinking about this was my tryst with A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. Strictly speaking, it’s not a historical novel. It’s an epic, medieval fantasy story. And if we’re really finicky about it, it’s not even ‘great’ literature. It’s expertly-written and a rollicking read, but the turns of phrases and imagery are hardly likely to make a lit crit sing hosannas. Anyway, to get back to my main point, fantasy though A Game of Thrones is, it owes a lot to the real-life, documented bloody history of human beings. More specifically, it owes a lot to the history of the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic civil wars which rocked England between 1455 and 1485.

Fire and Blood (Game of Thrones)

Now, here’s the interesting thing about A Game of Thrones. It is categorized as ‘fantasy’ and yes, it does feature dragons, sorcerers, ice zombies, giants and mysterious Children of the Forest, but that is hardly what makes the book such a compulsive page-turner. What keeps your interest engaged is the courtly intrigue, the secret alliances, double-dealing characters, illegitimate heirs and strategic battlefield decisions. In other words, things that have affected human history in real life. The world of A Game of Thrones (the first book in the series A Song of Ice &  Fire) is a post-magic world. This means that while there is evidence that some strange, unexplained power might have existed at one time in this world, most of its current inhabitants – much like us – don’t believe in it. To them, those are tales that Old Nan tells the children. And that is why the inspiration provided by the Wars of the Roses to Martin, while he was writing his tale of fictitious Westeros, is so very important.

The plot is massively complicated, of course, much like the history of the Wars of the Roses was. On the continent of Westeros, a dynastic battle for the Iron Throne at King’s Landing is set off by a series of events. The main families (or houses) involved are the Lannisters (like the Lancaster of the Roses) and the Starks (like the Yorks of the Roses). There are others as well, such as Baratheon, Targaryen, Martell, Tyrell, Umber, Tully, Arryn, who play their own important roles here. It begins with the mysterious death of Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King Robert Baratheon. Robert asks his friend Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell in the north to come to the capital, King’s Landing and be his new Hand. While Ned despises politics and doesn’t really want to leave his family behind at home and travel all the way to the South, he feels he’s duty-bound to find out exactly how Jon Arryn died, especially since Jon was like a father to both Robert and Ned. At the same time, mysterious powers are rising in the far north, beyond the Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the icy wilderness. The ‘wildlings’ that inhabit that vast, snowy expanse are moving south, while strange, supernatural beings seem to be laying the stragglers to waste. The third plotline deals with Daenerys Targaryen, who is moving towards Westeros to lay her own claim to the Iron Throne. She is the daughter of ‘Mad King’ Aerys Targaryen, whose rule was overthrown by Robert Baratheon in a war that pretty much wiped out the whole Targaryen dynasty. Only baby Dany and her older brother Viserys managed to escape. Viserys is now bent upon defeating the ‘Usurper’ and taking back the throne, and to achieve this end, he’s even willing to trade on his sister.

This is the set up when we first venture into the world of A Song of Ice & Fire. And if you think this is complicated, wait till you actually read the series. It just gets more complex. And bloodier.  And if you can’t stomach the thought of reading the massive books (800 + pages in each), then you can watch the brilliant HBO adaptation called ‘Game of Thrones’, which has just started its second season.

UPDATE: If you enjoyed this post, you might want to scoot over to Helter Skelter and check the column where I have written about the television adaptation of A Game of Thrones.

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One thought on “In Defense of History Lessons: Book # 7 A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

  1. Pingback: “What grasses the horses had left was heavy with dew, as if some passing god had scattered a bag of diamonds over the earth.” « Cynical Afterthoughts

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