With the popular HBO series Game of Thrones recently kicking off the release of it’s fourth season, a spark of interest in medieval history has been lit into our modern day media culture. At the root of this rebirth, can be seen many connections to stories, themes, and motifs often found in Medieval Literature.
PBS.org recently published an article entitled “What does a medieval literature scholar read into Game of Thrones?” This article included a short video of clips of the series voiced over by Brantley Bryant, associate professor of medieval literature at Sonoma State University. In this video, he discussed the many connections that he has drawn between the hit TV series and famous Medieval works such as The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf.
In terms of Beowulf, he drew significant connections between John Snow’s joining of the Knight’s Watch in order to protect the kingdom from monsters, as battling unfamiliar creatures is a theme found in the tale. The closest connection being made in the instance when John Snow finds himself battling a seemingly alive corpse-like figure. Bryant compares this encounter to that of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, the demon-monster that has terrorized the Danes for many years prior to his arrival.
He also speaks of Geoffrey Chaucer’s depiction of the Monk’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales in terms of the way they both deal with mortality and the fragility of life. In Chaucer’s work, the Monk delivers a story of short tragedies, regarding the down fall of famous literary figures such as Lucifer, Adam, and Hercules. Bryant makes the argument that George R.R Martin’s Story, the book series which inspired that television show, follows the same pattern as people often criticize Martin for his tendency to kill off his characters constantly. Nonetheless– the inability of a viewer to get to really know a character in the series due to story lines cut short by deaths definitely exhibits the awareness of medieval literature in terms of the feebleness of life.
I found that one aspect of Bryant’s analysis of the character Jamie Lannister to be enticing. Bryant drew a comparison between Jamie and the character Lancelot in that he appears to be the “ideal knight figure”, yet has a layer of dishonorable characteristics underneath. This started my thinking about the work that we have been doing in ENGL 366–Chaucer’s Ventriloquism, with a critical approach to the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. In an essay “Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire”, Jill Mann argues that Chaucer essentially draws on stereotypes of social estates from that time and then inserts his own character traits to make each tale-teller personable within the text. In this light, Lannister can be viewed as a character with similarities to those that Chaucer depicted in his works.
In fact, I believe that Jamie Lannister bares resemblance to the characters that go on the journey to Canterbury in Chaucer’s work in a multitude of ways. In the Tales, it is often seen that the character’s have a duality in traits that contrasts their exterior persona to a greatly differing interior persona. Although Lannister may first appear most similar to the Knight in that he is seemingly honorable, chivalrous, well-adversed in battle, and always well-intentioned, he actually holds a dual undertones in his character. This is most comparable to the Prioress, who excessively weeps when she sees a mouse caught in a trap, yet has no trouble feeding flesh to her hounds. She is obsessed with the way the outside world views her, much like Lannister in Game of Thrones.
Another connection between the TV series and Chaucer’s Tales is between Daenerys and the female characters of the Tales, particularly the Wife of Bath. In Medieval Literature, the women often received a backseat role, due to the nature of the times that the work was written. At first, Daenerys exhibits this same back seat roll, marrying only so that her brother can gain an army. She then falls into a life where she is viewed merely as a sexual object to her new husband. It is only when she learns to take control of her sexuality towards the middle of the first season, that she then begins to gain confidence and power over her husband and brother. This mirrors the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, in which she speaks of the way that she was able to gain power over her five husbands through manipulating them sexually.
Bryant makes the argument that the “fairy tale”, “pure”, “chaste” world that people tend to view medieval times as is quite far off from what actually was. Game of Thrones in terms of themes and motifs correctly exhibits what life was like according to readings of Medieval Literature. It delves into themes often addressed such as the fragility of life, the battling of monsters, honor, pride, government, justice and corruption. It also exhibits concern with duality of character exhibited in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as a struggle for power in terms of female presence of the times.