April 16, 2021

England is an unusual place. As Robert Tombs argued, it is the only country in which the national story is part of popular theatre. William Shakespeare is central to English identity in a way unlike writers in less happy lands; his history plays, chronicling events from the overthrow of Richard II in 1399 to the series of wars and regicides that were doomed to follow, have long been part of the historical vocabulary of everyday life.

No other nation knew its past as entertainment — not even America — and it is one of the reasons for England’s cultural power, drawing in millions of tourists to breathe in the air where Bolingbroke toppled his cousin, where Hotspur fought Prince Hal, and where monstrous Richard III murdered his nephews in the Tower. They don’t come for the weather or food.

Among the many American tourists visiting the country back in the 1980s was George R.R. Martin, already an established author who at 13 had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon England.

Here Martin visited Hadrian’s Wall, and as the darkness drew in he looked north and wondered what it must have felt like to be a Roman legionary, many of whom came from old cities bathed in the Mediterranean sun. Here they stood, staring into the darkness of Caledonia, not knowing what terrors existed beyond in the vast cold wastelands. What if, he wondered, it wasn’t barbarians they faced, but something altogether more frightening?

Centuries ago the people who lived by the ruins of that wall did fear such things. The walking dead were a part of northern European folklore, across Britain and Scandinavia; the Vikings talked of draugr who would rise up and attack livestock and people, ripping their bodies apart with their sheer brutal strength, and killing their victims so they, too, turn into draugr.

These ancient myths would form part of Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, an idea first laid out in a letter to his agent in 1993. He called the book, which would be published three years later, “a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder and revenge, with the Iron Throne of the Seven kingdoms as the ultimate prize.”

A further four books in the A Song Of Ice and Fire series followed, and by the fifth Martin was being called the “American Tolkien” and had sold tens of millions of copies; meanwhile Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Films film trilogy had provoked renewed interest in fantasy and the medieval. Two more books in the series are expected… at some future date.

When the first episode of Game of Thrones aired ten years ago this week, it was an instant hit, critically and commercially, seen as one of the greats from the golden age of television, beginning with the Sopranos in 1999 and taking in The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

It was the most epic of epic productions and each episode could be as expensive as a film; indeed, some battle scenes cost as much. The cast of characters, even with huge chunks of George RR Martin’s vastly complex epics cut out, felt enormous; Martin’s novels are so complicated that he sometimes forgets what has happened to a particular character and has to email a superfan in Sweden to remind him if the poor guy has been killed already.

The line-up of mostly British actors, both greats of stage and screen as well as up-and-coming talent, was unprecedented. You can’t watch any television series without spotting “that guy who gets beheaded in season 4” or the “man who has to eat molten gold” or “poor Theon, who, you know…”.

It was hard not to feel a certain love for characters like Sandor Clegane, the scarred monster capable of remorseless violence and cynicism, yet also a man with a certain sense of justice, and who forms a bond with Arya. “Lots of people name their swords,” she tells him, as they open series four righteously killing some low-born rapists. “Lots of cunts,” he replies.

Or Bronn, the loveable mercenary, in the spirit of Rhett Butler and Hans Solo; he doesn’t care for any cause and is quite nakedly in it for himself, but he’s not venal or cruel. Yet unlike previous examples of that archetype, he’s not going to turn good. As he later tells Tyrion Lannister, when refusing to fight the monstrous Mountain on his behalf: “I like you, pampered little shit that you are. I just like myself more.”

Tyrion was, of course, the figure we were most drawn to, a character who possessed a sense of pity and empathy. Tyrion is a letch and a coward, but he is humane and educated (not always qualities that went together in real late medieval history). “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things,” as he tells that other outcast, the bastard Jon Snow.

When asked by some gormless backwoods cutthroats how he would like to die, Tyrion replies: “In my own bed, with a belly full of wine and a maiden’s mouth around my cock, at the age of eighty.”

It summed up the show’s excess, both in the violence and sex, with scenes so gratuitous that porn actresses were used; indeed I wonder if, like 18th and 19th century editions of Shakespeare where King Lear has a happy ending, much will be excised as society’s moral wheel turns again. I hope so, from a purely selfish point of view; I’d like to watch it with my children one day, boring them silly by talking about all the historical analogies.

Yet despite this moral excess, George R.R. Martin and the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were able to escape both the traps of genre fiction and popular culture by plugging deeper into England’s folklore and tradition.

The comparisons with Tolkien are made because, while Martin covers so many similar themes, he inverts (or some would say perverts) almost all of them. While Tolkien drew on the Arthurian tradition of chivalry, Martin turned it around; here the knights are tortured monsters like the Hound, closet homosexuals like Loras Tyrell or, in the case of King Joffrey, the very opposite of Prince Charming.

Lord of the Rings has a strong Christian theme; Game of Thrones exists in a Christless world, Ross Douthat once describing the sinister fanatic High Sparrow as “the ghost of Christendom in G.R.R. Martin’s otherwise more pagan/stoic vision of medieval Europe”.

Similarly Game of Thrones reimagines the English national story, inverting the Henriad by giving it a Northern accent. Ever since Athelstan of Wessex united all the Angles and Saxons in 927 the South of England has dominated. Many medieval kings would never venture beyond the Trent, and when they did it was with an army at their back. Yet Martin’s epic often tells the story from the Northumbrian point of view, facing overmighty southern kings on one side and the wild men of the north on the others.

Game of Thrones begins with the House of Stark in their rocky, harsh homeland, Ned Stark administering justice for the North. The southern lords are essentially treacherous and conniving, the southern capital of King’s Landing a pit of snakes; the North is poorer and has its dangers but it is a place where people show loyalty to each other, and its rulers look their people in the eye.

In reality the House of Percy played a similar role as Kings in the North. The Percy home of Alnwick, like Winterfell, was perfectly placed to hold the North, which the family had done for generations, winning the loyalty of northern men who would come in their thousands to fight for Percy but had little love for the king in Westminster. Indeed, at one point during the War of the Roses the House of Percy ran the North virtually as a separate kingdom; their story is largely forgotten, because the national story came to be written down by the banks of the Thames.

British history is defined by the geographic gap separating the island; it is further from the rich markets of mainland Europe, that stretch of land  from the Netherlands to northern Italy that has been the continent’s richest and most productive for almost a millennia. No amount of levelling up can defy that geographical destiny.

During the late medieval period on which Game of Thrones was loosely based, numerous chroniclers observed how much poorer the north of London was. The border land was said to consist mostly “in wast grounds and ys very cold hard and barren for the wynter” and it “bredyth tall men and hard of nature”.

When Ned Stark arrives in King’s Landing, he’s asked whether he wants to wear something “more appropriate,” his clothes appearing rough and coarse to southern eyes. At the time, Northern aristocrats in London really would have looked far poorer and less elegant, and with much cheaper horses.

Far poorer than the Southern counties, the North could never hope to win in any trial of strength, and when the Reformation triggered the last Rising of the North in 1569, led by the House of Percy, once again the South was the victor. It always was.

The Northern leaders not only suffered death and defeat, but their story never came to be told, while Queen Elizabeth became a central protagonist in Our Island Story. In Shakespeare the Percys become proud and foolish, ultimately getting what they deserve by going against the rightful southern king. Even though through the prism of fantasy, it’s taken an American novelist, and two American screenwriters, to retell that story with a Northern voice.

The final series of Game of Thrones came out two years ago and ended with great disappointment, in fact so much so that millions of people demanded that it be remade (which perhaps says something about how mundane our problems were before 2020).

Yet although all those people who called their daughters Khaleesi are probably regretting it now, the show’s finale at least told a certain truth. The attraction of Game of Thrones, compared to most historical fiction, is that alt-history allows its creators to tell an almost purer truth about history and human nature. As amoral as some of the characters are in Westeros, they behave as people would have done in such a situation, devoid of modern idealism or comforts.

Daenerys, the queen over the water, is the only true idealist among the contenders for the throne, and campaigns to end slavery in Essos before liberating her homeland. And yet when she arrives in Westeros she turns out to be far more murderous and oppressive than what went before. Likewise the ancien regime, terrible that it was, had nothing on the horrors unleashed by modernity, which contained far greater lies than the world of chivalry.

Like with so much in the show, it was true to life, and we would have expected nothing less. As the cheerful psychopath Ramsay Bolton once put it: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”