Game of Thrones is a series produced by HBO and based on the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. The television series was first launched in 2010 and has since become one of the most successful programs in cable history with tens of millions of viewer per episode and more than a dozen Emmy awards. The show is also the most pirated in history. With a budget equal to a major Hollywood feature film, (approximately six million dollars per episode), Game of Thrones boasts one of the best ensemble casts and special effects on television. The cast includes veteran actors/actresses such as Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, and Charles Dance, along with a number of unknown actors. The extreme violence of the program leads to at least one main character dying every season only to be replaced with a new one.
The concept of characters being killed off is symbolic of the central theme of the series and books: the political maneuvering of the great noble houses called The Game of Thrones. The show takes place in fictional land of Westeros, also called the seven kingdoms because it was once divided into seven rival nations each led by a great house supported by smaller noble families. These great houses compete with each other for power and position, as well as for influence with King Robert Baratheon who seized power in a rebellion fifteen years before the story begins.
There are eight great houses--the Starks who rule the north which is the largest of the seven kingdoms, but the least populated. The Lannisters rule the gold-rich west which makes them the richest and most powerful house as well as the most arrogant. The Lannisters' only rival are the Tyrells who control the south or the Reach as it is known. The Reach contains the best and most farmland, giving the Tyrells control over much of the grain supply to the capital. South East of the Reach is Dome, a mountainous desert region governed by the Prince of Dome. This is a fiercely independent region and especially its ruling house, the Martells. The Martells have no love for the king or for the Lannisters because when the old regime fell the Prince of Dome’s sister was married to the heir to the throne. She and her two children were murdered by the Lannisters. The center of Westeros is dominated by the Riverlands, so named because of the numerous rivers and streams that run through it. This region is governed by House of Tully. In the far east of the nation is the Vale, a region cut off from the rest of Westeros by a high mountain range and ruled by House Arryn. Between the Reach, the Vale, and the Riverlands lie the Stormlands controlled by House Baratheon, a relatively small region which gets its name from the storms which often batter its coast. The seventh great house is House Greyjoy which governs the Iron Islands, a handful of rocky islands off the west coast of the North whose inhabitants, probably modelled after the Vikings, make their living raiding richer lands. The final great house is House Targaryen, the former rulers of Westeros whose few surviving members live in exile across the sea, plotting their return to power.
From a historical perspective this story is feudalism in a nutshell. The division of power from the king to the great houses, and then from these powerful families to lesser vassals and knights is well depicted in the drama. Each rank owes allegiance to those above them in exchange for land and protection for which they provide military service. Feudalism grew out of the Roman slave plantations in the fifth century and for more than a thousand years dominated in Europe. For the most part, the system provides a stable form of government so long as everyone remains in their place in society. However, the division of power from the monarch to powerful regional nobles often meant that although the king might be the largest land owner in the kingdom, his lands were spread over great distances while the regional powers had their resources closer at hand, allowing them to challenge the king within their sphere of influence. The nobility often used times of weakness in the monarchy, such as an inexperienced boy king, to force the crown to negotiate with them and in effect coerce the king to buy them off with both money and privileges.
Some nobles became powerful enough to challenge the crown openly: such as England's John of Gaunt or Richard of York, both of whom would fail in their own attempt, but whose sons would topple kings and become kings as well. In Game of Thrones, Robert Baratheon toppled the ruling family by gaining the support of enough great houses. After his victory he married the daughter of the leader of House Lannister and thus gained the support of the richest family and potentially his biggest rival. This same tactic was used by the Tudors when Henry VII married Elizabeth of York to unite their two rival families.
Other powerful nobles became the power behind the throne; the Lannisters are the power behind King Robert and in many ways they rule in all but name. John of Gaunt was the power behind a young Richard II until they had a heated falling out. The York king Edward IV was dominated in his early reign by the Earl of Warwick who was so powerful that he was called the kingmaker in his own life time. Other nobles might not control a king but they are too powerful for the monarch to risk open hostilities such as the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany in Medieval France who were officially vassals of the king but rarely under his control. They often made alliances with enemies of the king such as with England during the Hundred Years War. In the book, this role is played by the Prince of Dome who hates King Robert and later his son, the boy King Joffrey; however neither side can afford to take action against the other.
Feudalism worked well during peace times under a strong king when a proper government and legal system could be maintained. However, during the chaos of war kings often found it difficult to maintain control over all of their nobles who often used these periods to further their own agendas. Loyalty could never be guaranteed by either the king or the great lords when it came to their followers. The bulk of Game of Thrones is set during a prolonged multi-year and multi-sided civil war over the throne following the death of King Robert and his only heir is fifteen and extremely arrogant. This illustrates one of the worst fears of the feudal age when a boy king inherits the throne and unable to control the nobility. The strength and personality of the ruler was one of the most important factors that held the state together. Whenever a monarch was young or was viewed by the nobility as being greedy, insulting, arrogant, and not providing for them, that king would almost always be challenged and even overthrown. Richard II was such a king, coming to the throne as a young boy and growing up believing that he was chosen by God and thus could do whatever he wanted. He was eventually overthrown by his cousins who would establish the House of Lancaster.
Family plays a key role in both the story and feudalism. Powerful nobles drew support from their kinsmen and marriages were for political reasons and rarely if ever for love. Family was also a double edged sword because your family could also be your deadliest foe. Two of the rival claimants for the throne in the show are King Joffrey's uncles who are also at odds with each other. Families remained tightly bound together out of necessity for protection and possible advancement. Birth often determined a person's position in life and their role in society throughout their life. Family connections allowed people to acquire positions of influence and lack of connections often meant that social mobility was impossible. During times of war family became even more important because if your family was on the winning side then they stood to gain a share of the spoils. However, if your family was on the losing side you could lose some or even all of your land, the basis for wealth or even be wiped out entirely depending on how big a threat you posed to the victors.
Family members often fought and died side by side. When the viewer acknowledges the human aspect of the show and looks past the sex, blood and the death characters can be seen in a different light. The Lannisters in particular are easy to hate for their arrogance and ruthlessness, but when one considers that they have seen what happens when a great house fall, having helped topple the old regime I feel that we have to ask ourselves how far we would go to defend our family. How would a mother defend her children if she knew that their lives were in danger? The human aspect of the show should also be applied to history because people are people no matter when they lived. Historical figures had the same drives that we still possess today and the same emotions. They loved and hated, envied, and feared. They felt joy and sorrow, pain, and friendship. They weren't simply names carved in stone, but living people.
Overall I would definitely recommend Game of Thrones to anyone who enjoys a excellent drama series and who is mature enough for the content. I would also recommend the five books in the A Song of lce and Fire series currently available and the sixth one if it ever shows up (took five years to get the fifth book, so don't hold your breath). Historically, the series can provide the viewer with a visual representation of what life might have been like during the medieval period from a political view as well as for the violence of the times. The range of emotion also provides a human aspect throughout the story which forces the audience to look deeper into the characters and not just label the m as bad. The only real flaws seen with the series, other than the possibility of the author dying, are the multiple storylines which, although essential to the story, might be difficult for newcomers to follow.
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Recommended Readings: George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice & Fire--
Game of Thrones is a five book series; Book Six is currently a work in progress.