Wednesday 3 July 2013

Game of Thrones - historical roots of fantasy by Eve Edwards

I wandered into my kitchen yesterday to find seventeen-year-old daughter watching what I thought was Game of Thrones.
Jeremy Irons lookalike?

'Oh, no.  It's The Borgias,' she says (she is doing history A level so I guess this counts as homework).
I watched for a few minutes as Jeremy Irons and some improbably beautiful women plotted seduction, murder and church politics.
'Is it historically accurate?' says concerned mother.
'Um, yes, very.'
Ho-hum, think I.

She's also watching The White Queen because, she tells me, of the presence of Max Irons.  We agreed that was about as realistic looking as The Tudors (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill).  Henry miraculously escapes corpulence as if he is the Tudor Dorian Gray.  Readers, if you don't know who these three gorgeous guys are, they are worth a google (though that sounds vaguely rude so I apologise).
Henry Cavill

I have two historical points to make, which I hope you as followers of this blog will feel free to comment on, gainsay, challenge and generally kick about over a cup of coffee.  The first is the way we see history, not so much in books, where it is easier to live with snagged teeth or a bad complexion.  TV and film more often than not turn our ancestors into a cast of superheroes and villains (and surely it is no coincidence that Henry C is now playing superman after playing a super noble).  Philippa Gregory is quoted on the BBC iPlayer website as saying 'It looked exactly as I imagined it.'  Out of context, the website is inferring her blessing on the whole production which is far more sanitary than my imaginative rendering of the later Middle Ages, time of small pox, crop failures, no dentistry to speak of and low life expectancies.  Too much for the living room?  Possibly.  But the Beeb is doing what we have always done: they have gilded our forebears with the rosy glow of what we would like them to have been like rather than what they were.  Elizabeth even wears clear varnish on French polished nails.  Check the trailer if you don't believe me.  It's a gorgeous fiction based on fact so we don't care too much, just as no one really wants to ditch the mythical King Arthur for his historically more plausible contenders.  As you can see, the medievals were also doing this to their predecessors.

Elizabeth Woodville
My second point is that, so far as many people are concerned, history might as well be fantasy and fantasy is a pretty good substitute for history.  We seem to be crunching up in the middle of both genres.  My mistake about Game of Thrones is understandable because the cutthroat politics might well be that of the Borgias with added magic and dragons so I should not be blamed for thinking it was the same programme.  My teenage son is particularly keen on this book series and is reading them as I did Tolkien at his age.  The Byzantine (note the word) complexities of alliances and betrayals is like something out of real history - just more fun because no one real is suffering.  He also claims to have gained much useful historic knowledge from Assassin's Creed, the video game.  (And in case you think he's in danger of turning into a megalomanic killer, he is clearly channelling all his angst via the screen rather than bringing it into his daily life as he is a peaceful chap - but that's another debate.)

My view is that the most powerful fantasies are always in truth about us and our real history.  I tell young writers that fantasy is often about taking something from ordinary life and putting it in the laboratory of a fantasy world to run as an experiment on human behaviour.  Personally I find Borgia politics depressing so do not watch or read any of those mentioned above.  I prefer the more humane focus on the moral courage of the individual both in history and fantasy, so I'm a fan of Tolkien rather than George R. R Martin.

What's your historical/fantasy cup of tea?

My latest book, Dusk, set in World War 1 is just out.  You can watch the book trailer below.
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Unknown said...

I'm a History teacher and fictionalised history is very useful if used in small doses. The worst part is when children watch it without my supervision, especially when they argue with me over things they have seen (that;s not right, I saw it in Braveheart!)

Not usually a fan of fantasy - unless I can identify with it. hence The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being my favourite book. It was the wardrobes, you see.

Great blog.

Rosalind Adam said...

I'm a retired history teacher and also find televised 'histories' helpful and interesting as long as you keep reminding yourself that they're making a TV programme with sprinklings of poetic licence to keep the viewers happy. I'm loving the White Queen but don't remember reading of the Woodville women's skills in witchcraft. Maybe I missed that section in my history studies.

C.J.Busby said...

Great post - BBC history is absurd, I can't take all the heaving bosoms and shiny attractive cast, give me a good book with all the grime and pox any day (I sincerely hope they NEVER make n adaptation of Wolf hall!) But my son sounds exactly like yours - read the whole Game of Thrones series non-stop over about two months, and also claims to know most of his history from Assassin's Creed! (But likewise, a very sweet-tempered lad...)

Katherine Langrish said...

I haven't been watching either The White Queen or Game of Thrones, but it always annoys me when women in Victorian TV dramas walk through London streets without wearing hats or bonnets. And I recently saw a couple of dvd episodes of 'North and South', in which Margaret seemed to be wearing pale orange eyeshadow for much of the time. Also - and maybe someone can enlighten me here - clearly, women COULD have plucked their eyebrows in the Victorian Age - after all, the Tudors plucked not only their eyebrows but their hairlines - but DID they? In most photos I've seen, Victorian ladies' eyebrows seem au naturel. The super-trim, shaped, not-a-hair-out-of-place eyebrows of most heroines in adaptations of Dickens and Gaskell and even Austen, always looks wrong to me.

Mary Hoffman said...

I noticed the nails too! Sarah Gristwood, author of Blood Sisters, will be posting a review of The White Queen here on 6th July.

And, C.J.Busby, can you really not have heard that there is a TV adaptation of Wolf Hall in the pipeline, with Mark Rylance at Cromwell? Not to mention the two-parter of both books at the RSC next year (cast to be announced).

I am rather relaxed about the dentistry and complexions - the producers do actually want us to watch their programmes and I for one would be turned off - and would turn off - if we had blackened and missing teeth and poxy faces.

Unknown said...

My love for history (which has, this year, culminated in my attaining a degree in history and beginning a career as a teacher) was sparked in me while I was in middle school largely through fantasy. My favorite computer game, which I would spend hours playing, was Civilization II, a game in which you guide the progress of a civilization, fighting wars, developing new technologies, choosing a government, etc., from a small settlement in 4000 BC through to the modern world in 2000 AD. Each of the technologies, wonders of the world, and military units the game featured included a short text on what those things were and what their place was in real-world history; this was my first bit of "study" in history. Based on my experience, I think that fantasy is an excellent portal into a love for and a knowledge of history. I doubt I would have found my own passion for it without fantasy.

I think, however, that we (educators, parents) must be careful to distinguish between the history and the fantasy. The line was relatively clear in my case as I was guiding the story in the computer game, creating the fantasy while dealing with figures, ideas, etc. from history. The line is very blurry, however, in things like television shows which tell the stories of historical figures. It is easy for those who don't know better to mistake a modern re-telling for a mass audience for the real thing. If we can make this distinction clear (and perhaps this is a good teaching moment to discuss "poetic license"), I think fantasy is a wonderful way to get children -- and even many adults -- hooked on history.

Julia said...

C J - sounds like our sons are very alike!

A J - I suppose one good thing about the versions such as Braveheart is that it does open up a discussion - many historical documentaries have a hidden bias that is harder to spot. In Braveheart it is literally 'in your face'!

Julia said...

Julia equals Eve - the new comment form doesn't allow me to be my pen name!

Judi said...

In our house The Borgias is known as Game of Popes!