- Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones by Shiloh Carroll
Shiloh Carroll’s timely and excellent book on both the A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the A Game of Thrones television series offers a bold, fresh approach and a robust scholarly arsenal of critical frameworks to explore Westeros’ various and often vague medievalisms. From the outset, Carroll’s enthusiasm for both the books and the series is evident, but is never allowed to cloud her judgment or insightful analysis of the texts. She begins her book with a very welcome exploration of whether George R.R. Martin can truly be seen as the ‘American Tolkien.’ Her discussion of the question is brief but illuminating, and her answer includes the obvious parallels with Tolkien, but also raises important questions about national identity and popular culture implicit in the description of Martin not as the ‘new’ but as the ‘American’ version of perhaps the most famous neomedievalist fantasy writer.
The book then moves on to discuss another big question: that of the purported accuracy of Martin’s pseudo-medieval text. Carroll’s approach is authoritative and fearless, beginning by resolutely setting aside the question of accuracy and authenticity altogether as essentially ‘red herrings’ (p. 10), which only serve to distract us from the real significance of Westerosi medievalisms. Accuracy and authenticity are thus, in Carroll’s framework, both impossible (p. 4): instead, what is offered by A Game of Thrones is a personal idea of some aspects of the Middle Ages (p. 20). By extension, the implication is also that any kind of medievalism serves to ‘reveal more about [the writer’s] beliefs about the historical Middle Ages and the human condition than it does about the Middle Ages’ (p. 20). Such a claim is ambitious, and it is certainly not within the scope of this book to defend it as a universal truth. Nevertheless, her point sets in motion a critical unpacking of the series that is tremendously useful for analyzing A Game of Thrones from the perspective of (neo)medievalism. The debate also thus neatly sidesteps the thorny issue of whether Martin’s world is medievalist, pseudo-medieval, neomedieval, or medievalesque (pp. 8, 9, 20); according to Carroll’s schema, all medievalism must to some extent be neomedieval since it is ‘nearly impossible to recreate a truly “realistic” Middle Ages’ (p. 13).
In place of such a division, Carroll invokes David Matthews’ helpful distinction between ‘Gothic’ and ‘Romantic’ medievalism, and the question about accuracy thus becomes reframed as the means by and through which A Game of Thrones explores the tension between the legacies of each of these (often intertwined) strains of medievalism. As a fantasy, with its ‘dragons, wights, and magic’ (p. 19), Westeros’ [End Page 90] atemporality gives Martin a great deal of liberty to indulge in either mode (or both) as he sees fit, without necessarily having to adhere to responsible historical reproduction.
Having essentially sidestepped the issue of the authenticity of those medievalisms, the remaining chapters of the book are thus free to explore other, equally pertinent, fascinating, and pressing questions about the internal and transhistorical ideological framework of the books and series. Chapter One explores the parallels with medieval romance. The following three chapters then focus on three essential issues with Westeros that pose particularly difficult ideological issues, namely gender (Chapter Two), sexuality (Chapter Three), and postcolonialism, imperialism, and whiteness (Chapter Four). The power and importance of the book lie in these chapters, since it is only by ignoring discussions about accuracy that the study is able to explore why a modern neomedievalist invention should so clearly rewrite those imbalances of power back into the past. The politics of gender, race, and power thus become enmeshed with an equally problematic modern tendency to over-prioritize white male privilege as a somehow ‘natural’ state.
If Martin’s medieval world is not historical, but a personal ‘idea’ of the medieval...