- Medievalism in A Song of Ice & Fire & Game of Thrones by Shiloh Carroll
Shiloh Carroll's book Medievalism in A Song of Ice & Fire & Game of Thrones explores George R. R. Martin's high fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, and to a lesser extent its HBO television adaptation, Game of Thrones, examining both Martin's and HBO's approaches to the Middle Ages. Carroll's introduction establishes Martin as a neo-medievalist author who, like J. R. R. Tolkien before him, creates 'a version of the Middle Ages' (p. 6). Unlike Tolkien, however, Martin rejects 'the utopian, atavistic view of the Middle Ages' (p. 7), and instead strives to represent an 'authentic' medieval world in his work. Essentially, Carroll argues that Martin's central conceit is a 'purposeful avoidance of the tropes of medieval romance, medievalist romance, and fantasy literature' (p. 21). However, his construction of Westeros is 'inspired by history, not bound to it' (p. 19) and, subsequently, reveals more about his own beliefs 'about the historical Middle Ages and the human condition than it does about the Middle Ages themselves' (p. 20).
In Chapter 1, Carroll explores the relationship of Martin's works to medieval romances, noting A Song of Ice and Fire follows a similar structure of interlacing plots, primacy of the nobility's viewpoint, anxiety about identity, and inclusion of the figure of a fair unknown. At the same time as replicating themes, structures, and motifs from medieval literature, Carroll argues that part of Martin's mission is to subvert the tropes of fantasy—many of which have been borrowed 'from Victorian understanding of medieval chivalric romance' (p. 37).
In Chapter 2's examination of Martin's treatment of gender, Carroll considers Westeros's culture of toxic masculinity. Undercutting the tropes of medieval romance that inspired Martin's medievalist world, in Westeros chivalric ideals are not rewarded, but mask violence, aggression, and inherent misogyny. This toxic masculinity, Carroll argues, victimizes both those men who do not engage with or replicate this type of masculinity (Samwell Tarly, Bran Stark, and Tyrion Lannister are offered as examples) and women alike. In particular Martin's use of both the 'exceptional woman' (for example Brienne Tarth), and 'monstrous woman' (such as Cersei) tropes, which are deeply entrenched in the popular imagination, highlights his sometimes homogenous cultural view of the Middle Ages.
In Chapter 3 Carroll investigates Martin's approach to masculine, feminine, and queer sexualities, and argues that like in Malory's Arthurian tales, Martin uses transgressive sexualities to 'illustrate the problems in Westeros' (p. 86). Carroll analyses how sexual violence and the threat of violence is ever-present in Westeros, and argues that Martin's portrayal of rape in his novels has some parallels with medieval chivalric romance. Carroll critiques Martin's attempts to defend his use of sexual violence in his novels by his arguing for realism: the world of Westeros is one of his own making and thus its inclusion ultimately reflects the type of brutal medievalism he espouses more than any reality from the [End Page 204] Middle Ages. As such, Carroll views Martin's portrayals of sex and sexuality as largely a combination of the medievalist and the modern.
In Chapter 4, Carroll considers race and imperialism, particularly in relation to Daenerys Targaryen and the history of Westeros. While the centre of action in Martin's novels is clearly identifiable as 'Western—European and English' (p. 109), Carroll offers some analysis of Martin's depictions of worlds beyond Westeros. In an example of Martin's imperialist depiction of the Middle Ages, Carroll notes that there are no point-of-view characters from the novels' eastern cultures. Instead, Martin problematically engages in the 'white man's burden' trope, and positions one of the central protagonists Daenerys as an idealized white saviour who frees the slaves of Essos. Thus, Martin fails to allow these non-white cultures to speak (and act) for themselves.
Chapter 5 examines adaptation and...