"Things Were Just Like That Back Then": Thoughts on Westeros, Sociology, and Historical Accuracy in A Song of Ice and Fire
Seeing this post reminds me that someone I’ve known for years, and who has a rather expensive college degree, said these exact words to me in regard to ASOIAF/Game of Thrones this past Tuesday at a gaming tournament:
“Things were just like that back then.”
There were not enough faces for me to palm. I just ended up yelling, “When was that again?? In the good old days of Westeros??”
This was in regard to a casual conversation about differences between the show and the books they’re based on. I should add that this particular friend has read the books but has not seen the show.
But what was really demonstrated to me was how this idea and statement:
1. never fails to appear when two marginalized people discuss fantasy media and utter a word that ends in “-ism” in the presence of someone who is not marginalized
2. is a bad case of double-wrong. It’s a false statement based on a false assumption/premise. By which I mean, it’s wrong as a statement in and of itself (Westeros never existed, it’s a fantasy setting), and it’s also wrong if I accept your false assumption (that any society or culture anywhere was like Westeros).
3. it attempts to derail any discussion or accountability regarding the fact that ASOIAF is a work of art created on purpose by a human being for an audience that is alive today, with modern attitudes about race, gender, violence, politics, et cet.
In all honesty (and I really hope I’m not the first person ever to mention this?) the atmosphere of brutality, abuse of power, personal violation, and lack of alternate mitigating power structures (like the Church), is entirely invented and would never actual work or function correctly as a society.
Even the “good days” of Westeros are actually too disruptive to people’s lives. I’m saying they would leave. Sadly, ASOIAF seems under the same weird impression that people living in Westeros had an invisible leash that kept them within five miles of where they were born, unless you were at least a Knight of some kind, that many people assume about Medieval…everywhere. I mean, even considering the alternate seasons stuff (like Summer lasting for like 20 years or whatever) where does their FOOD even come from???
Like, yes in human history, people will put up with a LOT of tyranny but it has to come with stability. Seriously, that’s how Empires even happened at all on any continent in the Middle Ages.You can’t just have a war and kill all the farmers. Everyone will die. Any survivors will leave, society will collapse, and you’ll be the happy king of nothing, and then you’ll die of starvation. The right to control what people produced had to come with some kind of upside for the people doing the production.
The only time in human history that this level of global brutality has ever been perpetrated is European colonialism and imperialism during the 18th Century-current. That whole deal even being remotely possible was due to several very specific factors…the first being the depopulation of North America by 90% from diseases before any conflict had a chance to happen. The second being the idea of chattel slavery: Europe gaining wealth through trade with African nations, then returning with money to buy people in small, already-subdued and easily controllable groups, ship them to the depopulated continent, and basically…breed them…until you have literally millions of enslaved human beings who are considered highly visible and their visibility is encoded into law; they can never escape their own appearance, therefore can never really escape their enslavement.
I could really go on, but I think I already threw up in my mouth a little and I promise this is coming full circle.
Basically what I am saying here is that ASOIAF/Game of Thrones, is absolutely a post-colonial projection of colonial brutality into a quasi-Medieval setting. Westeros exists because we are a post-colonial society and that is a product of specifically white and Eurocentric speculative fiction: because what if colonial-level horrors had been visited upon Medieval white people by Medieval white people?
And it is very sincerely a fantasy; the resources and circumstances for that kind of EVERYthing to exist cannot be replicated in a Medieval social structure with that degree of instability, war, and cultural nihilism combined with a lack of social supportive structures. Nor that level of gender inequality and femicide/violence against women, in case you were wondering. Apparently the real secret of power in Westeros is a magic lamp rubbing ritual that happens offscreen from which food, clothing, and armies that do not need food or clothing complete with mind control powers to get them to do what you want, appear from thin air.
But in conclusion the idea of “Westeros” as anything remotely resembling history is only possible because we live in a post-colonial society, and this skews and warps our idea of what the actual European Middle Ages were like. In regard to gender, ability status, economy, race, religion, production, level of acceptable violence…just about everything.
Now…I’m not saying that you couldn’t cobble together a pastiche of every atrocity that happened in Europe(ish) between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 18th century and come up with something remotely like Westeros, but only after cherry picking and removing both original context and subsequent backlash.
Oh, and as an addendum: people have asked me before about why I think the show, Game of Thrones, is better than ASOIAF, the books. Basically this: on the show, you can ascribe motivations, thoughts, and feelings to the characters, therefore making them more or less sympathetic or relatable. In the books, the character’s motivations, thoughts, feelings, and responses are laid bare in internal monologues, and this creates absolutely zero chance of feeling sympathetic toward them, in my humble opinion. You know how Jamie Lannister really feels about Brienne of Tarth, you know Cersei Lannister’s reasons for doing what she does, you know just how frigging inconsistently obtuse Ned Stark is about everything, ever.
The show writers have also gone slightly out of their way in omitting things from the books that make certain characters considerably less sympathetic, most notably Tyrion Lannister.
I could really go on and on, which speaks to both the degree of my nerdery in regard to anything remotely Sword-N-Sorcery and (honestly) the art of creating an extremely popular work of fiction for which the author, George R.R. Martin, can survive both the accolades AND the genuinely deserved criticism. Good on him I suppose for creating something people can really dig their teeth into, whether or not they can eat that entire bloody, raw horse’s heart or not.
P.S. literally the only reason there are almost no people of color in ASOIAF is because George R.R. Martin decided there wouldn’t be, and the reason they’re portrayed the way they are is because he decided they WOULD be. With great acclaim comes great accountability.