Beneath all the well-worn fantasy tropes and flashy special effects — the CGI dragons, the armies of evil ice zombies, the clichéd Christ allegories about magical heroes coming back from the dead — at its heart Game of Thrones is really just a giant mashup of European history. Twenty-five million or so rabid fans are certainly looking forward to watching computer-generated dragons torch equally pixelated ice demons in the new season that starts this Sunday on HBO, but the biggest thrills in Game of Thrones arguably come from seeing real-world history recreated onscreen in the guise of a fractured fairytale. Like Homer’s mythical reimagining of the Greek past or Sir Walter Scott’s best-selling historical novels in the 19th century, HBO has come to dominate the 21st-century cultural landscape by producing the most spectacular history lesson on TV.
The historical parallels in Game of Thrones are almost too easy to pick out. (Unless you’re looking for non-Western history; then you’re mostly stuck with flat racist stereotypes. More on that in a bit.) The continent of Westeros, where the show’s main action takes place, is shaped like Britain and Ireland, and the massive ice wall that keeps out the Wildling barbarians from the North just so happens to be at the exact same spot where the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Celtic tribes. Similarly, the civil war at the center of Game of Thrones mimics the 15th-century War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster fought a bitter internecine battle for the English throne — in Westeros, the Lancasters go by Lannister. The Ironborn raiders, who sail around in longships, are stand-ins for the Vikings, while the Free Cities on the continent of Essos represent the Italian city-states, right down to the island-city of Braavos, which is duly filmed in Venice. And the Valyrian Empire, which was famous for its engineering feats and military power, has crumbled into a pile of elegantly twisted ruins reminiscent of ancient Rome.
It isn’t just the real-world history behind Westeros that draws in fans, though. The made-up history within the show, much more than the dragons and ice zombies, is what drives the story forward. The plot hinges on big revelations about the personal histories of individual characters (who are Jon Snow’s parents?) and the larger political history of Westeros (who is plotting with Varys to restore the Targaryen Dynasty to the Iron Throne?). Readers of the original books by George R.R. Martin will appreciate just how critical the fictional history of Westeros is to the epic war the story depicts. Martin delights in taking long, world-building digressions to explain the minutiae of Westerosi history, from ancient patterns of human migration to the tangled lineages of important noble families, the source of all present-day conflicts. With a less agile and inventive writer, this would be a mind-numbing drag on the narrative, but in Martin’s lively prose, the history lessons can be even more entertaining than the fight scenes.
The classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn says that Martin writes with “Herodotean gusto”: Martin describes the wonders of the Westerosi landscape and the wars between its peoples in the same exuberant and exorbitantly detailed style as the (partly) factual travelogue, conveniently called the Histories, in which the ancient Greek Herodotus invented the genre of history-writing in the 5th century BCE. But Game of Thrones is better seen as a 21st-century echo of William Shakespeare. Martin’s plots borrow heavily from Shakespeare’s English history plays and the late-medieval time period they portray. More importantly, both Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation have a distinctly Shakespearean view of how history works and why it matters.
When King Robert dies in season one, it sets off a war of succession between his friends, brothers, bastards, and opportunistic lesser lords that might as well be the War of the Roses. Shakespeare, of course, wrote eight or so plays about the War of the Roses and its backstory, starting chronologically with Richard II — in which Henry Bolingbroke usurps the throne from Richard II and names himself King Henry IV — and tracking the complicated fallout from Henry’s rebellion in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, & 3, and Richard III. (You thought Hollywood was obsessed with sequels.) Both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones use the War of the Roses to explore how rulers seize and justify their power. In Richard II, when Henry usurps the crown through raw military force, he also makes sure that Richard II legally abdicates the throne and names Henry as his heir. In Game of Thrones, Cersei tears up King Robert’s will, bribes the city guards to help make her the Queen Regent, and forces the legal regent Ned Stark to publicly confess to treason. In these fictional recreations of factual events, both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones turn English political history into a tutorial on the workings of constitutional government. It’s political science 101, with dragons.
Importantly, Shakespeare shows us the big-picture political clashes of English history from the viewpoints of individual characters — that’s why there are so many soliloquies in his plays, times when a single character onstage shares his or her hidden thoughts with the audience. In Henry IV Part 1, for instance, Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when it’s time to fight a war to protect his father’s kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective soldier. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when his father orders him to defend the kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective . (He also channels John Falstaff, the charismatic, ingenious outsider of Henry IV Part 1: Tyrion faces social stigma as a dwarf, where Falstaff is mocked for his “fat-witted” enormity.) Game of Thrones, like Shakespeare’s play, uses an outcast with a brilliant mind, a sharp tongue, a taste for wine, and a non-normative body to explore what makes a good leader and what obligations we owe to our family and country.
Take a final example, this one directly from Martin’s books. When the rebels overthrow the Targaryen Dynasty, they kill the king’s two small children, Rhaenys and Aegon. But Aegon, it turns out, may have survived — or at least a young man who claims to be Aegon arrives in Westeros with an army to retake his father’s throne. This mimics the bizarre real-life tale of Perkin Warbeck, a twenty-something pretender to the English crown who claimed that he was one of the two young princes famously murdered in the Tower of London by their usurping uncle Richard III. Perkin Warbeck crossed the English Channel to Kent in 1495, supported by nobles from Scotland and mainland Europe, and led a series of armed revolts before he was finally captured and hanged in 1499. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford wrote a play called Perkin Warbeck that tells this story in order to ask a fundamental question: what makes the king the rightful king? If you remember Varys and Tyrion’s drunken banter about what makes a good ruler on their road trip in season five (not to mention countless other characters’ disquisitions on the nature of power), you know that’s the big question at the heart of Game of Thrones too.
In his history plays, Shakespeare reimagines the English past in order to ask, again and again, what makes the king the king. Is the rightful ruler chosen by God, or determined by laws and constitutions written by human beings? Is the ruler simply the person with the most money and military power, or should the ruler be the person with the best record of actually getting things done? Game of Thrones uses European history for the same reason: to stage a debate about how leaders gain and lose the legitimate right to rule.
Martin’s books and HBO’s show give a dazzling array of different answers to that question. For Cersei, the answer is raw power — swords create legitimacy, and she refuses even to pretend to care about her subjects. For her son Tommen, the answer is religion: the backing of the Faith conveys political legitimacy. For Stannis Baratheon, the answer is law and blood, the laws of succession that determine who should wear the crown when each king dies. For Jon Snow, the answer is that a good ruler should be elected and should have the right intentions and high moral principles. Jon’s followers, of course, end up killing him because he follows his principles. Then again, Jon also gets resurrected like Christ.
Daenerys is the most interesting case. She experiments repeatedly with how to legitimate her rule, from blood (her father was the king) to marriage (her husband was the Khal) to divine right (she appears to be the magically anointed savior of the world) to moral principles (she frees the slaves) to pragmatic success as a ruler (she spends multiple seasons bogged down in Meereen trying to improve her subjects’ lives). Her career as a queen is like a laboratory where Martin tries out the different styles of leadership represented in Roman and English history.
Daenerys’s attempts to rule also reveal the profound shortcomings of the focus on European history in Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation. Daenerys swoops in like a deus ex machina on dragonback to liberate the oppressed people of color from Game of Thrones’s equivalent of the Middle East. In doing so, she (and the books and TV show) writes out the many historical non-Western models for political legitimacy (Al-Farabi, say, or Ibn Rushd; Confucius, or the Bhagavad Gita) and implies that it takes a white person to run an enlightened political system based on individual liberty. This isn’t very surprising: Art reflects the society around it, and plenty of Americans couldn’t believe a black man was the legitimate president of the United States. On the other hand, Game of Thrones goes powerfully in on the idea that a woman can be the most legitimate political leader in a crowded field. For Daenerys in this upcoming season, the woman card might turn out to be a winning hand.
Game of Thrones’ obsessive anxiety about the roots of political legitimacy helps explain why it’s such a smash hit right now. The question of what makes a ruler legitimate has been the central issue in American political life for the last fifteen years, from the mainstream to the fringe. Who won all those hanging chads in Florida in 2000? Was 9/11 an inside job? Was the Iraq War a legally and morally legitimate use of force? Was George W. Bush within his rights to have terrorism suspects indefinitely detained and tortured? Was Barack Obama really born in America, or is he a secret Muslim agent smuggled in to undermine the country? Did Donald Trump work with the Russians to steal the presidency? Can international climate accords legitimately control what America does? Does the press bravely speak truth to power, or is it all just fake news?
The world of Westeros, like the European history on which it’s based, implies that political legitimacy is both real and perceived: it rests on the power to rule, but it also lies in the eyes of the beholders, the everyday citizens who see their leaders as legitimate or not. Appearances, as Shakespeare knew, are everything — all the world’s a stage. Or, as Shakespeare’s ruler Queen Elizabeth I put it, “we princes, I tell you, are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world.” It’s a lesson that George R.R. Martin’s characters have to learn. Robb Stark, for instance, manages for a while to maintain both the moral high ground and the military successes necessary to make himself a king. But when his underlings think he has acted illegitimately — breaking his betrothal to the Freys and letting his mother get away with freeing Jaime Lannister — they abandon him and kill him. In Game of Thrones, peaceful government depends on a system of political legitimacy — an agreed-upon set of norms about who gets to rule and how — but most of the time, that rule collapses into chaos and bloodshed.
The show ultimately reminds us that the institutions that create political legitimacy — our laws, beliefs, customs, and constitutions, the stories we tell ourselves about why our leaders get to lead — can be as fragile as Ned Stark’s neck, ready to explode when the next tyrant with a fop of yellow hair like Joffrey Baratheon slouches along. Behind the idealistic fantasy battle between good and evil, Westerosi history, much like our own real-world history, implies that if we want good government, we have to fight for the institutions that protect political legitimacy and preserve the rule of law. But neither our history nor Martin’s made-up one promises we’ll win.
The remarkably prolific Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels over a 40-year span; today, she’s best known for 1978’s The Sea, the Sea. The novel won the Man Booker Prize, and deservedly so: it’s a world-eating emotional chronicle in which the elderly narrator, Charles Arrowby, tries to fix his greatest mistake: letting his first and only love go. But almost 20 years earlier, Murdoch, who worked and reworked similar moral themes throughout her entire career, wrote a much more potent and incendiary novel than The Sea, the Sea. This delirious little book, A Severed Head, is a dirtier, more bizarre study of the messiness of human desire, complete with incest and spouse swapping, and it’s arguably the better book.
In selecting A Severed Head for his “top 10 relationship novels” for the Guardian, novelist William Sutcliffe had this to say: “Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch’s other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down.” Sutcliffe pinpoints what makes A Severed Head such an oddball masterpiece. The novel succeeds by following a structural pattern so obvious — each character sleeps with another character, then another, then another — that it at first seems too easy and too coincidental, but then the obviousness becomes, through repetition, strangely unfamiliar and enigmatic. And because human desire is the rudder of the characters, A Severed Head is one of the great novels about the unknowability of others.
The novel begins with Londoner Martin snuggling his mistress, Georgie, as he idly considers whether his wife, Antonia, might find out. The reader might encounter a similar scene in the work of a number of realist contemporaries of Murdoch: John Cheever or Richard Yates or John Updike. Before the snuggling session turns into heavy petting and then rounds third base, there’s just enough time for Martin and Georgie to name every character the reader will meet: Antonia, Palmer (Antonia’s psychoanalyst), Honor (Palmer’s sister), Alexander (Martin’s brother), Rosemary (Martin’s sister). Toward the end of chapter one, the reader is given a hint that Martin’s situation (indeed the situation of all the characters since they are all about to engage in one giant game of sexual musical chairs) is presented only to be torn down:
It was for me a moment of great peace. I did not know then that it was the last, the very last moment of peace, the end of the old innocent world, the final moment before I was plunged into the nightmare of which these ensuing pages tell the story.
The most significant word here is “nightmare,” and the reader quickly discovers why: in chapter three Antonia confesses to Martin that she has been sleeping with Palmer, and is leaving Martin for him.
It’s true that Murdoch subverts the reader’s expectations, but since the Antonia-Palmer affair is revealed in chapter three, this is only the first part of Murdoch’s trick. Indeed, if it turned out that the adulterer was also being cuckolded we’d still be in the safe, predictable terrain of realism. But A Severed Head, a surrealist novel in the guise of a realist novel, doubles down, then triples down on its premise.
Here’s a summary of the novel’s amorous transactions. First, Antonia predictably finds out about Martin-Georgie. But then Martin, after assaulting and slapping Honor (Palmer’s sister) in a basement, realizes he’s in love with her. Then Martin discovers the incestuous relationship between Honor and Palmer. Antonia and Martin make up, but then Alexander (Martin’s brother) announces he’s marrying Georgie. Finally, after Georgie attempts suicide, Antonia tells Martin she’s been sleeping with Alexander for years.
Perhaps the exact points of transition vary for different readers, but A Severed Head goes from realist to straining credibility somewhere around the incest reveal. Except: Murdoch smashes the old rule that you can’t have more than two coincidences in a narrative, and so the book passes through any dubiousness and out the other side, landing finally in a space so exceedingly nonsensical its only forecastable pattern is a kind of kitchen-sink-cum-Murphy’s-law (one is reminded of the scene in the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons, in which Sideshow Bob steps on rakes, repeatedly and for nearly 30 seconds, as the joke becomes funny and then not funny and then funny again, but in a twisted manner). Somewhere around the second or third revelation that one of these characters is sleeping with another one, you stop expecting the unexpected and begin expecting everything. It’s as if Murdoch is saying, “Yes, that can happen. And so can this.” And if she can get you to buy into her rules that completely, isn’t that its own kind of realism?
The illogic of the design of A Severed Head is so perfect as to be logical. The reader is reminded of the sister/daughter slapfest in Chinatown or, even more exactly, the slap at the end of John Fowles’s The Magus. The slap, that amazing image of flabbergasted absurdity, is an especially appropriate image since the point in A Severed Head when Martin slaps Honor is more or less the hinge that divides the two halves of the book (half one is Martin’s blissful ignorance, half two is the cascade of truths). Even the respective language in Fowles and Murdoch is similar.
I do not know why I did what happened next. It was neither intended nor instinctive, it was neither in cold blood nor in hot; but yet it seemed, once committed, a necessary act; no breaking of the commandment. My arm flicked out and slapped her left cheek as hard as it could. The blow caught her completely by surprise, nearly knocked her off balance, and her eyes blinked with the shock; then very slowly she put her left hand to the cheek. We stared wildly at each other for a long moment, in a kind of terror: the world had disappeared and we were falling through space. The abyss might be narrow, but it was bottomless.
I could see her face just below mine, the black hairs on her upper lip, the white of her teeth. I lifted myself a little and with my free hand struck her three times, a sideways blow across the mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to turn her head away. I saw that clearly in retrospect too.
After I had hit her the third time I began to wonder what I was doing. I let go and rolled off her. She got up without haste while I got myself into a sitting position. My head, suddenly asserting its existence, felt terrible. She brushed down her coat and then without looking at me and still without haste she mounted the cellar steps.
I sat quiet for a minute feeling extremely confused. Then, holding my head, which felt ready to break open, I got shakily to my feet.
The dream/nightmare theme remains throughout. As he creeps toward Honor’s bedroom, where he will find her with her brother, Palmer, Martin thinks, “By now I scarcely knew what I was doing. My movements took on the quality of a dream.” At one point Martin pleads with his mistress, Georgie, “in the name of that reality.” Preceding her suicide attempt, Georgie sends a box of her hair to Martin who, trying to convince himself briefly not to assume the worst, thinks, “The arrival of the hair had had the heavy significance of a token in a dream; but there was no need to apply nightmare logic to it.” Except it turns out he should think the worst because Georgie is at that moment unconscious on the floor of her apartment. And, it seems not insignificant that the book is told in Martin’s first-person narration, as a dream or nightmare would be.
The most surreal, dream-like scene happens in the middle of the book when Martin, “somewhat tipsy,” encounters Honor in the dining room. She has a samurai sword. Martin asks her about the sword and when Honor, an anthropologist, replies that she obtained it while working, it seems to Martin that “she spoke as out of a deep dream.” Martin asks her to “show me something.” Honor tosses napkins into the air and slices them in half. Martin thinks, “I felt an intense desire to take the sword from her, but something prevented me.” Then Honor, no longer “attending to” Martin, “moved the sword back and laid it across her knees in the attitude of a patient executioner.” This strange scene, packed with halts and nebulous logic, bores so deeply into Martin’s psyche that he has a dream about it, at which point the book folds in on itself and refracts its own strangeness. By the very last scene of the novel, in which Honor cites the apt story of Candaules and Gyges from Herodotus’s The Histories (in which king Candaules pridefully shows Gyges his naked wife and Gyges kills Candaules, becoming king), we know the mythical has more currency than the “real.”
Toward the end, as Martin and his wife, Antonia, are briefly sort-of making up, one of the narrative tensions is the question of whether Martin staying with Antonia is “right.” Psychoanalyst Palmer first encourages Martin to leave her, then states, “On reflection I feel sure that in returning to Antonia and mending your marriage you have done the right thing.” But there is no “right thing” because the book’s scope includes nothing outside of the blending relationships between the characters. Very little of the outside world is shown; the book is a series of scenes in which different combinations of characters are situated together — Martin goes to visit Palmer; Antonia visits Martin; Martin picks up Honor at the train station; Martin visits Alexander’s studio; all the while, characters are meeting off-stage and then meeting Martin to reveal the results. The world of A Severed Head is restricted to conversations in rooms (the extent of our knowledge really only includes the occupations of the characters, and London is foggy throughout); how can there be a right or wrong answer to Martin leaving Antonia if we don’t know what the world contains if he leaves? During Martin’s profession of his love to Honor, she tells him, “Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. As real people we do not exist for each other.” But we aren’t in the real world. Are we? In a narrative guided only by the affections of the characters, Murdoch so rapidly scrambles them that no relationship seems viable or trustworthy at all. Who is to say, finally, that even Martin’s love for Honor is to be trusted? Given the book’s final conversation, even the characters themselves are aware of the unreliability of anything. “I wonder if I shall survive it,” Martin says.
Murdoch’s body of work is consistently concerned with the space between order and chaos — The Sea, the Sea, in fact, is an extended series of asides from, accidents against, disruptions of, and derailments from its premise. But in A Severed Head, one of her shortest books, the reader can experience perhaps her most harmonious blend of the two. Like a small diamond full of inclusions, it paradoxically depicts human life at its most crystallized and muddied.