Games of Thrones: Winter is coming ...

Kit Harington plays Jon Snow, out in the icy wastes beyond the wall.

Kit Harington plays Jon Snow, out in the icy wastes beyond the wall.

Although Hilary Mantel is apparently yet to begin the third volume of her trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, we can be confident of several plot twists that it will not feature. Cromwell will not precipitate a civil war. He will not betray the husband of his foster sister.
He will not escape the executioner’s block. His downfall is scripted. The history books cannot be cheated.

In the hands of a great writer, of course, the fact that we already know a character’s fate can serve to heighten rather than diminish tension. For all that, though, the pleasure to be had in following a narrative and not knowing what will happen is a primal one — and one to which we can soon return, with the third season of Game of Thrones about to begin.  

The world of Westeros, the locale of Game of Thrones, will seem perfectly familiar to readers of Wolf Hall: courtly, treacherous and full of people having their heads chopped off. Politics is portrayed as a game, in which only the most skilful can hope to win. Westeros features dragons, walking corpses and a 200m wall of ice, yet it is far from wholly fantastical. George RR Martin, whose series of novels inspired the HBO drama, has woven a tapestry of extraordinary size and richness — and most of the threads he has used derive from the history of our own world.

Take Petyr Baelish, played by Aidan Gillen in the series. His look, complete with black doublet and pointed beard, serves the viewer as convenient shorthand for the role he is playing in the drama: that of a Tudor Machiavelli. Cromwell and Walsingham are not the only models for this. Baelish’s character is inspired as well by the traditions of revenge tragedy: he has a taste for poison and nurtures a semi-incestuous passion for his foster sister. What neither the history nor the literature of the Tudor period can reveal to us, though, is the full depth and nature of Baelish’s schemings — nor, because there are still two books of the series to be written, his fate.

Adding to the impossibility of seeing where Martin may take the fabulously complex strands of his plot is that the world of Westeros does not draw for its inspiration on a single period of history. Baelish may seem a figure from Tudor mythography, but the king who rules in the first book in fact resembles Henry VIII less than he does his grandfather, Edward IV, the founder of the Yorkist dynasty. The backstory of the series certainly derives from the Wars of the Roses: just as the house of Lancaster was toppled by the house of York, so, at the beginning of Game of Thrones, has the ruling Targaryen been toppled by a usurper, Robert Baratheon.

Again, though, it would be a mistake to imagine that Martin’s purposes can be divined by transplanting the history of 15th-century England to Westeros. He is far too subtle for that. When Robert is murdered and his queen, Cersei, then rules the kingdom on behalf of her son, it is hard not to be reminded of Isabella, the wonderfully nicknamed “She-wolf of France”, in the 1300s. When a fleet attacks her capital only to be annihilated by liquid explosives, the obvious parallel is with the “Greek fire” deployed by the Byzantines in their defence of Constantinople against the Arabs. Different events and different periods are elided, to consistently potent and surprising effect. In Game of Thrones, episodes from the history of our own world lie in wait for the characters like booby traps.

The result of this history-mixing might easily have been a mess. Instead, Game of Thrones is fantasy’s equivalent of a perfect cocktail. Elements drawn from the Hundred Years War and the Italian Renaissance, from Chretien de Troyes and Icelandic epic, fuse to seamless effect. The measure of how credible — on its own terms — people find Martin’s alternative history is precisely the phenomenal scale of its popularity. The appeal of Westeros is less that it is fantastical than that it seems so richly, so vividly, so brutally real.

Tom Holland’s latest work of history is In The Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Little, Brown)

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