The real-life inspirations for “Game of Thrones”

Mischief and murder --medieval-style -- inspired the epic series

Topics: Books, Editor's Picks, Game of Thrones, Historical Fiction, History,

The real-life inspirations for "Game of Thrones"Lena Headey in "Game of Thrones"

Yes, “Game of Thrones” has dragons and ice zombies and giant clairvoyant wolves, but for every viewer (or reader) who climbed onto George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy bandwagon for the magical stuff, I suspect there are two of us who are in it for the palace intrigue. Velvet sleeves concealing jewel-encrusted daggers, scheming eunuchs with networks of spies, parvenue commoners outwitting the supercilious aristos and totally, utterly ruthless power plays — what’s not to love?

Martin has always maintained that he’s been influenced at least as much by history and historical fiction as by the traditional epic fantasy of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien. Aficionados know that his novels (collectively called “A Song of Ice and Fire”) are loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, a vicious series of battles of succession that took place in 15th-century England. Martin has also listed Maurice Druon and Thomas B. Costain as models, two mid-20th-century historical novelists who wrote about medieval France, and you can see echoes of that material in his fictional universe, as well.

It would probably surprise several generations of British schoolchildren to learn that the dynastic politics of the late 1400s could be transformed into anything coherent, let alone entertaining. (“It’s worse than the Wars of the Roses!” Lucy Pevensie cries in dismay when someone tries to explain a particularly complicated bit of Narnian history in “Prince Caspian.” She speaks for many.) This, however, hasn’t kept many novelists and historians from trying.

It’s not that there aren’t fabulous characters and nefarious doings in the Wars of the Roses — Secret marriages! Mad monarchs! Vanishing princes! This is a story that concludes with one of the players being drowned in a barrel of wine, after all. But keeping the Wars’ family trees, convoluted legalistic arguments and perpetually shifting allegiances straight is enough to give anyone a headache. It certainly doesn’t help that all the male principles seem to have the same three names (Henry, Richard or Edward) or that they are forever gaining or losing and then gaining again the titles that serve to distinguish them from one another.



For fans who wish to investigate further into the real-life inspirations for Martin’s characters, one of the most lucid popular histories of the conflict is Alison Weir’s “The Wars of the Roses” (originally published as “Lancaster and York”). Some of Martin’s references to the Wars are easy to pick up. For example, the two dueling clans in “Game of Thrones,” the Lannisters and the Starks, have names that resemble those of the two sides in the Wars of the Roses. Like the Yorks, the Starks are northerners, while the Lannisters, like the Lancasters, are famously rich.

Both English families were branches of the House of Plantagenet who vied for the throne after the deposition of the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, in 1399 and before the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between the characters in “Game of Thrones” and actual historical figures, but Martin was clearly inspired by Edward IV in creating, say, Robert Baratheon, the great, strapping warrior who became a stout, ailing king. There’s a dash of Edward, too, in Rob Stark, a brilliant commander who makes an impetuous, disadvantageous marriage.

Cersei Lannister, Robert’s ambitious, conniving widow, is thought by many to have been inspired by the hot-headed Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, the king Edward IV helped depose. Henry’s bouts of insanity left him frequently unable to rule, and Margaret, a leading Lancastrian, fought ferociously against those she saw as threatening her family’s hold on the crown. Historians view her as a prime driver in the Wars of the Roses, just as Cersei is substantively responsible for the War of the Five Kings in “A Clash of Kings.” Cersei also resembles Isabella of France, an earlier medieval English queen, who conspired with her adulterous lover to dethrone, and possibly to murder, her (bisexual) husband, Edward II, in the 1300s.

Cersei is a crude, incompetent politician, however, which cannot be said of Isabella. Although unpopular in England, where she was nicknamed “the She-wolf of France,” Isabella has acquired some sympathizers over the years, including the indefatigable Alison Weir, who wrote a contrarian biography of her in 2006, “Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England.” Weir has also written novels about various women in the Tudor era, no doubt aspiring to the success of Philippa Gregory, whose romantic historical novels routinely land on the New York Times Bestseller List.

For her own part, Gregory has already published three books in a series set during the Wars of the Roses, “The Cousins’ War” (an apt title, given the intricate blood relationships among the many combatants). The most recent of these, “The Lady of the Rivers,” may even be infused with enough magical elements to appeal to some “Game of Thrones” readers: In it, the character of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, possesses psychic abilities (the real duchess was tried for witchcraft by her political enemies) and is initiated into the mysteries of alchemy by her first husband. For those who prefer a more grounded view, Gregory collaborated with two historians, David Baldwin and Michael Jones, on a nonfiction book, “The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King’s Mother,” published last year.

You may have noticed that most of these books are about women, despite the fact that, with very few exceptions, the women of the Middle Ages had little power. Much of today’s popular historical fiction about the rulers of the Middle Ages is read by women who are primarily interested in the lives and problems of women. Since the historical record contains next to no information on this topic, fiction has stepped in to fill the breach.

Another, more manly, popular contemporary historical novelist, Bernard Cornwell, has set a series of novels, “The Grail Quest,” during a slightly earlier period. His hero, an archer named Thomas of Hookton who gets caught up in the Hundred Years’ War, is an entirely fictional commoner in search of that fabled relic. What Cornwell’s novels lack in historically based, Machiavellian aristocrats they make up for in action-packed, blood-soaked battle scenes.

For the ultimate in medieval scuttlebutt, however, you can’t do better than Barbara Tuchman’s prizewinning 1978 history, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.” This account of the Hundred Years’ War centers around the life of a French nobleman who married an Englishwoman, but it’s more expansive than any novel, taking in such fascinating details as the bizarre fashion for long-toed shoes in court (so long, they had to be tied up with strings and were inveighed against by puritanical clergymen) to the legendarily brutal rampages of British mercenary John Hawkwood through Italy. If you really want to know how the peasants fared while their rulers skirmished, the peculiar challenges of sewage-management in a stone castle, what the real agenda was behind the Crusades, or just how dastardly the highborn and royal can behave when it suits them, then look no further.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>