Some TCU students were doing homework on a Sunday night in April. They weren’t solving quadratic equations or gathering business wisdom from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. No, they were watching beheadings, political chicanery, backstabbing, violence, sex and zombies. In other words, they were watching the HBO series Game of Thrones. And taking notes.
The students are part of Jill C. Havens’ class: Introduction Medieval Literature: Game of Thrones. The class, like the hit HBO series, is popular. It has a waiting list.
Havens, an instructor of English at TCU who specializes in medieval literature, said it actually started with Vikings.
“I had been teaching … a Vikings class, because one of the shows I had been watching was the Vikings series on History channel,” she said. The students in that class kept telling her she needed to watch Game of Thrones.
“And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ So I finally watched it, and got completely hooked. And while I was watching it, too, I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is all medieval literature. This is all medieval history. I need to combine this in a course.”
She began teaching the course in 2015 and expects to teach it at least a few more times. She has lots of students telling her they want to take it but haven’t been able to get in.
If you’re not familiar with Game of Thrones, it is a series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss for HBO. It is an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, which is a series of fantasy novels by author George R. R. Martin. While it is a fantasy series, it is very relatable to the medieval world. Havens notes most of the events in Game of Thrones are based on actual events, though she notes, “with dragons.”
Now, as Game of Thrones begins its final season, interest seems to be at an all-time high. The season premiere, on April 14, stands as the most-watched one-day event in the history of the cable network that began in 1978.
The Nielsen company said 17.4 million people watched the Sunday opener to the show’s eighth and final season, either live on the network at 9 p.m., streamed, through HBO’s on-demand service or during two reruns that aired later that night. HBO’s previous high-water mark was last season’s finale of Game of Thrones, making it likely that this new HBO record will be eclipsed when the series ends on May 19.
That’s a lot of people either interested in medieval literature or maybe just the assorted violence and mayhem.
For Havens and her class, the series is a gateway into medieval history and literature.
“What I do is I teach Martin as a kind of continuum in fantasy literature, but most medieval literature is actually fantasy literature,” she said in an interview shortly before the first. So we start with a text called Saga of the Volsungs, which is actually a Viking saga. But it’s all about Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.”
Which might ring a bell with Game of Thrones fans: It’s the dragons that have been doing all the slaying.
“Then there are the early texts, and Beowulf, as well. Beowulf kills monsters. It’s a fantasy text. So Martin is just part of a long continuum of medieval literature, but he also is very well learned, well-read in medieval history, and he talks about it that he finds lots of parallels and finds things in medieval history and he sort of gives it a little twist, a little turn, and changes it for his text.”
Take the infamous “Red Wedding” episode where … well, a lot of people show up to a wedding and a lot of people get killed. Slaughtered is more like it. Martin has said he based those scenes on a similar event in Scottish history from 1440 called the Black Dinner.
For Havens’ class, students read the first book in the series. “On Mondays and Wednesdays, we read the medieval literature. Or if we’re doing some history, we’ll read the historical documents or a history book about the time period. And then Fridays, we have group presentations. The students are divided into houses [like the series]. So it’ll be House Lannister and they lead discussion, and what they do is go back to book one, they are given a section of book one they have to read, and then they talk about that section, and then they have to make connections between the medieval material that we’ve covered that week and what they see in Game of Thrones. And then they have debates about it, because then they have to ask questions. The students in the audience are all in their representative houses, too, and then they have to ask questions of each house, and then they have to debate and discuss what they talked about.”
I asked Havens if there were any lessons for business leaders in Game of Thrones, aside from say, have a dragon and, if at all possible, three.
“There’s a documentary that marks the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and they actually interview George Martin in it, and he talks about how Machiavelli’s The Prince is one of the foundational texts that he is using for his political philosophy,” she said.
The Prince, if you don’t know, is a political treatise by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, hence the term: Machiavellian, used to refer to a political schemer.
Many of the key leaders in Game of Thrones often discuss whether they want to be loved or feared.
“The whole debate is about whether it is better to be loved or feared. Machiavelli says, ideally, you want to be both, but if you can’t, it’s always better to be feared,” said Havens. “And I think a lot of the characters who are leaders are grappling with that question.”
Some of the most popular characters grapple with that. Daenerys Targaryen, also known as the Queen of Dragons, played by Emilia Clarke, initially seems to want to be loved, but eventually realizes she also needs to be feared.
“She has this debate, after she kills Sam Tarly’s father and brother, with the dragon fire,” Havens said. “Then Tyrion, sort of literally calls her out on it. ‘What do you want to be known for? Do you want to be cruel and be feared? Dragons will make you be feared.’
“But at the same time, what she has been known for, what’s propelled her this far is the fact that she’s also a leader who’s loved and people follow her blindly because they love her so much. That’s how, going back to the slaves, by freeing all these people, they then become loyal to her. I think she really is one of the main characters grappling with that.”
If you watched the first episode of this new season, you know that decision to use the dragons to kill the Tarleys may come back to haunt her.
Jon Snow, another popular character, is also caught in this struggle. “Jon, too, is grappling with this, but I don’t think he feels the need to be loved the way Daenerys does.
“But I don’t think he wants to be feared. He’s trying to follow in his father’s footsteps, his foster father, I should say. In Ned’s footsteps. That’s the example of leadership that he grew up with. That’s what he’s seen.
So far though, none of these leadership strategies have seemed to work. “Most of them lead to tragedy,” said Havens.
The first one to deal with these leadership strategies, in the first season, was Ned Stark, head of House Stark
“In many ways, his leadership skills are very good, but I think his biggest flaw is he assumes everyone plays by the same rules. And you can’t do that,” she said.
Certainly not on the Game of Thrones.
“He tries to be fair, he tries to stand by the law and all of these things, but he’s also assuming that everyone else in King’s Landing is following the same handbook that he is, and that’s why he then meets his demise, because … they’re not. Not at all.”
Mostly, he meets the ambitious, slithery Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey, a character who definitely belongs in the “rather be feared than loved” camp.
While Martin takes much of his material from medieval history and literature, the series does provide for some interesting and strong female characters.
“There are plenty of examples of strong female figures in medieval history,” Havens said, “but they’re so constrained by what’s socially acceptable at the time.
“A good example is that Cersei is often compared to a woman named Margaret of Anjou.
“She was the wife of Henry the VI during the Wars of the Roses, and that’s one of the central, historical events that Martin bases his story on.
“She, because her husband is mentally ill and incapacitated for most of his kingship, she’s the one who is moving the wheels of government. She’s the one, she becomes a very strong leader. But because she’s the queen, she can’t do much. Actually, Cersei, while she is the wife of Robert, and then when she’s sort of the dowager queen, when her sons take over. That role is actually incredibly limiting. Cersei tries to work through her children to have power. Margaret of Anjou also did the same thing. She has a son, and she puts all of her energy into her son, to make him a good leader. She is restricted. There’s not a lot she can do, because of what was expected of women then.”
One of those is the tall female knight, Brienne of Tarth, played by Gwendoline Christie.
“His female characters, like Brienne, or even Daenerys, Arya, all of them are, if they were living in the medieval period, would have been very extreme, in terms of being different. The gender roles for women were very strict and restrictive in the Middle Ages,” Havens said.
Yes, one of the most remarkable characters in the story is a woman, Brienne, the tall warrior.
“We talk about chivalry and knighthood and all of these knightly characters in the story, like Jaime, Gregor Clegane, and Sandor Clegane, the Hound, and a couple of other figures we talk about. Here is the chivalric code, and none of them are living up to it. The one person who is, is Brienne. Here’s the woman. She is more knightly than any of the men,” said Havens.
Havens said one of Martin’s key strengths is that he keeps surprising readers and viewers with the story.
“I think everyone, my students and I, we talk about it, and I know for myself, after the end of the first season, as soon as Ned died, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m done. I don’t want to watch this anymore.’ Then I got back into it again, watched the second season, because in the second season, of course, that’s when Joffrey dies, and everyone’s like, ‘Yay, finally.’”
Martin does it for the good of the story, not the audience, Havens said.
“He’s thinking in the long term. What’s the story, what makes the story? He’s following the trajectory of the hero myth, but the problem is we have two heroes now. We’ve got Daenerys and Jon. Which one is the hero? Can they both be heroes at the same time?”
And that may be a problem for audiences raised on Marvel and DC comics where the heroes always survive.
“If you follow the hero myth, the hero dies in the end. Martin did say this, in one of his interviews, is that he likes the way Tolkien, at the end of Lord of the Rings, it’s a bittersweet ending. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, it’s the ending that needed to take place. It’s the ending that was needed. And he says that he sees that as his model.”
And while she can speculate about what will happen at the end of the series based on her study of history and literature, there is one X factor in Game of Thrones: White Walkers, the zombie army that appears almost unstoppable.
“I can think of all the parallels in history and literature and come to some idea about how it will end,” said Havens. “But the White Walkers? There’s no parallel for that. So who knows what will happen.”
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.