Does Fantasy Fiction Beat Period Drama?

In her regular History Today column, for April 2014, Suzannah Lipscomb argues that the strangeness of the past can be evoked more effectively in pick and mix fantasies than in those novels, films and TV dramas that aspire to realism.

Later this month the fourth series of the enormously popular TV drama Game of Thrones is unveiled (watch the trailer above). I admit that, despite its gratuitous violence and sex, I am a fan.

Talking recently at a school about how and why we study history, I was asked whether serious historians ought to be ‘snooty’ about popular history. The questioner meant history as it is portrayed in films, novels and on television. How should we feel about the representation of history in forms of entertainment?

Game of Thrones is a very different representation of the past from many, for it depicts a fictional, alternate world and does not claim to be telling the story of actual historical events. But that has not stopped commentators drawing parallels with the real past. The Boston-based writer Jamie Adair runs a blog that ruminates on George R.R. Martin’s possible historical sources of inspiration: the character Sansa as a version of Elizabeth of York, the Red Wedding as the Massacre of Glencoe and, most obviously, the wars over the kingdom of Westeros between the Lannisters and Starks as the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York.

Medievalist Dan Jones has written in the Wall Street Journal that Game of Thrones ‘reveals stories borrowed from ten thousand years of human history’ – be it 15th-century England, the Mongols or the Egyptian pharaohs. I hear echoes of the 16th century, too: when the Northern Starks say they pray to the old gods, one thinks of the inclination of many of those in northern England under Elizabeth I to continue to ‘pray in the old ways’, while Thomas More’s reflection that ‘Politics be King’s games … and for the more part, played on scaffolds’ almost seems to have given the series its name.

What, though, of films, series and novels that do purport to be situated in a historical past? One notable feature is a readiness to play to the notion that people in the past were ‘just like us’, which is why the sinking of the Titanic emerges as a love story, Braveheart that of a freedom fighter and the tagline to The Duchess, which came out a year after Princess Diana’s death, was ‘there were three in their marriage’. This stress on parallels can do distorting things to our idea of past mental and imaginative worlds. Putting aside questions of the authenticity of appearance – are the buttons quite right? Should there really be zips in The White Queen? – the real question is whether such tellings can be authentic to the conceptual realities of the time they seek to depict. As a Tudor historian I am bothered slightly less by the fact that the TV drama The Tudors had a tendency to conflate characters, rearrange historical events and compress time than by the underlying conviction that, if you can strip away all the guff about faith and politics and honour, you will discover that Henry VIII, his six wives and his ministers were really secularists with modern ideas about sexuality.

The tension between knowing that people in the past were somehow like us and somehow wildly different is imperative to maintain. G.M. Trevelyan movingly wrote in 1949:

The poetry of history lies in the quasi- miraculous fact, that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another; gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cock-crow.

This is the tightrope we must walk: they were as real as we are, but they thought their own thoughts and were swayed by their own passions – often quite different from our own.

So should we be snooty? The paradox is that the fantasy world of Game of Thrones sends us scurrying to our history books, looking for the real stories behind the fiction. In short we reflect on what is historically right about it. By contrast, pale imitations of real historical stories focus our minds chiefly on what is wrong with their accounts.

But all these forms of history as entertainment share an ability to dust the discipline down: to stimulate viewers to a sense that the past was as vivid, vibrant and dynamic a place to live in as that depicted on our screens and that the issues our ancestors grappled with were as urgent to them as our social, political, spiritual and romantic lives are to us today. If they achieve this, we need not be snooty.

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