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The thing that always gets me about the idea that the violence, racism, and misogyny in Game of Thrones is expected/excusable “because that’s how things were back then” isn’t just the fact that GoT isn’t a historical novel.
If progress was a steady, linear acceleration through time, they should be way ahead of us. They should be far more enlightened in Westeros than we are in the United States or Europe. Looking at Westeros would be looking at our enlightened future, not our dismal past.
"What are you talking about? It’s medieval fantasy."
Right, but how many years of recorded human history does this “medieval” world have again?
I don’t remember the exact figure, but I can tell you this much:
By the notion that human progress in a vaguely European setting should follow some sort of script moving from more brutal and bigoted to less, they should be well out of their “medieval period” and a couple thousand years ahead of us. There’s some give or take, depending on where you try to peg the “medieval phase” as starting. If we take the invasion of the First Men to be something like the Celts reaching the British Isles and displacing/killing the indigenous people, with the Andals then being analogous to either the Saxons or the French… culturally it seems more like the Norman invasion because the Andals seem “farther along”, but that moves the timeline up even further compared to ours.
But forgetting the Andals: Celts settled in Britain no earlier than 2000 B.C., which puts them about 2,500 years before the beginning of the Ye Olde Medieval England that Westeros is supposed to be based on according to the theory of “how things were back then”. According to the mythic history of Westeros, the First Men crossed over *checks* around 12,000 years ago. If we peg that date as about 2,000 BCE in real-world terms, then the approximate start of the medieval period in Westeros (again, according to the theory that progress is a matter of counting years) would have to be 9,500 years ago. If all medieval periods are about the same—which again, is the underpinning of the theory that “things were just like that back then”—then this period would have given way to something like a renaissance about 1,000 years later, or around 8,500 years ago.
Now, our renaissance kicked off about 500 years ago, so Westeros is about 8,000 years “more advanced” than we are.
"But wait! You said ‘mythic history’! Nobody knows when the first men really arrived."
By crumb, you’re right. Nobody does know that. But you know what they do know? When the wall went up. It’s been continuously staffed and watched by the same organization for a mind-blowing 8,000 years. If we wanted to get all meta, we could even imagine that formal written history in Westeros might have grown out of the Night’s Watch need to keep records.
So the invasion of the First Men could have happened more recently than 12,000 years ago, but no sooner than 8,000 and the time it would take for them to get established across the continent. But even if we assume that they could have come over just in time to build the wall… okay, medieval period begins 2,500 years later. That’s 5,500 years ago. Renaissance begins 1,000 years after that, that’s 4,500 years ago.
Even by the most generous estimate available, Westeros still has 4,000 years of enlightened modern living on us European-descended humans.
Obviously the reason they aren’t 4,000 years more sophisticated and enlightened than we are is… well, it’s a fictional world whose author requires it to be “medieval” and brutal, but more to the point, progress doesn’t work this way. The only reason their society and history mirrors ours at all is that the author has dictated that they should. Seriously. The fact that they even count the turning of years the way we do is really bizarre. The idea that they would come up with the same sort of feudal agrarian culture that we did given the completely different growing seasons and completely different logistics of keeping the population fed is mind-boggling.
We can—we must—accept that these things happened, because they are part of the premise of the story. But the narrative doesn’t assert that the sociopolitical progress of their world is somehow in a parallel, delayed synchronization with progress in ours, and in fact, it very obviously isn’t.
The bottom line: Westeros is not in a medieval Europe phase of progress. It’s in a modern Westeros phase of it. Appealing to “things were like that back then” is no more meaningful an excuse than is saying “things are like that now” about a present situation.
I really like the perspective you’ve added here. I’ve discussed the myth of linear social progress and the projection of that many people are willing to do onto fictional worlds, including that of GoT/ASOIAF. None of this would be necessary if it wasn’t for the bone-deep conviction on the part of some fans that this particular work of fiction can excuse it flaws and some very questionable choices on the part of the author with “but, historical accuracy!”
In the end, the facts are that the books and the show are racist, misogynist, and violent because people chose to make it that way. These problems are compounded upon the insistence that these narrative choices are not only true to history or “realistic”, but the implication that the creators of the book/show are somehow fettered by or forced into these narrative choices.
ASoIaF has always had to walk a tightrope in its subversion of the high-fantasy genre in that it portrays people and events closer to the way they really work in real life, but in doing so risks coming across as an endorsement of the way things really work in real life.
Martin has always been clear, for example, that good men (eg. Ned) don’t always make good rulers. But to me the second part of that statement has always been an implicit but clear “and that really sucks.”
I’m not sure everyone sees it that way, though. Time and time again, we see fan backlash against some of the main characters when their attempts to behave decently backfire or fail in some way — Ned giving Cersei the chance to flee rather than die; Dany using her dragons and burgeoning following to liberate slaves and attempt to create a just peace in Meereen rather than leveling everything between her and King’s Landing; Jon’s increasingly status-quo-threatening attempts to get the wildlings south of the Wall and on the side of the rest of the realm. You end up with arguments that life would be better under a despot like Tywin Lannister than under a liberator like Daenerys.
In other words, many readers seem to take Martin’s realpolitik approach to how the world works in his writing as a reprimand against those with a more idealistic outlook. I don’t think that’s the case at all, in large part because of the issues of war and peace that provoked this thread.
Martin has unfailingly portrayed war as a grotesque folly, a crime against our common humanity. He does this by setting up a supernatural antagonist of whom most of the warring parties are unaware but who we know (to the extent that we can know anything of GRRM’s longterm plans with this series) is the enemy of all humanity, such that every time people raise their swords against one another, or burn each other’s towns and crops, or sack each other’s strongholds and rape and torture and murder their families, they are doing the enemy’s work.
Obviously, war against the Others and their wights will be necessary — but it’s striking that the only necessary war Martin allows for is one that can’t possibly have a counterpart in real life. We have no white walkers to worry about. We only have each other."
The above quote is my contribution to a provocative thread on how Martin’s characters “wage peace,” started by Westeros.org’s Elio García in response to the Curt Purcell post I talked about earlier.
I would also add that part and parcel of how Martin has humanized epic fantasy by fleshing out heroes and villains into characters less easy to identify as either is similarly fleshing out the humanity of the people who die in the wars waged between the two. That’s why it’s so weird to me to see people endorsing Tywin Lannister or, god help me, Roose Bolton as a superior ruler to Daenerys Targaryen or Eddard Stark — or to see people arguing that Victarion Greyjoy — wifebeater, gaybasher, rapist, war criminal, mass murderer — is the Prince Who Was Promised or Azor Ahai reborn. These men dehumanize others, and humanizing others is the project of the entire series.
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