By Nilanjana Goswami
Harvard University has announced a new ‘Folklore and Mythology’ course that will examine George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the original television franchise made by HBO. To be introduced in autumn, the course is titled “The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models”.
What does the course entail?
Sean Gilsdorf, a medieval historian and Administrative Director and Lecturer on Medieval Studies will teach the course along with Racha Kirakosian, an Assistant Professor of German and the Study of Religion. The thrust will be to study how the franchise “echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the medieval world of Eurasia from 400 CE to 1500 CE”. It will do so by exploring “a set of archetypal characters at the heart of Game of Thrones — the king, the good wife, the second son, the adventurer, and so on — with distinct analogues in medieval history, literature, religion, and legend.”
In conversation with TIME, Gilsdorf said that medieval biographies of queens would be their primary source material. “Game of Thrones does dramatise nicely some fundamental things going on in medieval courts”, he commented.
A renaissance for old and medieval literature
George R. R. Martin’s seminal series takes these extraordinary people, their culture and customs, their lives, loves and losses and transforms it into an epic work of high fantasy. The Game of Thrones franchise draws heavily upon old and middle English history, especially the old Germanic texts and Icelandic sagas such as the Prose Edda, the Nibelungenlied and the old English epic Beowulf.
In comparison to other periods, the history of the old English period, spanning roughly from AD 450 (the first Germanic settlements in Britain) to about AD 1150 (after the Norman conquest), has remained relatively unsought and cryptic. The reason behind this may be the difficulty in studying the source language, 85 percent of whose components are no more in use today.
The ranks of old Germanic sagas are populated by incredibly strong-willed, vengeful, and ambitious women like Kriemhild, the Valkyries, Hildeburh and the likes. Martin’s characters like Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Arya Stark portray the complex power struggles and gender politics of the period upon which the franchise draws upon.
Not just The Game of Thrones
This isn’t the first high-fantasy series to receive serious academic incursion. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, with its prequels, sequels, and movie adaptations has been the subject of critical discourse over the last few decades. Observers have opined that Tolkien’s work made the history, spirit, and culture of the old English period accessible to the common man all over the world. It freed the period from the sphere of academic elitism and brought it back to the people, thereby reviving popular interest.
Similarly, Harvard seeks to increase academic interest in a rich and incredible era by providing undergraduates with the opportunity to deconstruct Martin’s work and join the thinning ranks of humanities scholars.
Harvard isn’t the first institution to decide to introduce a course based on this famous franchise. In April, UC Berkeley also introduced a six-week course inspired by the fictional languages in the series titled “The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention”. It will be taught by linguist David J.Peterson who created the High Valyrian and Dothraki languages for the show.
Influences across popular culture
Other popular art forms have also picked up on this concept and have begun representing history in a fictional context in order to create popular-culture epics. Examples can be found in Hiromu Arakawa’s depiction of genocide and the Crusades in the Fullmetal Alchemist and Arslan Senki franchises. Similar echoes are found in Martin’s depiction of the kingdom of Dorne in the franchise. Graphic novel giants like Marvel and DC and acclaimed RPGs like DoTA and League of Legends often turn to the medieval English period to source lore from.
With such an abundance of interest being generated in popular depictions of this period, it would be to the discredit of the academic community to not use this opportunity. This instance is an example of Harvard choosing to be flexible in order to accommodate public interest. This will, in turn, generate awareness about a period that would have been lying, vellum-bound, in the Vercelli manuscript in some private collection otherwise.
Why is this an important trend?
The 21st century is shaped by popular cultural influences more than any other preceding century. Apart from combating academic elitism, it will also popularise an important force that influenced socio-cultural perceptions of an entire civilisation. With the world shrinking into a global village, education is being freed from its pedestal and brought down in many forms to people in various socioeconomic positions.
This force has the potential to make and break public consciousness and opinion. Therefore, it is high time we recognise the potency of the situation and harness it before one of the most incredible eras in world history with its radical views on religion, ethics, the human spirit and heroism is lost to the world forever.
Featured Image Credits: Pexels
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