Winter is Coming (Back, This Sunday)
This Sunday, HBO will broadcast the first episode of season seven of its hit show, Game of Thrones (GoT). Last year at least 23 million Americans watched each episode of season six. Professor Richard Utz is more than a fan — he’s an expert observer. He specializes in the study of literature, film, media and communication. His research also focuses on the reception of medieval culture in postmedieval times.
GoT includes dozens of features commonly considered typical of the historical period commonly called the Middle Ages (from the fifth to the 15th century): premodern feudalist government structures; kings, queens, knights, and squires; castles, dungeons, and dragons; random violence; swords and sorcery; etc. In addition, George R.R. Martin, the author of the novels on which the TV series is based, has stated that his story is grounded in history and wants to provide an alternative to the syrupy depiction of medieval culture in Disney movies.
However, despite Martin’s intentions, there is not a single event or character in the show that directly represents any actual historical event or person. Thus, his story takes place in a world that does not depend on historicity, unlike the similarly stark shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom. GoT is much more like the many medieval-themed computer games that vaguely remind us of medieval times, but no longer aim at a specific time in the past. Based on Neo, the unique fictional character in The Matrix movie, I call such stories “neomedievalist.”
Does this mean that 21st century audiences are developing a preference for stories in worlds independent of history, with their own languages, social structures, rules, etc.? And could the contemporary technologies that enable us to create such unique environments (interactivity, world-building games and, in a few years perhaps, holodecks) be responsible for this preference? It’s too early to answer these questions. What I can say with confidence is that the neomedievalist elements in GoT are only partially responsible for the show’s success. GoT’s audiences like the combination of attractive world building, thriller-fiction pacing; complex characters; guilt-free barbarism, violence, and sex; and Sopranos-like family drama. None of these features is intrinsically ‘medieval.’