Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
HBO's Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin's cult book series A Song of Ice and Fire, is currently the world's most popular television show. It mediates a medieval world – more correctly, a constellation of imagined medieval societies – in a “utilitarian bricolage.” The show focuses, particularly in its final seasons, on the western-style cultures of the continent of Westeros. Here, as many online commentators note, a familiar type of medievalism, the “life is filthy, brutal, and short” version, intimates that the show is “realistic,” clearly setting itself in opposition to the idealized “Merrye Olde Englande version” of many early twentieth-century medievalist imaginings – for example, Tolkien's Shire. Game of Thrones also offers, in some respects, a highly orientalized version of eastern societies – both Middle and Far Eastern – with its depictions of the Dothraki (a nomadic society of horsemen based on the Mongols) and the slaving cultures at Slavers’ Bay, who owe much to medieval notions of Saracens. The show depicts a range of different emotions within its complex, interweaving storylines; by deploying emotions strongly associated with the medieval period in the popular imagination it claims, at an implicit level, to authenticate the alterity of the realization of Martin's world created by showrunners David Benioff and Daniel Weiss, foregrounding alternative and challenging aspects of human experience. In so doing, the show elicits powerful emotional reactions both within its fan community and among more casual audiences. The concomitants of “medieval” emotion in the show are frequently shocking, characterized by (often sexual) violence, or explicit nudity and sexual activity (a noted hallmark of HBO programming). “The ‘un-modern’ setting of these films [sc. medieval movies] is used as a licence to project taboo images and actions – particularly around the body and what might be done to it or done with it, or how it might be displayed,” notes Andrew Higson of films set in the medieval past. So, too, with the TV show. Notwithstanding these sensationalizing impulses, other historically attested medieval emotions or emotion-related behaviors are eschewed or downplayed as just too alien and unsympathetic. The world of Game of Thrones instantiates a medievalism that may, at times, be misleading about the past, but also one that both invites and integrates critique of its imagined emotional systems.