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19.05.06 Jamison, Chivalry in Westeros

19.05.06 Jamison, Chivalry in Westeros

This century's most important work of popular medievalism is without a doubt George R.R. Martin's multi-volume A Song of Ice and Fire and the 8-year-long TV series A Game of Thrones which is based upon it. (In the following review I will call this work, books and TV series both, Game of Thrones, in line with common usage). Thousands upon thousands have read the books or pirated the episodes off the internet, and "Game of Thrones" has become a catchphrase used to describe vicious, bloodthirsty politics or Machiavellian intrigue. It is now a cheap but evocative way of characterizing our current situation as "medieval," that is, "bad."

Game of Thrones has transcended normal levels of popularity. Readers and writers and film producers have swarmed over it, not only demanding more of the story but also the opportunity to create their own versions. The desire to engage with Game of Thrones springs from the fact that having caught the imagination, the story and the setting are both familiar to the audience and capable of being added to, to suit contemporary taste. Earlier examples are Ben Hur, the book and the movies, and the Lord of the Rings and other works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ben Hur made the Holy Land and the passion of Christ, a sacred setting and story for a 19th century audience, more accessible; Tolkien made a vast magical world by mining the aesthetics of the Middle Ages. Martin also builds on a medieval foundation. The world of Game of Thrones, the fictional continent of Westeros, is medieval enough to be familiar and unique enough to make the story fresh.

Jamison is one of the many who find Martin's mix of real and invented medieval history fascinating. She is certainly well qualified to critique and enjoy Game of Thrones--her academic expertise includes both medieval literature and medievalism. The preface and chapter one establish the parameters for her examination. Medievalism is defined in a number of ways perhaps most usefully by Tom Shippey as "the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the medieval began to develop." [1] Of course this is a very broad definition, and Jamison narrows it down; of the many possible medievalisms, her subject is Martin's contribution to the literature of chivalry.

Chivalry in Westeros systematically works its way through a variety of issues that arise in any discussion of chivalry. Jamison is particularly interested in "the code" of chivalry and how the ideals professed by various characters in Chivalry in Westeros and the stories those characters cite in discussions with each other shape an informal debate on the nature of chivalry and its relationship to other values supposedly held by the society at large. The way in which traditions emerge from such debates, oral and written, is the subject of two whole chapters. One suspects that this analysis may have been included for the benefit of students or teachers who have not thought much about the workings of literary tradition before picking up this book. The treatment certainly is quite extensive with discussion of many actual medieval chivalric works.

Interestingly, Jamison gives pride of place to an examination of the chivalric virtue of franchise. For the purposes of this review, franchise can be defined very briefly as nobility, though it might be equated with chivalry. Franchise, like chivalry, is multi-faceted. Here it is examined in detail because it reflects the idea that real knights are of noble birth and have such obvious attributes as provable noble descent and physical beauty. Of course, neither in our Middle Ages nor in Westeros are all knights actually noble, or in unambiguous possession of the proofs of superior status. Jamison cites many examples of "social climber" knights. Franchise is tricky--and the possession or lack of it is a matter of debate. Many people who in fact do not possess basic characteristics of knighthood take a rather cynical view of the old standards; others need to fake it if they are to be anything more than "hedge [poor] knights" scraping by on the basis of a modicum of prowess or willingness to engage in treachery. The result is that chivalry, despite the sins of many who claim to be practitioners and a recurrent skepticism about its reality, is clearly central to the culture of Westeros. The bulk of the book examines such virtues and characteristics of chivalry as loyalty, prowess, vengeance, and peace-weaving and how they actually shape behavior in Westeros.

Discussion of chivalry is a discussion of ideals versus reality. It is in the nature of such debates that they are unlikely to be resolved. In Jamison's presentation, the problems with chivalry spring not from the faults of individuals, but are inherent in the incoherence of chivalry. It is a matter of broken ideals rather than broken people. [2] Likewise, it shows that whether one consults with medieval romancers, the chroniclers of the Round Table, or George R.R. Martin on the reality of chivalry, the same themes emerge.

Jamison states at the beginning of Chivalry in Westeros that her interest in using Martin's work was as a jumping-off point for teaching medieval literature and medievalism. In the last chapter, "Conclusions," she returns to this point--how Game of Thrones can be used to enhance (or, admittedly, serve to hinder) a non-specialist's understanding of the Middle Ages. She makes a rather convincing case for the usefulness of Game of Thrones in teaching medievalism, namely when it is done well and the students are receptive. Jamison refers to her experience in incorporating Game of Thrones in courses on medieval literature. Some students wrote papers touching on such sophisticated topics as the creation of "authenticity" in our accounts of medieval history and culture. Likewise students used Game of Thrones to shed light on modern concerns. Her descriptions of her students' accomplishments were very persuasive. This student work sounds on a par with work that has been produced by some of my better students when they get really inspired by a topic. At this point in history, Martin's vivid pseudo-medieval world can lead some students and scholars in interesting directions.



1. "Medievalisms and Why They Matter," Studies in Medievalism(s) XVII: Defining Medievalism(s), ed. Karl Fugelso (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2009), 45-54.

2. p. 113: "[Le Morte Darthur] is not simply a tragedy of character; it is a tragedy of ideas...chivalry is noble but fatally flawed, fatally unstable and so too must be its practitioners," quoting Kenneth Hodges, Forging Chivalric Communities in Malory's Le Morte Darthur (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 2.