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5 Bits of Game of Thrones Straight Out of History and Literature

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    The Red Wedding

    The Red Wedding

    • Reference: The Glencoe Massacre /The Black Dinner

    Oh, the Red Wedding. Who among us didn't stare open-mouthed at the page or screen as a quarter of the cast was wiped off the strategy board? The Red Wedding, which shook us to the core and produced so many amusing Youtube clips of tearful, shell-shocked viewers and their maniacally grinning, book reading friends. (To be fair, the book readers have already lived through the pain. We're now pleasantly numb. Or have to be to keep reading this series.)

    It should be remembered that the Red Wedding comes in the middle of A Storm of Swords, not the end (the book was split for seasons 3 and 4), so it really does come completely out of left field, violating pretty much every rule of dramatic structure known to those who actually care about such things. It's shocking, you will never believe you didn't see it coming when you go back and think about it, and, strangely, thrillingly, it doesn't feel like fiction. Within a few pages, everything you envisioned for these characters and their arcs go up in smoke in the most brutal and unjust way imaginable. It feels like life. It feels like history.

    Because, technically, it is history. Straight from the author's mouth, the Red Wedding was directly inspired by two grisly events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre.

    (It's a novel approach. Want your series to feel like history? Follow history! Perhaps Game of Thrones' popularity is a backlash against the History Lite offered by The Tudors and Philippa Gregory novels. Or just proof that people love dragons).

    The first source of inspiration cited by George R. R. Martin is the Black Dinner, which occurred in 1440 in Edinburgh Castle. 15th century Scotland was rife with feuding families, not unlike Westeros. One clan, in particular – the Black Douglases - found themselves at odds with the Royal court. The Douglases were invited to Edinburgh Castle by the very young king's advisors and promised safe passage and a safe reception.

    (I wonder how it ends?)

    The Douglases were enjoying dinner at the castle when things took an especially dark turn. The King's men presented the leader of the Douglas Clan, William, with a serving tray, lifting the lid to reveal a black bull's head – a traditional Scottish symbol of death.

    *cue the Rains of Castamere*

    The Douglases were then all beheaded for treason. According to history, the King's men did NOT then stitch the bull's head onto William Douglas' decapitated body a la Greywind, so you can thank GRRM for that extra bit of nightmare fuel.

    (Note: Martin cites the head as belonging to a black boar, but most historical accounts of the incident cite a bull.)

    The second incident was the Glencoe Massacre, which came not long after England's Glorious Revolution, which placed the Protestant monarchs William and Mary on the throne. Scottish Catholics, still loyal to the ousted Catholic James II, staged an uprising. The revolt ultimately failed in more ways than one, as the rebels made some pretty petty enemies along the way, including the Campbell Clan who were furious when the Maclains of Glencoe and Macdonald Clan stole some of their livestock and other property (totally the same thing as snubbing Campbell's daughters, right? No.)

    In early 1692, a host of Campbell men billeted with the Maclains (the Campbells and Maclains were related by marriage, so their was nothing too unusual about this). Captain Campbell spent the evening playing cards with his hosts, who were killed by the Campbell host later that night. In all, 38 men were massacred, with a further 40 women and children dying of exposure after their homes were burned. The massacre was considered especially egregious because it was considered a "murder under trust". The Campbells had accepted the Maclains' hospitality, which should have ensured the safety of everyone sleeping in the hall that night.

    The concepts of "guest right" and "murder under trust" are  long-held traditions taken very seriously by Martin in his books. The Red Wedding, as with the Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre, were considered travesties not just because of the slaughter, but because the slaughter occurred under the safety net of hospitality. The Stark men and women at the Red Wedding were slaughtered under a banner of truce, which is why even enemies of the Starks won't be lauding Walder Frey as anything but the slimy, child-wedding, little Filch weasel he really is. Fans and allies of the Starks can only hope that eventually time will bring the Freys their just desserts.

    4 votes
    3 votes
    The Abduction of Lyanna Stark

    The Abduction of Lyanna Stark

    • Reference: The Rape of Lucretia

    The background of the rebellion that put Robert Baratheon on the throne and banished the Targaryens to the continent seems straightforward enough: Robert was engaged to Lyanna Stark, Ned's sister; Prince Rhaegar Targaryen abducted Lyanna; all hell broke loose. In the end, Robert still lost Lyanna, who died under not-quite-yet revealed circumstances.

    Hint: Read the books. You'll either figure it out or fall for one of the better-played literary red herrings in history. It's sort of hard to tell with George R.R. Martin.

    The formula seems lifted straight out of The Iliad with Paris' abduction of Helen, but history offers another, much more specific precedent in the figure of Lucretia. The daughter of a Roman prefect, Lucretia has become the stuff of legends with her rape by Etruscan prince Sextus Tarquinius immortalized in art and literature again and again by the likes of Shakespeare, Botticelli, and Titian. The incident is considered to be the catalyst that began the revolution that would bring about the rise of the Roman Republic, with the men of Rome so enraged by the rape that they decided to immediately overthrow the Targaryens Tarquins.

    So, back to Robert's Rebellion. The Targaryens were defeated and Westeros enjoyed a flourishing golden age of representative democracy… or… well, no. George R. R. Martin's version certainly won't be that easy (and if you think the Roman Republic was that simple, bad history student! Bad!)

    The mystery surrounding Lyanna's abduction remains one of the most widely debated topics among book readers (did she go willingly? How did she die? Hey, wait a minute…) and it seems likely that the story will not be as cut and dry as the "Wicked Prince abducting the Helpless Maiden" trope.

    All we know is once more is revealed, book readers will either heave a sigh of relief or throw their books across the room (and probably throw out their shoulders doing so).

    2 votes
    The Rat Cook

    The Rat Cook

    • Reference: The Metamorphoses and Titus Andronicus

    "Huh?" you non-book readers are saying as you look at the image. "Pie?" I will just say this: careful book readers know what I'm talking about. They know. They are smiling and perhaps gleefully rubbing their hands together at this very moment because they know.

    I will also say this: think back a moment to the story Bran tells Meera and Jojen in episode 10 of season 3 – the Tale of the Rat Cook, about a chef who serves the King a pie made out of bacon, mushrooms, and the king's son. Bran goes on to say that the gods then became angry with the Rat Cook because he had slain a guest beneath his roof and turned him into a giant, white rat doomed to eat only his own young.

    *cue a rather delicious cut to Walder Frey chatting with Lord Bolton*

    In addition to being a really great campfire story, the Tale of the Rat Cook has major similarities with a few tales from literature. The first is Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which Procne, the Queen of Thrace, feeds her husband (who has just raped and mutilated her sister Philomel) a pie with a special ingredient: their son.

    Upon discovering this, the king chases down his wife and sister-in-law (whom, again, remember, he raped and dismembered) and is about to kill them when… the gods take mercy on the women and transform them into birds. Similar stories, different takes, and it is especially telling, perhaps, that little warg Bran would tell a story with animal transformation so at the forefront.

    The second, and perhaps more notorious example, is William Shakespeare's blood-drenched play Titus Andronicus, which explicitly alludes to the story of Procne and Philomel several times. After his daughter Lavinia is raped and mutilated by the Empress' two sons, Titus has both of them secretly killed and bakes them into pies, which he then feeds to their mother.

    Now, story time in A Song of Ice and Fire is always important and many of Bran, Meera, and Jojen's stories were left out of the final cut of the show (or are forthcoming in the next season), so it may be wise to consider why this particular story was left in and why it appeared in episode 10.

    Food for thought.

    2 votes
    Theon at the Dreadfort

    Theon at the Dreadfort

    • Reference: Dracula

    Viewers of Game of Thrones have become so used to bizarre, often gratuitous sex scenes during the show that we barely bat an eyelash at them anymore. That's something of a shame, as when a truly bizarre sex scene comes along – one that we are meant to find truly bizarre – it has little impact.

    When Theon (currently recovering from some Bolton "hospitality", strapped to an x-frame) finds himself besieged by nubile, young women eager to show him… er, another kind of Dreadfort hospitality, the moment feels completely out of nowhere… and pretty much par for the course with this show. The scene carries on right up until the moment when Theon begins to respond and then BOOM! Enter Ramsey Bolton, the Dreadfort's resident ghoul who possessively dismisses the women and proceeds to have Theon castrated.

    It's an uncomfortable scene and can be condemned for sensualizing a molest right before a moment of extreme sexual violence.

    But why does the scene feel so familiar?

    Because vampires, that's why.

    This scene is a direct allusion to the moment when Jonathan Harker is nearly seduced by the brides of Dracula, only to have Dracula interrupt and make it understood that he exerts complete physical and psychological control of Harker (something Ramsey exerts over Theon via the castration).

    Dracula-imagery abounds in the books when it comes to the Boltons, especially Ramsey who takes fetishistic delight in physical violence, rape, and brainwashing his victims into total subservience (think of "Reek" as Ramsey's Renfield).

    …Plus, you know, capes and stuff.

    The scene is a perfect introduction to the surreal freak show that is the Dreadfort and a clever way to place the Boltons into the Dracula mythos for non-book readers.

    Granted, it probably would have been more effective if naked women didn't regularly materialize out of thin air on the show, but that isn't likely to stop any time soon, so it's really the show's loss. (I will defend your literary merit, show. I will not defend your bizarre, medieval bikini waxes.)

    2 votes
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