Medievalism explored in ‘Game of Thrones’ lecture

On March 28, Professor of English at Martin Luther University Dr. Sabine Volk-Birke delved into the medieval world of “Game of Thrones.” / Courtesy of Martin Luther University

How does one sum up “Game of Thrones?” It’s like if you took “The Lord of the Rings,” got rid of all the endless tracking shots of New Zealand, added a healthy dose of sex and violence and then threw in a few more dragons for good measure. It’s dark, sexy and certainly not without controversy. Truly entertainment for the whole family.

Last Tuesday, March 28, Professor of English at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany Dr. Sabine Volk-Birke delved into the dark and tantalizing world created by George R. R. Martin in his hit fantasy series in a lecture titled “Medievalism Today: Chivalry and Religion in A Song of Ice and Fire.”

Located in the Thompson Library Class of ’51 Reading Room, the lecture examined how Martin’s novels, and by extension its HBO adaptation, explore the infinite possibilities of the fantasy genre. In addition, the series creates stories that are appropriately nuanced in nature, as well as allegories that help audiences better understand their own past histories and current realities.

Professor Volk-Birke, an expert on medieval as well as modern English literature, was eagerly anticipated by Vassar’s own Professor of English Robert DeMaria. DeMaria recalled how he was first introduced to Volk-Birke: “I met Professor Volk-Birke through our mutual participation in an organization called the International Association for University Professors of English … It was from the beginning for senior scholars with no worries about professional networking, just a desire to discuss the study of English and English literature as a worldwide phenomenon.”

DeMaria has since praised Volk-Birke’s contributions to this international community, commenting, “Sabine Volk-Birke is now the chair of the international committee, which assists the director in making all kinds of interesting decisions about membership and the structure and location of the conferences. I’m a member of that committee, and I’ve come to admire Sabine’s intelligence and good sense.”

Volk-Birke’s international perspective was certainly a welcome contribution to the Vassar community, and her analysis of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” universe was nuanced, even progressive in nature and captivating for all those in attendance.

DeMaria greatly enjoyed Volk-Birke’s scholarly approach to the lecture topic, in her careful consideration of history as well as the format of her discussion. As he stated, “Her lecture did not disappoint me in the least. She took a predictably scholarly approach and began by distinguishing the medieval from medievalism, the history of which she proceeded to outline.”

This distinction is an important one, and certainly not one often recognized by audiences. Medievalism, which a mainstream audience is certainly more familiar with, is not the exact rendering of the medieval era, but one born out of our contemporary imaginings (often fantastical in nature) of history.

Yet this does not mean that medievalist literature is not worth our scholarly discussion, and that notion was not lost on Sarah Mamlet ’20, a student in attendance at the lecture. Mamlet recalled, “While many scholars of the Middle Ages might assume that popular culture, such as George R. R. Martin’s series, merely takes the imagined view of medieval life, Volk-Birke detailed the themes of chivalry and religion from the books that were prevalent in the real Middle Ages.”

Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of the lecture was Volk-Birke’s discussion of world building and how fantasy literature in particular allows for a greater freedom of creativity, as it is not bound by the constraints of our own reality. Martin’s stories are not the characteristically black-and-white or “good vs. evil” fictions found in other mainstream fantasy (cough cough “Lord of the Rings” cough cough). Instead, his stories revel in the grey areas and illustrate deeply human characters bound by their fantastically messy and complex narratives.

This nuanced take on the medievalist genre has certainly paid off, as “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its many adaptations have spawned a worldwide phenomenon with the interest of a captivated global audience. Volk-Birke discussed how this kind of world-building invites fan interaction.

As she reflected, “The series has not only sold phenomenally well but has also created a huge fan community with large-scale activities on the Internet as well as a roaring trade with fan articles [and a] variety of intermedial offshoots like graphic novels, artworks and video games.”

DeMaria was intrigued by this understanding of Martin’s works, stating, “She showed in fact that there is a liberalizing, progressive religious tendency in the ‘Ice and Fire’ books, and I found that quite enlightening since the little I’d read and seen of it seemed really backward in politics, religion, gender dynamics and in everything else.”   

While Volk-Birke was clearly more focused on the Martin’s rendering of medievalism within the novels, it is interesting to compare this more progressive understanding of the novels to the HBO adaptation, where one can see where television executives may have fallen short. As a show, “Game of Thrones” is known for its relentless attempts to push the boundaries, which have arguably led to some confused, even backwards interpretations of gender politics in particular.

The character of Sansa is an excellent example of the ways in which writers’ attempts to horrify the audience may have backfired. Though this character certainly undergoes tremendous hardship in Martin’s novels, the writers on the show actively changed storylines in order for audiences to see the character suffer even more. Previous seasons saw her as the victim of horrific abuse from a variety of men in her life, and, arguably, at a certain point, the audience becomes numb to it all.

The attempt to push boundaries and provide “edgy” entertainment that refuses to let its audience to look away in a sense provides consent to the exhibition of violence. Is that all that progressive? While it is important to delve into the dark, complicated aspects of life, at what point does the visual interpretation of abuse move beyond the nuanced and into the voyeuristic and possibly toxic?

Yet the novels and television adaptations are certainly separate entities, and Volk-Birke’s interpretation of Martin’s original works still stand. Mamlet stated that the lecture made her think of the saying “the past is a foreign country.”

It is much easier to explore serious and complex issues through a lens different from our own. Medievalist literature offers the reader an escape into the fantastical, where they can explore their own realities through the eyes of a knight in shining armor, a queen atop her throne or even on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. And what better way is there to see the world?

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