Current Issue #488

How Will Game of Thrones End? Medieval Scholar Shares Theories, Historical Comparisons

How Will Game of Thrones End? Medieval Scholar Shares Theories, Historical Comparisons

While TV audiences and readers across the world impatiently await the final series of Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s penultimate novel of the series on which the smash-hit show is based, Professor Carolyne Larrington has some educated ideas on how it will all end.

The Oxford University academic and scholar of medieval literature has written her own book on the popular series, examining the historical events on which much of the story is based, and will be in Adelaide next week to present Game of Thrones! History, Medievalism and How it Might End at the University of Adelaide.

As has been noted by Martin himself, much of the rivalry and war in Westeros is based on the Wars of the Roses, but the connections go far deeper than that. Indeed, from Larrington’s perspective, much of Martin’s world is a mosaic of fascinating historical societies and events.

“George Martin himself was a history minor when he was at college, and he has a really good knowledge of different medieval societies,” she tells The Adelaide Review.

Martin’s historical reference points come from a variety of places and times, says Larrington.

“King’s Landing in the south, which is very much like medieval England, to a more Anglo-Saxon in the north of Westeros. Obviously the Iron-born are very strongly related to the Vikings, the Dothraki to the Mongols, and so on. The cities on the narrow sea, at least Braavos which is quite strongly imagined, looks a little bit like medieval Venice.”


Larrington also sees strong similarities in Game of Thrones’ characters to real-life examples. Cersei Lannister, she says, has distinct shades of “Queen Isabella of France, who was the wife of King Edward the Second.”

When it comes to an audience favourite, Tyrion Lannister, Larrington says that Martin pays homage to medieval conceptions of dwarves, then subsequently tries to subvert them.

“I think he’s more of a reversal of the standard image of dwarves in the medieval period, which was kind of lustful, cunning but not clever. They sneak around the place trying to get one over people and they’re very good craftsmen. They’re really clever at making things. I mean, Tyrion has that – he makes a saddle that Bran can ride in. But what Martin quite often does is to subvert these ideas, so Tyrion grows from the cunning dwarf into a clever statesman.”


Another of Martin’s subversions of the medieval era, Larrington says, is the palpable disregard Westerosi knights have for the concept of chivalry, which she says was an important tenet to observe in the medieval period.

“Chivalry doesn’t get a great wrap in either the show or the books. It’s all kind of knights paying lip-service to the idea that they must look after ladies and be noble and gallant, but it doesn’t stop them from slapping Sansa round the face with a mail glove.”

But, the brutality for which the show is known, where soldiers pillage and reave through villages is very true to life.

“The generalised brutality that you find, like ravaging the Riverlands and killing every man, woman and child that you see is very true to the way the English armies behaved in France in the Hundred Years’ War.”


The Red Wedding may also have been inspired by historical events, Larrington says.

“The Red Wedding does seem to have a parallel from Scottish history in some ways.  It wasn’t actually a wedding there and it was a later, sort of 18th century betrayal of all the rules of hospitality and murdering guests who come under your roof. But there’s also something called the Black Feast, which was also in Scotland. That was a medieval occasion where all the Earls of Douglas were invited to dine with the King and then they were murdered afterwards. Those kinds of breaches of hospitality were fairly rare, but at the same time, when somebody did commit an atrocity like that, everybody knew about it.”

One key element of Martin’s stories is the social power structure that drives so many characters’ actions, which seems to be explicitly based on medieval power structures. A conversation between Varys and Tyrion, where Varys poses the riddle of a soldier standing between “a king, a priest and a rich man” and asks whose orders he will obey, summarises the competing interests of faith, money and honour nicely. Larrington says this riddle is “absolutely a clear reflection of the social order of the nobility of the time”.

“You have the king representative of the nobility, you have the church and you have the growing power of the middle classes… Those questions of who really has the power are quite an interesting one. I’m actually writing a second book about Game of Thrones in which I’m going to look exactly at the way questions of power play out through that fable.”

When it comes how the whole epic story will conclude, she expects a divergence between the books and show.

“I think the show is probably going to go one way and the books will go another,” Larrington says.  “The show is galloping toward the end game, and they’ve started cutting storylines left right and centre in order to bring it back to focus on what I suspect is going to be Daenerys ascending the Iron Throne, marrying Jon Snow… Then there’s going to have to be a big battle against the white walkers, and I guess the dragons will mow them all down and that will be that.”


And for the book? Larrington has more apocalyptic ideas.

“I think Martin, with at least two more books to go, has much more complicated stuff to do. He’s got a whole series of plots that he is still developing. I don’t think he’s going to go for the kind of Lord of the Rings ‘and then they fell in love and got married and had a big battle’ kind of scenario. He’s going to wrap up other storylines a bit more clearly. So I think there we might just see Martin say, ‘You know what? We’re going to blow everything up. The dragons and the White Walkers are going to destroy the known world between them.’”

Asked what impact the phenomenon of Game of Thrones has had in the academic world, Larrington says universities are seeing renewed interest in the medieval era in general, noting that “Game of Thrones is maybe the Tolkien of the 21st Century”.

“Thirty years ago the students would turn up to study medieval literature saying, ‘I read Tolkien and that’s why I would like to do this,’ and now they come into the classroom and go, ‘I’ve seen Game of Thrones and I want to know more about that kind of world.’”

Game of Thrones! History, Medievalism and How it Might End
Napier Lecture Hall 102, University of Adelaide
Tuesday, November 8
Bookings available at

Images: HBO

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox