‘Survival of the fittest’ is a polite way of saying that the biggest bully on the playground wins. This is how things work in the animal kingdom, and we’re not so different ourselves; history is littered with those who achieved victory through underhand (or outright vindictive) means. They’d be in good company with the characters from Game of Thrones. Westeros is chock-full of liars, thieves and the morally bankrupt. When they’re not plotting unspeakable things against one another, they’re carrying those plans out.
It’s comforting to remind ourselves that this is just a story. That’s a white lie, though. If you strip away the undead, magic and dragons, it’s not unlike the world our ancestors suffered through. The deliciously evil Ramsay Bolton isn’t alone in his vindictiveness, for instance. As author George R. R. Martin admitted to EW, ‘no matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse’. The past is a grim place to be. Should you Google the cruellest people of all time, Vlad the Impaler is among the top results. Known for his sadistic tendencies, his victims were stabbed with a pole through the backside until it emerged from their mouth. Even recent events are spotted with horror. The Holocaust is one such example, of course, accompanied by Pol Pot’s genocide and the Soviet Union’s Road of Bones (thousands died creating a highway lined with prison camps).
It’s surprising how often Game of Thrones echoes real-world events. In fact, Martin has previously admitted that much of the story was based on the War of the Roses. For instance, the Lannister boys’ murder in Season 2 was reminiscent of two English Princes who vanished during the 15th century. Edward V and his brother were held in the Tower of London by their uncle (Richard III) before being declared illegitimate and mysteriously disappearing. This allowed Richard to take the throne for himself.
The Red Wedding also borrows cues from our past. Inspired by medieval Scotland’s Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre, these betrayals saw noble families slaughtering their guests. Martin explained to EW that ‘the king of Scotland was fighting the Black Douglas clan. He reached out to make peace. He offered the young Earl of Douglas safe passage. He came to Edinburgh Castle and had a great feast. Then at the end of the feast, [the king’s men] started pounding on a single drum. They brought out a covered plate and put it in front of the Earl and revealed it was the head of a black boar – the symbol of death. And as soon as he saw it, he knew what it meant. They dragged them out and put them to death in the courtyard. The larger instance was the Glencoe Massacre. Clan MacDonald stayed with the Campbell clan overnight and the laws of hospitality supposedly applied. But the Campbells arose and started butchering every MacDonald they could get their hands on’.
The show’s slew of hostages isn’t unusual either. European history is filled with the rich being held to ransom, and during the Middle Ages you could net a large sum of money for returning captured knights. One such case was that of Richard the Lionheart, imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria and Germany’s Henry VI on his way home from the Third Crusade (he was sold back to England for a ludicrous 150,000 marks, if you’re interested).
Suffice to say, Game of Thrones owes many of its ideas to time gone by. The malicious Joffrey is joined by figures like Ivan the Terrible, a tsar of Russia who ordered the killing of thousands and supposedly ‘gouged out the eyes of the architects who built St. Basil’s so that a cathedral of such beauty could never again be created’ (via History.co.uk). Then there’s Theon Greyjoy’s raiding of the North, resembling how Vikings would pillage our shores from 793AD onwards. And let’s not get started on the Bolton penchant for flaying; it was a real method put into practice by the Assyrians. That torture scene involving rats from the show was real too, and it’s hardly the worst technique on offer. You don’t want to know about the Breaking Wheel or Pear of Anguish.
Embracing human nastiness is part of what makes this show so compelling; in contrast to cleaner fantasies (The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time, say) you never know what’s coming. For that reason, Westeros isn’t too different from our own world. What a depressing thought.
Sources: EW, BBC, The Daily Mail, Wikipedia, iO9