An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 17, 2016

Larrington: Winter is Coming

Carolyne Larrington, Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016.
Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo (
The book and television series Game of Thrones will likely be familiar to medieval scholars. With another television series planned for this year, and at least two more books from Martin which are due to be published, the Game of Thrones mania is unlikely to fade soon. There have obviously been books published about the show before, but these have mostly been companion pieces to the television series, concerned chiefly with the production of the show. Carolyne Larrington’s Winter is Coming, however, is ‘what happens when a scholar of medieval literature and culture watches the HBO show Game of Thrones and reads George R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire’ (p. xiii). The aim of the books is not, however, to ‘chase up Martin’s sources or to spot direct influences on […] the show’ (Ibid). Rather, Larrington uses Game of Thrones as a window through which she teaches the reader about the medieval period, and she does it effectively. As there is currently no work of a similar kind on Martin’s books or the show, Winter is Coming therefore breaks new ground for medievalists.
Larrington bases her work upon both Martin’s books and the television show which, she says, in the terms that medieval scholars use, might now be spoken of as ‘two different recensions’ (Ibid). When Larrington refers to the ‘series’, she is referring to the narrative as manifested across television and print (p. xiv). Following the introduction there are five chapters; chapter one discusses the social customs, manners, and ideology of the people across the ‘known world’. After the introductory chapter Larrington adopts the persona of a travel writer: chapter two discusses the North of Westeros, from Winterfell to the Wall; the third chapter examines King’s Landing and the southern parts of Westeros; in the last two chapters Larrington takes the reader beyond the narrow sea, travelling to places such as the Free City of Braavos and the Dothraki homelands.
The first chapter is an engaging and lively discussion of the social codes which exist in the known world of Game of Thrones, and sets the scene for the discussions of the regions of the known world that follow. Almost beguilingly Larrington moves from discussing the world of Game of Thrones to teaching the reader about actual medieval manners and customs. There is the example in the first chapter of the use of patronymics in the series:
When a man identifies himself as his father’s son he makes clear his lineage and offers one good reason why he should be respected: Shagga of the Stone Crows feels that it’s imperative to make clear on every possible occasion that he is the son of Dolf […] Before the emergence of surnames, and indeed still in modern Iceland, a patronymic was the only way to distinguish someone from others bearing the same given name (pp.14-15).
Larrington then proceeds to discuss examples of patronymics being used in tales such as Beowulf (Ibid). It is brief discussions such as these that the non-specialist reader will find most useful. Usually in academic monographs, it is assumed that the reader has prior knowledge in regard to small details such as these, and it is therefore nice to have these types of things explained.
After discussing the social codes of medieval Europe through the lens of Westeros and Essos, Larrington takes the reader first to the north, beginning at Winterfell, the home of House Stark. Ned Stark’s dominion over Winterfell, she argues, is much more like the dominion that an Anglo-Saxon Earl had over his people, rather than the later medieval models of kingship which prevail in King’s Landing (p.57). Indeed, the cold North is a place for warriors, not knights. It is an austere place, and its inhabitants, such as Ned Stark, disapprove of the pageantry and decadence of those in the southern capital of King’s Landing (Ibid). The contrasts between the ruling powers of the North and South of Westeros thus provide Larrington with an effective entry point for a discussion of the differences in Anglo-Saxon and Norman power structures.
Larrington does not confine herself to simply discussing the various historical sources which undoubtedly gave Martin, and the show’s creators, inspiration in creating their medieval world. She also points out various aspects of the series which have relevance to today, particularly in her discussion of the phrase ‘Winter is Coming’. In Westeros, winters last for years, evoking memories of the Norse fimbulvetr, the mighty winter which is the precursor to ragnarok (p.96). But as Larrington points out, the population shifts which ensue as a result of a coming winter in Game of Thrones – where the wildlings seek refuge behind the wall – are a timely reminder for our own day of the humanitarian crises that will inevitably occur as a result of climate change (p.96). Furthermore, Larrington also points out where the medieval world conjured by Martin and the show’s creators diverges from its source material. This is particularly highlighted by her discussion of the role of religion in the books and the television show. For example, while the Faith of the Seven, with its priests and ceremonies, does bear some relation to medieval Catholicism, the class system of Westeros does not appear to have any theological underpinning (p.18).
While both the books and the television series of Game of Thrones are thought to be ‘medieval’ stories, one of the surprising facts that Larrington brings to light is just how many non-medieval sources the series takes inspiration from. As she points out, Martin bases some characters and some events upon early modern sources. The character of Brienne of Tarth, for instance, is perhaps founded upon two tales of female knights from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Bradamante in the two Italian romances Innamorato (1495) and Orlando Furioso (1516), and Britomart from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590s) (p.32). In addition, Margery Tyrell’s plight – a queen having been accused of adultery and imprisoned – is reminiscent of that faced by Anne Boleyn (p.111). The King’s Court at King’s Landing is also more reminiscent of a Tudor Court, with its knights, ladies, king’s guards, and jesters rather than the itinerant court of an earlier medieval monarch (p.103-104). Some events in the series are a fusion of medieval and modern sources. The infamous ‘Red Wedding’, for instance, in which the remaining members of House Stark are massacred by Walder Frey, is based upon both Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 (pp.36-37). Thus although Larrington does not say, Martin in some instances is following in the footsteps of Georgian and Victorian medievalists in utilising a combination of both medieval and early modern sources.
Indeed, one thing which would have added to Larrington’s discussion would have been a brief discussion of Martin’s works in context with past medievalist writers. Martin is heir to a long and prestigious line of popular authors from Sir Walter Scott who, in the words of John Henry Newman, ‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages’ with his novel Ivanhoe (1819).[1] Scott’s novel indeed has also been cited by Martin himself as a major inspiration to him.[2] Similarly there is J. R. R. Tolkien who, with his Lord of the Rings (1954-55), has been designated as the ‘father’ of the modern fantasy epic.[3] It is important to note, however, that the absence of such a discussion in no way detracts from Larrington’s work.
Larrington is obviously a fan of the show, and this comes through in her work. It is in the epilogue where she really shows how much of a ‘fan girl’ she is by speculating as to where the series might go next, and how it might end. Will the Iron Throne be occupied by Bran or Rickon (their stories being perhaps reminiscent of Havelock the Dane)? Or will Daenerys Targaryen ‘break the wheel’ by regaining her birthright? Of course, Larrington is not Martin, but she prophesies that Game of Thrones will most likely end like a typical medieval romance. There will be a Targaryen restoration, a wedding to an heir who’s technically a Targaryen, a limited degree of social reform in Westeros, as well as the restitution of Stark lands. Only time will tell if Larrington is correct in this matter.
In conclusion, Larrington’s work takes us on a journey through the known world of Game of Thrones. It is a work which will be of most use to medievalists – those who study later representations of the medieval period. Larrington’s engaging and accessible style, however, means that this book will have a wide appeal, most obviously to members of the general public who are fans of the show. Finally, for those who do not wish to read the book in case they come across any ‘spoilers’, Larrington has marked where spoilers appear in the book by placing the image of a raven in the margin. As a companion to the show and an introduction to medieval history, therefore, Larrington’s work is thoroughly recommended. At a time when humanities scholars are increasingly being asked to further their engagement with the public, Larrington has hit upon a winning formula: she uses popular culture as a window through which she can educate and inform the public about medieval history.
Stephen Basdeo
Leeds Trinity University

[1] John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19.4 (1965), 315-332 (315).

[2] Geoffrey McNab, ‘Song of Ice and Fire author George RR Martin on success, chess and the wrath of superfans’ The Independent, 8 August 2014.

[3] Margaret Drabble (ed.) The Oxford companion to English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.352.