Category Archives: pop culture

The Hobbit and History: Five Armies & Five Kings

The Hobbit and History comes Cover for The Hobbit and historyout on Tuesday. Order your copy or pick it up at your favourite retailer soon. In the meantime, read today’s historical snippet. Chapter One by Marcus Schulzke, “The Faces of the Five Armies”, examines historical parallels from the Middle Ages and Renaissance that help you better understand the dynamics of Tolkien’s battling forces in that culminating conflict. Given that the third movie in Peter Jackson’s adaptation is all about this, with reports that the battle itself will take forty-five minutes of screen time, it can only help to get Dr. Schulzke’s smart perspective on the topic.

Today’s Getty Museum MS 88.MP.70.119blog post goes a bit farther back in history to look at another parallel for Tolkien’s riveting “Battle of the Five Armies” taken out of biblical history. This image is from a fifteenth century German universal chronicle and it depicts the defeat of five kings of southern Canaan as told in the Book of Joshua, 10:2-27. In the Bible, Joshua was following Moses’ lead to take the Holy Land for the Israelites, even if that meant deposing and destroying its current Canaanite inhabitants. After successes in the north, Joshua met renewed resistance from a coalition of five kings: the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon. Their coalition reflected many common interests: culture, religion and fear of the death rained down upon the Canaanites by the increasingly powerful Israelites. These five kings plotted against Gibeon, a city that had made a covenant with Israel. The Gibeonites appealed to Joshua who, supported by the Lord, marched south against the five kings.

This was a long and deadly battle, made longer by miraculous intervention. A devastating and targeted hailstorm wreaked havoc with the coalition against the Israelites, killing many in the five kings’ armies. According to the Book of Joshua, God manifested his powers, again, on the side of Joshua and the Gibeonites: illuminating the battlefield long past the normal stretch of hours.

Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. (Josh 10:12-13)

The five kings sought refuge in a cave where they were walled in by their foes, only to be released and executed after Joshua’s forces had eradicated all of their armies, seizing the five cities for Israel.

Some coalitions are strong, like that of Joshua and the Gibeonites, united by the power of the covenant. Others, like the coalition of the five kings, are weak. Some coalitions are supported by great magic – the miracles that the Lord provided Joshua and his army or the wonders that a great wizard and even a little hobbit with a magic Ring might possess. Some coalitions find their dark support – Ba’al or Sauron – insufficient to the task. And sometimes five or more armies might all meet upon the field for a very long day and more to hash out the future of their world.

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Women’s History Week, 2014

Do you want to know what I’ve been doing the past few weeks besides checking proofs for my next article in Rethinking History and next month’s The Hobbit and History as well as teaching a lot and grading even more? Getting ready for Laurentian University’s latest iteration of Women’s History Week!

Here’s the poster advertising all the talks that you can attend during Women’s History Week at Laurentian University, October 27-31, 2014:
Poster for Women's History Week Going strong for over twenty years, Women’s History Week explores the diverse and intriguing topics of women’s history as shown in the scholarship of Laurentian faculty and students. This year our theme is Women and Popular Culture. From antiquity to the present-day, drawing on history, literature, political science and classics, Women’s History Week has a lot to offer.

I’m giving the keynote address, Tuesday evening in downtown Sudbury on Women and Game of Thrones. Have you always wondered if Martin’s women in their manoeuvring for power were at all historically plausible? Join us at the Fromagerie at 7pm and see! We also have a roundtable on Wednesday, the 29th, on literary and media representations of indigenous womanhood along with classroom talks throughout the week.

PDF Poster for Women’s History Week, 2014


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Virtue is. . .

Not sure if it’s a reward or what, but I’ve been spending most of this month with my nose to the proverbial grindstone. I’ve been marking and writing and preparing teaching. The writing has come to a frenzy of productivity as my deadline looms.

I’ve also submitted the complete manuscript of The Hobbit and History to our publishers. It’s going to look very nice when it comes out in 2014 but no time to think of that now. I need to be writing!


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Woman’s Rule: The Challenges Facing Daenerys

In Martin’s Game of Thrones series, the character of Daenerys Targaryen casts a long shadow. From the moment that rumours of her wedding to Khal Drogo come to King Robert’s ears back in Westeros, he is determined that she should die. Was it because he saw the young woman, herself, as a serious threat to his throne? No. Robert Baratheon’s fears were tied up in Daenerys’ possibility to bear a son who would challenge the Baratheon kingship as he makes clear in this first season conversation with Ned Stark.

This is a familiar conception of women and political power for medieval historians. The great conflict of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France derived from a difference of opinion on female inheritance. When Charles IV died in 1328 without any direct male heirs, there was a legitimate question about who should succeed. King Charles’ closest male relative was his nephew, Edward III of England, son of Isabella of France. Edward’s claim was rejected in favour of another cousin whose royal French descent had never been sullied by passing through female lines – Philip VI, the first Valois king.

The principle invoked by French jurists and courtiers in support of Philip’s claim was a tradition in French history known as Salic Law. An early medieval Frankish law code, the Lex Salica included a provision which held that “of Salic lands, no part of the inheritance shall come to a woman but the entirety of the heritable land shall come to the man.” What exactly was Salic land and what was meant by “the inheritance” wasn’t exactly clear. Hotly contested and even amended over the centuries to allow female inheritance, the principles of Salic Law were revived in the fourteenth century to exclude Isabella’s lineage from claiming the French crown. When England’s Edward III failed to accept this judgment, war ensued but it was never on behalf of putting his mother on the throne. (Knowing what we know of Isabella who was implicated in the death of her husband, Edward II and luridly termed “The She-Wolf of France” in some histories, her son might well be forgiven for wanting to bypass Mother Dearest.)

Principles of inheritance in Westeros seem very much in line with this particular medieval mentality that land and rule were manly concerns. We are told of a bloody and devastating civil war between two branches of the Targaryen family known as the Dance of the Dragons. The death of King Viserys left two possible contenders: his elder daughter, Rhaenyra, and her younger half-brother, Aegon. Their dispute tore apart the kingdom and the resolution of the civil war relegated women to the last-chance position of inheritance, a view almost as drastic as the Salic Law. (Read an excerpt from Martin’s “The Princess and the Queen, or the Blacks and the Greens”, forthcoming in Dangerous Women published by Tor (December, 2013).)

This devastating civil war bears close resemblance to another infamous episode in English medieval history – the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda. Lasting from 1138-1154, this cousinly conflict devastated England so utterly that one contemporary chronicler swore that it was as if “Christ and his angels slept”. Although not so closely related as their Westeros parallels, Matilda (the old king’s daughter and recognized heir) and Stephen (her cousin whose royal right came through a female line) represented similar choices. More medieval English nobles preferred Stephen to Matilda (who was sometimes termed arrogant) but many were loyal to Matilda, if only to honour their oaths to King Henry I. Matilda was relentless and effective: her husband’s campaigns brought Normandy under her control and, for a while, she held power in England, too. But the divide was too deep to paper over. The anarchy ended only when Stephen agreed to recognize Matilda’s son as heir – the future Henry II.

Matilda and Isabella were sidelined from the succession, but that is not a role that Dany is ready to accept. Perhaps it is because she believes herself to be the last Targaryen after her brother’s gruesome death? If so, she might well be expected to meekly step down in favour of one of the other claimants being groomed, such as Young Griff, or an eventual son as Robert feared. I believe that Daenerys is not just putting herself forward as the last of her line but that she has come to believe in herself as a legitimate, even the predestined ruler, with no apologies needed for her gender.

Consider this snippet from Dany’s conversation with a hostile mercenary captain, Prendahl, who disputes her ability to wage a campaign:

“Woman?” She chuckled. “Is that meant to insult me? I would return the slap, if I took you for a man.” Dany met his stare. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, khaleesi to Drogo’s riders, and queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.” – A Storm of Swords

Here, Daenerys stands against the historical notion that a woman was only a vessel of royal inheritance. Daenerys Targaryen sees her self-worth more than in her presumed position as the last of the Targaryens. She adds to those distinctions others that are hers and hers alone: the Unburnt, because she survived her husband’s funeral pyre which hatched the dragons which she sees as her children (and also as vindication of her Targaryen right to rule). From these virtues, it is a short step to assert her role as queen of the Seven Kingdoms, not in trust for an unborn son, but in her own right.

However, just as with the Ghiscari captain’s disdain, Daenerys has much to overcome to make that last boast into a reality – the widespread prejudice in Westeros and beyond against a woman’s right to rule. For this last challenge, history offers other interesting parallels, from the military exploits of Joan of Arc to the self-assured reign of Elizabeth Tudor. Which model of women and inheritance will win out in George R. R. Martin’s world? History cannot say, but it shows that Daenerys’ problems will not end on the battlefield but can extend on indefinitely with the entrenched prejudices against women’s rule.

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Ambition and Reputation: The Personal Politics of Gender

In 510 BCE, a Roman woman by the name of Lucretia was threatened and raped by the king’s son. Daughter of the chief magistrate of the Roman kingdom and wife of a governor, Lucretia demanded justice of her father and then committed suicide while the men of the court debated their plan of attack. Lucretia & Her dagger It took another man, Brutus, to rally his fellow Romans around Lucretia’s death, bring down the tyrant Tarquins and establish the republic.

Lucretia killed herself because her reputation had been, in the thinking of the time, irretrievably damaged. Sextus Tarquinus’ attack had certainly damaged his reputation (and that of royalty in general as far as Romans would be concerned), but, on a personal level, it had created an unendurable shame for Lucretia. She preserved her honour by taking her own life.

That choice would have seemed foolish to Cersei Lannister. When her reputation was threatened as news of her incestuous affair with Jaime came to Ned Stark’s attention, she incredulously spurned his suggestion that she flee with her children. As Cersei notes, in the game of thrones, you win or you die, and she intends to win. Cersei Lannister with a dagger

To Cersei, reputation was important but only in terms of preserving the outward trappings of good reputation, not the inward satisfaction of rectitude. Lucretia’s choice would have been unfathomable to Robert Baratheon’s queen who channelled her anger at Robert’s obsession with Lyanna, his long-dead betrothed, into the promotion and preservation of her Lannister legacy on the throne. Cersei was not focused on her personal relationship with that royal power – that was the purview of her father, Tywin Lannister. This lands the queen in trouble when, after Robert’s death, Tywin is all too eager to marry her off again, no matter how unhappily, if it will secure the Lannister family.

Cersei’s unhappy experience with her own desires discounted against the concerns of family ambition resembles that of many medieval and early modern noblewomen such as Lucrezia Borgia. lucrezia_borgia presumed portrait This Lucrezia, known to popular memory as a poisoner and accused of incestuous relations with her brother Cesare, was three times married in pursuit of family ambitions. Today, scholars are reopening the debate about Lucrezia’s independence of action in her family and with regards to her marriages, such as in Diane Yvonne Ghirardo’s recent “Lucrezia Borgia as Entrepreneur” Renaissance Quarterly 61:1 (Spring 2008): 53-91 who quotes a contemporary observer as characterizing the duchess as “a very intelligent woman, astute”.

That description seems tailor-made for another ambitious courtly woman in Westeros: Margaery Tyrell. Margaery Tyrell plotting The Tyrells control a different type of wealth than the gold of Casterly Rock: in this case it is the gold of Tyrell grain that makes them rich. As Matthew Yglesias claims, thanks to both the immediate appeal of foodstuffs, a renewable and vital resource, especially in hard times, as well as the savvy use of their resources made by Margaery and others, House Tyrell is wealthier than House Lannister.

Coached by her ruthless grandmother, the Queen of Thorns, Margaery marries Robert Baratheon’s equally ambitious younger brother, Renly, hoping to secure the seven kingdoms as his consort. When Renly is assassinated, Margaery is heartbroken not at the loss of her husband but at the loss of her opportunities as this conversation with Petyr Baelish proves. She doesn’t just want to be “a queen”, she wants to be “the queen” and Renly was her best bet until his death. Now Margaery must rethink her plans.

Both Margaery and Cersei have to watch their reputation, however, as their political power is subordinated to that of the men in their lives and their relationships are dependent upon remaining lily-white in the public eye. Margaery’s managing of her brother, Loras, her first husband, Renly and her second suitor, Joffrey, are all that give her hopes of gaining that ultimate prize in royal status. Cersei must subdue the truth of her incestuous affair to stay in her position as queen mother or face certain and utter condemnation should the truth ever leak irretrievably. In any case, neither woman has the wherewithal to pursue the throne directly as Danaerys Targaryen prepares to do.

What are the historical cautions for a Targaryen queenship? Stay tuned for the next installment here at this blog!


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Philosophies of Power

Machiavelli observed in Chapter Fifteen of The Prince: “For anyone who wants to act the part of a good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good. So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge.”

Honour or power? Ned Stark’s choice to value honour first is, Hachiavelli has told us, the wrong choice for a ruler. In Cersei Lannister’s eyes it is a poor choice that renders the King’s Hand vulnerable. It is also a fatal weakness for the Lord of Winterfell who falls victim to a conspiracy organized by Cersei, Varys and Petyr Baelish.

It is Baelish who embraces the opportunities in courtly politics. Honour is a weakness and a myth, like the stories of how many swords have been forged into the Iron Throne. Disputes and disorder are opportunities for ambitious men such as Petyr who can see that, yes, some people will fall and others will shy away but men such as Littlefinger will eagerly grab at the opportunities.

Would Machiavelli have agreed with this philosophy? Maybe not. He had the firsthand experience of living through a moment of great change and reversal. The Medici restoration had not only removed him from power but resulted in his imprisonment, torture and barely-tolerated existence under house arrest for some time afterwards. Machiavelli had learned to be wary of the unexpected and unpredictable in politics.

In Chapter Twenty-Five of The Prince, Machiavelli likens Fortune to a river and not a placid, predictable waterway, but a destructive torrent: “one of those torrential rivers that, when they get angry, break their banks, knock down trees and buildings, strip the soil from one place and deposit it somewhere else. Everyone flees before them, everyone gives way in face of their onrush, nobody can resist them at any point. But although they are so powerful, this does not mean men, when the waters recede, cannot make repairs and build banks and barriers so that, if the waters rise again, either they will be safely kept within the sluices or at least their onrush will not be so unregulated and destructive. The same thing happens with fortune.”

So, when others claim that Littlefinger perfectly parallels Machiavelli, I have to differ. So far, Petyr Baelish has not experienced the real reversals of fortune that Machiavelli knew so well in his life prior to writing The Prince. The rest of Baelish’s history in Westeros has yet to be written, of course: quite literally with Martin still completing the final two books in his series. Perhaps he will find that chaos is not so enjoyable when it turns against him in the future. Fans will have to wait and see.

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This Honourable Fool

(Over the next weeks, I’m posting excerpts from my recent talks on “Game of Thrones and History”. This is the first.)

Niccolò Machiavelli cautioned against too much reliance on honour when he wrote his advicebook, The Prince. In Game of Thrones, honour is a luxury that few can afford. Certainly not Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, especially after his old friend, the king, makes Ned an offer he can’t refuse: to serve as Robert’s chief advisor or “King’s Hand”. But while Robert Baratheon might implicitly trust Ned Stark, that doesn’t mean that the two men see the world in the same way. Robert is all about vengeance and the utter annihilation of anyone he sees as a potential threat. Ned Stark is patently uncomfortable with the scheme that targets women and children as with Robert’s plan to assassinate Danaerys Targaryen, a representative of the old royal family he has supplanted and against whom he holds a grudge.

Ned Stark is the quintessential honourable man in Martin’s world of intrigue and betrayal. In some respects, he parallels the great English historical councillor, statesman and martyr, Sir Thomas More. More had risen high in the service of Henry VII and VIII, from London lawyer and Speaker of the Commons to Chancellor of the Realm. His great position brought him nothing but grief, however, as Henry’s chief goal in life was the getting of a male heir and his queen, Katherine of Aragon, was past the age of childbearing. Her nephew, Emperor Charles V, blocked Henry’s request for a papal divorce. The English king’s ambition turned to a break with the Roman church and adopting some of the newfangled approaches of Protestantism. More was intensely loyal to the church and would not assist in the endeavour or swear loyalty to the new queen he saw as illegitimately supplanting Katherine. More was, in his own words, “The king’s good servant but God’s first.” His honour and his religious sensibilities alienated the king and left him vulnerable. More was arrested, convicted of treason and executed in 1535.

Was Thomas More’s stand worthwhile? For him, personally, it was clearly the right decision. But for his goals of protecting the faith or serving the good of the realm, that was less clear. Henry VIII plundered the church, overturned the traditions of faith and, according to many critics, oppressed his subjects in pursuit of his goals. Ned Stark reconciles with Robert to take up his position as King’s Hand again, but faces another crisis with Robert on his deathbed. As Protector of the Realm, those around Ned urge him to assert his authority and push the queen’s family out.

Renly’s advice is clearly not indifferent: he seeks to supplant his ‘nephew’, Joffrey, as well as bypass his older brother, Stannis. Ned’s honour extends not only to the protection of women and children, but also the line of succession. If Joffrey is not eligible to be king because of his, erm, parentage, Stannis is the next in line. Ned’s idea of honour is incompatible with cutting deals of any sort. Renly’s offer to join forces and seize the day, for the good of the realm, is patently unwelcome.

In Chapter Eighteen of The Prince, Machiavelli observed “we see that in practice, in these days, those rulers who have not thought it important to keep their word have achieved great things, and have known how to employ cunning to confuse and disorientate other men. In the end, they have been able to overcome those who have placed store in integrity.”

Ned Stark’s honour renders him vulnerable to others’ plots. His offer of mercy to Cersei Lannister, warning to flee the court and save her children from Robert’s revenge, seems laughable given how ruthless we know that Cersei and others at the court are in pursuing their own interests. This clip from their confrontation sums up much of Martin’s and Machiavelli’s perspective on politics.

Ned Stark’s emphasis on honour and honesty made him vulnerable to the plotting of Cersei, Petyr Baelish, Varys and other ambitious individuals at the court.

Further Readings:
Marcus Schulzke, “Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli” Game of Thrones and Philosophy (New York: Wiley, 2012), 33-48.

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