This article will contain spoilers for the first four seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Spoilers! Just go watch the show or read the books if you haven’t.
Game of Thrones generates a tremendous amount of attention from fans who recap the episodes, analyze its faithfulness as an adaptation, follow casting and production information, and basically keep the show relevant during the off-season.
It’s also easy to find articles of a more academic bent, where experts talk about Westeros’ unusual weather patterns, or how it’s possible to have wine when grapes need specific seasonal changes, or how representative the society on the show is in regards to Europe’s medieval period.
I thought it might be interesting to have a series of posts focusing on elements of the show from the perspective of a student of medieval history.
To be clear: I’m not talking about the perspective of an academic with a degree in Medieval History. I’m talking about a college student hoping to pass a hypothetical medieval history course, which for some reason was studying A Song of Ice and Fire. Possibly because the Medieval History department needed to bump up student enrollment numbers or something. Just go with it.
Just the Facts, M’Lady
Look, I’m not really a Student of Medieval History, but I took a medieval history course in college once (I’m so old, the course was called “Last Thursday“) so that’s my credential. Historians and academics might disagree, but to pass these liberal arts courses, I found that I needed to know the historical figures just well enough.
Like, who their father was, or who their children were… the battles they were in. A few notable political events. Those sorts of factoids.
Before the exam, I’d dash a few of these facts down on index cards or something (possibly clay tablets, I’m old) memorize the facts and hope I remembered them well enough for the test.
And hope I didn’t associate the facts from one figure with another. For example, it would really be embarrassing to confuse heroic and and straightforward Robb Stark with cowardly and delusional Joffrey Baratheon. Luckily, there’s a world of difference between the two.
Robb: Father fought in the rebellion against the Mad King.
Joffrey: Father* fought in the rebellion against the Mad King.
Robb: Broke off an arranged marriage to marry another, pawning off his first betrothed to his uncle.
Joffrey: Broke off an arranged marriage to marry another, pawning off his first-betrothed to his uncle.
He’s Dead, Jaime:
Other than some subtle wordings on the Battles index card, Robb and Joffrey are just a subject/direct-object confusion away from being the same person.
Luckily there aren’t any crazy rumors about Ned and Lyanna Stark.
(There aren’t! Don’t start that rumor!)
I’m not really saying that Robb and Joffrey are in any way similar. The human brain is wired to find patterns, and it’s not hard to see these comparisons over the contrasts. But these are the kind of relevant facts that are easy to recall for history exams.
There are Two Sides to Every Story, but One Side’s Story Becomes History. The Other Side ends up a Different Type of History
Just memorizing these facts aren’t going to give a complete picture of these two, despite their objectivity.
For the essay part of this hypothetical exam, accounts of historians might be required to differentiate between Robb and Joffrey, should one need to resolve who was a wise leader and who was a tyrannical fool.
But this isn’t foolproof, since it depends on who is being quoted. Imagine the Bolton and Karstark view of King Robb, the Young Wolf.
For example, who is being described?
“A capable young man, strong military mind. Stern, but sterness in defense of the realm is no vice.”
The statement might certainly apply to young Robb Stark, but Maester Pycelle was talking about Joffrey. Madness, I know. But it does show the power of the historian to make or break kings.
A Footnote in Someone Else’s History Page
Further confusing the issue between the two, Robb and Joffrey both serve pretty much the same role in the War of the Five Kings. Their participation would probably be summed up like this:
After Robert Baratheon’s death, there was a brief period of instability where several nobles declared kingship of either all or part of Westeros. And most ended up murdered.
Neither Robb nor Joffrey lived long enough to really set a tone for their reigns, or do anything spectacular enough to merit much mention in the chronicles of the age.
So we’re just left with the objective facts, showing both kings to be extremely similar.
Is there a point to this?
Other than just being an exercise in finding similarities between two characters who otherwise aren’t usually compared? Sure, I can probably make some relevant point.
Martin’s work is notable for the moral shades of gray in many of the characters, and there is this oft-claimed rule that being a “good guy” is a short cut to death in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
But the big picture storyline of Robb and Joffrey seems to contradict that assumption, since both kings’ journeys follow nearly identical paths. I can’t speak for future books, but although things seemed to be stacked against the “good guys” (whatever that means) things seem to be starting to balance out in the big picture.
So, should you be taking a class in medieval history, try to dig deeper than I did into the lives and actions of the historical figures you’re studying, beyond the basic facts. I think it’s good to attempt to separate out the real world Robbs from Joffreys, if at all possible.
To quote Stannis Baratheon,
“A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.”
But that won’t be clear from a handful of index cards.
Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.
Images of Ned and Robert from Robert’s rebellion found respectively at:
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text (other than the quotes from Pycelle and Stannis.) So there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved
* Yes, yes, King Robert was not Joffrey’s biological father, but Joffrey’s claim to the throne was based on Robert’s belief that Joffrey was his son. If Ned can have secrets in regards to his acknowledged son Jon, then so can Cersei. Discuss!