Game of Thrones is over, but the blog posts continue. Spoilers, obviously.
Throughout the entire time that Game of Thrones was on the air, there was a steady stream of articles circulating the internet along the lines of BUT DID YOU KNOW THAT GAME OF THRONES IS BASED ON HISTORY???!!!! [Normally I would link here, but I think you can google this one.] I shouldn’t have to tell you that this show is not very historical, since, you know, it’s fantasy. I.e. both the narrative and the setting are fictional. But still, there has been this sneaky idea nestling in the backs of our minds like a dormant dragon egg that GoT presents some kind of truth about humanity because it has this historical feel. The show really plays this up by using real medieval settings (Dubrovnik, Croatia, for instance, but also random castles in Ireland and Spain). It also drops a lot of not-so-subtle hints about historicity with its characters constantly reading crackly parchment books about the deeds of kings and knights and monks oops I mean maesters. And the similarities to real-world events are meant to be just out of sight, with names like Lannister that are obvious stand-ins for Lancaster or, you know, a wall surrounding white civilized people to keep the white barbarians out, or black people as slaves. And it’s because of these wink-wink references that we as viewers are compelled to believe what the show has to say about humanity, and maybe why so many people were disappointed when it didn’t have very much profound to say after all. So now that our collective bubble is fully burst on GoT, I can talk about one of the biggest ways we all got snookered: the show’s portrayal of slavery.
Game of Thrones presents a vision of slavery that is both very narrow and very broad. It is narrow in the sense that there is only one definition for slavery – chattel slavery, that is when an individual is in a permanent state of lacking bodily autonomy, instead acting as a commodity. But this definition is broad in that it means that any time a character lacks the ability to make decisions about her (usually her) own body, and those decisions have anything to do with a monetary exchange, the show compels us to believe that this character is, in effect, a slave. And by the end of the series, that applied to most of the women who had crossed the screen, and quite a few of the men too. The result was that GoT diluted any point it could make about slavery as an institution, because suddenly everyone was a slave. And, yes, I understand that part of Daenerys’s whole argument was that an oppressive system enslaves everyone. But if it was an oppressive system, an oppressive society, then murdering everyone in the capital didn’t really “break the wheel” did it? Especially when a monarchy just became an oligarchy, it turns out the physical seat of the throne didn’t really matter (duh), and the society is still a patriarchy in every possible way (except for Sansa who gets to become queen as a consolation prize for years of abuse I guess?). It’s not just that this very specific definition of slavery becomes a narrative let down on the show – because the show has convinced its audience that it has some kind of historical validity, it makes the claim that once the institution of slavery ends there is no great systemic injustice. What a shockingly out of touch thing to say in 2019.
The biggest problem with what GoT had to say about slavery was that its definition only understood people to be enslaved when they were sold as chattel. This is a huge ideological hurdle for most Americans, and likely most people on either side of the Atlantic generally, because chattel slavery is the form of slavery that shaped the modern Atlantic world. The sale and forced labor of Africans and their descendants throughout the Americas, the Caribbean, and, let’s not forget, parts of Europe was a brutal and inhumane system that formed the foundation of the modern economy, society, and culture in all of those places. But it was also a horrible derivation of a more…morally complex system of slavery. Prior to the 16th century or so, slavery in most of the world was considerably looser. Most people who suffered slavery did so for less than a decade of their lives and were not born into it. Slaves could typically own property (including, confusingly, other slaves), had legal rights, and could manumit themselves according to the laws of the region in which they were enslaved. Slaves were often captives from war or hostages, rather than a domestic class. They performed work in all strata of society, and societies like the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire legally recognized and even represented them in court. The Mamluks and the Ottomans were largely run by slaves, in fact – literally, both the bureaucrats and the armies of the Ottomans were slaves. And although slaves were often taken from specific regions, it was not always white Europeans taking black Africans. Throughout the medieval period, the biggest slave market was on the Black Sea, selling northern and eastern Europeans to the Middle East and Central Asia. All of this is not to say that there was some period of happy-go-lucky slavery. Just that slavery has historically been extremely complicated, and, most importantly, being a slave did not always mean an individual or a slave class was without power.
And that’s GoT’s central argument about slavery – being a slave means not having power, and manumitting oneself means gaining power. This allows Daenerys to go the entire series unchallenged in her claim that she was sold in slavery just because she was entered into a political marriage. I kept waiting for someone – fate, maybe – to tell her that she was never a slave, but the show just accepted this as truth. It allows the show to present agency as a binary, wherein any person who is not completely free in their ability to make decisions is, in effect, a slave. This is a sort of twisting of the language of consent that has been developed around sexual assault, and that twisting is no coincidence in a show that clearly doesn’t understand to what degree it is appropriate to use sexual assault as a plot device. If Daenerys is a slave in her Season 1 marriage to Drogo, then every married woman is also a slave. Cersei is a slave. Catelyn Stark is a slave. The only free women are the unmarried women, who are either awaiting slavery (like Sansa) or who have been freed by the death of their husbands (Lysa and Olenna). Are these women freed from their oppressive system when the series ends? No, absolutely not. Slavery as a system may have (I guess? It’s implied?) ended, but nothing says that heterosexual marriage or patriarchy has. If anything, patriarchy was largely reaffirmed, except in the North where it maybe never existed in the first place.
Moreover, since patriarchy seems to be the driving force of abuse, all men who are denied their patriarchal rights, either by castration (the Unsullied, Varys) or by banishment to the Night’s Watch or the Maesters (Jon, Sam, etc.) are effectively slaves. And this has to be the most ahistorical conception of slavery, agency, or power in the entire show. GoT seems to believe that you have no personal political power if you have no hope of a genetic legacy. I guess the showrunners never heard of the Catholic Church, the largest feudal landholder in medieval Europe. Individuals in the church didn’t have the ability to pass physical possessions on to their children, but the church itself, down to an individual parish or monastery, inherited all the land and worldly possessions of the monks who joined that house. In other words, a cock is not a qualification.
But to the viewer, it is obvious that these married women and non-patriarch men are not, in fact, slaves. Because the show depicts actual slavery. These characters are abused, certainly (some of them), but they are not literally slaves. But still the show seems to equate abuse with slavery. And this is, again, not grounded in historical reality. Both women and slaves have a long history of legal rights prior to the 16th century that, at least in theory, could protect them or remove them from abuse. In fact, by both limiting the definition of slavery and presenting almost everyone except adult men as slaves, GoT misses the point of premodern society – it’s not that life was brutal, but that society simply existed in relative degrees of unfreedom. It wasn’t a simple binary of free/unfree, but rather a scale of fully autonomous to fully controlled. Because GoT idealizes that everyone in this patriarchal, monarchical society SHOULD be able to be fully autonomous, it denies the reality that in such a society, the only people who can be are the men with political power. And everyone else was not fully unfree, but rather had various hard and soft obligations that inhibited them. A very few people were very unfree. And almost everyone else had to navigate legal and social strictures. That nuance and complexity is not simply beyond the narrative capabilities of this particular show, it flies directly in the show’s philosophy. GoT doesn’t want to make an argument about how upper class women are both empowered and highly limited, it wants to make the broadly-drawn comparison between marriage and slavery. It doesn’t want to explore the nuanced motivations of a man who has political capital but no heirs, it wants to fling the word “bastard” around 50 times per episode.
But this kind of historicity isn’t impossible in a show like this. All you have to do is look at the show that HBO clearly used as a model for GoT: Rome. Rome has a lot of the same visuals, the same grand scale, political intrigue, gratuitous sex and violence, and even a lot of the same cast. But Rome does considerably more to explore slavery and the various stages of premodern unfreedom, even though a very select few main characters are not Roman citizens (i.e. free, domestically-born Roman men, the only people in Roman society who were fully free). It shows slaves in positions of political power, it shows the brutal reality of gladiators as slaves, it shows female slaves enduring sexual pressure and moving on with their lives, and high-class women enduring sexual pressure and not moving on. And because Rome set its sights a little lower, only telling the story of a single tyrant and not trying to write a dissertation about the nature of tyrannical rule, these visions of unfreedom could serve the narrative, rather than contradict it. It also helped that the showrunners and writers of Rome didn’t really have to understand the nature of slavery themselves, they just had to know what it meant to be a slave in the Roman Republic. And kudos to them for paying attention and even including slaves and women, who get short shrift in Roman history because most Roman historians have been men and only cared about military history.
If you look at a show like Rome, it’s clear that realistic, historical depictions of complex concepts like slavery are not only possible, but can actually serve the narrative. And where GoT really failed to meet the expectations of its audience was in not following up on all its different themes and threads to make a complex statement about its central concepts. Historical accuracy isn’t important in a fictional show – it’s fiction, there is no history. But historical verisimilitude – and a consistency with the real past that led us to a present where we are using a fictional show to contend with complicated issues – can create a structure that carries the themes of the show to a satisfying conclusion. GoT’s ending felt so unsatisfying to so many people (even though it fit with plenty of the build up of the story) because it lacked consistency with its central themes. The show made an effort to present different perspectives on power and what it means to be free, and yet ended by throwing that debate out the window. Leaning on the history of that concept would have allowed GoT the space to not only explore but actually conclude those ideas. But, alas, valar mor- oh whatever.
*apologies for a less link- and image-full post, but this topic has an expiration date that passed a week ago.